Culture, Ideology, The Two Coalitions, and the 2008 Democratic Nomination

In the weeks after the 2004 election, I spent a great deal of time arguing that the main demographic shift in Democratic and Republican coalitions over the last forty years was a drift toward more ideological coalitions. This shift had greatly favored Republicans, since they gained more self-identified conservatives than they lost self-identified liberals. My conclusion at the time was that we needed a long-term program to increase the percentages of Americans and American voters who self-identified as liberals in order to lay the strongest possible foundation for a future Democratic majority. The more liberals and progressives in America, the better Democrats would do.

However, over the past two years, I have slowly moved away from that position. While I certainly think that it is important to grow liberalism and progressivism, what I failed to take into account back in late 2004 was why people self-identified as liberal, moderate or conservative, and what they might mean when they did so. Ideological self-identification means very different things to different people, and much of the time it doesn't mean anything ideological at all. In fact, over the past two years, I have numerous studies showing that most people, like 90%, don't even really have a clear idea of what being conservative, liberal or "moderate" even means. And I don't mean that in the sense that that most people have different definitions of ideologies than me. I mean it in the sense that they don't have thoroughgoing, well-defined ideologies at all. For example, how can about 50% of self-identified conservatives believe that the federal government should raise taxes in order to provide free health insurance to all American citizens? The answer, I think, is that people mean different things when they call themselves "conservative."

More in the extended entry, including the bit where I finally have a point.
Pew's core political values survey is chock full of contradictions like this, which show that the country is not nearly as ideological rigid as superficial ideological self-identification questions often imply. In fact, the only clear-cut ideological separation between members of the current Democratic and Republican coalitions is based on attitudes about the use of the military and general views on national security. Otherwise, the differences between members of the two coalitions are far more difficult to define. With only one area of policy demonstrating both a clearly defined partisan difference and strong internal coherence, it doesn't sound like two coalitions are very ideological coalitions to me. As such, over the past two years I have spent more time exploring the impact that identity plays in American politics. While my main focus has been on what I perceive to be a major split between self-identified white Christians and everyone else, the discussion has taken on many forms, as the MyDD archives on demographics and culture show. The way people view themselves in terms a number of interacting and overlapping identity variables now seems to me to be more of a driving force in American politics than ideological self-identification. Thus, the rise in importance of psychographic polling in American politics. It isn't so much how people ideologically self-identify that is important, but how they live and perceive their own identity with a broader culture that leads them to make mainly superficial ideological self-identifications.

In a coalition as broad and diverse as the Democratic Party, I have come to find that intra-party coalitions depend even less on perceived ideology than they do in comparisons between the two parties. Just look at the current sources of strength for Edwards, Clinton and Obama among varying Democratic demographics. Edwards finds strength, for example, both among progressive blog readers and among conservative white Christians. Clinton shows virtually no difference in her support among liberals and moderates, but a large gap in her support among men and women. Obama's varying performance among difference Democratic age groups is larger than his varying performance among different Democratic ideological groups. Further, the gap in Obama's performance among seculars and non-seculars puts all other previously mentioned difference to shame. Or consider how Dean's source of strength at the DNC comes from a motley ideological alliance of state party chairs from Rhode Island to Nebraska, with a healthy dose of netroots support thrown in. Or consider that Bill Clinton's two largest sources of strength in the 1992 primary season were conservative white southerners and far less conservative African-Americans around the country. Also, as Unqualified Offerings recently discussed, Hillary Clinton actually does better among Democrats who think the war in Iraq is lost than those who think it can still be won. In Philadelphia, we have long seen racial divides trump any ideological divides in city primaries. None of this makes any sense if you look at intra-party coalitions from a purely ideological perspective. The cultural perceptions behind these intra-party alliances seem at least as important, if not more important, than the ideological determinations. This is especially the case when one considers that cultural perceptions play a major role in determining ideological self-identification.

