Tiptoeing Toward the Center: Galston and Kamarck on "The Politics of Polarization"

Joseph M. Knippenberg

October 1, 2005

In recent years, some of the Republicans’ best friends have been those Democrats who have insisted that their party can win only by moving vigorously and vocally to the left. The result has been that, even as President Bush and the Republicans have slid in the polls, the Democrats have not really gained. So long as the Democrats have remained in the thrall of their hard left wing, unwilling or unable to present a plausible and generally acceptable alternative to the Republicans, the latter have been gained some breathing space, along with the hope that people, events and, circumstances can turn around sufficiently for them to maintain their hold on Congress in 2006 and on the Presidency in 2008.

Among the Democrats unhappy with this prospect is William Galston, a political theorist and activist who is one of the smartest observers of the contemporary political scene. Together with Elaine Kamarck, he has written “The Politics of Polarization” for the centrist Third Way group. In this long report, Galston and Karmarck offer an analysis of the last three decades of American political life and describe how Democrats can regain the edge they had through the 1970s.

They argue that Democrats are in the thrall of four myths:

  • The myth of mobilization holds that the party can win by energizing its base. This myth, they contend, ought to have been put to rest by the result of the 2004 election, and by the results of any number of surveys, which show that conservatives handily outnumber liberals in the electorate (though both are dwarfed by moderates).
  • The myth of demography holds that trends in the demographic makeup of the electorate—chiefly the increasing proportion of Hispanics—favor Democrats in the long term. Galston and Kamarck argue that, as they integrate into the American economy, Hispanics behave like other middle class voters.
  • The myth of language, associated principally with George Lakoff, holds that the challenge the Democrats face is one of how they frame the issues, not one of what they actually believe. By contrast, Galston and Kamarck contend that “Democrats are in trouble today, not only because their candidates have lacked compelling ’narratives’ that resonate with voters, but because they lack a coherent approach to foreign policy, espouse positions on key social issues that strong majorities of the electorate reject, and lack compelling economic proposals that speak to the new economic challenges of the 21st century.”
  • The myth of prescription drugs holds that, if only Democrats can change the subject to their favored domestic policy agenda items, elections will go their way. Galston and Kamarck argue that, in a post-9/11 world, and in a world where cultural issues matter, this is a prescription for electoral failure.

According to Galston and Kamarck, the key to future Democratic electoral successes lies in reaching out to the more than 40% of the voters who describe themselves as moderates. And the challenge there is embodied above all in two groups—married women and Roman Catholics—who have been trending away from the Democratic Party. Married women have gone from a 40% probability of voting Republican (in 1992) to a 55% probability of so voting (in 2004). And while only 37% of Catholics supported Bob Dole in 1996, President Bush received 52% of the Catholic vote in 2004.

Yes, married women are “security moms,” with 39 % identifying Iraq (21%) or terrorism (18%) as the most important issues in 2004 post-election analyses, but they are also “moral values moms,” with 27% pointing to that as the principal consideration.

Catholics too are influenced by moral values considerations, though more, Galston and Kamarck contend, by concerns about personal integrity and family and culture than about hot button social issues like abortion and gay marriage. To be sure, they concede, “Catholics are more pro-life than is the electorate as a whole… and… they respond very negatively to proposals for legalizing gay marriage.” By their account, the Catholic movement away from the Democrats is partly a legacy of the Clinton scandals, partly a product of the moral fuzziness and positional ambiguity of Gore and Kerry, partly the result of Democrats’ close identification with an entertainment industry that is not family-friendly, and, finally, partly the result of Democrats’ unwillingness to make any concessions to the broad middle ground on the abortion issue:

While [Republicans] have been successful in mobilizing their base, they have also been successful in using issues such as partial-birth abortion and parental notification to convince moderates that they are being less intransigent and more reasonable on the issue than are the Democrats.

Galston and Kamarck conclude their report by making four recommendations aimed at appealing to moderate voters. As they are among the most thoughtful and least venomous of the Republicans’ opponents, their proposals demand a detailed examination.

First, they propose that Democrats “[s]top hiding behind domestic policy and honestly confront the biggest issue of our time: national defense, and especially the use of military force.” The American military, they contend, can be “a potential force for good in the world,” the Michael Moore Democrats to the contrary notwithstanding. This seems promising, until you consider where and why they suggest that the American military could be deployed—in Darfur, to end the genocide, a commitment that they say would be comparable in scope to that in Iraq. Here they reveal their unseriousness, for a massive deployment of U.S. troops to Darfur in time to end the horrific bloodshed there would require their precipitous withdrawal from Iraq (about which country they say next to nothing in their 71 page report), the immediate redeployment overseas of troops who have just returned from Iraq (which does not strike me as sound personnel and training policy), or some effort, either through a draft or still further mobilization of National Guard and reserve forces, to increase our supply of troops.

While I suppose that by calling for an essentially impracticable deployment in Darfur, they could score political points by saying that doing this undoubtedly good thing would be possible, if only we weren’t already committed in Iraq, their example is revealing in other respects. “America as a force for good” can, in their view, apparently act only on behalf of universal principles in humanitarian crises. Crisis response does not permit the development of a long-term defense strategy, nor does it allow for a serious consideration of the national interest. For Galston and Kamarck, the American military ought to be something like its Canadian counterpart, only on steroids. “Democratic internationalists” might indeed win an election or two with such a vision—that, after all, is the point of this report—but they would not obviously provide for the long-term safety and security of the nation. In this respect, it’s revealing that their discussion of President Clinton’s foreign policy legacy for the Democratic Party—notably not for the nation—says nothing about his “response” to the challenges posed by al Qaeda during his Administration.

