Sunday, April 24, 2005

Can Democrats Get Culture?

Last Wednesday, on my favorite blog, Washington Monthly, there was a fascinating exchange about the legacy of John Kenneth Galbraith, one of the most important economists in American history. A review by Berkeley economist Brad Delong in Foreign Affairs discusses why Galbraith’s ideas are not nearly as important as they should be in modern economic policy debates or in academia. Kevin Drum, the prolific and terrific blogger who runs the site, lamented that Galbraith’s vision no longer seems to appeal to Democrats, saying:

“Unfortunately, "full employment" is practically an archaic term these days, one that probably has more negative than positive resonance even among those who would benefit from it. As for taxes, the middle class has largely been hoodwinked into believing that low taxes on capital are actually good for them — or that they shouldn't worry about economic policy at all and base their votes instead on important stuff like gay marriage or gun laws.” (Boldface added by VOR)

Galbraith’s teachings aside, I have heard this silly line of reasoning about cultural issues from most of my liberal friends and I think it’s a dangerous fallacy. The abridged version is that naïve red state voters have been fooled into caring about cultural concerns so much so that they go off and unwittingly vote against their own economic interests. Those poor dolts! This patronizing narrative fits nicely into Democrats’ rationalization of Bush’s victory in 2004 and their continued ineptness to obstruct him. This perspective of course absolves Democrats of making real changes in their policies or rhetoric, because the problem is apparently that voters are too simple or stupid to understand their own interests. (As defined by Democrats of course.)

Imagine for a moment a world where economic concerns are important but are also balanced by feelings of identity, culture, and faith. In the spirit of Galbraith and his economist brethren, we could even call it a “utility function”, where an individual’s satisfaction is determined by a function of a few different variables, one of which is his take home wage (subtracting health care costs, the price of an iPOD, and whatever else), and some cultural and religious satisfaction of seeing the world look the way he thinks it should.

Class obsessed Democrats want to believe that voters should make their decisions on their economic well being alone, but they fail to recognize that people weigh other parts of the utility function too. That is, a voter might rationally vote for Bush because he places high value on having a President who reflects his Christian faith, even though he knows full-well that he will never get affordable health insurance in a 2nd Bush term. This voter gets exactly what he wants, lots of symbolic posturing on culture of life issues and proposals to ban gay marriage, and despite no health insurance, no overtime pay, and higher taxes, he is still better off according to his own utility function.

Did he act rationally in voting for Bush? In terms of maximizing his utility function, of course he did. But liberals cannot accept this. They argue that this voter must have been “hoodwinked” into suddenly caring about these issues more than his economic concerns. The idea that economic class identity could ever be replaced with something as irrational as faith or cultural identity is too scary for them to comprehend. Also, voters might have very rationally discounted Senator Kerry’s promises about healthcare, knowing that no bill could pass through a Republican Congress.

So what to do? As Kevin suggested to me in a later comment, Democrats should try to bring the focus back to economic bread and butter issues, where they have an advantage. This logic sounds right, until you realize that political platforms are bundles of issues, strung together by a common ideology, and you cannot always simply command voters to only care about the issues that play to your strengths. Generally speaking, Democrats are viewed unfavorably on cultural issues and national security because voters view them as obsessed with “tolerance” (see J.S.’s last post) and they appear too thoughtful and multilateral when it comes to decisions about war (actually, that doesn’t sound too bad!). As long as those issues are front and center, Democrats will lose. Furthermore, as pointed out by Matt Yglesias at The American Prospect, there is little incentive for Democrats to develop real policy expertise and big ideas on foreign policy (I’ll add culture), because they never win on those issues. So instead they concentrate on universal healthcare and paid family leave.

Now how is the relative weighting between cultural and economic issues determined? Politics clearly matters here and the Republicans frame their message to appeal to the cultural component of the utility function. But, Republican politicians in Washington did not invent the opposition to gay marriage or the pro-life movement. These are grassroots movements that are powered by millions of true believers. Democrats should feel free to disagree with them, but these voters haven’t been duped. Amazingly, they think these issues matter more than economic ones.

When I usually make these arguments, I am immediately accused of wanting Democrats to hedge their support on abortion and gay rights, and morph into Republican-lite. That could not be further from the truth. Democrats need to develop their own voice on cultural issues and tweak their rhetoric to win the X% of voters in the middle of the culture wars. That’s all. Now while this might include talking about abortion differently or trying to emphasize the importance of marriage, or even taking smut in the media more seriously, it does not mean abandoning core beliefs. I think the “cultural” component of the utility function for many voters can be reached through a bit more empathy. That does not mean Democrats have to empathize with the far right who want to discriminate against gays and wipe out a women’s right to choose. But it means speaking with a new style and reaching out to conservative voters instead of dismissing them as hoodwinked simpletons who are too stupid to recognize their own interests.

R.C.

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