This post is a bit rambling, and a little too anecdotal for my tastes, but I want to sketch out the idea that led me to make it in the first place. When I was considering the difficulty the netroots have sometimes found in forming intra-party coalitions, I wonder how much of that difficulty is rooted in the cultural identity of the blogosphere. Our readership is disproportionately drawn from some demographics that are often considered predominately Republican: male, white, high-income, non-union members. While we certainly have high concentrations of some very pro-Democratic demographics as well--secular, Jewish, GLBT, urban, post-graduate degrees--for the most part, even those cultural identifiers cause us to stick out from the Democratic coalition as a whole. How much is our cultural division keeping us from better connecting with the rest of the Democratic coalition on issues such as, say, who we prefer to win the 2008 presidential nomination? When it comes to 2008, I think our cultural difference might be more significant than any ideological differences. Look at Pew's crosstabs on 2008 again. Every single demographic from which we draw a disproportionate number of our readers is less pro-Clinton than every other demographic, and only one of those demographics is ideological. It certainly makes you wonder what the real driving force in this campaign, and even the Democratic Party, really is.

In the final analysis, are we really talking about ideology, or even specific issues areas, or are we talking about culture and identity? Surely it is a mix, but I don't think we have emphasized, or at least appreciated, the cultural side nearly enough. If we want to play a bigger role in the Democratic coalition, we need to figure out ways to bridge our intra-coalition cultural gaps. Otherwise, our view on where the party will go won't have the impact on 2008 that we desire. If many people are not supporting Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or John Edwards for ideological or policy-related reasons, we probably won't be able to shift their support for ideological or policy-related reasons. Other avenues must be examined and pursued. Considering that he leads among a wide variety of demographics, Michael Nutter seems to have somehow accomplished this in Philadelphia. Now, how do we do it nationwide?

Tags: Blogosphere, Culture, Democrats, Demographics, Hillary Clinton, Ideology, Michael Nutter, President 2008 (all tags)



Re: Culture, Ideology, The Two Coalitions,

We are talking about what people value and don't value. Culture and identity don't fully explain that because two different cultures or identities can value the same thing, and we wouldn't know it because we are focusing on culture and identity rather than the underlying values. The key is to realize they are the same, but also talk to each group in terms that they understand.

by bruh21 2007-05-14 01:10PM | 0 recs
Re: Culture, Ideology, The Two Coalitions,

...and also in terms that the talkers can understand. That is a big problem at least in my opinion. The people doing the talking often have a a very different understanding of the terms because of their backgrounds etc.

by MNPundit 2007-05-14 02:09PM | 0 recs
Re: Culture, Ideology, The Two Coalitions, and the

What I find the most interesting about this post by far is that it is by Chris Bowers.

Chris Bowers is one of the most thoughtful analysts out there.

I think that Chris has to elaborate this a great deal.  Make it bulleted.  Make it Power-Point ready.

And I think that when that happens, the United States is going to look even more bleak and destructive than it did before.


by Ethelred 2007-05-14 01:17PM | 0 recs
Re: Culture, Ideology, The Two Coalitions, and the

There's been a lot of work done on how less than 1% of the electorate can be considered truly ideological.  Most of the populace works off of relatively accurate heuristics to make decisions, and the netroots concentrates too much on wonky policy specifics to communicate clearly to the simple criteria used by most people to make political decisions.

I doubt there will ever be a true liberal or progressive majority in this country.  But what there can be is a majority in which progressives play a key role.

I'm going to repeat what I always say as an explanation of how the Democratic Party should build cultural gaps.  We should be a party that is unified on economic issues and diverse on social issues, rather than vice versa.  That is, we should be more tolerant of deviance from the party line and be more embracing of dissenters on social issues rather than on other issues.

by Anthony de Jesus 2007-05-14 01:43PM | 0 recs
Re: Culture, Ideology, The Two Coalitions, and the

I will say that if people have less worries about putting food on the table and sending their kids to decent schools and securing for them a decent future--it can be harder to incite hatred for a specific ground (re: immigrants).