In sum, Galston and Kamarck write as if there is no, or need be no, global war on terror. If seriousness on national security matters is supposed to be a sine qua non for Democratic success at the polls, they haven’t shown it.

Their second recommendation is that Democrats “[s]how tolerance and common sense on hot-button social issues.” They can expand their tent by giving ground on parental notification and partial-birth abortion and “oppos[ing] court-imposed gay marriage while favoring decent legal treatment for gay couples and insisting that this is a matter for the people of the several states—not the U.S. Constitution or the judiciary—to resolve.”

My first reservation about these moderate gestures is that they don’t squarely confront the ways in which courts are already involved in these issues. Saying that you’re open to requiring parental notification and to banning partial-birth abortion when courts routinely overturn legislative efforts to do so looks more like posturing than anything else. And given their commitment to the creative reading of the Constitution that gave us Roe v. Wade, which is the foundation of judicial resistance to these other efforts at regulating abortion, this suggestion looks even more disingenuous, simply intended to woo moderate Catholics until their views more fully “evolve,” as Galston and Kamarck seem to hope they will.

Similarly, with respect to gay marriage, their commitment to federal diversity seems more a matter of strategy than principle. Do they regard federal diversity—with blue states sanctioning gay marriage and red states banning it—as a stable compromise immune to judicial challenge, even on the basis of the “full faith and credit” clause? Or is it for them a way station, proving, once again, that a house divided can’t stand, with opinion evolving and states changing in one way only?

Stated another way, their proposals for appealing to moderates would be more plausible if they were presented, not simply as tactical concessions to opinions as yet “unevolved,” but rather as expressions of an understanding of the role that the traditional family has played and can continue to play in a healthy civil society.

Their third proposal is that Democrats “[s]upport an economic policy that embraces global competition and a modernized social safety net that protects American workers in a vibrant and churning economy.” Rather than pursue “an electoral strategy that involves waiting for economic disaster,” Democrats should plan for a highly competitive global marketplace, in which particular American jobs and businesses will come and go. Americans, Galston and Kamarck contend, will “tolerate this level of uncertainty and risk” if there is a sufficiently strong safety net, founded upon “the notion of social insurance as protection against catastrophe.”

This strikes me as their strongest recommendation, which, if accepted, would both narrow and focus the differences between the Republicans and the Democrats. Both parties would embrace the free market, disagreeing in large part only over how to empower individuals to make their way in it.

The most spirited debate would likely be over the government’s role in facilitating access to health care. If Galston and Kamarck are correct in their contention that Clinton-era successes in “reinventing government” reduced significantly the level of mistrust in government, then this should be an interesting and complicated political battle. Having supported a major expansion of the government’s power for the sake of national security, through (for example) the USA Patriot Act, Republicans will be hard-pressed to distinguish their support of big government in one arena from their opposition to it in another. Similarly, the Democrats who oppose the national security state may have a hard time explaining why “intrusive” government programs for health security are good, while “intrusive” programs for national security are not.

Fourth, Galston and Kamarck argue that “Democrats have to pay more attention to the very personal quality of elections, especially presidential elections, in the media age.” Voters have to identify with and respect their candidates, which requires them to display “consistency, personal morality, and above all authenticity”:

We would argue that of all the tests national candidates must pass, the personality test is the most important. The test may be summarized in three questions that voters are asking and that candidates must answer to their satisfaction. First: Is the candidate a person of strength, with core convictions and the ability to act on them through challenges and criticism? Second: Is the candidate a person of integrity, who displays consistency over time, who tells the truth, and whose words and deeds coincide? And third: Is the candidate a person of empathy, who understands and cares about people like us?

Galston and Kamarck suggest that Al Gore (a “politician known for his honesty and integrity”) and John Kerry (“a decorated war hero”) were simply unable to overcome misimpressions about their character created by their Republican opponents. With better campaigns, they could perhaps have answered the first two questions satisfactorily. The third, answered effectively by Bill Clinton (who arguably couldn’t claim strength or integrity), poses a particular challenge to candidates like Gore and Kerry. To the extent that the “upscale professionals” who populate the leadership ranks in the Democratic Party “lead lives that are different from those of average families” and “tend to think and speak differently,” they have a hard time connecting with and inspiring confidence in ordinary voters. The real challenge is empathy: Democratic candidates have to act and sound democratic.

The “bad news” is that for a typical Democratic candidate to take Galston and Kamarck’s substantive policy advice would likely require either a real change in his or her positions, or a new way of talking about them, both of which could raise exploitable questions about the candidate’s strength and integrity. The “good news” is that an empathetic candidate like Bill Clinton “might could” (as we say down South) overcome these challenges. But candidates with Clinton’s gifts are rare and, in any event, he never won a majority of the popular vote, benefiting from Ross Perot’s presence on the ballot in both his races.

In the end, it is hard to shake the impression that, despite their injunctions against believing too much in the power of language, Galston and Kamarck end up recommending policies that in many cases look a lot more like insubstantial gestures than like coherent and significant substantive changes of approach. Writing for an audience on the Left, they urge upon it the smallest conceivable concessions necessary (they think) to win elections. A party inspired by Galston and Kamarck merely appears moderate, but in its heart of hearts is not. My hope is that voters will see through this subterfuge. My fear is that they won’t.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.