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April 13, 2005

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This was a nice post, although I confess I got distracted for quite a while by the link to the Detroit diary! My dad still stores all his old files in about 20 Stroh's boxes that he picked up for free the week they shut the factory down. Everyone who saw our basement used to think he was some raging alcoholic - truth is, he just felt they were really good boxes.

There were a lot of good thoughts in this entry, but what it came down to for me was, you seem to be saying that it's more the candidate than the platform. In other words, you can have all the great policy prescriptions in the world (and John Kerry did), and you can carefully craft your message to go right down the center of your electoral base, but at the end of the day people are really just looking for a real person with a moral code they can relate to. Did I get this wrong?

Whether or not I missed the point entirely, indulge me while I run with the thought for a bit. One of the things about focusing on the candidate rather than the message is that it's frustrating to all of us out here in grassroots-land, who talk all day about what the message should be and how we can hone it ever so finely to bring in the last swing voter. If you say it's about the candidate and how he or she projects values, then there's no role for us, except to talk about which candidate fits that model. So in a way, we want to believe that it's all about the message, because it justifies what we're all about.

But it does seem to me that even if it is all about the candidate, there is something we can do at this end. What we can do is be more understanding towards the people who generally support our agenda, and be a little less strident about insisting they always toe the line. Someone can be a fine, upstanding human being, and a staunch defender of your values, even if they don't agree with you 100%. How often does anyone agree with you 100%?

Let me use Russ Feingold as an example. Now I'm not going to make a Feingold in '08 speech; you can love him or hate him, you can think he's electable or unelectable, it doesn't matter to me. But I do think he is a politician of principle, and I think that's worthy of respect in and of itself. Yet when his name comes up at dkos, there will invariably be someone who says "He voted to confirm Ashcroft! I'll never vote for him!" Markos himself said he was permanently anti-Feingold because he allegedly wants to regulate blogs. My point is just that you rarely get a chance to vote for a person of principle, and you should value the opportunity, even if those principles don't always line up with yours 100%.

Let me give a more extreme example, that is not so much advice but rather a real-life testimonial about why principles are important. Once upon a time in Michigan, bleeding-heart me cast a vote for John Engler, one of the staunchest fiscal conservatives in memory. You won't find a lot of people with my profile, a three-time Clinton voter who also voted for Engler. But the point is, back then in my relative youth, I felt like Engler was a guy who had principles and was going to follow them. I wasn't smart enough to know whether those principles were correct, but I figured he deserved a chance, and if things went badly then at least we would learn something about what doesn't work.

Now these days, I understand more about economics and more about policy. I would never vote for John Engler even if I thought he was the most honest man on earth (cough). But I still think there are a lot of voters out there who think as I once did - here's a man with a plan, he seems like he has integrity, let's give him a shot. As opposed to a guy who promises you stuff that sounds more like your personal philosophy, but you're not quite sure if you can count on him to deliver. In this analysis, consistency of message and values counts for even more than clarity. Engler's actual economic plans were as clear as mud to me but I still voted for him.

Anyway, maybe there's something of value in these rambling thoughts, even though I probably went way off on a tangent compared to the point DHinMI was trying to make. Think of the blog as Tiger Stadium, and I'm the guy sitting up in the obstructed-view seat...

but at the end of the day people are really just looking for a real person with a moral code they can relate to.

Not in the sense of morality, but more in the sense of character.

Policy matters, absolutely. But policy alone isn't enough to close the deal, as is clear from looking at polling that shows a majority of voters agree with general Dem principles and policies. But where the candidate (and the consultants) come in is how to talk about the policies in ways that connect with voters, and show the candidate to be someone they can trust, whose arguments they can relate to, who they think will look out for their interests. On many, many issues they are quite different, but both Clinton and Reagan did this.

I think your personal history of Engler and your comments about Feingold support my point. The policy content matters, but sometimes less than the character exuded by the person. For a lot of the so-called "values" voters, agreement is far less important than trust in a person's character to do what they believe is the right thing and not be weaselish about it (which was where Clinton was least like what I'm describing).

Plenty of voters will vote for somebody they disagrees with them on policy issues as long as they feel the person is honorable and trustworthy. And you achieve that not by pandering to moral beliefs, but by exuding respect for voters, including their ability to detect insincerity and bullshit.

Did Bush win because he was great at instilling trust? No. But he beat Kerry because, among other reasons, too many swing voters thought Kerry was too wishy-washy. And Kerry did far too much to help the GOP convey that impression.

As a traditional liberal Democrat( in the Scoop Jackson, JFK, Harry Truman mode), I found the essay right on in many respects. There is a chattering class in the media and the current Democratic "inner circle" that spend their whole lives talking to each other AND they cannot understand how the "ignorant" folks between the coasts don't vote Democratic. The "elite" response is to lecture the "peasants" on their stupidity for voting against their own ecomomic and social intersests. One thing the elite class will not do is listen to the unwashed masses because the elite "knows" the true path and anyone who doesn't understand is an ignorant rube.

Until the Democrats once again become the working man's party, look for more phony common men like GWB to continue to win.

