It's become a rather common point over the past 5 or 6 years that the one thing that Republicans have going for them (at least until recently) is unity. That is, they all have the same talking points, they turn out their base like clockwork and rarely, if ever, let disagreements within their supporters go public. Debate over policy priorities and message clarity take place behind closed doors and the pecking order is established without the public catching a whiff of the dirty laundry. The result is a party which doesn't necessarily represent a less diverse constituency but one in which the supporters know that just because the leadership isn't always talking about them or publicly pushing their issues, they haven't been forgotten and aren't irrelevant. So what can the Democratic Party learn from this?
The tricky part about the Democratic Party, and particularly the liberal/progressive wing thereof, is that it's a lot more difficult to be trying to change things than trying to maintain the status quo or revert to previously established policies (like the GOP tends towards). The Democratic party is largely made up of people who are actively seeking to change something about the world and have largely settled on their pet issues that they focus on and are committed to changing. The tricky part seems to be (and maybe I'm just jaded by too many years of the GOP) that it's then necessary to convince people of the virtues of change. It isn't as tricky to sell people on the virtues of not changing. People like not changing.
The result (and maybe this is where EVERYONE is jaded by too many years of the GOP) is that Dems constantly need reassurance that people are still paying attention to their issues. Because these issues are so personal and because we take them on because we feel as though nobody else will if not for us, we're scared, above all else, of people not paying attention to our pet issue as though Langston Hughes' worst fears about a dream deferred will infect our personal liberal submovement. Closed door assurances and faith in the leadership aren't going to cut it because it's liberals especially that have become disenchanted with the "establishment" in all its forms.
Barney Frank today predicted an "angry, divisive" fight over gay marraige in Massechusetts if a gay marraige ban reaches the ballot in 2008. While I most certainly support gay rights unequivocably, it's very much a divisive issue that the bulk of Americans struggle with to say the least. Not meaning to overly pick on this issue, but why is it that an issue that really can't be a political winner for us become something that Dems have to deal with? It's because, if we're honest, a few folks that are especially left were able to grab headlines with a few shocking rulings. While I agree with what they're trying to do, is it ultimately wise in the long term to force Democrats to debate and defend politically difficult terrain when it could just as easily have waited until a Democratic administration and/or Congress was in place? Essentially my point boils down to this: Should the issue be on the agenda? Absolutely yes. Should it be an issue that we try to attract voters with in sensational media coverage? Almost absolutely not.
Paul Rosenberg just relayed a diary at Corrente discussing right wing marketing and the response has been a resounding "well yeah, why aren't we doing that? The idea of selling people on what they're most interested in is hardly anything new or anything that Dems need a lesson on. What we need to start working on is the tried and true KISS method of outlining a message. Don't stir up trouble when it isn't necessary, but rather stick to the issues that everyone can agree on without having to reassess their religious or moral foundations. Talk about the money in the bank, the bread on the table, the medicine in the cabinet.
Take the Schiavo debacle as illustration of this point (and the beginning of a series of Repub missteps as the curtain was pulled back). There was dramatic backlash against Congressional overstepping by the general public simply because it was meddling in personal affairs by not just leaving people alone to do what they wanted and what they'd always been able to do. Essentially, the backlash stemmed from Repubs trying to upset the moral apple cart (even though the drive was from religious rightwingers). Conversely, if they had just waited and, instead of picking a fight, tried to legislate it separately, most people probably wouldn't have even noticed. The lesson to be learned here perhaps (and much to our chagrin) is that people just don't much care about things going on in Washington. They start paying attention when the Beltway folks start getting into day-to-day stuff in the "real" world but laws and stuff just make eyes glaze over.
The idea here is to work on how we package ourselves. There's no need or desire to be abandoning any traditional or nontraditional Democratic issues or ideals, but rather to make it as easy as possible for people to vote for our candidates. Don't complicate things by challenging people's morals- just sell them on all the pragmatic ways that their lives could easily be better if these nutjobs would just go away. And selling a selective message is generally easy to convince the rank and file of.
Until, of course, people start facing the reality of their personal issues not getting publicity and not getting pushed. We splinter, we infight, we grab for headlines, and we're totally convinced that the only reason that the rest of the country isn't embracing our position is because they're just not seeing enough of it on the news, and the discipline breaks down.
Here's what we as a party, and we as disgruntled grassroots progressives, need to start realizing: Grilling every prospective candidate on every issue under the liberal sun isn't always the best idea. Particularly at the Congressional level and below, the rigorous screening process that every candidate is subjected to in order to ensure that they'll be in step with any and every liberal issue just forces them into an untenable position. Either they risk alienating the grassroots activism and contributions of the far left or they publicly, and for the record, declare themselves supporters of tough-to-sell positions (e.g. gay marraige, etc.). It's much easier to support these sorts of issues when nobody's looking- in particular when in Washington. As much as we try to push voting records, how many people day to day are examining voting records of their representatives? I'm pretty interested in politics but there's no way I could tell you for sure how my reps voted on everything, including some rather controversial things.
It comes down to this: Let's take the most effective page that the Republican playbook has to offer us and run with it; namely easy sell, relatable candidates and platforms. Let's finally accept that the vast majority of voters seize on two or three issues and make up their mind about a candidate and that, after that, people just go on faith that since they agree/disagree on those issues, they'll most likely agree/disagree on other issues. Let's take that and run with it and make it a no-brainer decision for people. Let's explain to people that we aren't trying to turn the world on its head, we're not in this because politics is such a stimulating intellectual exercise and logically if you believe X, then these ten things that you disagree with must follow.
Let's tell people that this is why we're in it:
We're in it because we want government to function as though it weren't there. We want the government to be an afterthought in your otherwise carefree, prosperous and happy lives. We don't want the government to be scaring you and making you suspicious of your neighbor. We don't want the government to be leaving you wondering how you'll afford your daughter getting sick. We want government to never be a consideration because everything you need is there and everything you want is available. We want you to always feel like you can see everything we're doing and we want to earn enough trust that you don't need to always check up on what we're doing. We want to create a government that makes all lives better because a better world makes a better America, and we want a government that empowers and inspires people to do it for themselves without forcing them to. We want society to fulfill its boundless opportunities for greatness and we want a government that's willing to get out of the way.
And let's not get caught up trying to please all of our leftwing special interests and forget that we really just need to be about helping people be happier.
Cross posted at MyDD.