Why do Democratic voters refuse to turn out in midterms? Why is the drop-off so large? Why is it so hard to convince them that the vote is important?
This is the existential crisis for the party of Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton, and Obama.
In trying to solve it, the political world has come up with a number of provisional explanations, none of them satisfying. Democratic pollsters blame the party and its message, primarily. Liberals blame the party and its lack of a message. Political demographers attribute the disparity to the over-performance, the too-blue blushing, of Democratic voters in urban areas during presidential years. My own guess is that it has something to do with persuasion.
In the latest New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky offers an answer that has a real ring of truth to it: Republican voters think about politics differently. They see politics as an enduring contest, not a series of discrete events. They are more apt to see the big picture, and therefore are easier to motivate.
Democrats, by contrast, "are less likely to view politics in such stark terms."
Younger voters, minority voters, single women, the non-propertied, might have more to gain from an active government, but it is much easier in general to motivate people if they fear they're going to lose rights and privileges and stuff. Especially stuff. Especially stuff that they earned.
In a way, though, progressives who identify as progressives definitely see politics as a struggle; the elites see the Republican Party as revanchist, as standing athwart progress yelling "illegal immigrant!" and generally the biggest obstacle to a fair and just society where everyone's material dignity is respected. What Tomasky is saying, I think, is that the mass of Democratic voters who share these values do so more in theory than in operation. They don't live like they have much to gain; they live and vote to preserve losses.
Add to this the historical facts that the Democratic coalition is broader and harder to corral than the Republican coalition, and that the GOP has become more openly conservative (and therefore closer to the real views of their base voters) in the past 20 years, and the midterm imbalance begins to make more sense as part of the deep structure of both American politics and political identity.
GOP "extremism" attracts a larger share of voters than liberal "extremism" does. Extremism here is used not as a proxy for extreme views on issues, but as a way of describing a worldview, the set of issues it encompasses, what it takes to motivate people to act on those issues, and the lengths a party is willing to go to trigger that motivation. As James Vega notes in his latest memo for The Democratic Strategist, this strategy "views politics as essentially a form of warfare and political opponents as literal enemies." It is not a new strategy for the GOP, or for conservatives. But it works better when the party, as it has done during the past several years, actively synchronizes its actions with its words — when the party that says that government is bad actively acts like government is bad.
No wonder why Democrats have been reluctant to habitually vote in midterms — the government they see is a discredited, delegitimized government of failed promises and total dysfunction.
Can Democrats change this? Republicans are not going to abandon their strategy anytime soon, especially as demographic change slowly chips away at their ability to win presidential elections.
Well, Democrats can teach their voters to think more like Republican voters in off-year elections. Tomasky describes a "massive and very well-funded public education campaign" that would basically drill into the heads of everyone who votes Democratic during presidential years that "they can't just elect a president and just sit back and expect that he or she can wave a wand and make change happen."
What's the magic formula of words and threats that somehow makes this real for Democratic voters?
Maybe the party is too broad for a single perfect message to exist. Or maybe it will take casual language like Tomasky's, a bunch more losses, and actual pain that is easily attributed to Republicans before these drop-off Democrats will understand that they need to view the Republicans like the Republicans view the Democrats: as an enemy.
For good-government, consensus, let's-get-along, politics-can-be-pure types, this is a horrible message.
Can it be true that the only way for Democrats to vote their true strength is to treat the opposing party just as poorly as the opposing party treats the Democrats? Can it be true that the only way to break the logjam is to embrace a politics that is even more loathsome, more unctuous and more uncivil than it is today?