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If We're Winning, Why Have We Been Losing?

Friday, June 15, 2007
In case you haven't heard, Media Matters & the Campaign For America's Future has written a report claiming that, based on public opinion polls, we live in a liberal country, not a conservative one. Boy am I glad to hear that! And here I thought we'd been fighting a desperate struggle to preserve the Republic against religious zealots, imperialists, and greedy corporations!

All joking aside, I've read the report pretty carefully, and on the surface the authors make a pretty persuasive case. On issue after issue, whether economic or cultural or international, substantial majorities of voters favor a liberal narrative over a conservative one. This is not a revolutionary result - the Democracy Corps polls have routinely demonstrated similar results.

But given that America is a left-leaning country, how is it that conservatives have generally been able to get their own way for the last 30 years? We liberals might like to just say "presto!" and wish away right-wing political hegemony, but the reality is far different. So here are some reasons why Democrats have remained on the ideological defensive despite what seems a favorable political terrain - in order from bad to worse.

1) Organization. The Republicans are better organized than Democrats. You can either view that as a credit to them or a criticism about us, but it's a fact. Organization counts of a lot. This is of course very fixable if the D's get their act together.

2) Media. I've been reading Al Gore's book (which I'll review later), and from that and a number of other sources it's clear that whatever the status of public opinion, media elites are almost hostile to liberalism. The rise of the internet does give us the ability to push back against a hostile media narrative, but it's a much harder task than just registering voters.

3) Salience. While Democrats are on the side of the majority when it comes to health care, or guns, or abortion, most of the those who are passionate about these subjects are on the other side of the political aisle. People may consider themselves pro-choice, but do they necessarily vote on those issues? It seems like while we have the numbers, they have the intensity. As we saw with the Immigration Bill, a determined minority can defeat a lukewarm majority with surprising ease. It's possible that the sheer extremism of the Right is finally leading to a liberal counter-mobilization, but only time will tell.

4) Issue Voting. Here's the really worrisome thing: what if people don't vote based on issues? It is quite possible that people don't vote based on what they perceive to be their narrow interests (which in some senses is a good thing), but because of atmospherics - which candidate to they like more, which one makes them feel safer, etc. What if that crucial 20% of swing voters who are with us on the issues just don't care about issues? If that sounds like a situation dangerous to democracy, you're absolutely right. Voters who are easily swayed by substanceless emotional appeals are not self-governing citizens, but mere tools of propaganda. I certainly hope that isn't the case, but sometimes it certainly seems like it.

Having said all that, the objective circumstances running up to the 2008 election are so unfavorable to the Republicans that their aforementioned advantages may not matter. The Republican majority has been built in opposition to the nation's underlying political majority. I have to believe that eventually things will right themselves. I just have to.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:00 PM
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