03 November 2010

Post-Election Reflections

Conservative Democrats bore the brunt of the losses yesterday in the Congressional races, with more than half of the Blue Dog seats ending up in GOP hands. Both seats lost in Colorado were Blue Dog seats.

As usual in midterm elections, a Democratic party failure to get its base to the polls was a key factor in its defeat.

The American political system is getting closer and closer to the model in which there are two very ideologically pure and almost equally represented political parties, the Democrats on the left, the Republicans on the right, representing districts that share their views. The number of conservative Democrats still left, and the number of liberal districts held by Republicans at the end of this election are similar.

In the U.S. Senate, despite losing many of moderates on both sides of the aisle in this election, the Democrats have more conservatives than the Republicans have moderates right now. This has the unfortunate implication that the Democrats in the Senate may be more likely to cave in on the issues that matter to them in negotiations than the Republicans.

Down at the grass roots, one of the most striking features of the 2010 election was the extreme gender bias and generation gap in voting behavior. Men really liked Republicans this cycle, while women really liked Democrats. Older people preferred Republicans, while younger people preferred Democrats. Exit polls showed male voters in the Governor's race with 44% favoring Hickenlooper, 12% Maes and 41% Tancredo, while women broke out 57% for Hickenlooper, 12% for Maes and 30% for Tancredo. In the Senate race, 44% of men backed Bennet and 54% backed Buck, while 56% of women backed Bennet and 40% backed Buck.

The nature of the gender bias doesn't make a lot of sense from a strictly rational policy perspective. The young surely have more to lose from big government budget deficits than the old, and the single biggest talking point of Tea Party Republicans this year was concern about the deficit. Also, the old have little reason from self-interest to support a political movement that wants to weaken Social Security and Medicare, positions about which Tea Party movement leaders were praticularly frank.

There likewise isn't a lot of reason to believe that women who are likely to vote have economic interests that are that different from men who are likely to vote. Often they are together in the same households.

The blatant misogyny of candidates like Ken Buck who carried the Tea Party banner, and general boorishness and conservative social values of both Dan Maes and Tom Tancredo in Colorado, which is typical of the movement as a whole, probably explains the differences in political outlook better. It is easy to see how this would push women away from the Republican party and Tea Party movement. A gross lack of compassion as a value held by the right in this election was also surely a factor.

It is a little harder to see, however, what the attaction of the movement is to men, and what Democrats could do to bring more men into the fold without alienating the women in its base.

Another striking aspect of this elections was the intensity with which places that disliked Democrats did so. Sixty-five percent of the people in Colorado live in counties where the leading candidates in the top of the ticket races were both Bennet and Hickenlooper, despite the fact that Bennet won less than half of the popular vote and defeated Buck by a fraction of a percentage point. Yet, their margin of support in favor of Bennet was matched by the strong opposition to Bennet in the counties with thirty-two percent of the people in Colorado in counties that opposed both Bennet and Mayor Hickenlooper. (Counties that supported Hickenlooper but opposed Bennet have just three percent of Colorado's population).

Counties that supported Republicans did so twice as intensely as those who supported Democrats. Of course, its really even more striking than that. A few areas of intense support for Democrats (Boulder and Denver, for example), balance out a few areas of intense support for Republicans (Douglas County and Colorado Springs, for example), with the first ring suburbs that contain the swing voters being decidely more lukewarm about both parties.

The historical urban-rural divide remains but the dividing line has extended from central cities to first ring suburbs, resort towns and rural areas with large Hispanic communities as well. Both Hickenlooper and Bennet won not only Denver and Boulder, but all of the first ring suburban counties around Denver and Boulder, all of the resort communities, and the better share of the San Luis Valley and Pueblo. Republican support was overhwelmingly rural, non-resort (an attitude that is still a part of Grand Junction, despite its metropolitan area status), exurban, or coming from the Colorado Springs area with its ties to religious conservatism, the defense industry, and the correctional system.

Colorado's most electorally successful politicians, like Ken Salazar and Governor Ritter, have conveyed a sense of connection with Colorado's rural way of life. Salazar played up his background in a farm community. Ritter shot long campaign ads featuring him driving across the plains in a pickup truck recounting his days as a pipe fitter.

