Advice to Democrats II


Democrats must understand several things about Republicans to beat them in 2008. (I am your devoted anthropological servant, without regard to party.)

First, Republicans (and the people who vote for them) must be understood to hold a moral and intellectual position. They are not, as some Democrats insist, “asleep,” “ignorant,” or developmentally challenged (as noted in yesterday’s post). They are not selfish. They are not mistaken. They are not 4 years away from “seeing the light.”

Republicans and TPWVFT have an idea of what the body politic is. That this is not the Liberal Left and the Democratic Party idea does not mean it is not an idea. It may not be dismissed as cavalier, craven, or some species of false consciousness. Ad hominem attacks feel good, but, as Melinda pointed a couple of days ago, they don’t get the political job done.

The idea: every tub its own bottom

Republicans and TPWVFT believe every tub is its own bottom: every creature must make its own way in the world. It will be rewarded for its successes and punished for its failures. This is the Republican idea of justice and fairness. No, it doesn’t conform to the Liberal Left notion of justice and fairness, but it is wrong to insist that it is a cover for selfishness, moral indifference, or a demonstration that Republicans and TPWVFT “just don’t get it.”

Nicholas Kristof

Thus when Nicholas Kristof refers to ‘the millions of farmers, factory workers and waitresses who ended up voting – utterly against their own interests – for Republican candidates,” he fails to see that these people vote Republican because they believe this party thinks as they do: that it stands for individual effort and accomplishment. To insist that the voter is just too dumb to understand his/her own interests is a simple anthropological failure to see how Republicans & TPWVFT chose to define these interests. It is no good scorning these people because they do not agree with you. This is the moment to do the right thing anthropologically, and grasp the very points of difference that make the Democratic message unappealing or unintelligible.

A cocktail party

Have you had this ethnographic moment? You are standing at a cocktail party wondering how you might beat your way to the bar for another glass of red wine, and someone from the Liberal Left engages you in a recitation of the things they believe in. For some reason people always take me for a fellow traveler (I think its my haircut), and the song is always the same. “Here are the issues I care about,” says the someone. “And, behold, look how deeply I care,” is the larger message. “Sharing and caring,” this is the thing the someone wants you to know about them…as if there were some doubt about their liberal credentials, their moral character, or their capacity for fellow feeling.

There’s always a pause here. The “someone” is waiting for me to sing my own song of liberal generosity—the ritual reciprocity of cocktail chatter, apparently. I say nothing. But here’s what I would say, if I weren’t so darn Canadian:

“I don’t doubt your liberal credentials. But I do wonder if you have talked to a farmer or a waitress lately. The ones who voted Republican did so because they suppose this party is more likely to create a country in which their individual effort and accomplishment will be rewarded. This means, among other things, that they would prefer to keep their tax dollars to fund their own enterprise in the world than surrender it to a more collective approach to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

“Oh, well,” says the Democratic someone, ‘then you’re just a selfish, uncaring, so and so. You don’t get it. You don’t understand that we’re all in this tub together.” I get this. I really do. I live in a province, Quebec, in which I pay the highest marginal tax rate in the G8. I am happy to do so. (Believe me, I pay a tax bill so staggeringly high it would turn most Democrats into Republicans instantaneously.) But not everyone feels this way. Some people actually resent when the state puts its hand in their pocket. Especially when they believe they can with their own modest gifts and philanthropy fund the common good more effectively than a government that is, well, famously inefficient. (Have Democrats thought through the implications of American philanthropy?)

To say the waitress does not understand her self interest…well, isn’t this what people mean when they say Democrats are a little arrogant and elitist? If I may hazard another ethnographically undocumented guess, isn’t this the sort of thing that makes some waitresses want to reach for a pot of hot coffee.

“Let me decide how to deploy the value I create in the world,” I think the waitress might say. To which she would add, “While you are accusing me of not understanding my self interest, what shall we say about a NYT columnist who helps promote the position that keeps Democrats out of the Whitehouse?”

It comes down to this: the waitress who believes she is entitled to decide what her interests are and how she wishes to deploy her wealth in the world versus the NYT columnist who presumes to know better and, insult upon insult, to scold her for her choices.

