Democrats & Liberals Archives

Failure Analysis

The Republican party is filling the airwaves with spin, and in rare, blessed cases, with honest reflection, but their fall in this election should be a lesson to both them and their opponents. Without going into technical details about what county slipped what way for which reason, I think we can distill some general lessons for all involved.

The foundation of Republican advances in recent years has been the charge that Democrats represent the leftward fringe better than the center. What made this workable was a perception among many people that the Republicans were right. The right grabbed onto the center and held fast to it, shaping its messages to suit a picture of Democrats as meddlesome, doing things that interfered with people's daily lives.

Government, though, as a rule, will always create some interference. It can be destructive or constructive to your interests. America's democracy, and just about any other, works through a balancing of such interests. Sometimes imbalance is good, creates progress, but there are limits to how much people can take at their own expense. At some point, people are going to ask what's in it for them.

People, though, are not completely rational. Heck, being rational isn't completely rational, if you want to take the neuroscientific view of things. People work off their feel of things. If there's one big success story, it's the Republican's ability to get their message out, and take hold of people's feel for what's going on.

That can work nice, so long as your actions do not create a secondary stream of meaning to compete with all your talk and rhetoric. People could live with a certain gap between the spoken meaning, and the meaning of events, but if taken too far, people rightly interpret the secrecy and doubletalk as a threat to their ability to maintain control of the government.

The Republicans, through their rhetoric, blunted things for some time by selling low expectations of government. That worked as long as people weren't really counting on the bureaucracies to do something necessary to them, like protect the country, fight an important war, pay for pricy drugs, or rescue and restore victims of a disaster.

The first cause we can establish for the Republican downfall in these elections is the loss of the middle, both economic and political. They made people care how Republicans govern, and not positively. These are the people represented by the results, not conservatives. That is merely the spin, meant to convince conservatives that they still have a shot at restoring their majority by simply pushing harder on their beliefs and fight nastier. It all points to another cause of the Republican downfall: the chronic overestimation of conservatism in America.

They tie in somewhat. The Republicans were depending on many of their past voters to back the Republicans on purely partisan grounds. They did not. They also have tried to convince themselves that the middle in America tends towards the Right. It has not on many issues, and it did not in these elections. We also have to remember the consistency of support for Clinton, despite his liberalism in both politics and morality. Clinton should have been the crucial clue for Republican analyzing the center. A right-leaning center would have not re-elected Clinton.

The 9/11 attacks made America far more hawkish, but even when Bush had substantial support from most Americans, his right-wing agenda did not succeed all that much. Domestic issues weren't his strength. Despite one campaign after another, many of Bush's favorite initiatives didn't get much of anywhere. This constant pushing of right-wing agendas and ideological points is a large part of what alienated voters in the center. The Republican senators and representatives could not support this without alienating their constituencies.

If Bush were more flexible, this might not have been a problem, but as it was, the party discipline reduced options for many Republicans. This contributes to three other causes of the Republican's downfall: First, the Republican's purged moderates, reducing the party's appeal to centrist voters. Second, they fractured that unity, without any alternative, leading the Republicans to inaction. Third, and most importantly, they rested the Republicans on a few more concentrated interests as a means of support.

This is where the talents of the Republicans for political persuasion begin to work against them. Over the years, in an effort to maintain party discipline, and better weather political conflicts and image problems, the Republicans took to isolating the party members behind a familiar firewall of ideological purity: The claim of Liberal Media Bias.

They steered people towards sources friendly to the Republican Party, made them up out of whole cloth where necessary. The put people in charge of these organizations with an unapologetic agenda, that is, except for apologizing for fields that are supposed to be neutral having a ideological bent. Because of this, Republicans were less likely to hear the negatives and respond appropriately. They were also bombarded with self-gratifying messages telling them how much the rest of America agreed with them. At a time when they have needed to be in touch with reality more than ever before, the Republicans had shielded themselves in bubbles, impervious to liberal and mainstream means of persuasion, but also intolerant of legitimate criticism that might bring on political losses or a loss of confidence in the party. They chose maintaining morale and party discipline over dealing with problems. In recent years, this political psychosis manifested itself in the K-Street Project, where the party became parasitically attached to its lobbyists, both serving each other's interests at the ultimate cost of everybody's interests as the corruption became unveiled. Because of the intolerance for criticism, news and information that cast the party in a bad light, the problem was allowed to fester for far too long, for both America's and the Republican Party's interests.

Isolated behind firewalls of ideological purity, the values of the Republicans drifted, allowing them to rationalize ever more aggressive campaign practices and political brinksmanship, where the games even intrude harmfully on matters of great importance. It also allowed them to attack their opponents without mercy, without compunction. What finally made this a liability was the 2002 campaign. In the midst of a political season where most Americans desired unity with each other, and the average center to left person was willingly submitting to the president as would be expected in those times of crisis, the cruelty and the revival of the old-tyme allegations of disloyalty and cowardice were just too much to tolerate. It is from this point that we see the evolution of a far more aggressive Democratic party, and the eventual migration of the center towards the Democrats.

The problem is, the GOP isolated itself from many conservative Democrats, independents and centrists who had legitimate doubts about policy, who did not see the issues through the lense of the GOP's ideological bubble. As real events wore at the crediblity of the information within that bubble, many once encompassed by it moved outside of it. Having accepted such information, and expressed such views, the puritanical approach of the Republicans on ideology lead them to take measures to alienate themselves from their former brethren, and inspired a counter-alienation on the other's part. This is the population which the Democrats have used to form their new majority. 2004 might have been the bellwether year for this, but certain factors hindered the Democrats, and I'll discuss that in another article. For now, the focus is on what happened to this majority.

