Wednesday, December 06, 2006

About saliency traps and low-efficacy issues

The November election pretty well confirmed the controversial central assertion in Thomas Schaller's Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South. After all, Democrats did win and Nancy Pelosi now leads a majority in the House that is not dependent on a huge block of Dixiecrats. It is pretty clear that the future of the Dems is not accommodating the backward elements in Southern regional culture.

Democrats should forget about recapturing the South in the near term and begin building a national majority that ends, not begins, with restoring their lost southern glory.

But there is a lot more to Schaller's book than just this controversial thesis. This passage leaped out at me:

If issues are about more than left-right positioning, what are the other two aspects that matter politically? The first is salience, or the priority a candidate or party assigns to an issue, and the second is efficacy, or the ability of a candidate or party to deliver on issue promises. The problem for the Democrats is they too often get caught in saliency traps, push low-efficacy issues, or both.

Schaller is essentially saying that Democrats have let the Republicans brand them by engaging with culture war issues as if they were more important than they really are.

He applauds politicians like Montana's Brian Schweitzer who don't repudiate Democratic positions, but who dismiss "Republican attempts to emphasize culture issues with a 'who cares?' wave of the hand." At root, Schaller contends most people know these hot button issues about other people's conduct aren't really vital to them. It takes some guts and good sense for Dems to just forge on, insisting on the high salience issues that majorities do care about and on which Democrats win: access to health care, access to education, honest government that delivers necessary infrastructure and protection when citizens need help, as in hurricanes.

Now that we have more Democrats in office, let's hope they attend to Schaller and work on what he calls high efficacy issues. That is, don't worry so much about mud slung at them, and don't go in for wonkish policy parsing, but whatever they legislate, make sure people will actually experience (and like) the result.

I'd carry this farther. When Democrats have power, they should use policy initiatives to cement their power by creating social arrangements that increase the influence of their base. I've watched California Republicans do this through initiatives for 25 years now. Two core examples: by breaking government's ability to tax through the pseudo-populist Prop. 13, conservatives undermined the capacity of government to deliver services people expect from it -- and so undermined belief in government itself. By doing away with affirmative action and bilingual education, they made it more difficult for Black and Brown Californians to get the education they need to make their weight in society more equivalent with their numbers. Older whites remain a disproportionate fraction of the California electorate and the Republicans have done what they can to hold back the demographic tidal wave that threatens them; the emerging non-white majority has been impeded by the structural obstacles conservatives have enacted.

Democrats should turn this dynamic around. Good social policy for the country is also good politics for enlarging and empowering the Democratic base -- union members, African-Americans, Latinos, and young people. Some of those good policies:
  • labor law reform that enables union organizing;
  • investment in helping young people to go to college, based on need;
  • health care available to all who need it;
  • investment in transit options that connect where job-seeking people live (cities) with where jobs are being created (outer ring suburbs.)
The possibilities are enormous. Remembering to focus on such possibilities is how Democrats can take Schaller's plea for "efficacy" seriously.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails