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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The Absent-Minded Democrats

The composite mental image I have of the Democratic Party's elites is pretty close to the cliché of Professor Brainard, the title character of Disney's two "Absent-Minded Professor" movies — but more Ned, the genuinely clueless-because-preoccuppied Fred MacMurray original, than Philip, the nerdy-hip Robin Williams sequel (a/k/a "Flubber"). A bunch of these folks write for The New Yorker, and one named Louis Menand has written another anguished examination of the 2004 presidential election in the December 6th print edition (not yet online) entitled, provocatively, "Permanent Fatal Errors: Did the voters send a message?"

Mr. Menand writes quite a bit about public opinion pollsters. I've stated before my view that pollsters, from the right or the left, are witch doctors practicing a pernicious brand of quackery; but politicians and would-be political savants from both the right and the left, and especially from the left, still take them seriously. Here's Mr. Menand on the analysis offered by Gary Langer, the "director of polling" (i.e., witch-doctor chief of staff) at ABC News:

Langer thinks that a key statistic is the change [between 2000 and 2004] in the votes of married women. Gore won the women's vote by eleven per cent; Kerry won by only three per cent, and he lost most of those votes among married women. Bush got forty-nine per cent of the votes of married women in 2000; he got fifty-five per cent this year. And when you ask married women whom they trust to keep the country safe from terrorists fifty-three per cent say "only Bush." (The really salient demographic statistic from the election is one that most Democrats probably don't even want to think about: If white men could not vote, Kerry would have defeated Bush by seven million votes.)

[Overworked metaphor alert:] Please, please spare me from this sort of demographic slicing and dicing. It's a Ginsu knife with a dull, dull blade, and we're all entitled to a refund. Here, the master ninja-chefs have tried to use it to explain the salad after it's already been prepared, served, and eaten — and all they've done has been to squash the left-over tomatoes.

"If we can only find the right — that is to say, the statistically and epistomologically meaningful, genuine, and paradigmatic — classifications into which we can identify and sort the participants in this science project election," seems to be the premise, "we can then completely explain how and why it happened the way it did!" Um-hmmm. And if we could only find the Alchemist's Stone, we could transmute lead into gold! And then there's Flubber. The unspoken hope, of course, is that once the pollsters and their "really salient demographic statistics" get their act together, the political parties can custom-tailor their candidate selections to master, instead of merely observe, cause and effect. To John Kerry's bewildered question, "How can I be losing to this guy?" they promise a scientific answer, and a corrective.

To which Beldar says: "Piffle and balderdash." Or in the unabridged West Texas translation, "Ain't none o' yew boys got the sense to pee yer pants iff'n yer leg's on fire."

(Parenthetical discussion of the above-quoted parenthetical: What exactly is it that makes that statistic about white men "really salient"? And why don't most Democrats probably even want to think about this? Isn't the premise of it that most or all white men share some immutable and predictably-explanatory, therefore politically exploitable, common characteristic? "Professor," shouts Biff, "we're this close to finding the Y-chromosomal marker for the BushCheney04 gene!" [Cue the dramatic music, probably minor-key descending organ chords — bahm-bahm-BAHM!] "You mean ... ?" gasps the beautiful young coed, Betsy. "Yes," answers Prof. Brainard distractedly, "and with that marker, we can genetically engineer a microphagic viral silver bullet that will end the genetic disorder of Republicanism forever. Now where'd I lay that — heavens-to-Betsy, Betsy, my leg is on fire! Quick, Biff! Put down that fire extinguisher, and get me — a thermometer!")

But on to The New Yorker's Mr. Menand's concluding paragraph (boldface and snarky bracketed comments in blue added by Beldar):

Of course, it doesn't matter what the science of public opinion concludes. It only matters what the politicians conclude. [Umm, isn't the point of elections sorta that it matters what the voters conclude?] If Democrats believe that the lesson of the election is that the Party needs to move to the right, then, if it moves, that will be the lesson. [Huh? Too zen for Beldar, sorry.  Are you saying "There is no spoon"?] It might be wiser for the Democrats to chalk Bush's reëlection up to 9/11 and stick to their positions. [Oh yes, please! Please!] The Democratic candidate did not lose votes in 2004 [no, just the election]: Kerry got five million more votes than Al Gore got in 2000, when Gore won a plurality [and also lost the election]. Unfortunately for the Democrats [and as The New Yorker sees it, the entire civilized universe, which it's up to Prof. Brainard now to save], Bush got nine million more votes than he did four years ago. But it wasn't because the country moved to the right. The issue that seems to have permitted an incumbent with an unimpressive approval rating [another poll; but the one "approval rating" that actually counts was pretty impressive, see above-referenced 9,000,000 voters] to survive reëlection [sic] was not an ideological one. The country did not change radically in the past four years. Circumstances did.

