m a r k a n d e y a

The Family Guy and the Democratic Party

Posted by Brian on August 17, 2007

Take a moment and enjoy this clip from The Family Guy: 

Besides being pretty funny, this clip resonated with me quite a bit because it brings together a few things on politics that I’ve read in a number of books over the past few months, most notably The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation by Drew Westen and The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies by Bryan Caplan.

In the clip above, Lois Griffin tries responding to a question about law enforcement from an undecided voter by going through her entire 12-point plan that answers the question in detail. She is buzzed out after 20 seconds and can’t even get to the first point and ends up being booed by the debate crowd for her efforts. The other candidate receives a question and responds by striding out into the audience, sitting on the questioner’s lap, and giving him a ridiculous non-answer. The questioner is wowed by this display (“He looked me in the eye”), and others are similarly impressed (“I’d like to have a beer with him”). According to Westen’s book, Lois is the democrat while the other guy, the one who can “connect” with the voters despite being an empty suit, is the republican.

The main thrust of Westen’s book is that democratic candidates and their advisors fail to grasp how voters really decide who to vote for. Polls show that dems beat repubs on the issues, so with that in mind, democratic candidates think they can win by throwing plans, programs, policies, and powerpoint presentations at voters, confident that they can win by simply reasoning with the electorate. Unfortunately, voters aren’t won over by dispassionate appeals to their intellect, but instead rely on feelings and gut instincts when casting their votes. Westen argues that voters ask the following questions when deciding who to vote for:

  • How do I feel about the candidates’ parties and their principles?
  • How does this candidate make me feel?
  • How do I feel about this candidate’s personal characteristics, such as integrity, leadership and empathy?
  • How do I feel about this candidate’s stands on issues that matter to me?

According to Westen, voters, for a number of reasons related to human pyschology, work from the top down when making voting decisions. The dem’s problem, Westen says, it that they assume voters start from the bottom and work their way up, which almost always dooms them to failure against the more savvy republican campaigns that better understand this hierarchy.

A common criticism, from both the right and the left, is that the Democratic Party lacks any over-arching themes that tie together policy positions into a coherent whole. The GOP, on the other hand, has done an excellent job of branding itself with a few main themes – lower taxes, smaller government, fiscal discipline, culture of life, etc. – that stands out in the minds of voters. Absent detailed knowledge of any particular issues, voters can vote for the GOP candidate because they have a more general sense of what the GOP stands for.

(Mind you, it’s important to note that the ideas a party embraces and the policies it actually implements don’t need to be consistent. The GOP claims to be the party of life, liberty, smaller government, and fiscal discipline, but the current GOP president continues policies that result in the deaths of thousands, trample civil rights at home, and increase the size of the government and our national debt; so much for political principles!)

Meanwhile, the democrats are known as a party with no message, no meaning. What exactly does the Democratic Party stand for? I’m sure many pro-dem partisans might have a hard time answering that question. I bet that to many, the Democratic party seems to represent nothing more than a loose coalition of single-issue voters (pro-choice, pro-union, anti-war) who have been driven out of the GOP camp. What can be done about this and other challenges the dems face?

Westen offers a few suggestions:

  • Make enemies: It’s easier to stand for something when you are standing against something. The GOP has turned liberal into a dirty word with its incessant slandering of the left and the progressive movement. They have no problems attacking entire American states (“Taxachuesetts”) and cities (“Hollywood liberals”) because they know it’s red meat for their base. It’s time the dems stop pussy-footing around for fear of offending this or that group of voters; they need to write off the demographic that will never vote for them under any circumstances: the anti-science, fag-hating American Taliban of the far right. These people make up a good chunk of the GOP’s base and no doubt the democrats would benefit greatly by tying the radical Christian right’s un-American agenda as closely as possible to their representatives in the GOP.
  • Find some themes: The dems need to stand for something more than just a disaparate collection of issues. What ideas or themes can be branded by the dems to tie it all together?
  • Get dirty: Westen writes that the two most decisive events in the 2004 election were when Kerry’s team responded limply to the flip-flopper charge and the Swift Boat attacks. Both cases show how the dems still haven’t figured out a good, effective way to deal with the inevitable smear tactics of the GOP. The dems have a bad habit of wimpy responses to these attacks, such as taking the high road in hopes of looking good to the voters or appealing to the voters’ sense of fair play. While such notions make for a nice sentiment, they simply don’t work, and it’s time the dems learn that the only response to a cheap shot is to punch back harder. This will send two messages: to their opponents, it’s a warning that they really don’t want to go down that path; and to the voters, it shows that the dems of balls.
  • Take it up a notch: To paraphrase a line from Training Day, the dems are out there playing checkers while the repubs are playing chess. Across the board, the GOP and their advisors show a much more sophisticated understanding of the entire political process, whether it’s media control, the use of language, or understanding how voters think and vote. I’ve read numerous books over the years that offer solid advice to the Democratic Party (which I’ll list below), yet the dems seem tied to the same old tactics espoused by the same old establishment consultants election after election and refuse to learn from their losses (“Sure, let’s have Bob Shrum run our campaign again”). The dems need to find their A game and bring it.

Bottom line: the Democratic Party needs to jettison its antiquated  approach to campaining and heed advice from modern linguists, psychologists, and political scientists who offer cutting-edge advice that can help the dems win elections. My hope is to see the dems win in 2008 (ideally with Gore or Edwards as the nominee with Obama as the veep candidate), demonstrate competent governance (remember that?) for 8 years, and then win again with Obama as the nominee in 2016.

Here’s a list of some of the books that came to mind while writing this post:

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