Friday, October 03, 2003

The Importance of True Believers

I think our biggest difference is not necessarily pragmatism vs purism, but a difference in valuation between independents and party supporters. You value independents at a 2:1 ratio over party faithful. I break the party faithful side up into two parts: the passive party faithful (the majority of them) and the active party faithful (the True Believers). Your ratio probably holds for the passive party faithful, but a True Believer is worth 10 independents. They're probably worth more.

Active party faithful are the people who will supply your campaign funds (both from their own pockets and through fund raisers), who will work your phone banks, who will put your sign in their yard, who will stand on the corner and hand out your flyers, who will get their family and friends excited about the election, who will write editorials to their local papers, who will call in to radio shows, who will bother to show up for boring mid-term elections, and who basically will make your party work. They are your grass roots. If you lose your True Believers, it doesn't matter how many independents you have, you can pack up your bags and go home, because your party is finished. They are dedicated people who care about politics. They are interested in these subjects and are considerably better informed on them than your average member of the public. They will give you their time and their money, their blood, sweat, and tears. But they expect something back.

True Believers don't do it because they are in love with the Democratic party. They believe in certains ideals that they expect the Democrats to uphold. When you betray those ideals (or, more often, ignore them), these will be the first people to notice it. And they will be the first ones to do something about it. They understand politics and don't expect you to win every battle, but they do expect you to at least fight the good fight on issues that are important to them. They have made a personal investment in you, and if you don't respect them, they will find someone who will. And when you lose them, you lose a hell of a lot more than just their votes. This is when you start hearing about how your party lacks passion and vision, and your campaigns start being referred to as dry, bland, and boring. This is the key. These are not just voters, these are your most important supporters. They might even still vote for you if you piss them off, but they'll no longer be active party faithful. They'll just be another voter.

The Democrats spent the the twenty years prior to 1992 ignoring these people, and the ten years since 1992 systematically alienating them. The Clintonian theory of triangulation is a slap in the face to them. Democrats need to expend time, effort, and political capital to build these people up the way the Republicans have. The Democratic support organizations like the NAACP, NOW, and the AFL/CIO are in the midst of long declines, staid, corrupt, and command less money and less loyalty with each passing election. Republican support groups are vital and powerful. This is not by accident and it is not a matter unrelated to party politics. Conservatives have spent considerable effort over a long period of time to build up these groups and to tie them to the Republican party. Why do Republican support groups not force their politicians to kow-tow? They don't have to. Republican leadership respects them, and they know it. The interactions between right-wing organizations and Republican leaders are genuine and meaningful. Those on the Democratic side are symbolic, at best.

Democrats don't need to provide passionate leadership to their grass roots. That's the opposite of what I'm suggesting. They need to nurture these liberal activists, because it is they, the True Believers, who provide passion to the rest of the party. If you don't nurture them, if you drive them out, you end up with a lifeless party with no vision... in other words, the current Democratic party.

I don't think there is this mutually exclusive situation where playing to your True Believers alienates independents. Clearly this is the mindset that has taken over the Democratic leadership, but I think it's a bad assumption. The Republicans have demonstrated that you can win by staying true to your basic ideals and marketing your campaign well. One of Karl Rove's strengths is the knowledge that most independent voters, and even many passive party supporters are such because they are not that much into politics. And that for people not that much into politics, image and intangibles (character, personality, personal appearance and mannerisms) are far more important than policy. They don't know the ins and outs of international trade. They won't spend time to figure out the difference between Gore and Bush's senior drug plans. All but the simplest elements of policy go in one ear and out the other. Having a strong message and selling it well is the key. Being moderate politically won't get you nearly as far with independent voters as having a strong, united party behind you, with legions of True Believers to sell your message.

The point is that I am not unpragmatic. I just have a different understanding of what success means and how to achieve it. In my view the Democratic party has been on a road to ruin for years, and desperate measures are in order to return it to viability. Clinton was a brilliant political mind and gave the party a false positive. Take him away and you're looking at a party that has done nothing but get its ass kicked for 20 years. I am willing to sacrifice short-term success to long-term goals. In your view, they've made a few mistakes, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the party.

I hope that the abstention and defection of a significant number of Democratic True Believers in 2000 will turn out to be a critical turning point for the party. Those actions sowed the seeds of dissent from which the Dean campaign sprouted. Additionally, if Gore had won (which, given his weak opposition and his 2 prosperous terms as VP, he should have done easily), the Democratic party would still be hard at work driving ever more of their True Believers out of politics or into third parties. Nothing like Dean would have happened at least until 2008 or 2012.

In any case, George Bush hasn't been all bad. No president has ever done more to demonstrate the stupidity of pre-emptive warfare, the importance of multilateralism, or the foolishness of imperialism than W.

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