Of course sometimes that personal security means they feel free to hate as well (see 1990s).

by MNPundit 2007-05-14 02:10PM | 0 recs
Re: Culture, Ideology, The Two Coalitions

Possibly a stupid question, but at least re. the 'netroots,' how much of this is an explication of the 'elite vs. masses' clash?

And where is this connected to the 'not everyone needs to be part of the blogosphere' point from a few weeks back? Wasn't that post all about how we're fine as long as everyone in the progressive coalition is represented somewhere in the coalition, but that every group doesn't need to be represented in every location? I'm sure there's some overlap, or intersection, here, but I can't put my finger on it.

And finally, what do we mean by 'bridging intra-coalition cultural gaps'?  

by BingoL 2007-05-14 01:57PM | 0 recs
Ideology is TV

Ideology is now pretty much aligned with partisan self-ID, but it wasn't at all like that 20-30 years ago. The difference is one-way electronic media's dominance, and it makes sense. The media talk about conservative and liberal in the same way they talk about Democratic and Republican.

It also makes a lot of sense why on the issues, ideological self-identification only matches up regarding national security -- because the Security State has dominated the TV-politics discourse for recent memory.

In conclusion, when you're asking people what their ideology is, you're asking them "When people argue about politics on TV, do you agree with the guy who thinks the Democrats are right, or the guy who thinks the Republicans are right?"

by msnook 2007-05-14 01:59PM | 0 recs
Speaking of cultural-based coalition-building

If we want to play a bigger role in the Democratic coalition, we need to figure out ways to bridge our intra-coalition cultural gaps.

I wrote a post yesterday on Progressive Hip Hop and its similarities to the netroots (in terms of purpose, not process). I think it's germane here, so I don't mind plugging myself: Progressive Hip Hop vol. 1: "Wishing"

by msnook 2007-05-14 02:03PM | 0 recs
by msnook 2007-05-14 06:14PM | 0 recs
Re: Culture, Ideology...

I think you're really on to something here.  Most people are terribly ill-informed regarding politics, even those with very strong political views.

If I may suggest a book, it would be "The Road to Wiggan Pier" by George Orwell.  It's not what you think of when you hear George Orwell.  It's non-fiction, and it came about when the Socialist Society in London wanted to learn why their message was not resonating with actual working class people (this was critical to them at the time because they wanted to grow their numbers to offset the rise of fascism in Europe).  And so they commissioned George Orwell to go up to some mining town (in Yorkshire I think) and see what he could find.

Even though it's from a different country, in an entirely different time, Orwell's conclusions are much the same as yours.  He concluded that the working class rejected socialism for cultural reasons.  They were rejecting the type of people drawn to socialism (intellectuals, and sons of privelege who nevertheless took up the socialist cause).  This is the exact same type of cultural coalitions that you are talking about.

by voodoochile78 2007-05-14 02:04PM | 0 recs
Re: Culture, Ideology...

Spelling correction:  It's "Wigan" with one g, not two.

by voodoochile78 2007-05-14 02:12PM | 0 recs
Re: Culture, Ideology...

I'm not currently supporting Obama, but I think this is precisely what his supporters see in him: he so clearly represents a 'new' kind of Democrat--generationally, racially, and so forth--and this, I think, is the transformation they're talking about.

by BingoL 2007-05-14 02:47PM | 0 recs
Re: Culture, Ideology...

I've looked into the numbers on this.  I forget how many, but there was clear evidence that a percentage of the voters thought that Bill Clinton was anti-abortion because they were anti-abortion but liked Bill Clinton.

One failure of the Democratic Party has been to put forward candidates who come across as preachy.  And when I say preachy, I don't mean that they give political speeches that sound like dynamic sermons, I mean that they give political speeches that sound like the speaker thinks he is smarter than everyone else and is talking down to his audience, trying to explain in baby words what seems obvious to him.  refer to speaking with a moralizing tone (which is disctinct from speaking about morals).  Policy wonks don't make good presidents.-

by Anthony de Jesus 2007-05-14 02:47PM | 0 recs
The Republicans understand this better than us.