I don’t know. Maybe the Democratic Party is the right party to run the country. But you can’t absent yourself from the mainstream, and then be surprised when the country does not put you in the White House. You can’t scorn the voter and then expect her to slap her forehead and say, “yes, here’s my vote!” You can’t refuse an anthropological understanding the voter, and then expect to lead the country.

Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps the general will should be decided by a columnist at the New York Times. And I think it’s up to Mr. Kristol to explain this to the farmers, factory workers and waitresses of America.

The Democratic Party, bless it, has defined itself as the party that takes America somewhere. This is its strength, its noble calling. But Kristof, dude, you have to get out more. Republicans & TPWVFT are not wrong, ignorant, asleep, selfish or insufficiently self interested. They have an idea. This would be a good time to find out what the idea is. I am starting the count down now. You have four years.


Kristof, Nicholas. 2004. Living Poor, Voting Rich. New York Times. November 3, 2004. subscription required here

23 thoughts on “Advice to Democrats II

  1. justdance2

    I don’t pretend to understand why anyone would vote for a Republican, but it mystifies me when people cite the desire for smaller government as a motive. The last Republican of any significance who believed in smaller government died of Alzheimer’s a few months back.

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  3. Brian Hawkins

    It is interesting that two common critiques of Republican voters is that they are “selfish” and “not voting in their own interest”…

    I voted with the Dems for the first time ever this election because I believe (as the previous commentor noted) that the Republicans–and especially Mr. Bush–no longer live up to the Republican ideals of individual liberty and small(er) government with which I am sympathetic. That is to say, I very unenthusiastically voted for John Kerry. As such, I can’t get that worked up over the fact that I voted for a losing candidate…especially in light of the appalingly condescending reactions of the people with whom I voted this time.

  4. justdance2

    I don’t disagree that Dems need to figure out what makes the swing voters go to the Rep side. But I think Grant’s statement that Republicans are: 1) intelligent 2) rational and 3) in favor of smaller government and individual liberty is inconsistent with voting for a president who has raised spending faster than any president since Roosevelt.

    Perhaps they measure the size of government in terms of the marginal income tax rate. If so, the path is clear. Slash income tax rates. Raise spending. Let someone else deal with the problems this brings in the future.

  5. John Miller

    Just as I was beginning to lose all my faith in the existence of liberals who don’t exist solely to call Republicans bad people, I read your column. Spending the last four years in San Francisco and a public policy graduate school, I’ve had to deal with the snide comments and hussy declarations that I’m a bad person because I’m a conservative on a daily basis. All I really need from libs so I can get along with them is to know that they don’t think my ideas come straight from the pits of hell. Literally. That’s all.

    This is a really important concept. For example, avertable wars sometimes move forward simply because leaders fail to see things from the perspective of their adversaries. A necessary condition for war is also the (very human) knee-jerk reaction to reject one’s adversary’s point of view because they are “bad” people. It rationalizes a whole host of inhumane things, not just war. Like when Britain’s The Guardian called on the American people to assassinate President Bush in an editorial this last weekend. Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes war is necessary. UBL is, in fact, a bad person because he has been so tainted by his cancerous ideology. But in domestic politics, there’s no such thing as a bad person. Anybody who took the time to vote for either Bush or Kerry is– by definition– a patriot.

    I have to take issue with the notion above that Bush is a “big spender”. Non-military discretionary spending only went up 1% a year during his administration. Spending levels for entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare is automatically set unless the president and the Congress can agree to a very high-profile bill to curb them. Entitlements are outside the budget process. So you can’t blame Bush for that. The reason we have a deficit is that tax receipts have gone down the last four years due to the recession, and yes, we gave the people some of their money back with a tax cut. But the label of Bush as a “big spender” is wrong.