There are policy disconnects in the geographic breakdown as well. Farm communities, that are more dependent upon immigrant labor than almost any other part of our economy, backed a candidate for Governor who has made a career of opposition to immigration. The farm communities are also an odd place for outrage over the state of the economy, because while most of the economy is in a horrible state, the farm economy of the United States is as prosperous as it has been for many years. Farm product prices are high. Crops yields have been reasonbly good. Farmers are having trouble finding workers, not experiencing intense unemployment. Colorado Springs, likewise, isn't particularly notable for its economic slump. Its core industries have not been lagging, and the city is in a growth phase.

A final piece of evidence supporting the conclusion that this election was a primal scream from the conservative base that was ideological and emotional, rather than based on policy, is that the Tea Party policies just didn't make any sense. It doesn't take a genius to recognize that you can't cut the deficit without raising taxes or cutting any of the main programs that account for government spending like defense, as Republicans promised in their "Contract With American" that was widely panned by policy wonks of both liberal and conservative persausions.

Democrats have a very hard time recognizing that elections are not just about which policy positions you prefer, and governing from elected office is not just about implementing the right policies. The public, and particularly unaffiliated voters who swing elections, want people they trust emotionally, and are remarkably oblivious to either the policy positions of candidates or the content of the policies that they implement in Washington or the state house.

The politically powerful part of the Republican narrative of the financial crisis was about bailouts as morally irresponible, not a empirically based discussion of whether they worked or whether they were effective.

In the same way, the debate about the death penalty is not really about whether the death penalty actually prevents crime, or whether it is cost effective, it is about securing retribution and just deserts for people who have done back things. Death penalty supporters don't want the establishment of our society charged with enforcing its moral commandments as expressed in criminal laws to come across as wimps. They want avenging angels, not expert criminology, even if expert criminology actuall works better.

Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats really do have a policy agenda with substance that has a reasonable chance of actually working. But, they have not sufficiently developed the narrative that frames that agenda in terms of moral values.

For example, despite the fact that Democrats put together a health care plan that would both provide access to health care for tens of millions of Americans, and do that in a way that would minimally involve government in either paying for or providing health care, the Republicans managed to turn health care issue into a debate about fear of bureaucracy and socialism and government scope, rather than about the moral imperative to provide health care for all that drove the legislation and the decidely non-socialist structure of the program. They did the right thing but they failed to communicate what they had done to the American people.

If Democrats want to do better, we need to get better at telling stories and connecting emotionally, and stop worrying so much about the details about how to get there that they teach in graduate school.


Maju said...

I think it is very interesting what you say about the left wing of the Democrats doing better than the right wing. Whatever you see in this, I think it is hopeful and shows the weakness of Obama "centrist" policies.

Would he have been true to the hopes deposited on him two years ago and behave as true progressive statesman, probably the situation today would not be that bad for the Democrats.

I think that a key failure of Obama was to cover up for corporations, specially in the quasi-genocidal case of the Louisiana spill. While the media may have silenced this matter somewhat, I am sure that the average committed Obama 2008 voter knew about it and felt very bad, betrayed. There have been many other betrayals by Obama but this one is probably the most outrageous because it implies selling the US citizens' lives, health and economy to the petty corrupt interests of the oil companies.

In truth I have never seen anything like that happening in a developed country that prides itself of being democratic. Not even Chernobyl was that badly and treacherously managed.

Also the international affairs, which are said to be minor in US elections, must have impacted the perceptions on Obama and the Democrats in general by their voters. The shameless cooperation with Israel (and the perception of Obama as a Zionist Lobby member, never mind Clinton and others are too), the keeping of the Guantanamo concentration camp, the old reactionary neocolonial activities in Latin America (Haiti, Honduras, Colombia...), all that leave a mark too.

Of course the economic crisis is a major handicap that would be major obstacle for any president but he had the opportunity of being a new Franklin D. Roosevelt and he disdained it.

Anyhow, I think that the defeat of the blue dogs is good news: I never saw the difference between these and the Tea Party, for instance.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

I'm not part of the group of progressives who herald the defeate of the Blue Dogs as a positive thing. I'd prefer a big tent party of the left, than a small tent minority party of the left. But, ideological cohesiveness does give the Democrats a tactic advantage in the next round and you use the political tools you have available to you.

