I’ll be the first to admit that it doesn’t take much to set me off these days, but an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times still has my hair on fire. Co-authors were Mark Penn and Andrew Stein; I have no idea who Stein is, but the op-ed’s argument confirms, at least in my mind, Penn’s reputation as the “genius” responsible for the decisions that tanked Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign against Barack Obama.
The headline tells the story: “Back to the Center, Democrats!” The authors argue that moving the party too far to the left will prevent Democrats from winning races in 2018.
So–what’s wrong with their “analysis”?
For one thing, this argument buys into and reinforces Republican framing. The GOP has been very successful in painting Democrats as “left-wing” (and making “left-wing” a very negative thing to be). In real life, there are a number of positions that don’t fit comfortably within our left/right dichotomy, and a number of others that used to be considered centrist or center-right before the GOP’s radical extremism changed the location of the center.
When I was a Republican candidate for Congress in 1980, my positions were substantially similar to those set out in Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope–and I was routinely accused of being “too conservative.” By the time Obama ran, the GOP was labeling those positions as “socialist.”
Which brings me to my biggest political pet peeve.
Labels–Left, Right, Center–are a substitute for thought. They’re a framing device. If I can label you–if I can put you in a pigeonhole–I can dismiss you. You are either “one of us” or “one of them.” Either way, I don’t have to consider your arguments on their merits.
I’ve been bitching about this for a long time. Here’s a paragraph I wrote in 2003:
This mania for labeling people so that we don’t have to engage with them on the validity of their ideas has accelerated during the past few years. Perhaps it is talk radio, with its tendency to reduce everything to name-calling sound-bites. Admittedly, it is much more efficient to call a woman a “feminazi” than to take the time and effort needed to discuss why her positions are untenable. And the tactic certainly isn’t limited to Republicans; Indiana’s very own Evan Bayh has solemnly warned the Democrats against the danger posed by “leftists” like Howard Dean. (I’m not quite sure when Dean’s support for gun rights, the death penalty and a balanced budget became “far left” positions. Perhaps when they were espoused by someone the Senator isn’t supporting.)
Allow me to offer a radical proposal: Democrats–and Republicans–should focus upon the merits of their policy proposals, and worry less about how the opposition (or in this case, inept members of their own party) locate those issues on the political spectrum. Survey research convincingly shows that Democratic positions–shorn of their labels–are overwhelmingly popular with voters.
The Democratic economic agenda is broadly popular with the public. More people prefer the party’s views to those of Republicans on taxes, poverty reduction, health care, government benefits, and even climate change and energy policy. In one recent poll, 3 in 4 supported raising the minimum wage to $9. Seventy-two percent wanted to provide pre-K to all 4-year-olds in poor families. Eight in 10 favored expanding food stamps. It is noteworthy that each of these proposals found support from a majority of Republicans.
In a properly functioning political system (which I realize we don’t have), voters consider positions individually and on their merits: is this proposal practical? Will it solve problem A without causing problems B and C? Is it cost-effective? Who will benefit and who will lose?
Labels aren’t just misleading, they are akin to name-calling. And their use discourages informed voting.