Edge of Chaos is a political podcast starring Joe Ryan and Neurotoxin. Its aim is to have a free-flowing discussion of news and current events that also examines the empirical outcomes of public policy, avoiding biases based on ideology and policy intentions. Listener discretion is both advised and encouraged.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Looming Decline Of the Democratic Party

Months ago, I settled for predicting a disappointing, lackluster election season in which incumbents reign supreme in all phases, and in which Republicans make modest gains in the Senate but the overall balance of power does not shift. I never said the re-alignment I've been talking about for years had been derailed, but in the Primaries it did feel slowed to a disappointing pace, and moved from the ballot box to backroom deals. South Carolina saw genuine Tea Party hopeful Mick Mulvaney announce he wasn't going to challenge intra-party enemy #1 Lindsey Graham, citing significant policy concessions and the latter's immense war chest. Other genuine hopefuls like Glenn Jacobs in Tennessee also declined their potential bids. Campaigns thrown together top-down by big corporate donors, like Matt Bevin's challenge to Mitch McConnell, failed to engage grassroots fervor and fell flat. Yes, Mississippi lifer Thad Cochran was so cornered by Tea Partier Chris McDaniel that he had to do the unthinkable - appeal to black voters, and yes there was that Democratic mischief that unseated Majority Leader Eric Cantor. But it's still difficult to compare these ripples to the earth-shattering upsets of 2010 or 2012. However, looking at the polls and dynamics of the upcoming general election, for once I'm happy to think I was very wrong.

Another Coming Wave Of Red

Firstly, the polls now show the Democrats having their asses handed to them on November 4th. Republicans maintaining control of the House, even without further gains, IS a victory, not a draw. They already control it by a significant margin, and seeing as most Congressional districts in the US are gerrymandered to death - this essentially means projected victories in a grand majority of contested ones. That's no small feat for a party that's controlled the House for the last 4 years.

Then there's the projection of Republicans managing to take control of the Senate. Guaranteed pick-ups in States with open seats - WV, MT, SD - are not as easily dismissed as the media's lack of attention to them would make you think. Despite being safely red in Presidential elections, all 3 have very mixed records in terms of who they elected to Senate in recent history. In 2 of them, the other Senator that's NOT up for re-election is, in fact, a Democrat. Republicans saw Montana's other seat as a safe pick-up when it was open in 2012, and suffered an embarrassing upset. In light of these facts, the looming sweep of circa 20% advantages for Republicans in each State is an indicator of a trend being gloriously ignored by elements for whom its inconvenient.

This same trend is evident looking at the 4 seats where Republicans look likely to defeat incumbents; Alaska, Arkansas, North Carolina, Louisiana. All 4 are, of course, also red or at least red-leaning States, and with the exception of LA's Mary Landrieu - they're represented by relatively conservative Democrats that often defy their caucus and claim they must to stay in office. Yet despite voting records that should be somewhat palatable to conservatives, they're losing; when only 2 months ago they seemed almost safe re-election projections. On the other hand, the 2 States where Democrats seemed to at least have a fighting chance at pick-ups in July - Georgia's open seat and Kentucky with McConnell somewhat damaged by his Primary fight - now appear extreme long-shots at best.

What happened? Haven't NBC and internet gossip rags like politicususa been telling us since Obama's re-election in 2012 that the Republican Party is on its deathbed, because it's too extreme and can't hope to appeal to minorities? Weren't Republicans supposed to get blamed for the Fall 2013 shutdown and take an electoral beating in reprisal? What's really happening to the political landscape of this country is far more complex and far more rooted in wonkish civics than the story polarized partisanship tells, but the facts of this election are all the evidence I need to demonstrate I've been right in my predictions - for years.

The Democrats' Identity Crisis

For those of you that associate top-down campaigning with Republicans and think of conservative organizers as taking orders from large, powerful donors and caucus leaders - I tell you adamantly that you're looking for this in the wrong party. That is in no way an endorsement of Republicans; merely the wisdom of someone with significant experience in this field.

