Political Strategy: Beyond Extremist Labels genre: Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

The following posting is the second entry in a continuing Thought Theater dialogue on political strategy. The first posting, Political Strategy: The Opening Dialogue, can be found here.

Recent comments by Ann Coulter have led many to try to determine whether the left or right is more extreme. In my opinion, efforts to look at one pundit or a handful of pundits in order to determine who is more extreme is a foolish and futile exercise. I’m convinced that recent attempts by the left to do so simply reinforce the rigid beliefs of those on the right. Additionally, anyone who has read comment threads at left and right leaning blogs knows full well that both sides have their fair share of extreme individuals who routinely demonstrate little proximity to civility. Instead of engaging in attempts to quantify the extremism of the right, the goal of the left ought to be to understand the underlying dynamics.

It seems to me that it is a fundamental miscalculation for the left to attempt to define itself and its message in reaction to or comparison with the right. I personally feel that the root issue of the left / right conflict is actually a question of perceived authority coupled with the impact of faith based thinking. Efforts to understand as much may provide strategic vision.

The right (which I will broadly define as the Republican Party) tends to frame issues with several levels of authority. The first is to assert historical substantiation...primarily done by invoking the Reagan years as the repudiation of liberalism and forming the foundation of a new conservative reality. In doing so, they also stake a claim to patriotism by often defining the left’s position (which I will broadly define as the Democratic Party) as contrary to our fundamental American values. Second, they add a moral authority that draws from religious and Biblical tenets which tends to insure blind acceptance from voters who are guided by religious faith and Biblical instruction. They then portray themselves as the victim of a secular assault from the left that they characterize as being motivated by an opposition to religion and capitalism.

By doing so, they have succeeded in making religion and faith the primary focus which they then support with nostalgia for the perception that Reagan restored American pride and prestige through its opposition to "godless" communism and by defining the left as angry nay saying un-Americans who want to dismantle our democratic principles and ban any religious influences. By reaffirming the “rightness" of religious faith based American values, they insure the support of a large voting constituency.

When these two fundamental principles are forged together, they remove the uncertainty and the dissonance that comes when people are forced to confront the validity of their faith and thus the "rightness" of their beliefs about the country or world in which they live. They believe that the liberty and freedom of capitalism (defined within democracy) is consistent with their strongly held fundamental Christian values. These religious beliefs offer the added benefit of offsetting the fear of death that is equated with “terror management theory", a topic previously discussed here at Thought Theater that argues that the human condition includes the need to manage the terror produced by the knowledge of mortality. Religion provides a powerful means to manage that terror.

Underlying the entire debate is a belief that one side has to be wrong and one side has to be right. For that to be true would mean that it is possible for a self-affiliating group to discern all the truth on a wide selection of issues. Being able to do that would be phenomenal and a virtual statistical impossibility. Nonetheless, the advantage held by the right is the argument that their beliefs have a Biblical foundation…one they often assert is indisputable. With that knowledge, it seems logical that the left must adopt a different approach. The title of Ann Coulter’s latest book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism, fully demonstrates the battleground dynamics that have allowed the right to maintain its apparent advantage. Fair or not, many people cease their analysis once someone is identified as “godless".

When I see attempts to compare the extremism of the left to that of the right, I can't help but think that about the fact that the difference between childhood behaviors and adult behaviors is often indiscernible. The problem is that while the behavior of children has some potential for correction...there seems to be little likelihood that these adult behaviors can be extinguished. This is further complicated when the behaviors of one of these groups has been embolden by values derived from a religious book they consider to be the final authority on human behavior. The fervor this generates is a troubling and saddening reality that further complicates the lefts ability to garner support and to label the behaviors of the right as extreme. It may also mean such efforts are misguided.

As long as the left is seen to threaten these underlying beliefs, those on the right will feel compelled to defeat the left in its entirety. As long as the left remains focused on defeating the beliefs of the right, they will fail because those in the middle will likely see the repudiation of religion as more extreme…regardless of a number of other persuasive policies and issues espoused by the left that have valuable moral considerations.

The left will never persuade the right to abandon their beliefs but they could persuade the center to move further left. To do that, the left has the unfortunate task and the added burden of assuring the center that the right is entitled to their beliefs and that those beliefs will be preserved. While that may seem unfair, I’m convinced that this is the only means to unseat the right’s hold on political power. So long as the center believes the choice offered by the left is an either-or calculation, the balance of power will not shift.

