Wednesday, November 03, 2010

A Thought On The Parties

So we've now had a decade or so of really really close races. I mean, Bush vs. Gore came down to a SCOTUS decision. There have been tons of recounts over the past decade; races decided by the narrowest of margins; a constant back and forth for the parties that never deviates too far from balance, etc.

I think we can learn something from all of this recent history: that both of the parties are leaving a large chunk of swing voters unsatisfied. There's a large group of people who don't feel at home in either the Democratic or Republican camps, and until one of those parties changes to meet those swing voters we'll just keep bouncing back and forth.

I'm one of these swing voters. I'm speaking from my personal experience when I say neither party suits me. And I'm speaking from what I know of those around me. I know a lot of people who agree with me on this, that both parties do not adequately capture their positions, and that their failure to do so is massive. That is, Democrats fail on some really big issues and Republicans fail on some really big issues.

I would suggest that the problem comes in that fiscally liberal and socially conservative values tend to line up nicely together. They, generally speaking, reflect a Christian ethos of moral behavior and generous servitude.

Most of the Democrats I know are people for whom fiscal issues are more important than social issues. In their personal lives they live as highly moral and upright people. In their voting lives, they prioritize fiscally liberal issues that reflect their generous nature. That is, for example, they might happen to be pro-choice, but that's not really the reason they're voting Democrats. The reason they're voting Democrat is because they're pro-social justice and they believe in giving generously to the less fortunate and see that government can be a useful tool for accomplishing that result. On the other hand, most of the Republicans I know are people for whom social issues are more important than fiscal issues. In their personal lives they give generously of themselves to the less fortunate. In their voting lives, they prioritize social issues that reflect a desire to protect others from harm. That is, for example, they might happen to be pro-deregulated business, but that's not really the reason they're voting Republican. The reason they're voting Republican is because they have a philosophical belief in government's role of protecting vulnerable persons from harm (including, for example, the unborn, victims of crime, persons subject to tyranny in other countries, etc.).

These two things seem to really line up well in my mind, and in the minds of a large number of people I know. Maybe you'd disagree with me. But ask yourself these questions: if you are a Democrat faced with voting for a pro-life Democrat or a pro-choice Republican, (all other positions reflecting the party norms), which would you pick? If you are a Republican faced with voting for a pro-taxes Republican or an anti-taxes Democrat, (all other positions reflecting the party norms), which would you pick? I'm convinced that the answer, for most, would be to stick with their party. Most people voting Republican are doing it on social issues. Most people voting Democrat are doing it on fiscal issues. What's more though, the swing voters are motivated by these same issues (fiscally liberal, socially liberal), it's just that they shift in terms of which issue they're focusing on.

Someone, somewhere, has to get a party going where those two things line up.


Jeff said...

OK, so here's my thought. From your comments on my blog, I'm gathering that even on social issues you're fairly liberal (abortion notwithstanding). I haven't heard you strike up the case for eroding the separation of church and state, and you're generally supportive of gay rights. That puts you right in line with the Democrats and in opposition to most Republicans. If I'm wrong about this, let me know.

For my part, I do base my vote on social issues somewhat, as I'm sure you've gathered from my blog (of course, I don't live what you'd probably consider a moral life either, and certainly don't reflect a Christian anything). There's also foreign policy and security policy. Now in your hypothetical I'd probably pick the pro-life Democrat, but mostly because abortion isn't a huge issue for me. Anti-gay Dem vs. pro-gay GOP? That'd be a toughie.

Anyway, I think there's an element here that you're missing. Voters are dissatisfied with both parties because both parties' policies have, in some way, failed. Most swing voters traffic in results, not necessarily specific policies or governing philosophies. I see 2006 and 2010 as "well, that didn't work, let's try something else" elections. People latched on to "small government!" and "reduce the deficit!" because stimulus wasn't working. If those policies don't get us out of this economic mess, voters will attach themselves to Democratic ideas, and 2012 will be rough for Republicans. And so forth.

And I understand the inherent unfairness here. The government doesn't have control over the economy - it can nudge in one way or another, but can't really create a recovery out of whole cloth.