Sure, Republicans get more corporate funding, and sure, in the last few years this trend has increased with the rise of Super PACs using Citizens United to funnel money to Tea Party candidates. However, the strings attached to that money are not what many imagine them to be, and it's intuitive if you think about it for yourself rather than trusting popular stereotypes. The corporate Republican donors of 10-20 years ago were defense and law enforcement contractors; large corporations dependent entirely on government spending for their profits. Hence, the politicians they supported and funded had to sell a very specific policy line of interventionism and various restrictions on civil liberties - from the War on Drugs to the Patriot Act. Conversely, they could compromise with Democrats in funding the Welfare State so long as the money for weapon systems and border walls kept flowing. There you have the socially moderate, big spending, warmongering Neocons.

Today's Republican donors - most notably the Koch Brothers, but also a significant tide of young E-Millionaires - are industrialists that draw their profits from private spending. Politically, they benefit primarily from derailing government intervention in their business operations; whether that intervention be in the form of taxation, regulations, laws that buttress unions, or simply funding for the agencies that enforce these policies. This contrarian agenda can be accomplished from a variety of angles - libertarians citing government inefficiency and unaccountability, religious and anti-Federal interests seeking various types of autonomy, white nationalists denying discrimination exists and opposing workplace laws intended to address it, even simple obstinacy that slows down government operations to a crawl. And there you have the Tea Party; dynamic and diverse in its political principles, but united by its stubbornness and aversion to compromise, and unapologetic about winning by causing stalemates and shutdowns. Trying to keep this analysis as neutral as possible, my point is simply that today's Republican donors only have a short list of what the politicians they fund must OPPOSE - they can do so however they want, and take whatever positions suit their fancy on issues ranging from abortion and gay marriage to drugs, the border, and war.

Let's compare this with today's Democrats. In the time of the Neocons, Democrats were actually the more internally divided party - ranging from solid liberals like Al Franken and Dennis Kucinich that adamantly opposed war and endorsed civil liberties but also favored a large and unaccountable welfare State, to moderates like the Clintons and John Kerry that sought compromise solutions on all of these issues. The Democratic Party was then significantly bigger than the Republican in terms of voter registration, and it was normal for various regional funding camps to duke it out in the Primaries. They endured decades of this internal division because campaign spending was far more tame, and also because they were the contrarian party of the era. In general elections, funding funneled centrally through the Party's top-down apparatus would be used to mount standardized campaigns aimed at moderate voters painting Republicans as greedy, war-mongering, Bible-thumping extremists - and this would succeed when swing voters were angrier about these trends than about political correctness, or regulatory and welfare-state excesses. This strategy became an integral part of the generally top-down organized Democratic Party, and campaign strategies came to rely ever more heavily on standardized data analysis being used to develop scripts and pitches that maximized appeal to center demographics.

But, since the Republican Party shed the Fascism-lite (I said it) of the previous two decades and reinvented itself as the "leave me alone" party, Democrats have taken repeated electoral beatings; and this will continue until they update their strategy to modern day. Put plainly, Republican candidates in general elections are now extremely diverse, and politicians and campaign professionals with nationally standardized specifications of what to say and support have a very difficult time competing for votes against opponents with only loose guidelines on what to oppose. There is, of course, also the factor of general dissatisfaction with government and Republicans' propensity to fan its flames through harsh criticism of the status quo; but like it or not, this stacks up perfectly with their dynamic, contrarian style.

