Bending the Third Rail
Because We Should, We Can, We Do
Sunday, June 11, 2006
Wandering Thoughts
I've been wondering if there are any lessons to be found in the recent primary contests. I'm particularly interested in the San Diego race featuring Francine Busby. Busby was a great hope of the Dems. It was hoped that she would win in the extremely conservative district that had been held by the corrupt Republican, Duke Cunningham.

She didn't win.

In fact, she got virtually the same percentage of the vote that John Kerry received in the district in 2004. Dems spin it that the GOP had to concentrate and spend lots of money to get a victory for Bilbray, and that turnout was pathetic due to GOP voter apathy. The GOP spins it that a win is a win.

I think it's a cautionary lesson and that the spin is correct on both sides. But I think it points out something even more important. Digby has been routinely posting about tribalism in politics. The San Diego race certainly showed that tribalism and party affiliation are still in full force despite obvious GOP screw-ups, and Bush's low popularity. And the dynamics of tribalism are at the very center of the battle in within the Democratic party.

The Democratic establishment as epitomized by the DLC and has staked out a position in moderation. It's their belief that Democrats need to position themselves, throught the reading of polls and tea leaves, in the moderate position to win election. Critics would say it's the "out-conservative the conservatives" position a la Joe Lieberman. They believe that if you simply triangulate positions, much like Bill Clinton did, you can win.

The so-called Democratic "netroots" and progressives disagree. They suggest that no matter what position a candidate takes, the GOP has created a tribalism affiliation that borders on cultism. This tribalism prevents voters from shifting voting patterns based on issues. Rather, in this formulation, voters will rationalize their votes to remain consistent with the tribe.

Personally, I think there is value in both arguments. However, given the recent "irrationality" of voters in choosing candidates regardless of how dumb they are, how ridiculous their position, no matter how corrupt they may be, and often voting against their own self interest, I have to believe more firmly in the tribalism theory. BTW, as an example of this tribalism. Anyone remember FDR? His establishment of a tribal identity for Democrats was so strong as to assure Democratic Congressional majorities for decades.

Which brings me to Busby.

Duke Cunningham was one of the most obviously corrupt individuals to have held office in recent memory and the best possible poster child for GOP corruption. Bilbray is a old-time lobbyist with very close affiliations to the GOP insiders. Approval for GOP candidates is in the toilet nation-wide. And Busby ran an anti-corruption campaign yet couldn't do any better in the district than Kerry. Clearly, the few voters who voted, went to their precincts and marked the tribal representative. I'm afraid that at it's most basic, most campaigns are really little more in sophistication than the campaign of a high school student running for class president.

Which finally brings me to Howard Dean. Dean's approach in running the Democratic National Committee is based on a tribal strategy. He believes, I think correctly, that in order for Democrats and progressives to win they must accomplish a couple of key goals. First, Dems must build from the grassroots. Put another way, Dems must establish a tribe with local individuals that can attract other tribial members. Dean has been beefing up (read, spending lots of $$$$) local party apparatus just for this purpose, much to the chagrin of many national Democratic party leaders. Second, Dean has been an advocate that the tribe must have something it worships and believes in. Tribal standards are the glue that hold the tribe together, particularly the core members who exude the passion to attract other tribal members. Without standards and passion, the party is little more than the sleeziest salesman trying to sell a terrible product.

I think that Howard Dean is right on the money in suggesting that his work is not about winning the next election, but in establishing the "base" with which to win many elections. And I think the Busby/Bilbray race is yet another example, and warning, of the need for the party to support Dean. And as I've said in previous posts, Dems should be careful not to get too cocky about the upcoming mid-term elections. Without an understanding of tribalism, it would be easy to think that things are soooo bad that Democrats should win handily.

But didn't we think that in 2000 and 2004?