The Republican Party has spent a huge amount of time and resources figuring out where to get base support. Polling, focus groups, demographics, psychographics, subscription lists. They are so confident of the foundation of their support, that when they do launch ideological campaigns, they are willing to go deep with, intense, even over-the-top rhetoric. They don't seem to care if the ideological rhetoric might drive away the already-committed or if it offends the opposite ideological side, because they know they already have the base hooked in psychologically.

Look at the immigration issue or gays. Those issues have been focus-group tested out the wazoo, and are then harnessed to pull with the rest of the cultural pageantry of the Republican Party.

Look how carefully they painted George Bush as a good ol' boy and Kerry as an elitist. They know that people vote on gut instinct and a sense that they share cultural roots with the candidate. They use ideology all the time, but the real horse is psychological and cultural.

by MetaData 2007-05-14 02:11PM | 0 recs
I think the

electability argument works across all cultural barriers. It could be Hillary's downfall.

by Populism2008 2007-05-14 02:13PM | 0 recs
Re: I think the
If you are going to attack Hillary that way, isn't it also fair to call Obama inexperienced or Edwards tax and spend?
No one is guaranteed anything especially the US presidency. The post had nothing to do with Clinton, but you have shown your idiocy instead of providing a thoughtful comment.
by bsavage 2007-05-14 02:47PM | 0 recs
Re: I think the


electability argument works across all cultural barriers. It could be Hillary's downfall.

How do you explain HRC's consistent lead in the primary polls, then? Unless the electability argument is more horse-race horse-s**t from the beltway media, that is. I tend to discount this as a real issue, except to the extent that it represents another successful GOP frame (pun intended).

by 1arryb 2007-05-14 03:05PM | 0 recs
When people say that Hillary is the most liberal

of our candidates they are not talking about ideology but her persona. "Liberal = bad" is the formula. John Edwards is likeable and therefore less "liberal".

by Populism2008 2007-05-14 02:15PM | 0 recs
A few quick comments on a very important post

First, when the MSM, organized politics, and for the most part we here around these parts talk about ideology, what we usually mean - things like liberalism and conservativism - don't really deserve that term. They're not fully-formed ideologies, and not even families of related fully-explicit ideologies, such as Marxism or Fascism. Liberalism and conservativsm are culturally stereotyped political attitudes (or habitus, or perhaps even value systems).

Secondly, I completely agree that ideology - in the true sense of the term - doesn't matter in American politics (the same is true to a somewhat lesser extent in Europe). More to the point - it matters no longer. And there is a reason for that. Ideology has been systematically sucked out of the political discourse in a decades-long process. And perhaps replaced with ideology in the common, improper, sense.

Now, how does the above relate to Chris' point? I suspect that part of the reason why we are looking in vein for a sharp ideological focus defining the currently potent electoral coalitions is that what we think of as ideology isn't actually capable of providing such a sharp focus.

by brainwave 2007-05-14 02:40PM | 0 recs
Re: Culture, Ideology, The Two Coalitions, and the

These are good points, but before folks go too far with the idea that there's a cultural divide between the elites and the masses, realize that we really DO have a coalition here between many of us who are white, urban, with post-graduate degrees (and the debt to reflect it!) and folks in the working classes, people of color, etc. We always assume there is a big difference, but we already are part of a de facto political coalition.

We share a lot of commonalities in values, if not ideology - we abhor racism and know it still exists, we support a social safety net from universal health care to job creation, we oppose the abrogations of our freedoms and we oppose this war.

You speak of culture. Over the last 30 years racial barriers in particular in culture have come down significantly. Whereas it was deeply transgressive in the 1950s for young whites to listen to or play African American music like rock and roll, today most musical movement, including those seen as racialized like hip-hop, are functionally multiracial. Although our culture is by no means deracinated, we share more of our culture today than at earlier times in the last 100 years.