You are right, IMHO, that undue centrism did hurt the Democrats politically. An articulate and bold left leaning vision would have served them better.

I disagree that the Louisiana spill was particularly mismanaged, or that it was "quasi-genocidal" (only a dozen or two people were killed, no one was targeted for harm, it was a huge accident and perhaps a preventable one, but it was an accident). It was huge because it was a big spill that was hard to solve from a technical perspective, and BP has been swiftly held to pay immense damages without significant litigation as a result, despite having had arguable grounds to fight that obligation legally. The problem is that deep sea oil drilling is a riskier undertaking that it was given credit for being and was not regulated tightly enough for safety as a result. On the ground, I don't think anyone on either side of the political spectrum gave any meaningful thought to the handling of the oil spill in the election. I heard not a single mention of it by anyone in any campaign (appropriately, because the existing Congress had very little to do with managing it).

The only foreign affairs matters that had any impact on the election were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The wind down in Iraq was generally viewed as a pluls. A small percentage of voters are concerned about how Afghanistan is being handled.

The "war on terrorism" including Guantanamo Bay was a concern to a small member of generally already strongly partisan voters on the left and the right. The left, dismayed the Obama has not kept promises and continued the Bush Administration's polcies, the right upset that too much "lawfare" has gotten in the way of a stronger response to terrorism. This had little electoral impact and canceled out.

U.S. foreign relations with Israel and Latin America were a complete non-issue in this election, with the possible exception of warming relations with Cuba, which may have cost the Democrats some support in Florida among the Cuban exile community.

The one other set of international relations that influenced voters were relations with Mexico and China.

In the 7th Congressional District in metro Denver the fact that the Republican insurgent was in the busiiness of helping companies offshore jobs helped cost him his seat, and offshoring of jobs also hurt one of the main Republican statewide candidates in California.

Concerns about both illegal immigration from Mexico (largely unfounded) and the possibilty that the violent drug war in Northern Mexico could spread to the U.S. were important in many political campaigns for candidates and ballot issues. Several anti-immigrant ballot issues were passed, and concern about the Mexican drug war was one reason that Proposition 19 was defeated in California.

Maju said...

"I disagree that the Louisiana spill was particularly mismanaged, or that it was "quasi-genocidal""...

I'm not covering it much at my blogs but I strongly recommend you to read Florida Spill Law, which every single day has half a dozen or more posts on the total poisoning this disaster has caused in the Gulf area from Lousiana to Florida.

It is not over. Actually it's getting worse by the moment, regardless that the well seems more or less capped. The oil is there, poisonous corexit is being sprayed every day (or rather every night, often on top of people, who then fall horribly sick).

What the Obama administration, via NOAA, has done here is to allow the fox (BP) to guard the chickens (the oil catastrophe) and silence by means of systematic lies the brutality of this massacre.

What your statesmen makes me think anyhow is that the system has so far succeeded in hiding the real magnitude of the problem and governmental abuses. This has been done for several reasons:

1. To allow BP to survive by hiding (up to a point) the effects of the spill, by hiding the oil with massive use of hyper-toxic dispersants.

2. To keep the fiction that Florida beaches and Gulf seafood was safe, regardless that there's not even almost any seafood left, and what there is totally poisoned.

3. To keep the fiction that all was well managed, as you seem to believe.

They have allowed people to get poisoned en masse for mere short-sighted economic reasons. Instead of leading the country, defending the people and their socio-economico-ecological reality, Obama is selling them all to the oil corporations (and others, let's see what happens with the mortgage fraud scandal too).

A phrase I read more and more in regard to the USA is "banana republic". It's not something to blame on Obama only (it was essentially the same under Bush) but Obama sold hope and change and he's totally failing to stand by his promise. In fact he betrayed those promises as soon as he was elected, not president, but presidential candidate by the Democratic Party.

That's very sad, because even if one can expect some of that, the extremes reached by the betrayal in the case of Obama are almost absolute. The only promises he's got done are the healthcare reform and "retiring" from Iraq combat (and both are half done). All the rest were plain lies.