An example might be helpful. The Republican Party, in its belief that power can be held by championing the issues of the right, has sought to characterize abortion as an either-or equation. By accusing Democrats of supporting “abortion on demand", they have painted the left as devoid of any moral considerations with regards to the unborn. While those in the center favor a woman’s right to choose, they are uncomfortable with a perception that the left would allow any and all abortions such that the religious objections of the right would be fully nullified.

The left, in its attempt to prevent the overturning of Roe v. Wade, has become viewed as equating abortion with a tonsillectomy. While the right seeks to ban all abortions, they are seen at a disadvantage with regard to the current unencumbered status of abortion. Every effort to limit abortion is met with full scale opposition as the left believes any erosion of abortion rights will lead to further erosion. It’s the same slippery slope argument often made by the right with regards to gay marriage. Where does it end? Democrats have attempted to reassert their own religious beliefs and values but it is often viewed as disingenuous pandering. That leads me to believe that they need to offer some tangible demonstration that they do act with moral considerations.

It seems to me that, despite my longstanding support for unlimited abortion rights, the left could decide to support some late term (defined by a time frame, not by the procedure) abortion restrictions (with some obvious exceptions) which would not preclude a woman’s opportunity to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Such a move would acknowledge some moral consideration and restraint (given that few people think abortion is intrinsically good or that it ought to merely be an alternative to prudent and responsible use of contraceptive methods) while still providing a woman ample choice.

Truthfully, it might make the decision to have an abortion less traumatic and easier to accept for some women who struggle with the issue due to the fact that the procedure has been forced to be seen almost exclusively as a black and white moral construct. Making this argument might make the move to support some restrictions easier to sell to those on the left vehemently opposed to any restrictions. Offering some proactive solutions to women who are subject to the new restrictions but may still find themselves unwilling or unable to take on the responsibilities of childrearing would be an important adjunct to this position shift. Better adoption alternatives and some means to ensure that the pregnancy wouldn't facilitate unnecessary economic hardships would be essential. If the left were to adopt such a strategy, while the goal would be to obviously prevent the late term abortions defined under the new guidelines, it would also be advisable to make a concerted effort to avoid focusing on criminalization.

With regards to the left / right conflict, such a move with the abortion issue would allow many in the center to move left without feeling they have fully abandoned any moral considerations. In this example, the right would be perceived as extreme because they would remain intent on the full imposition of their narrow moral code that seeks to make all abortions illegal and to impose strict criminal guidelines.

I believe abortion is an ideal example because despite polling that shows that a majority of Americans favor a woman’s right to an abortion, it hasn’t prevented people in the center from supporting candidates that are further right than they are with regards to abortion. While this seems contradictory, it tells me that when some of these centrist voters are confronted with their own moral calculations regarding abortions, they see the current position of those on the left who oppose any limitation on abortions as too extreme to vote for some Democratic candidates who appear to be in sync with that position. The shift in position necessary to change this voter calculation would, in my opinion, be a reasonable tradeoff for the political power that comes with a majority position in government so long as women were afforded a very reasonable opportunity to terminate a pregnancy.

In the end, the left needs to adopt some new strategies that lessen the focus on labeling the right as extreme or allowing the left to be viewed as equally extreme. Supporting a platform that allows those in the center to view the Democratic position more favorably will illuminate the intransigence of those on the right. I see far more benefit to the left in making some calculated moves which don't compromise their underlying principles but may better reflect the moderate and practical positions they hold. Continuing to forge policy positions that run the risk of being viewed as nothing more than contrary ideological reactions to the ideological goals of those on the right will simply reinforce the existing perceptions outlined herein that have kept Democrats in the minority. It is time to change the longstanding nature of a number of the battles in order to win this war.

Daniel DiRito | June 20, 2006 | 3:11 PM
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Comments

1 On June 23, 2006 at 2:17 PM, Captain Goto wrote —

It seems to me that, despite my longstanding support for unlimited abortion rights, the left could decide to support some late term (defined by a time frame, not by the procedure) abortion restrictions (with some obvious exceptions) which would not preclude a woman’s opportunity to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Such a move would acknowledge some moral consideration and restraint (given that few people think abortion is intrinsically good or that it ought to merely be an alternative to prudent and responsible use of contraceptive methods) while still providing a woman ample choice.

mmm...forgive me for being obtuse, but isn't this ALREADY the position of the Democratic Party?

Maybe there are some activists who take the "all abortions, all the time" position, but if you can show me ONE who is within spitting distance of the levers of power, I'll buy you a shiny new pony.