I think we share a lot more than we give ourselves credit for. But we don't speak across the existing divides as often as we should, and we don't seem to listen to other parts of the coalition as often as we should. When you fail to engage a conversation you create barriers. I think the more we talk to folks, the more we'll all realize that we do have a great deal in common, on some very basic matters, enough to make a viable coalition.

by eugene 2007-05-14 03:28PM | 0 recs
Re: Culture, Ideology, The Two Coalitions, and the

I know that Dick Morris is not loved around here, but he has said that Republicans are Republicans because of what they believe (i.e. Ultra Fanatical Evangelical, Buisnessmen), and Democrats are Democrats because of who they are (Black, Jewish, Hispanic, Non Christian, etc,) This may explain a lot.

by lubyarco 2007-05-14 03:48PM | 0 recs
The problem with that analysis is

that Republicans are, as Howard Dean remarked to astutely, a party of white christian males - so how is being Republican not about who they are?

by brainwave 2007-05-14 04:24PM | 0 recs
Re: Culture, Ideology, The Two Coalitions, and the

I think that this deals with the idea of people being a sum of their experiences rather than how they ran in the latest election.

People trust people with similar experiences a lot more than people who promise a similar ideology.

by sterra 2007-05-14 03:53PM | 0 recs

Following on the heels of the Iraq invasion, I served a three year term as a progressive elected official in a red state.

I have shared many times with my friends that the most striking pattern I observed by knocking on peoples' doors (most likely voters right and left) for months, was what I called "tribal identity politics."

From the left, I commonly would get questions about what I wanted to do, what my concerns were, or "Why was I running?". From the right, however, I commonly would get questions like, "Are you a Republican?", "Do you support abortion?", and "Are you a Christian?".

Particularly from the right, then, but not exclusively, I was getting identity-questions with ideological implications. They wanted to know quickly and specifically if I belonged to their tribe. The office for which I ran had no authority for policy related to abortion, for example. That didn't matter.

Are Humans Smarter Than Yeast? (video clip: 8.5min)

by Akonitum 2007-05-14 06:22PM | 0 recs
You're on to it, Chris...

In my view, at least. As you know, psychographics and building homogenous groups based on cultural and political values, lifestyle activities and demographics is the core of my biz. The flip side of that is: demographics are not destiny, nor are they an adequate basis for building and implementing communication strategies and messaging.

When we think about it, what would be the basis for building coalitions? What would be a strong enough glue to hold broad coalitions together, to cause large numbers of demographically different people to come together and agree on common action, whether policy or electoral?

The answer, I believe, is meaning, or how we define our selves, reality and the world in which we live. Meaning is value we ascribe to something based on our core values and perceptions.

Ideology is not a useful predictor, or even explanantory variable, because it's permutations mean so many different things to so many different people. There's no coherent nor widely accepted internalized definition of conservative, moderate or liberal. It's mush for most everyone. That renders it useless in a political context.

Demographics alone are insufficient. All men do not see political issues and questions alike. Ditto for women and any other demographic you choose to look at. Demographics, as a concept, simply does not discriminate (in an analytical sense) effectively enough to basic political strategy on it.

So we go back to values and the meaning we associate with them. We all here believe in justice and it is a core value. Same for freedom and various forms of it: freedom of expression, of religion, of assembly and so on. Same for government of the people, by the people and for the people. And on and on. These are core values for most Americans, the exception being the wingnuts.

So if people generally agree and ascribe similar meanings to key values like these, then identifying and communicating with homogenous values-based groups on this values level makes it more likely, much more likely, that you can get similar behaviors and actions out of large numbers of people. Further, you can isolate the minority who don't believe in those core values, the wingnuts. This values- and meanings-based dual track, building a majority and isolating the wingnut minority, is the best strategy to win elections. It's been my experience, anyway.

Great post, Chris. Thanks for taking discussion and analysis to this level.

by Sun Tzu 2007-05-15 07:24AM | 0 recs


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