  6. Grant

    JustDance2 and Brian: I am no expert but I thought exceptional expenditure was being due to the war effort, homeland defense, and the fight against terrorism. Are you saying Republicans are spending more in other categories? I was thinking more along the lines of John Miller’s post, for which stat. many thanks. Thanks, Grant

  7. Anonymous

    John Miller,
    I liked your post, except for the last paragraph. In the spirit of civility let me just say that I disagree. Does your figure of 1% include the new perscription drug benefit? For me tax cut without spending cut = big spender
    Graphic representation:

    The comment on language is right on. I remember in the mid 80s while I was at McGill there was an editorial debate between the two student newpapers. The Daily was under neo marxist influence and wrote a lot of heavy handed editorials about what you should think and how you should act. The McGill Tribune was more apolitical but their editor in chief wrote this piece that basically said: look you may be right or you may be wrong but one thing is for sure you are never going to find out because people will not listen to someone who places themselves above you. He then went on to list all the other forms that political argument can take; humorous, factual, philosophical, co-optive, satire. It was brilliant really.

    So Democrats have to mind their language and improve their semiotic skills.

    There is a bit of a mystery to this however in that conservatives have indulged in the language of hate for awhile now and have not paid any political price. Coulter, Linbaugh, Savage, plus many religious speakers whose names I don’t know.
    Why does the right get a pass?
    Are the Dems not pointing out their ennemys flaws?

  8. justdance2

    Looks like the unnamed poster beat me to it, but here is another view on spending under GWB:

    Even taking out the defense buildup, he is the biggest spender at least as far back as Ford.

    Another comment I would like to make on your post is that the Dems do not really need to find out what makes the Reps tick. They need to understand the 2-3 percent of voters that are “least Republican” but voted Rep anyway. Adding this group to the Dem core would tip the balance in favor of the Democrats.

    I am guessing that this group is probably in tune with the Dems on social issues but are turned off by the class warfare rhetoric. Now that the middle class has gotten to the point where they have to worry about AMT, talk about sticking it to those “fat cats” with income above $200K is losing more votes than it is winning.

  9. Ennis

    But you see — one of the things that makes Dems scratch their heads is that Republican states are deadbeat states, they are parasites, they are states that take more from the treasury than they give.

    But for some reason, voters in those states believe the opposite. They believe they are supporting welfare moms in NYC, whereas NYC taxpayers are actually supporting farm welfare for precisely those same people who espouse each tub on its own bottom.

    If you can explain that one to me, I would be much the wiser for it.

  10. Scotty B

    Unnamed wrote:

    “There is a bit of a mystery to this however in that conservatives have indulged in the language of hate for awhile now and have not paid any political price. Coulter, Linbaugh, Savage, plus many religious speakers whose names I don’t know.
    Why does the right get a pass?
    Are the Dems not pointing out their ennemys flaws?”

    The simple fact is the 9 times out of 10, Limbaugh, Coulter, and Savage preach to a choir who seek to have their views reenforced. Limbaugh may have a wider audience than the other two, but that is in part because he’s a talented entertainer, all politics aside. What none of these people have is an Oscar or the Pom d’Ore, unlike Michael Moore, who is at least as intolerant, but gains far more acclaim and popular support.

  11. Grant


    Whew! Who needs posts, when a blog gets comments as good as this one?

    If it’s true that the Republican rank and file have forgiven Bush his fiduciary indiscrtions to advance the larger cause, what happens now? Now that the Republicans have an undisputed hold on the presidency, senate and congress, perhaps its time for people to break rank (and file) and be a little more demanding of their president.

    It could be that a relatively resounding victory could be the second worst thing to happen to the Bush camp. Maybe now it will be held to a higher standard, the true principles of the undertaking.

    We must hope. Thanks, Grant

  12. fouroboros

    Yer way too kind. Just following your lead, my friend.

    Bingo on the pyrhhic victory. A coalition of short term comfort but looming turbocharged entropy–What Pat Buchanan calls the coming civil war within the Party.

    Kerry’s win would have had two consequences:

    1. Transfer of a national psychic and policy burden with little hope of fix in 4 short years–plus, a media newly emboldened to hold him to account where before the Manichean mystery of Neoconservatism befuddled the hell out of them into relative lap-doggery.

    2. Postponement of the much needed “come-to-jesus” moment (semi-intended pun) the Democratic Party must commit to in order to reevalutate, realign and reassert their claim to be for the everyman.