Which is to say: the tenor of the current debate is such that exactly the position that you have described is attacked night and day by essentially everyone in the Republican Legislative and Executive branch (if you don't believe me, just check their platform statements).

And if the activists seem so touchy about this, maybe it's because the party is already where you say it should be in terms of "compromise", and we're constantly being asked to give away even that position.

And hearing this same basic discussion being played out over and over by the "centrists" is really beginning to chafe at my last nerve.

2 On June 23, 2006 at 7:00 PM, Daniel wrote —

Captain Goto,

Thanks for your comments and for offering your perspectives. The following is from the 2004 Democratic platform.

The Democratic Platform:

We will defend the dignity of all Americans against those who would undermine it. Because we believe in the privacy and equality of women, we stand proudly for a woman's right to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, and regardless of her ability to pay. We stand firmly against Republican efforts to undermine that right. At the same time, we strongly support family planning and adoption incentives. Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.

The following are some links to recent votes as well as some polling on abortion:

House vote on minor abortion restrictions - 04/2005:

House vote

Senate vote on partial birth abortion - 10/2003:

Senate vote

House vote on partial birth abortions - 10/2003:

House vote

Pew Research Center polling data - 08/2005

Pew poll

Captain, I believe the Democrats have become less clear on their position with regards to abortion and they in fact have some pro-life candidates running in this coming election. Howard Dean has also tried to reach out to pro-life voters. Nonetheless, the Democratic position on abortion does not match the one I suggest in my posting.

I'll pass on the pony and instead reverse your question and ask you to show me proof of the following:

That each and every sitting Democratic Senator or Congressman has voted for some form of restriction on abortion. I haven't fact checked the answer but I feel pretty certain there are a number of Democrats that have NEVER voted for ANY restrictions on abortion. Therefore, if there are some who have never voted for any restriction on abortion, then one could reasonably conclude that there are "activist" politicians in positions of power who support "all abortions, all the time".

I don't have a problem with that but it kind of misses the point of my posting...I am not attempting to support restrictions on abortions because I prefer there be restrictions. I am willing to have limited restrictions in order to win elections in order to control the House or the Senate so we can prevent the right from loading the Supreme Court with judges who will allow significant restrictions that I couldn't reasonably accept.

I want to clarify another point. You contend:

Which is to say: the tenor of the current debate is such that exactly the position that you have described is attacked night and day by essentially everyone in the Republican Legislative and Executive branch (if you don’t believe me, just check their platform statements).

And if the activists seem so touchy about this, maybe it’s because the party is already where you say it should be in terms of "compromise", and we’re constantly being asked to give away even that position.

Republicans attack abortion rights with an array of tactics and methods but to assert that they are attacking the Democrats for already having adopted the position I outline in my posting just isn't accurate. That's not to say the Republicans wouldn’t do so if the situation actually existed.

Regardless, that also means that the Democrats haven’t "compromised" to my position and therefore you can't reasonably argue that "touchy activists" are being asked to "give away even that position".

You are entitled to become "chafed" at "hearing this same basic discussion being played out over and over by centrists"...and I have no problem with that. Conversely, I fully enjoy a good debate and a back and forth dialogue that seeks to uncover facts and some degree of "truth".

In my opinion, you do your position a disservice when you offer assertions that can't be supported as stated and you bolster my argument that neither "side" of this issue is actually interested in any compromise. I fully respect each individual’s right to such a position but I've never been one to enable the smoke and mirrors that often accompany the rhetoric of those who are so inclined.

I'm of the opinion that you, by asserting that the Democrats have already taken the position I offered in my posting, have determined that you are content to fight the same battle the same way regardless of what could have been learned from prior outcomes.

In the end, we all get to fight the battles we choose. The motivation behind my posting is really quite transparent...I'm looking for ways that Democrats can win an election.

As to my being a centrist, you're entitled to apply any label you choose. I don't offer up any suggestion I can't in good conscience support so I don't feel compromised nor do I feel I'm being forced to compromise. I don't make my decisions as a function of my anger at or my dislike of the opposition I encounter and I haven't enough ego to need to always win or to vanquish those with whom I disagree. I'm more than happy to fight for my principles...but I'm careful to be sure that that IS what I am fighting for and about.

I hope to hear more of your thoughts and I sincerely welcome any and all opinions. Thanks again for commenting.

Daniel

Thought Theater at Blogged

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