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Thursday, February 8, 2018

A PASSING THOUGHT


Sixty-two years ago, an American political scientist named Samuel Lubell published a little book called The Future of American Politics that I believe has some lessons for us today.  Briefly, Lubell argued that it was a mistake to think that located somewhere in the middle of the road between loyal Democrats and loyal Republicans were a sizeable number of middle-of-the road voters who were open to persuasion and were more rational, more open minded, than the lockstep party voters on the left and the right.  Lubell argued that almost all of the voters he interviewed had fixed views on a number of hot button political issues [different then than now, of course] about which they were not very dissuadable at all.  The two major political parties had staked out positions on most of these issues, sometimes but by no mean always in internally consistent ways.  Some voters agreed with one party or the other on the great majority of these issues, and hence always voted for that party.  But some voters held views that aligned them on some issues with one party and on other issues with the other party.  Hence they tended to move back and forth from supporting one party or the other depending on exactly which issues were in the forefront of debate at a given time.  These so-called swing voters were not more persuadable or open to argument than any others, and they did not change their minds of issues any more often.  It just happened that their individual collection of issue commitments did not comfortably align with either party.  Nor were they more moderate, whatever that meant.

I thought of Lubell as I was yet again musing on the November elections and on what would be a good strategy for the Democratic Party.  There has been a good deal of foolishness about the unwisdom of staking out “extreme” positions, such as single payer health care or higher taxes on the wealthy, most of it issuing from what is now the Clinton wing of the party. 

What to do?  Well, let me offer one thought, based on some elementary numerical calculations.  There are roughly 711,000 people in each Congressional District.  Let us assume [to make the numbers easy to manage] that there are 420,000 eligible voters in a District.  The number actually varies widely, but never mind.  Experience shows that ordinarily in off years only about 1/3 of eligible citizens vote.

Now, imagine this is a bright red 60-40 district.  In other words, this is a district with 252,000 voters who will vote Republican if they vote, and 168,000 voters who will vote Democratic if they vote.  In an off year, 140,000 people will vote, of whom, in all likelihood, 84,000 will vote Republican and 56,000 will vote Democratic, a formidable 28,000 vote margin.

The Democratic Party has a choice.  It can tack to the right, hoping to persuade 14,000 Republicans to vote Democratic, a strategy that rests on the false assumption that there are a large number of “moderate” Republicans who are more than ordinarily open to persuasion and reason;  Or, it can try to up its reliable Democratic voter turnout from 33% to 50%, which will give them 84,000 votes – a dead heat in a bright red district.

The second option makes a great deal more sense, especially since the more the Party sticks to its progressive stance, the larger the number of its regular supporters are likely to turn out.

Just a thought.

3 comments:

Ed Barreras said...

Wasn’t Clinton’s strategy to woo vast numbers of Republican’s who were supposed to be utterly repulsed by the GOP candidate? That didn’t turn out so well, if I recall.

All the hopeful analysis says that Dems are itching to get into the voting booth like never before, while just enough T***p voters are disillusioned by him that they’ll stay home. Let’s hope that holds up.

David Palmeter said...

Lubell no doubt is correct when he says there’s no big independent middle out there. But I think his most important point is that voters have fixed views on a number of hot button issues. The parties do take sides on these issues, but many voters have positions that overlap the parties, e.g., someone may be anti-abortion and in favor of gun control or single payer health care.

The parties themselves are not monolithic and necessarily adopt positions not favored all of their members, including elected officials. So you can see the Republicans struggling with the Freedom Caucus, the Democrats with government shutdown vs. DACA relief.

There may indeed be few true independents out there, but there are those to the right of most Democrats and to the left of most Republicans who agree with each party’s positions on some issues and disagree with them on others. The task of the parties is to convince those voters that the issues where they agree are more important than those where they disagree. For example, I would argue to someone who is anti-abortion but pro-gun control that abortion is not an issue that will be decided by elected politicians. It’s a matter for the Supreme Court, whereas gun control is something that can be decide (within constitutional limits) and they should vote accordingly.

Anonymous said...

Prof Wolff, your recommendation to stick to getting the democratic voters out instead of trying to lure more republicans makes sound Bayesian sense as well. I don't know if you intended it that way or not, your approach indicates that. Hope more take this approach seriously. Thanks.