Here’s what hardcore partisans on both sides often fail to understand: winning an election doesn’t mean most of the country agrees with their ideology. In fact, both the hardcore right and the hardcore left are minority positions whose influence is inflated not by numbers but by passion. They might be the “bases” of our two major parties, but they represent only one segment of American opinion.

Nevertheless, when the Republicans or Democrats win an election, their respective hardcore bases demand that their party govern from the ideological edges. Both sides like to claim that winning elections prove the nation has demanded ideological leadership and that a failure to provide such leadership will end in the party’s defeat.


The opposite is demonstrably true. Governing from the ideological edges guarantees failure.

And that brings us to the second thing hardcore partisans often fail to understand: elections are determined by the mushy middle — that amorphous collection of independents, malcontents, imbeciles and the indolent who swing their vote from side to side based primarily on which party is delivering the goods and which party isn’t.

There must be nothing more annoying for hardcore partisans than to realize that the fate of their governing power rests in the hands of people who flip-flop between the parties and can’t make up their minds until a few weeks before an election. How in the world is it that the direction of our nation is continually decided by those with little to no ideology?

Well, the fact is, many Americans see government as primarily a service provider. It builds roads. Protects us from enemies and catastrophes. Makes sure there is a level playing field by enforcing laws. The bread-and-butter things that parties either do well or do poorly.

The mushy middle is not like hardcore partisan ideologues who see government as primarily a means to change society and the nation itself. For these ideologues, the providing of services is secondary to the achievement of transformative goals, whether those be the establishment of socialism or the enforcing of Christian law or the abolishment of government itself (to give a few extreme examples).

That’s not to say that there is no place for transformative ideas or ideology in government. That’s just to say that ideologues typically make for bad managers. And bad managers lose elections.

If hardcore partisans on either side want to retain power, they need more self awareness. They need to see the negative consequences of their ideas and address those failures rather than wishing them away. That’s one reason why John McCain’s tax argument failed. Supply-side economics, for all its validity, creates some negative consequences. But hardcore Republicans refuse to acknowledge such problems and, as a result, they lost credibility with the mushy middle who care far less about the creep of socialism and far more about how they’re going to pay the bills this month.

Hardcore Democrats hoping for profound change on an ideological level, should take heed of the lessons of the past. They have the power to make some sweeping changes. But if they neglect the basic responsibilities of governing or ignore the negative consequences of their ideas, the new Democratic age will be a short one indeed.

  • kranky kritter

    Check out the Wall St Journal article linked from realclearpolitics called “Obama’s Real opposition.” I think it provides a good chronicle of the riskiest further left things the democrats could do that would ensure a short reign.

    I’ve heard tell that at least one liberal democrat is proposing to do away with the tax exemption for 401ks, calling it a “failure.”

    Possibly the smartest thing Obama could do to immediately cement moderate middle class support is to tell whoever is saying this that changing this policy is a non-starter and that he’ll veto any bill that includes this idea.

  • blackoutyears

    Without weighing the overall merits of 401(k), as someone who administers these plans I will attest that they have HUGE problems. It would be silly to do away with them completely, but it’s eye-opening to see exactly how ill-equipped the majority of participants are in managing their own money. We’re hoping that properly managed target maturity and lifecycle funds ameliorate what can only be termed financial illiteracy on the part of the average person, but as long as there are interests pushing for 401(k) bank cards and allowance of multiple loans, calling these retirement plans is disingenuous at best. So, not a complete failure, Kranky, but certainly a failure in some signal regards. And I hadn’t heard of the proposal you mentioned, so thanks for that. Very interesting.

  • blackoutyears

    And I highly doubt that dismantling 401(k) plans is high on Obama’s agenda. The only thing I’ve seen from him on the topic, and it’s not my favorite idea but may be a useful one for people in real trouble, is his proposal to open a window to waive the tax implications for withdrawals and cashouts, ensuring that the 20% FIT, 10% penalty for withdrawals before age 55 and applicable SIT (thanks Taxachusetts) remain with the account holder.

  • Joshua

    The other day Volokh Conspiracy ran a couple of posts about so-called “restrospective voters”; i.e. those who pay little attention to politics and simply vote for incumbents when times are good, and against them otherwise. It occurs to me that:

    (1) retrospective voters probably make up a significant portion of the “mushy middle”,

    and (2) in all likelihood they played a big role in both the GOP’s big losses in Congress the last couple of election cycles and Obama’s victory on Tuesday,

    but also that (3) precisely because they don’t follow politics very closely, they are hard for incumbents to sway by blaming hard times on the opposition,

    and therefore (4) as surely as retrospective voters giveth, they can also taketh away.

    Obama and the Dems would do very well to remember this, especially if they fail to get the economy moving again.