I understand that the movement supporting Obama was quite genuine but the choice of leader was simply horrible, as time has shown in a way not even I could expect. I mean the guy could at least do something to keep the appearances and think on how history will recall his name... but all he does is to make sure that the media does not dwell into the thorny matters. And even that is not his "merit" but that of the corporate oligarchies that effectively rule your country (and by extension the World).

He's a total showman with nothing behind.

Maju said...

As for the main matter:

"You are right, IMHO, that undue centrism did hurt the Democrats politically. An articulate and bold left leaning vision would have served them better".

Yes, why to vote a blue dog if you can vote for the genuine thing in the Republican Party?

It's not time for being centrist. Centrism works when the system works, not when it's in such a deep crisis: now more daring, radical, approaches are what are needed. And the people is not as dumb as not to realize that, even if not in a clear articulate manner maybe.

"The "war on terrorism" ... had little electoral impact and canceled out".

I understand that there was already a lot of concern in the Bush era about the growing police state in the USA itself. Nothing has changed in that aspect and that is great disappointment for all those who hoped for Obama's promise of change.

Obama keeps ratifying the state of emergency implemented by Bush. This implies clear cuts in civil rights that effectively affect people in their daily lives. It's not just about the imperial policy outside the US technical borders: it's also affecting more and more people in the USA itself.

"... with the possible exception of warming relations with Cuba, which may have cost the Democrats some support in Florida among the Cuban exile community".

Nah. The gusanera (Cuban term for couter-revolutionaries, essentially exiled in Florida, gusano=worm) was always Republican, in fact the only Hispanic community with clear right-wing tendencies. Gusanos won't vote for the democrats. Another thing is more recent "apolitical" arrivals from Cuba, which are actually in favor of a more relaxed, normalized, relationship with the island but I'm not sure how many of them are citizens with right to vote.

This is anyhow a very local southern Florida matter, except for the mafioso connections they have with all the secret services and political networks in the USA, Spain and many Latin American countries, including strong and undue presence of their one-sided discourse in the media.

"... concern about the Mexican drug war was one reason that Proposition 19 was defeated in California".

That's pretty ironic because mafias, as we all know, thrive in illegality. Alcohol mafias appeared in prohibition and vanished when prohibition was lifted (the mafias did not totally disappear but this aspect did indeed). But guess it's part of the strongly implemented hypocritical discourse on drugs that has been going on for many decades already: this illegal zone is ideal for all kind of murky business, specially for governments who are supposed to enforce the "war on drugs" but actually direct most of the business.

Nothing new here, really. :/

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

I don't disagree that the oil spill has done immense harm including serious health effects for many and massive environmental damage. It was the second biggest spill in the history of the world. I simply think that "quasi-genocidal," a term that implies an intentional targeting of a group of people to be eliminated is a poor description of the event. Sometimes really horrible things really are accidents. Serious accidents are bad enough things without trying to attribute malice or intention to them.

The U.S. also had little choice given the legal circumstances and its technical capacity at the time but to give BP a large role in dealing with the spill.

I also disagree with the statement that "the movement supporting Obama was quite genuine but the choice of leader was simply horrible."

Quite to the contrary, Obama is an incredibly good leader who had a far less impressive supporting cast in Congress with whom he had to work to get things done.

The most deficient political leader on the Democratic side in national politicals has been Harry Reid, who has been insufficiently bold, although Obama did make a poor choice in picking Rahm Emmanuel as a key aid, a position he has since left to campaign to become Mayor of Chicago.

Nancy Pelosi also didn't make any serious missteps tactically, but was limited by conservative Blue Dogs in her own causus and the reality that anything passed by the House also had to clear the Senate.

Democrats as a whole, less so Obama than many others, but the party collectively, has also been ineffective at setting the terms of the public debate.

Maju said...

"I simply think that "quasi-genocidal," a term that implies an intentional targeting of a group of people to be eliminated is a poor description of the event".

That's why I used "quasi", because I do not think it's intentional targeting but just total disregard for the lives and well being of these people. Otherwise it'd be genocidal without qualifiers.

But I don't think the whole issue can just be dismissed as a mere accident. Not even after considering the disregard for safety protocols in the name of cost saving.