Ayup. Circumstances changed, alrightee — as a quick glance at Manhattan Island's south skyline pretty much confirms. But hey — maybe by 2008, either Prof. Brainard will have found that genetic marker or (more "encouraging" for the Democrats, but I hope no more likely) enough Americans will have forgotten about 9/11. The Internet Movie Database lists no less than eleven movies with the title "Amnesia." That may be a better hope for the Dems in the long run than Prof. Brainard and Flubber.

But I think Mr. Menand is guilty of a little amnesia himself. By the time he got to his article's end, he'd forgotten its very promising (to me) title: "Permanent Fatal Errors." Of course, that title might have been written by an unusually perceptive editor who didn't bother to read to the end of the article. But I suspect that the Dems' classic failure to recognize their fatal errors is a pattern that indeed might be permanent: By relying on opinion pollsters, they're completely missing those pesky little circumstances (like, say, a global war between real civilization and radical Islamic terrorists) that, in turn, tend to expose their candidates' magnificent intellects and ideological vacuity. And even Prof. Brainard knows — on an abstract and nonpractical level, anyway — that nature abhors a vacuum. So do lots of voters of all "demographics" — married women voters, white male voters, increasing numbers of black and hispanic and gay and Jewish and .... Well, let's just be blunt but accurate and say, "lots of voters, period."

Posted by Beldar at 05:50 PM in Film/TV/Stage, Mainstream Media, Politics (2006 & earlier) | Permalink

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Comments

(1) Bucky Katt made the following comment | Dec 8, 2004 6:59:42 AM | Permalink

Beldar sez: "What exactly is it that makes that statistic about white men "really salient"?"

IMHO, it all goes back to the Dem theory that if it weren't for those redneck, ignorant, white males, their man Kerry would be in office. Dem's rant about Republican voter suppression but then you see quotes like those of Mr. Menand and the antics by which Democrats attempted to suppress the military vote in PA this year, and Florida in 2000, well so much for "let every vote count".

(2) Clayton made the following comment | Dec 8, 2004 7:00:16 AM | Permalink

I think Menard's problem is part and parcel to the world view of Dems/Liberal extremists. That is the perception of victim-hood and non-accountability for personal choices. Face it, the Dems/Liberals are victims of a populist uprising at the polls. It is not their fault, they did nothing wrong, it just those pesky sharp points of reality jabbing them again (my own snarky comment). If only..., If only..., if only gravity didn't make things fall down.
I think we need a viable second party, simpy because competition always improves the 'breed'. However, the Dems as currently positioned are not it. In reality they may as well rename themselves the American Communist or Socialist Party, since they seem so enamoured with that type of government (again, pesky reality getting in way).
Not giving away my age, but I'm reminded of the characters in Keith Laumer's Retief books. Only here, the GOP/GB fill the role of Retief, saving the 'universe' from the folly of trying to operate as if philosphy were reality.

(3) Dave Schuler made the following comment | Dec 8, 2004 7:46:00 AM | Permalink

In addition the prevailing Democratic paradigm of the electorate as disparate groups of competing interests ignores the reality that somebody somewhere votes for the public good.

That, IMO, is why Democrats have lost credibility on issues of national defense. Everybody's interest is nobody's interest.

(4) Lurking Observer made the following comment | Dec 8, 2004 3:25:41 PM | Permalink

Uh, this seems like an obvious question for Menand:

Don't changing circumstances mandate changing responses? This is like arguing that Connecticut's relations with South Carolina shouldn't change simply because of a piffling little circumstance like Ft. Sumter.

This also leaves aside the curious presumption that, because Kerry got more votes than any other Presidential candidate, therefore Democratic positions are just fine. The question is Where did Bush's votes come from?

If they came mostly from disgruntled Democrats, be they married women, Jews, union members, New Yorkers, or what-have-you, then perhaps the nation (or, more accurately, voters) have shifted?

(5) Phil/North Carolina USA made the following comment | Dec 8, 2004 3:41:50 PM | Permalink

Retief? Should I go to the library or will googling work?

(6) TheSophist made the following comment | Dec 8, 2004 3:53:55 PM | Permalink

I think you must be charitable and understand M. Menand's problem... it's something I see far too often living in a Blue State as I do.

The problem is that they really, truly, do *not* understand the Bush voter.

On another blog somewhere, I read a comment where someone had written that the red-staters understand the blue-staters very well because our TV, movies, and media are filled with the world view of the blue states, while the blue-staters simply don't understand the red-state world views. I completely concur.

