New Voters and the Democrats’ Passivity

(This would be New Voters vs. Swing Voters V.)

In my previous post, “New Voters vs. Swing Voters IV”, I commented on the passivity and defeatism of the Democrats regarding proposals to recruit among the non-voting 50% of the voting age population. What are the reasons for this passivity?

One reason is probably the left/right question which has been in the background of this discussion all along. I suspect that moderate and conservative Democrats also believe, as I do, that the working poor in fact are a big chunk of the non-voters, and that the issues most likely to rouse their interest are the old-fashioned lunch-bucket issues such as an increased minimum wage, decreases in payroll rather than in income taxes, and government provision of medical insurance.

Democrats, including New Democrats, have never openly renounced those goals, but in emphasis these issues have tended to take a back seat to middle-class issues, free trade, and social liberalism. This slant is usually justified on pragmatic grounds based on what the voters think. In reality, though, I think that it’s not the voters but the donors who are calling the shots. With exceptions, Hollyood liberals and other liberals with money are militant about free speech, choice, diversity, and the environment, but notably silent about the lunchbucket issues. (And the same is true of the media we’ve been afflicted with).

A second reason for the Democrats’ lack of interest in the non-voters is that the working poor are often sort of tacky. The populism of millionaire Republicans is an enormous fraud, but there is a germ of truth in the idea that Democrats tend to be collegiate — perhaps professionals, perhaps government workers, maybe a little artsy, and so on. A white guy working for $8.00 / hr. in an assembly plant in Kentucky is very likely uneducated, unstylish, religious, and not too pretty to look at. For whatever reason, Democratic outreach to a guy like that is almost certain to be much weaker than Democratic outreach to a black or Hispanic worker who is similiar to him in every way except race.

Here’s a first suggestion on what to do. The Democratic Party’s move from reliance on volunteers, neighborhood groups, etc., to the use of paid staff was probably inevitable. In my experience, however, low-level paid staff seem overwhelmingly to be college students and recent college graduates who have nothing better to do at the moment. For recruiting the working poor, however, it would make infinitely more sense to recruit staff from among the working poor themselves. (Not to be cynical, but one advantage of this is that, by definition, the working poor are willing to work very cheaply.) So what you’d want to do would be to find a sharp individual who’s trapped in a crappy job, convince him that the Democrats can help him and his friends, and then give him a job spreading the word.

A final reason for Democratic passivity in this respect is slavery to social science. I’ve been told many times that “the trend toward declining participation has continued for for many years and is a fact of life we have to live with”. But everybody admits that Democrats benefit from high participation and suffer when participation is low, so that statement might just as well be translated “the trend toward Republican victory has continued for for many years and is a fact of life we have to deal with”. Should we just lie down and die?

Social science facts are not like science facts. Water is always going to be water, and gravity is always going to be gravity, but “trends” can be changed. A trend is not something to live with, but something to deal with — in this case, something to fight against. Republicans who come from an entrepreneurial, gambler background are much better equipped than sociology students to find the weak spots in the opponent’s armor and the turning-points of political history. Polls are fine, but in the last analysis the best way to see if an approach will work is to try it, rather than run a poll.

The Republicans do their polling, but they win mostly bacause they’ve tried all kinds of approaches and some of them worked. Over a lot of trials, the guy who says “Let’s give this a shot” will whip the guy who always says “How can we be sure this will work?”