Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Rick Perlstein argues that the Democrats have turned away from cultivating long-term values and constituencies and toward a short-sighted focus on fickle swing voters. This strategy has hollowed out the party so that it is in danger of forgetting its longstanding commitment to reform liberalism in favor of embracing whatever clamorous interest groups happen to want at the moment.
Long-term party identification is certainly desirable, especially if, as Perlstein says, it tends to deliver votes election after election. But one should take care that the faithful are being faithful for the right reason. Consider, for example, the southerner who continues to cleave to the Democratic Party because he longs for the days of such leaders as Orval Faubus and George Wallace and believes that if he sticks with the party, it will return to its senses and begin producing leaders like these again. Long-term loyalties are worth cultivating only if they are based on your actual beliefs, which in turn requires that you revisit those beliefs from time to time to make sure they are still yours.
At other times, your long-term beliefs may present a different problem. Conditions may have changed so that it is not easy to see what course of action a pet value dictates. Let’s say you are a Democrat interested in economic equality. But what does that mean in an age of globalization? Job security for U.S. citizens and protection from outsourcing? Tariffs on imports? Deregulation? Bringing the minimum wage in India, China, and Mexico up to the U.S. standard?
So, long-term values are not always simply stated or applied. By the same token, the short-term pursuit of uncommitted voters is not always to be scorned. A group that is currently unaligned—say, Latinos, who vote Democratic at much lower rates than blacks—may, with a little realignment of attention paid to their issues (say, more to language rights and less to deportation body counts), turn into party loyalists, and for the right reasons. Just as many marriages start with short-term infatuation, today’s swing voters may turn into tomorrow’s staunch supporters.
So the line between short- and long-term loyalty turns out to be far from clear. The one has a way of morphing into the other, just as the two political parties have a way of trading places, with one now identified with isolationism and later with war; now with slavery, later with abolition; now with big government, later with the opposite. Despite this plasticity, Perlstein urges the Democrats to cultivate long-term loyalty and stop pursuing independent voters in hopes of winning the next election. He gives the example of Boeing, which rose to heights by dint of long-term planning and research, but today courts oblivion for pursuing the quick payoff.
But is a corporation the right model for the Democrats? In business, a single objective preponderates: making money. In politics, a party wants to succeed in at least two tasks: winning votes (which requires attention to short-run pragmatism) and running the country (which requires wisdom and the long view).
Perhaps a better analogy would be a diversified investment fund that invests some of your money in long-term stocks and some in more speculative instruments promising a quicker return. If, as I believe, a political party is more like an investment fund than like a corporation, Democrats should be paying attention both to their long-term values and constituencies and to the swing voters.
A final problem with long-term values is that they tend to be stated at such a high level of generality that it is not immediately clear what one should do to effectuate them. I edit a book series for a major academic press and read dozens of proposals from authors. Because we are looking for books with crossover potential, practically every would-be author solemnly declares that he or she will write simply, clearly, and for a mass audience of educated readers. But it turns out that it is far easier to say that one will write for a mass audience than to do so.
Similarly, saying you are in it for the long run is not the same as knowing what that means. One needs a plan. The Republicans had one: As Jean Stefancic and I showed in No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America’s Social Agenda , beginning around 1970 conservative Republicans deployed a series of shrewd moves, orchestrating one campaign after another with the aid of brains and money. They cultivated different constituencies for different campaigns and made clever use of the media. They funded a series of think tanks, each devoted to a small number of issues, and trained young talent for future leadership positions. They used resources wisely, concentrating on a few targets at a time—welfare and tort reform, immigration rollbacks, affirmative action, the culture wars, deregulation—marching on to the next when victory was assured in one.
This required “future orientation,” a “long-term horizon,” “thinking big,” and willingness to dream—everything Perlstein urges upon his fellow Democrats. But it took more—the practical knowledge of how to make those dreams a reality, the flexibility to shift focus when necessary, the ability to size up and coalesce with new allies, and the willingness to work for 30 years to bring the goals to fruition. From time to time we all need to take stock of our basic values and friends. But the short and long term are intricately connected. Reminding oneself of a few core values is only the beginning of a much harder inquiry about what exactly follows from that.
Click here to return to the New Democracy Forum “How Can the Democrats Win?”
Originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Boston Review.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Austerity is not the only way to save our overextended planet. A simpler life might be both more pleasurable and more equal.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.