The reason why M. Menand and others in the Lib/Dem corner (and it's rapidly become a corner, not a half) need to slice and dice poll numbers and demographics and psychographics and the rest of it is that they simply don't understand those who are not like them. They cannot approach politics as a matter of convincing their fellow citizens, but must approach it as a scientific matter, as if examing a strange new species of wildlife.

When the Dems nominated Kerry, I knew this was what was going on. Marketers (and after all, what are campaign consultants but a type of marketing professional) had decided that this strange beast known as the red-stater would behave in such and such a way, and react to such-and-such stimuli. Hence the sudden embrace of military service of one John Kerry, and the continuous glorification of all things martial by a party that was deeply anti-war and anti-military.

I now believe that the left and the right have a fundamental difference in their approach to politics.

To the Right, politics is about ideology; to the Left, about identity.

Those of us in the center are finding that politics of ideology at least entertains discussions of ideas. And hence the result of 2004.

One day, the Democrats will learn... to stop looking at their own countrymen as primitives and themselves as anthropologists studying the aborigines. Until then, though... I predict loss after loss after loss.

-TS

(7) ed made the following comment | Dec 8, 2004 4:01:13 PM | Permalink

Hmmm.

"If Democrats believe that the lesson of the election is that the Party needs to move to the right, then, if it moves, that will be the lesson."

So if the Party doesn't move to the right then that is not the lesson? So whatever the Party does, that'll be the right thing? I wonder what the color of the sky is in his world.

As for the reference to white male voters, too bizzare. Though I suppose the DNC has lost quite a few white male voters. When you've spent decades demonizing a specific group of people, it tends to be a little difficult to gain their loyalty.

I too would prefer a rational alternative to a GOP political subjugation, but the DNC is definitely not it. Frankly I haven't really seen much that impresses me lately in liberal writings. I think 2006 is going to be even bloodier.

And I think we should all remember who is was that formed the violently radical '60s domestic terror groups. I'm betting that there will be a severe trouncing of the DNC in 2006 and this might provide the catalyst for a resurgence of that craziness. It's not like the left hasn't embraced it's terrorist heritage or even disavowed it's current crop of domestic terrorists, the ELF.

(8) Carlos V made the following comment | Dec 8, 2004 5:05:20 PM | Permalink

The Democrats have spent the month since the election on the psyche's couch seeking a cure for the loss of the election. They indeed are a psychological mess. Afraid to confront the truth, they cannot be honest even with themselves.

Whatever the cause of the Kerry-doomed '04 election, it cannot be the fault of the Democrats, it cannot be the design of the product. Its the stupid voters in the red states, the homophobes, the religious nuts, swift boat liars, Fox news, moral prudes, white men, married women, pajama bloggers - all of which leads back to stupid voters.

Once the obvious cause - too many stupid voters - is revealed through therapy, the question then becomes one of marketing. There is nothing wrong with the product - their ideas - it is just a problem of spin. They have this psychological block that prevents them form even considering that there may be a design defect or a flaw in the product.

What they have trouble admitting, even to themselves, is that their ideas are old, archaic, and fossilized. They are wed to an 18th century philosophy, and like the infirm elderly woman from the television advertisement, they have fallen and can't get up.

Their product - class warfare, tax the "rich" and redistribute wealth; religion has no place in our society because it places an unrealistic value on life; America, as the promoter of capitalism in the world, is greedy, wrong, self-centered, dishonest and often evil - is understandably hard to sell to a majority of Americans. Hence the marketing problem. Since Reagan successfully tied the word "liberal" to the leftist philosophies of the Democrats, every campaign becomes a challenge to disguise their philosophies, lest they be recognized for what they are. This explains the Democratic National Convention in which they 1) accused the Republicans of dividing the country, and 2) assumed for themselves the disguise of the ever more competent, ever more vigilant, warrior party led by General George S. Kerry. Why did they lose? There is no defect or flaw in the product, just too many voters in the red states were too stupid to buy the Democrat's product as marketed. Don't expect the product to change, just get ready for a new marketing campaign.

(9) Carlos V made the following comment | Dec 8, 2004 5:12:58 PM | Permalink

Make that a 19th century philosophy.

(10) Geek, Esq. made the following comment | Dec 8, 2004 6:49:30 PM | Permalink

The (primary) answer is pretty damn simple why the Dems lost: The Dems have a lousy, lousy reputation when it comes to national security issues.

