Tag Archives: Cook Political Report

The Problem With Labels

I’ve written previously about the problem labels present for political discourse. Rather than a means of communication–labels are used to insult, to foreclose communication.

When I was younger, the insult was “liberal,” and when that lost its potency, the Right  substituted “socialist.”

You can make a pretty convincing argument that people throwing these terms around are utterly unable to define them. (When Putin asserted that western liberalism had outlived its usefulness Trump’s embarrassing response disclosed he hasn’t the foggiest notion what western liberalism is.)

Paul Krugman addressed the intentional misuse of economic terminology in a recent column

The Democratic Party has clearly moved left in recent years, but none of the presidential candidates are anything close to being actual socialists — no, not even Bernie Sanders, whose embrace of the label is really more about branding (“I’m anti-establishment!”) than substance.

Nobody in these debates wants government ownership of the means of production, which is what socialism used to mean. Most of the candidates are, instead, what Europeans would call “social democrats”: advocates of a private-sector-driven economy, but with a stronger social safety net, enhanced bargaining power for workers and tighter regulation of corporate malfeasance. They want America to be more like Denmark, not more like Venezuela.

Of course, reality won’t keep the GOP from using the term to frighten their base (most of whom couldn’t define socialism if their lives depended on it), and assorted pundits are agonizing over the effectiveness of this strategy in columns with titles like “Are Democrats Moving Too Far To The Left?”

The belief that there is electoral danger in policies that are too “left,” however, rests on what may be a faulty premise: that the 2020 election will be a contest between Left and Right. An interview conducted for the Atlantic with Dave Wasserman, an editor for the Cook Report suggests otherwise.

Wasserman agreed that more extreme positions would be unwise– a platform of completely open borders or the immediate abolition of private health insurance. As he said, there are, of course, limits. But he sees the political battleground as essentially cultural, not ideological.

A few of his observations:

Generally, the tiny sliver of voters in this country who are still persuadable are not highly ideological people. They are fundamentally anti-élite in nature, and they are looking for three characteristics in a candidate for President that don’t have much to do with left-versus-right. And those characteristics are authenticity, being a credible agent for change, and empathy. In other words, does this person understand my daily struggles? And a common thread between Obama and Trump was a common touch.

It’s all relative, but, whether it was having been a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago or a billionaire who ate K.F.C. and went to professional wrestling matches, it struck a chord with those voters….

At this point in 2015, there was a widespread notion that the Republican candidate who wanted to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it was unelectable in a general election. That proved to be false. And we should be careful about making broad pronouncements about platform positions such as Medicare for All or an overhaul of ICE….

Wasserman noted that the bar is much higher for Democrats, thanks to the Electoral College, but he dismissed conventional wisdom about needing to appeal to “moderates” as a result.

I believe too much of the media in Washington, D.C., is viewing candidates’ chances against Trump through a left-versus-right spectrum, or a sliding scale, in which if they nominate Biden they can win middle America, but if they nominate someone too far left they will risk alienating those voters. I don’t view it that way. The reason that, in my opinion, Biden is vulnerable—perhaps more vulnerable than other Democrats in the race [against] Trump—is that I have watched congressional races for the last twelve years, and, over and over again, I have seen candidates with long paper trails and voting records get picked apart for every comment they made twenty or thirty years ago. And that’s what is happening at the moment.

Wasserman dismisses the hope that disillusioned Trump voters will desert him; he says they have become “culturally loyal” to Trump. And he points out that those voters are likelier to live in places where local news is declining—making them more susceptible to aggressive social-media propaganda campaigns.

And he clearly expects the “aggressive” use of social media, like the one Fox employs on Facebook.

The entire interview is worth reading.