Get off the coasts and talk (not lecture)to the people. The working men and women of this country are a hell of a lot smarter the some folks think.

Great post.

Another Steve--careful with that broad brush. There are plenty of Dems who "get it," and that includes liberal journalists, plenty of pols, and lots of consultants and politicos of various stripes. But when I hear the "values crowd," those folks sound to me like people who've never been to a wedding at an Italian-American Cultural Club (like the one in a bad-hair downriver suburb of Detroit where I had the best wedding meal I've ever had), haven't been inside a union hall when it was union folks and not party members filling the place, haven't sat next to and chatted with a family of 5 in the bleachers of a baseball game, and don't have any friends who lack a college degree but make a decent living at someting non-entreprenural, like running a convenience store or working as a skilled tradesman.

But outside the "let them eat values" crowd, there are plenty of Dems who "get it," including, I would say, most Dem members of the Senate, and plenty of members of the House. Unfortunately, because of the "man bites dog" appeal, the "values-mongerers" tend to get the most attention, because they're arguing against Dems' typical positions, and too many Dems still don't understand why what the values-mongerers are saying is a bunch of hooey.

I am just pleased you will still talk to me after I admitted to voting for Engler!

My parents voted for Engler the first time (and almost immediately regretted it) because they thought "Blanchard's just gotten too arrogant." They were right about Blanchard, but dead wrong about which was the lesser of the too evils.

Slightly off point, but..
As a person who has lived in DC a number of years, I find it completely ironic that it is branded as an area of elite snobs. The fact is that most of DC is rather poor, among the poorest in the country. Congressmen and the rest of the 'elite' usually live outside DC. Failing that, they live in Georgetown.
If congressmen and the rest of the lobbying class were to simply walk a couple of blocks east of the capitol, maybe they could better see how others live.

Bree--good point about the district as a whole, but if you stood blindfolded and flung a rock down from the top of the escalator coming up from the Dupont Circle metro stop at 6:10 PM on a weekday, chances are decent that one of the noggins it's bounce off of would belong to somebody like I described.

Bree--the other thing--they'd likely not be somebody originally from the district. In fact, it could be somebody from Bloomfield Township or Grosse Pointe Farms in Michigan. Class isolation isn't strictly geographic.

DHinMI, your explanation of the political actions of the working classes in conservative areas is definitely onto something, but as to what and what it all suggests as a strategy, let me add and ask the following.

I have spent 30 years working in public health with Medicaid folks and working class folks, as well as living in mostly conservative areas, although these areas were somewhat islands in otherwise somewhat more liberal states. I have noticed that although working class folks don't like the aristocracy, they think all government and government officials are basically corrupted by the system. They tend to pick the people that they know or that talk to minimize government, not because they do not realize that government might be able to help them, but that they feel that all government officials at the state and federal levels become corrupted. These branches of government then work for the well healed and/or lose track of the accountability factor in many government programs no matter who is in charge. Thus all the talk about welfare cheats! The party/candidate that can at least acknowledge this distrust of big government will get their vote.

Assuming I am correct in this analysis, I am not sure what strategy this suggests. Maybe you could give it an interpretation, since you seem to sense something about working people, although I am not sure you know what to do with it or really what it is that you sense!

NG--you're right about the distrust of government, but it's not limited to government. I think the distrust specifically directed at government has diminished a little bit, but it's still just a higher level of a general distrust of all large institutions. For instance, despite what one might read in a lot of the "pope diaries" at Daily Kos, you're not going to find many working class Catholics with much good to say about the institutional and bureaucratic aspects of the Roman Catholic Church. The "corruption" and lack of caring is, the worldview goes, endemic to all large institutions.

As for strategy, it's obviously an important question, and one that I think follows from this post. I have my thoughts, but it's not something I can dash off in a comment, but something I'll probably have to lay out over several posts.

... an unmistakable class unconsciousness among a lot of those ...

Nicely argued throughout, with the phrase above providing a beautifully caustic soundbite.

Since November 4, I've consumed far more "framing" messages than can possibly be healthy. Although I agree with a lot of the critiques of the delivery of the Democratic message, the prescriptions so far haven't wowed me, in great part because most of them don't merely call for reframing but also upending what lies behind the message. You know, lopping off "core principles" in hopes of a victory that can only be Pyrrhic.

Those thousands of hours you've spent listening to "real folks," DHinMI, gives you an edge on almost everyone in blogworld and the vast majority of the DC and coastal "elites." It seems to me that for most political activists - bloggers or not - listening is considerably harder than spouting.

Meeting voters requires active listening if we're going to succeed in replicating what the GOP has done in the past 40 years. In the late '60s, the SDS leadership decided to send the cadres out for a summer in the factories to make the case for "our" cause. So many SDSers came from privileged backgrounds that those of us in the organization who had humbler origins thought - despite our misgivings on other grounds - that this factory effort might challenge the arrogant, ideological know-everythingism that had been plaguing the second phase of SDS. Alas. The cadres returned from their blue-collar brush arguing yet more fervently for a Leninist vanguard because the lumpen were just not up to the task of making the needed changes without revolutionary leadership. They met and they may have listened but they sure didn't learn.