Now, it can be debated back and forth as to why that brand is too lousy. Many Dems would like to blame the "corporate media" and Republican exploitation of events such as 9/11 and the Iraq war. Republicans are likely to say, well duh, because the Dems ARE lousy when it comes to national security issues.

In reality, though, the answer is that they are incoherent on the subject--there is no Democratic consensus on the issue--because they don't see it as their issue. "It's the economy, stupid." Their approach has been to avoid talking about the subject, or to be reactive when discussing it.

As a result, they have no identity when it comes to national security affairs. Instead, it has just morphed every four years since McGovern. Culminating in Kerry, who voted for funding before voting against it and who didn't regret authorizing the war, even though it was the wrong war blah blah blah.

As a matter of simple human psychology, the fear of the unknown is perhaps one of the most powerful motivators we know of. Combine that with the issue of terrorism, and the Dems were never in this race.

Before conservatives get cocky, though, one should remind them that had Bush's record been one of great success and merit, they should have blown the Dems out. They didn't, and if the Dems get their act together and make it clear that they take the issue seriously (there is no font big enough to do justice to that "if"), four years can bring about a big change in the landscape. See 1964 vs. 1968.

(11) Neo made the following comment | Dec 8, 2004 7:31:05 PM | Permalink

This brings to mind two different quotes. The first comes from the elections in the past year .. "Don't be a girlie man" and the second comes from a Wall Street Journal article from a dozen or so years ago .. "That boy's thin, he's thinner than piss on a rock."
Apparently the "girlie man" voted for Kerry, but the overriding problem for Kerry is that (just like the meme) no one knew just what John Kerry stood for .. he was thin .. thin on details, often thin on the truth, and finally a might thin on votes.

(12) jb made the following comment | Dec 8, 2004 8:55:02 PM | Permalink

All that said, if Kerry had gone on Russert and said:
"You know, Tim, 30 years ago I thought that the VietNam war was wrong for America, and I still think that. I said some things and did some things that I now regret, not because I have changed my mind about the war, but because it was damaging to my fellow GIs in ways that I now know was near unforgivable. To them I say, 'I'm sorry, and I now ask for your support because I know more than my opponent how terrible it is to be caught up in a war without home front support.'"
That would have eliminated the Swift Boat Vets' campaign, made him look almost human, and, I believe, won him the election easily.

(13) David Blue made the following comment | Dec 9, 2004 12:51:37 PM | Permalink

Phil/North Carolina USA: "Retief? Should I go to the library or will googling work?"

Try your library. (Neighbourhood libraries are excellent information sources. Librarians love to help. Why don't you visit your local library today? Etc.) Or start by looking at some Amazon reviews: Amazon - books, Retief, click on go. Here you go: (link).

(14) ricksamerican made the following comment | Dec 9, 2004 4:06:43 PM | Permalink

Today's Democrats and Liberals like Marxists and Communists (I know, I grew up amongst them) are all fundamentally oriented toward an illusion--a world of their own creation in which, freed from the budgetary constraints of defense spending and the excesses of corporate greed, and able at last to talk calmly and reasonably with the misunderstood and oppressed (remember LBJ's "let us reason together" approach to Ho Chi Minh?)they finally eliminate pain, hunger, fear, war, injustice, discrimination, bad weather, and evil Republicans. If only Republicans and other benighted souls would get out of their way they could restore Paradise. That's the fantasy. So for them to actually enjoy thinking of a world in which white men either do not vote--or do not exist--is actually intellectually interesting, indeed fulfilling. They can spend hours in joyful contemplation of such a world. Only...how to deceive these simpletons into voting for us. How should we dress, how should we talk, what should we say? It is playing makebelieve--something most of us have grown out of, except for the odd momentary lapse.

(15) Paul Zrimsek made the following comment | Dec 9, 2004 5:21:15 PM | Permalink

Much of the Retief book David linked to (but, sadly, no longer all of it) can be read online here.

(16) SemiPundit made the following comment | Dec 10, 2004 1:00:11 AM | Permalink

Sometimes I wonder which party Jesus might favor.

(17) Robert Durtschi made the following comment | Dec 20, 2004 1:06:32 PM | Permalink

Phil/North Carolina USA: "Retief? Should I go to the library or will googling work?"

You can read one of Kieth Laumer's Reteif books at the Baen Books free on-line library
http://www.baen.com/library/0671318578/0671318578.htm

Bob

(18) russell made the following comment | Dec 24, 2004 12:05:17 PM | Permalink

First time reader of this blog. Very nice.

Just to chime in late, I would guess that about 25% of my Democrat friends voted Republican this year, including myself. And it doesn't look like we're going back any time soon.

For a start, the Democrat Party could support the war for democracy and against terror.

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