    With #1 avoided, and an unequivocal grip by Republicans on the reigns of the 3 branches of Federal government they have nowhere to hide. The fiscal and ‘we’re realists” piety must now reconcile with policy and there are no excuses. Prediction: the rivets are gonna fly off the boilerplate at supersonic speed.

    Now, on #2… we’ll see if Democrats feel sufficiently wilderness-bound, or bottomed-out, to become teachable.



  13. hen

    republican = bush = idiot

    republican = ideas = worth listening to

    anybody who professes an alleigence to the rape and pillage of bush/cheney is either heavely medicated or brilliantly ignorant. sorry, but sometimes the elephant in the room has to be pointed to and sometimes the emperor has no clothes.

  14. Grant

    Fourborous, I stand illuminated (er, perhaps that brilliantly ignorant, as above). Very interesting. No longer a monolith. Perhaps this will mean that the intolerant ones of the religious right will begin to lose their sway over others in the party. Thanks.

    Hen, there you go again, the point of this post is to say that those who refuse the equation of Bush and ideas are truly setting themselves up for continual political disappointment. That elephant is a Republican. Take him seriously. Or confine yourself to political obscurity. Thanks, Grant

  15. fouroboros

    Brilliantly ignorant. Hmmm. When we take on clients with little money, we’ve told them “then you have to be brilliant in your poverty.”

    I find that’s far more compelling than tired analogies about invisible pachyderms and too-visible monarchs.

    On illumination, I once heard that in the original script for It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence didn’t say “whenever a bell rings, an angel gets its wings,” but rather “every time a candle’s lit, a hen turns into a broiler.”

    Or something like that.


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  17. Jeff

    “There is a bit of a mystery to this however in that conservatives have indulged in the language of hate for awhile now and have not paid any political price. Coulter, Linbaugh, Savage, plus many religious speakers whose names I don’t know.
    Why does the right get a pass?
    Are the Dems not pointing out their ennemys flaws?”

    Two quick points here:

    1. This might just be a semantical difference, but I’d really be saddened to think that most Dems view the Right as the “enemy,” rather than the opposition. I know in many cases it’s just a term, but it’s really hard to persuade someone to accede to your point of view when they’re already being deemed the enemy. Save that term for those who truly deserve it. I’m sure you can come up with a few examples.

    2. I’d be happy to disavow most demagogues, be it Moore or Coulter. Both ideological sides (if there are just two sides) have their share of crackpots, but in 2004, it seems that the GOP did a better job of marginalizing them. To wit, Michael Moore gets a seat of honor next to Jimmy Carter at the Democratic National Convention – now, I know that it was at the behest of Carter, but the fact was, he was still there for everyone to see. I don’t think you saw the equivalent at the GOP Convention.

    I think there are many of us willing to disavow Coulter and especially Savage. Going a step further, I even try to avoid the likes of those who take a “see no evil, hear no evil” approach as long as it pertains to their worldview – someone like Sean Hannity comes to mind there.

  18. Grant

    Jeff, what a nice way of parsing the issue: who marginalizes their cranks better. Michael Moore not only gets a seat at the table, but universal applause, while Republicans and the people who vote for them are quite prepared to roll their eyes when certain parties speak, though they may not do so quite publically enough. Rolling my eyes now. Thanks for a really debate pushing point. Grant

  19. lindenen

    “But you see — one of the things that makes Dems scratch their heads is that Republican states are deadbeat states, they are parasites, they are states that take more from the treasury than they give.”

    There are several Blue states that take from the treasury more than they give.

    Also, implicit in your statement is the vilification of states that don’t have as much money as most Democrat states do. So ‘poor’ states are deadbeats and parasites? You realize that you’ve just called half the country deadbeats and parasites along with vilifying the poor. I thought this was something evil Rethuglicans did! This is definitely the way to get votes! Keep it up! What you need to be asking yourself is why those who have less money are unwilling to vote Democrat. Perhaps this has something to do with why they don’t want the government taking a chunk of each paycheck. They don’t have that much to begin with and your pet projects don’t benefit them. They just make their lives harder.

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