I posit, confidently, that Democratic leaders' obtuse resistance to adapting their strategy to these modern trends is largely responsible for the electoral pattern described above. The campaigns of the relatively conservative Democrats in question are trying to appeal to the standardized national profile of a moderate voter. They fearmonger about Tea Party extremists that want to shut down government, and they try to talk up the general accomplishments of Democrats in compromise and of government in providing public services. This same strategy is invariably behind propaganda campaigns peddling the over-generalized criticisms of the Republican Party and predicting its extinction. Meanwhile, the Republicans facing these candidates are far from monolithic, and mount aggressive campaigns tuned into local preferences and exposing specific weaknesses and foul-ups of their opponents. In many places, the standardized fascination with moderates also alienates the more liberal base of the Democratic Party; discouraging those already fickle demographics from turning out, and making them more likely to vote third party if they do. The known shortcoming of central planning is its inflexibility and excessive standardization; only allowing it to succeed when used for united opposition against something very specific.

Yet rather than rethink their approach to politics, the Democratic Party has done nothing but double-down on these strategies. The most evident example of this, of course, is the increased role of OFA - an organization that grew out of Obama's overrated 2012 field campaign and now performs statistical voter analyses and develops standardized scripts for a slew of Democratic campaigns nationwide. As we have seen this organization fail to reproduce results that were erroneously attributed to it 2 years ago, it seems Democrats have switched to an emergency strategy of dropping out of races they are sure to lose and endorsing Independent candidates; such as the Kansas Senate and Alaska Governor races. While OFA's propaganda rags try to spin this as doom for the "extremist" Republicans, I say it reeks of futile desperation. OFA has run these Democrats' campaigns so deep into the toilet that they've been forced out of the running, and rather than acknowledge its failure - it is now tripling down on appealing to moderates. This is unlikely to make up for their lack of grassroots appeal and local understanding, but it will further alienate their already disillusioned base.

The incompetence of this approach mirrors the general sloppiness and inefficiency of Obama's Executive Branch - riddled with scandals and bureaucratic mishaps to extents we have not witnessed since the 1960s. So perhaps his own rosy-eyed faith in central planning is what it can be attributed to, but I don't claim to know. I do know, however, many dedicated, experienced political professionals who work on Democratic campaigns that are deeply frustrated with these tactic restrictions and demands for adherence to them in order to receive centrally concentrated campaign funding. But the inflexibility of central planning bureaucracies extends to their receptiveness to constructive internal criticism, and these professionals are unlikely to reform the system.

The Emerging Partisan Alignment

What we will see, soon, as a result of these political trends, is what I've been predicting since as far back as 2009; long before the launch of Edge of Chaos on my all-but-forgotten individual blog at As the Democratic Party loses more seats and struggles to appeal to moderates while further alienating its base, those crafty Republican contrarians will begin turning out candidates that lure the latter. After all, Progressives and solid liberals are, by their nature, contrarians as well - averse to compromise, adamant in their ideologies, and in many ways distrustful of government. They are also fervent defenders of civil liberties and opponents of interventionism; which had been deal-breakers for their joining the Republican Party during the Neocon era. Republicans who appeal to them will come from traditionally blue States, and are likely to resolve the economic rift by advocating generous safety nets at sub-Federal levels where they are palatable, and also more accountable. In the meantime, we are already witnessing with Obama's ISIL plan that the Democratic Party has absorbed a large proportion of Neocon elements, and without its base it will become an odd assortment of aging modern moderates - blubbering simultaneously about the glory days of 'generous' hyper-Federalism, 'law and order', and 'national security'.

If such an assortment seems unlikely to you, it is because you are unaware of just how shifty our history of partisan alignments is. Before the 1960s, anyone predicting minorities overwhelmingly favoring the Democratic Party, while stalwart big-government social conservatives from the South and limited government types from the West awkwardly share the Republican, would have come off as a raving lunatic. And just as the Republicans in the previous 50 years, such a party can mount opposition to change to protect the status quo or pass extreme policies during times of crisis like the 1980s and the post 9/11 era; but it has a difficult time holding on to power and managing lasting policy hegemony. THAT is where the Democratic Party is headed, likely irreversibly, and those angry at my prediction only have this Administration, with all its centralizing glory, to blame.


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