AnnoyingJoe said...

I am surprised to hear you say that most of the Republicans you know are more concerned with social issues. That wasn't the case on a national scale.

I think that was part of the impetus behind the Tea-Party movement; to separate themselves from the Religious Right and focus strictly on economics. That's been a big issue for the republicans, having to pander/marry themselves to a morality based solely on a Christian set of values.

And how often are you going to see a candidate of one party running with an issue that is usually associated with the opposition? It does happen, though. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), NY is a big proponent of the second amendment, but then again she is from upstate NY...

Matthew B. Novak said...

Jeff - I typed up some big response. It wasn't very artful though. And then it accidentally got deleted. Suffice it to say, I think that people base their votes on only the most recent results and also on the expectations they have for the party they are electing. Thus, this year they expect the Republicans will address the deficit, even though the results of the past decade don't support such an assessment. Likewise, people were dissatisfied with Bush but still voted for him over Kerry because they didn't expect Kerry to really address.

I also wrote about how I think the plight of pro-life Democrats in this election illustrates my point that people want socially conservative, fiscally liberal politicians. See more below.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Joe -

I think that was part of the impetus behind the Tea-Party movement; to separate themselves from the Religious Right and focus strictly on economics.

You know, I think this may have been the case originally, but there are two things going on here. First, over the past decade a lot of people who were socially conservative have, through their marriage to the Republican party, become fiscally conservative too. I know a ton of them who, a decade ago, were more liberal fiscally. This is the product of those social conservative/fiscally liberal persons not having a home, and therefore adopting the socially conservative Republican party and taking on the rest of their values. Second, though the tea party may have started that way, if you look at their membership, they're overwhelming socially conservative.

I think that part of what explains this is that people for whom socially conservative issues were paramount wanted to boost out the socially liberal Democrats in power. The best chance to do this was considered to be the tea party, and so they embraced the tea party as a means to an end.

I'll give an example:

In the past decade pro-life Democrats have done fairly well. Especially in largely Catholic districts (which happen to be largely swing districts. Note, Catholics have gone with the popular vote in every election since Kennedy). This year? Not so much. Why did they do poorly? Because they voted for the health care bill. That was a big no-no, not because the health care bill was fiscally liberal (in fact, that Catholics liked those parts of the bill), but because it was perceived to be pro-choice. Thus, pro-life Democrats who voted for the bill were seen as "not-really pro-life."

And think about it... what issue almost derailed the health care bill? It wasn't the spending or the taxing. It wasn't the stuff that affected seniors. The thing that came closest to stopping the health care bill was the abortion issue.

I see your point, that the narrative of the tea party is "we care about economic issues". But I think the reality is much more complex. Most of the people in the tea party are disaffected with government; many of them are disaffected because no party truly represents what they want.

Mike said...

Maybe I'm not "most people" (okay, I'm definitely not "most people") but my votes tend to stray slightly Democratic because I care more about social issues than economic ones. In other words, I'm precisely the inverse of what you're describing -- if I cared more about fiscal philosophy, I'd vote Republican more often. (Note that I said "philosophy"; the actual *actions* of the Republican party have not reflected fiscal conservatism over the past several years, and I honestly don't expect that to change this time around). But then, as you know I'm essentially a libertarian, so you'd expect that. It's also worth noting that I voted third-party every chance I got this election provided the alternative wasn't completely insane (not always true).

Anyway, I guess it's more to the point to say that in general I agree with your assessment that the vast majority of people don't fit completely comfortably in either party. Most ally themselves to one or the other due to what issues they care about most, but there's a lot of fluctuation throughout their lives. (Jon Stewart made exactly this point at this weekend's Rally, which, by the way, was awesome.) Also, I agree with your analysis of the Tea Party.

I'm not sure how the parties fix this situation other than continuing to have wings that deviate on certain issues (e.g., pro-life Democrats, Log Cabin Republicans). Independents regardless will probably swing based on how they feel things are going.

AnnoyingJoe said...

I suppose at the end of the day all we have left are the "social issues. Really, what dramatic economic changes will we really see?

"This country was bought and sold a long time ago." - George Carlin