Karl Rove and others had gotten use to using strong hot-button issues in order to motivate voters, but this is where the competing stream of meaning that I mentioned earlier comes into play. That, and something else: The extinction of overused conditioning.

To put it plainly, if you push a button too much, you can break the button or jam the machine behind it. In real terms, people tend to be able to react with strong emotion only so many times before they cease to care so much. We see this embodied in the "Don't Cry Wolf" principle. Having brought people out on certain issues so many times, it became expected what the Republicans would compete on. This was fine as long as events didn't create stronger emotional responses to overwhelm the overused rhetoric.

Additionally, this feeds into one of the final reasons for the Republican downfall, the isolated Republican media environment lead them to become dependent on certain groups to come through for them, to vote as they were told, to do as they were told. You can only do so as long as people find it in their interests to do so. At some point, you have to toss people a bone. If they come to expect too much, taking too strong a hold of the party at the expense of other interests, two things can happen. First, the special interest asks too much, is rebuffed, and ends up alienated from you. Second, the others ask something from you, but are rebuffed in favor of the special interests that is most dominant. Then they, too become alienated. Self interest in the party becomes selfish interest because of the strong reliance of the party on their support. the interests don't work together or compromise. Morale falters, people stop caring.

And so we come to the moment where disaster strikes. Strengthened by a resolve born of the outrage at the GOP's partisanship in the face of the unity of post-9/11 days, with the ranks swelled by the disaffected of the moderates, independents and even some Republicans, the Democrats assaulted the majority with a nationwide, rather than regionally focused election effort.

The GOP, having isolated itself and shedded more moderate and independent elements came to rely on a few big supporters, whose answer to the calls of the party had been crucial to previous victory. The President, particularly favorable towards the agenda of this group and others like it, uses it as the base to fight back against Democrats. But then the results of years of corruption and more recent incompetence come back to roost. Interest groups within the Republican party become weakened, and one by one their support falters, until at last, the president's most loyal supporters are holding the party up, holding it together.

And then a congressmen gets caught sending lewd e-mails to a 16 year old boy, with IMs that are even worse. Years of piled up questions derail into a huge mess. That base questions whether the GOP truly has its interests at heart, and whether it can continue to support such corruption. Many of these people, more moderate than conservative find themselves considering their options for the first time in a long time, and they decide to withdraw their support. Some even lend it to the Democrats.

And in that movement, we see the the collapse of the Republican majority. With most of its supports crumbling, corroded from within, the Party no longer has the political support to maintain its mandate.

We Democrats should look at this and tremble. If we become too partisan, too complacent, too concerned about political realities, and not the ones in front of us, this is what's going to happen to us.

In fact, it's what's happened to us before. In the late 60s and the early 90s, we imploded under similar conditions. These are the stresses and strains of politics in a Democracy. Either we prepare ourselves to bear this burden, or we and America will end up in the same position again.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at November 8, 2006 2:51 PM
Comment #194089

Gee, the Republicans are so quiet, you can almost hear a lobbyist being fired.

Posted by: gergle at November 8, 2006 5:50 PM
Comment #194090

Personally, I agree with Arianna’s analysis. All this talk about “moderates” is really missing the point.

Posted by: Adrienne at November 8, 2006 5:50 PM
Comment #194096

Where’s the soaring eagle when you need him? I guess he meant that the repubs were bouncing all right, all the way off the hill.

Posted by: Paul in Euroland at November 8, 2006 6:03 PM
Comment #194100

Arianna’s analysis ignores the following-
1)Republicans critical of Iraq were voted out.

2)Not all Democrats running on Iraq were voted in.

3)Corruption, the economy, and other issues scored high among the reasons that voters turned against the Republicans.

Because of the piecemeal distribution of the critics of the war in our population, Iraq was not sufficient by itself to sway all those races.

The focus on Iraq alone doesn’t do justice to the breadth of issues and opportunities we have to engage the political opposition on. We haven’t had a chance this good for decades.

Let’s get Iraq finished, of course. But let’s not neglect the chance to change the opinion of all those people who have been taught that liberal is a four-letter word by beating the Republicans on good policy.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at November 8, 2006 6:15 PM
Comment #194212

Perhaps the American voter is not as stupid as Karl and Rush think, after all.

Posted by: gergle at November 9, 2006 1:23 AM
Comment #194222

Stephen: I agree with your take on Ariana’s analysis which is NOT analysis but rather spin. She ignores the exit polling data as well as the race-by-race election results. The GOPs failure in this election and the Democratic failures of the past and success in this election suggest that one doesn’t have to move to the middle but, a party does need to include and accomodate the middle in one’s political calculations. Clinton and Reagan were masters of doing just that. Both understood the importance of maintaining approval ratings in excess of 60% as they provide a consensus upon which solutions can be found to complex problems, where people can generally support a solution even if they don’t get everything they want. It is a political strategy that makes everyone a stakeholder and offends only the rag-tag few at the extremes of the political bases.

Posted by: Dr. Poshek at November 9, 2006 4:09 AM
Comment #194459

George Will was claiming that it was a victory for conservatives, since some moderate Rpblcns lost. The most interesting thing for me is that there are 2 independents, both representing New England states. This might be the beginning of something more significant. Everyone assumes that these 2 will vote with the democrats, only time will tell.

Posted by: ohrealy at November 10, 2006 12:52 PM
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