How we get from listening and learning to an activism that makes the Democratic Party into a long-term winner again and, more importantly, gradually reshapes American politics is beyond me.

As you and too few others have pointed out, voters without the time to explore all the policy parameters do respond to honest candidates they believe have character and will make ethical decisions based on the best interests of the average Jill and Joe. That would seem to militate against the focus-grouped candidate (at any level) who is all-too-common nowadays. Better a candidate who - as you say - exudes a genuine genuineness instead of the consultant-sculpted kind that sets off the BS detectors in at least a portion of shoeless Midwesterners. Yet, the sculpted candidate seems to work fine for the Republicans.


MB--just to draw something out for others with you as an example, the "talking to real people" will yield results wherever you may be. As you know from your own canvassing project in LA, you learn a hell of a lot on doorsteps listening to people talk about politics.

Canvassing isn't some deep dark secret, either. Most of the better political reporters do some canvassing in key areas. A few years back--either 2000 or 2002--a friend was running a canvass in a swing suburb in Macomb county (now famous as ground zero for Reagan Democrats, as it's where Stan Greenberg took his first political clients--the Michigan Dem party and then-Congresman David Bonior--and did the focus groups that led him to coin the phrase.) The morning of the canvass he was told by the congressional district that he had a guest who would be walking with him and asking voters questions--it was Ron Brownstein. I also know of at least two WaPo reporters who've canvassed in Macomb over the last decade or so, and I know other good political reporters and columnists--folks like Meyerson and Dionne--do some canvassing. And not-so-strangely enough, you seldom see people like Dionne or Meyerson or Tom Edsall talking about working class and lower-middle class voters in the caricatures you see with some of the folks pushing the morality crap.

People who want to spout off about "voters" need to make sure they occassionally meet some voters who aren't just like themselves.

i think this is a great piece.

One piece of useful shorthand, DH: along with character, is "authenticity". That's why Ted Kennedy can get on with a roomful of workingclass guys. It's not just "charm", which is the ability to use style to get people to like you. Though charm is nice.

Authenticity is a sense that the person has had a full life, a full range of experiences, including suffering some losses and knowing how the not-so-well off live and work. You seem real and not fake, not pandering; you have the courage of your convictions. Yes, rich boy and occasional life-screw-up Ted Kennedy is authentic. There's no doubt he has suffered.

Hey, thanks for the plug, my good Michigander. I'm from the other side of the lake (the big one we like to call "Lac du Scansin"), but I've got friends and kin in Detroit, TC and Grand Rapids.

I've been in New York a couple years, so I've had an opportunity to see the decadent media and political classes up close, if only in fleeting glimpses. You're right that many of these critters originally hail from the Styx and didn't go to boarding school at all. All I can say is, the nouveau riche are always the worst. They can still talk the twang when necessary, but they serve their masters with even greater abandon than their blueblooded colleagues. They've got something to prove.

Take David Broder. My step-dad, an old autoworker, swears he's alright, despite all the evidence to the contrary. He swears he's alright because he once saw him cover a rowdy UAW meeting. Broder not only helped himself to a sloppy joe, but when it fell off his flimsy paper plate, he looked around to make sure nobody saw it, missing my step-dad, dusted it off as best you can dust off a sloppy joe, and put it in his mouth. Some autoworker ran up to him and tried to take it away and he wouldn't have it. He just ate that sloppy joe, dirt and all. So Chicago Heights-born, U-of-Chitown-educated Broder is still capable of acting like a living, breathing human being, but once he gets back to Washington, the mind-meld takes over again and he's babbling like a Brooks.

The real rich kids -- and they're an increasing presence in the media elite, as you have to be a trustafarian to take an entry-level newspaper or radio job in Manhattan or D.C. these days -- are somewhat more innocent. They're just amoral dullards, drawn inexorably to power like lobbyists to Tom DeLay. And when I say they're dullards, I mean they're technically smart, of course -- they know some big words, acres of jargon. The ones that write can usually spell 'potato.' The ones that do TV or radio can speak in complete sentences, if only in Fox future-tense.

But they have no values, no moral compass to guide them. And they have no analytic abilities. They wander zombielike, jerked hither and tither by the gravitational force of gravitas, running like beggars after the malefactors of great political capital, trancelike, mouthing the conventional wisdom and animated only by the camera lens or the printed word. They're human amplifiers.

Thankfully, there are a few exceptions to this rule. I know a couple courageous journos who went to boarding school, Harvard, the whole nine yards and emerged as principled, tenacious professionals. But they're few, and their bosses have little patience for their fact-filled, snark-free reporting styles.

The real problem in all this, alas, is us. The readers, the viewers, the consuming public who've allowed ourselves to be lulled into a fitful slumber by an endless diet of infotainment. Until being informed comes into demand, the inmates will run the Rockefeller Center asylums.

What kind of deer blind or deer stand were they in?

I'm one of those bloggers who understands what the basis of the vote is. I've been out there canvassing, calling via phone, doing database work etc. for local political campaigns and it was an eye opener. Everyone should try it sometime.

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