Friday, November 19, 2004

Strategery: Reform Democrats Must Win Arguments, Whatever Their Form

One question I haven't seen adequately addressed is

Why didn't John Kerry beat George Bush by 20 points?

It's a good question, really. I often see it asked, but the answer is always a frustrated shrug of an answer, e.g. because Republicans are stupid, because Republicans are racist, because Republicans are homophobic. These answers, and others like them, are often given in earnest, but they're not very good answers. After all: the striking thing about homophobia is the immense, stunning amount of progress we have made with it in the last 20 years. After all, Bush won in Kansas by 26 points, but Thomas Frank will tell you there are very few people there who are strongly motivated by racism. After all, it should be easy to convince stupid people to do what we want, not hard; nor, as far as I can tell, are Republicans stupid.

But the last bit perhaps gets close to the truth. What passes for a reasoned argument among people who ultimately voted for Bush is different from a reasoned argument a typical Democrat might make. They reason from different facts than we do, because they're more likely to watch Fox (this might come about by chance), because they're more likely to take Bush's assertions at face value (this might come about because, as a simple matter of their personality and his charisma, they are inclined to take him seriously). Rational arguments are always helped along by emotional persuasion, and they find Republican appeals to religion and patriotism persuasive; we are more likely persuaded by emotional evocations of civil liberty or generosity.

The key here is to consider any voter in the middle 30% of the electorate -- anyone who voted for both Reagan and Clinton, or at least considered both. Different people will respond to different rational arguments. Some people might not seem very rational, but everyone's thoughts have some sort of logic.

Democrats have to realize that the job is to win over this middle 30% of the electorate
, the swing voters in swing states and red states. The job is to close the deal.

So far, we have failed to close the deal, and our answer is, essentially, 'Well, I made an argument that would have persuaded me.' So we did, but that wasn't the right argument. And that middle 30% is eminently persuadable. I make arguments for a living, so I know that often an argument that seems persuasive to me at the outset doesn't persuade others the first, the second, or the third time; but if I polish that argument enough, I can close the deal. We Reform Democrats must rebuild our arguments from the ground up. We can persuade the middle 30%, because George Bush and his corporate malefactors are killing them. And the good people in the political middle of America stand for the same things we do: they are motivated by their values, which include protecting freedom, economic success, and responsibility -- values that are among our core values.

How to proceed? I suspect the right answer is to see to it that the money we put into politics in the next few months goes to reformers, not the current Democratic Party leadership. I suspect we must topple the heads of the Democratic Party and put in people that we know are very good at coalition-building and at developing expressions of our core values. More about this later.


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