The worst thing of this spill is probably not oil (that is already very bad) but corexit, which has been massively used in spite of systematic official denial. This has made the oil impossible to skim and easier to travel, even through the atmosphere (oily rain and such). But it has also directly poisoned with something that is much more toxic than crude oil.

This has been done only to hide the problem, so BP can get away with lesser fines and payments. For that miserable reason a whole ecosystem and the people who live near it and often on it, are being sacrificed. There is no particular hostility against these people but there is no protection from the state that should defend them either: they are being sacrificed to the "Moloch" of oil industry without a second thought.

It is a genocide even if there is not direct intention of getting rid of that people. And it's stupid and heavily damages the credibility of the system, of the USA as such... inside its borders.

In the most lenient understanding, criminal, murderous mismanagement is the phrase to be used.


Maju said...


"Obama is an incredibly good leader"...

I don't see it. I, as the whole world, have been following his act as US President and he is not standing where he should. Just figure that he has the same economic advisors as Bush had...

He is clearly not at the height of his responsibility, much less at the level of his many promises.

Of course, Congress and other institutions (like that tribunal that ruled that corporations have civil rights) are also in fault. But I don't see Obama complaining of that lack of support or counter-productive activities but other institutions: he just seems not to be in charge where he should be, except maybe in some punctual matters like the healthcare bill.

I, as foreigner, woke up to Obama's reality with the silence he kept on the Gaza genocidal attacks by Israel in 2009 but specially with the series of interventions in Latin America (Honduras, Haiti and Colombia: more of Teddy Roosevelt obsolete imperialist policy). But when I saw it as US citizen can see it was with the criminal mismanagement of the Louisiana catastrophe: I was, I am, totally astonished to the level of criminal renunciation to presidential responsibility he did, he is still doing there.

I mean it seriously: I've witnessed in my adult life controversial managements of oil disasters (the Prestige in Galicia some years ago) and not even the Bush-like Aznar government dared to go as far as BP and Thad Allen, with all the blessings of Obama, have done. Not at all.

I'm really flippant. I read daily about it (even if it saddens me quite a bit) and cannot think in any similar case of such a total disregard for one's own population, except maybe in some well known criminal dictatorships like Burma. It's not just Obama but he is the one who has the top responsibility, who should be leading, who has appointed Allen, who met with the Brits about it, and who made a show bathing with the family in the Florida "sea" (actually in a protected lagoon, as his wife forbade him to get the children in the Gulf - with good reason).

The same that Katrina's mismanagement was bad for Bush, the BP catastrophe should be very bad for Obama... if only the public knew the details, which are only barely reaching the mainstream media (but will eventually be known of all because such a big thing cannot be hidden under the rug).

When you are the top dog, the President, you cannot avoid the responsibility. Maybe you can if you are George W. Bush, more the joker than the king, and rig elections once and again but Obama does not project to that kind of mindless bible-zombie followers, right? Neither his image is that of the town's fool, as was Bush'. Yet he is totally disappointing almost in the same manner.

And he should not because he is bright and appears to have character for leadership... but I don't see him leading anything, except an office of interests of all kind of corporate and other interest lobbies in Washington.

In the end he is as much a mere salesman as Bush Jr., a more elegant and better spoken one but little more. That's his choice and is a very bad choice.

Maju said...

Another one who agrees with me is Vicenç Navarro (economist who writes for several Spanish, Catalan and sometime English language media). He is better informed about some aspects but the essential conclusion (extrapolable to Spanish PM Zapatero, of similar "violin" attitude - said of governments sustained by the left but played by the right) is that he has betrayed the left that got him to power so blatantly that his voters have abandoned him en masse.

This also explains why left-wing democrats are faring better.

Navarro mentions among three main betrayals:

1. A cabinet pretty much to the right, he mentions specially Clinton, Summers, Emanuel...

2. Not implementing promises to make union affiliation easier (62% of US workers would like to be unionized but have difficulties to do that)

3. The way the healthcare reform was made, favoring health insurance private companies instead of the federal and state governments.

"The Left was irritated and angry with President Obama. They had played a key role in his election and then they were marginalized".

A different emphasis but similar conclusions: you just cannot bite the hand that votes you, so to say, specially if you reach power with a left-wing program and thanks to the support of a massive grassroots left-wing movement.