Political Science 101 for Political Reporters

Bill ClintonI’m a big fan of Brian Beutler. And I agree with his conclusion in his recent article, The Trump Crack-Up Is Just the Beginning of the Republican Civil War. His point is that even if Trump loses the general election badly, the Republican Party won’t change. But he pushed one of the most common and ignorant claims about the Democratic Party, and more generally political science.

According to Beutler, after the three presidential losses (1980, 1984, and 1988), the Democratic Party reassessed itself and decided that it had to move to the right. Thus brought Bill Clinton and victory. That’s a nice narrative. But it’s totally wrong. Carter wasn’t a liberal. He was the beginning of the emergence of what would become the New Democrats. What’s more, he was — as were Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis after him — part of that new breed of Democrats who weren’t really ideological but just technocratic.

We look back on them now as liberal, not because of their policies, but because they lost. Remember, I was around during Bill Clinton’s term. And according to the conservative movement, he wasn’t just liberal, he was a radical — a communist, even. That’s because Democrats are always leftist radicals in the minds of conservatives. And this is why it makes no sense to try to take welfare “off the table.” Did Bill Clinton ending welfare as we know it make the Democratic Party any less prone to attacks that it was the party of welfare recipients? Of course not!

It would have been very surprising if the Democrats had won any of those races, because the fundamentals were not only against them, they were against them forcefully.

But as I’ve shown elsewhere, and as is documented with scientific precision in Lynn Vavreck’s book, The Message Matters, the economic fundamentals favored the Republicans in 1980, 1984, and 1988. It would have been very surprising if the Democrats had won any of those races, because the fundamentals were not only against them, they were against them forcefully. Carter eked out a slight victory in 1976 because the fundamentals were only against him slightly.

Neither the nation nor the Democratic Party base was begging for the Democratic Party to move to the right in 1992. Bill Clinton was not the answer to the previous three elections. He was, however, a gifted politician in a party that had mostly been taken over by conservative elites. The only thing the party was responding to was the desires of powerful people in or aligned with the DLC.

I find this stuff really annoying because it just isn’t hard. My job — what people are willing to pay me for — is technology writing. If you want me to make Fortran 77 interesting and understandable, I’m your man. I have a basic understanding of computer science and programming. But political writers generally don’t know anything about political science. And it is particularly sad in the case of Brian Beutler, because he’s both smart and insightful. But how about learning a little about the science of it? Instead, it is just fine to depend upon what everyone “knows” — which turns out to be untrue.

So yes, the Republican Party won’t change even if Trump only manages to get 30% of the vote. But the Democratic Party is no different. What’s more, why is the presidency such a big deal? Does political science teach us that the presidency is all that matters? No, of course not. And as it is, 31 state legislatures are controlled by Republicans, compared to just 11 by Democrats! They also control the Senate and the House. And after the next election, they will almost certainly still control the House — and might control the Senate. It seems to me that the Republican Party is doing okay.

This all disturbs me. But we aren’t going to change it unless we can see the truth and look clearly at the political science. And believing that Bill Clinton was a response to political changes in the country is perhaps the biggest part of the problem. Because now conservatives win even when the Republican Party loses. And someone as smart as Brian Beutler should understand that.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

28 thoughts on “Political Science 101 for Political Reporters

  1. So why, if the presidency isn’t all that important, do you keep harping on it without explaining the rightward shift of Democratic legislative members?

    You tell me I am wrong about the voting electorate not being right wing but have yet to explain that shift. Or why Democrats started staying home during midterms.

    Does this book explain that?

    • We discussed this elsewhere. But let me add another thing: when the conservatives took over the party, they were in the position to choose who would be candidates. People can’t vote for people who don’t run. This is a big issue that you talk about. I think about it in terms of television writers: why do shows so often suck? Because the producers only know a limited number of writers. Or they only think certain writers are worth working with. (I get this, actually; professionalism is actually more important to me than writing quality.) If the local DP is run by conservatives, are they going to be encouraging liberals to run? Are they going to be giving as much to support to the liberals who run? I don’t think so. And I don’t think they act that way because they are evil. They think their vision of the party is right. I think they are wrong. And this is why I think the Sanders supporters should spend the next decade taking over the party.

    • And don’t forget FORTH! But the truth is that I’m much too flirty to be good at that kind of job. That’s why writing is so good for me: I get to play with different things all the time. My main experience with assembly language was writing an editor for the 8086. And I worked on it for about a month and got it working. And then I got cocky and made major changes to it on the fly and destroyed it. And then I just walked away, because I had had my fun. And it was time to write my first X-Windows program. But it is amazing how many jobs are out there for Fortran and COBOL programmers. They aren’t sexy, but they are necessary.

      • I loved FORTH– what a fun language! Backwards thinking I am. In the late 70’s I started a computer science program at my college; my colleagues thought I was fool because 1) I was an English teacher 2) nobody will use those “little computers.” 15 years later I was fired from the program and sent back to teach English because I didn’t have a computer science degree, though I couldn’t get one because no one offered one in the 70s. Oh well. It was really internal politics, which had followed the national drift toward conservatives, stranding the few liberals on their blue islands in the red seas. The notion that colleges are bastions of liberalism is about as valid as the notion that the media is liberal. Your assertion of a conservative take-over of all parties is correct. And we’re still not ready for liberalism, Sanders being the perfect example of that. Clinton is almost as liberal as Sanders but she projects a conservative air so she is more palatable to the majority of voters. If that were not the case, she would not be winning.

        • Right! When computers first started to take off in the 1950s, no one was trained as computer scientists. It’s incredibly cool that an English teacher started a computer program. I love that! A society needs all different kinds of people. But I think we have a great lack of people who cross intellectual borders like that. It’s really great. But as a fellow traveler, I have to admit to finding it odd that there aren’t more of us.

          I still think that the Democratic base is more with Sanders. It is just that Clinton has a very justified well of good will in the party. I don’t think most Democrats liked having to choose between Clinton and Obama in 2008. As a practical matter, I don’t see that Sanders’ and Clinton’s administrations would be that different. But I am still worried about the TPP and I wouldn’t if Sanders were the next president. (People who think that the TPP would be dead if Trump became president are delusional; his entire campaign has shown that his rhetoric might be different, but he would govern just like every other Republican.)

  2. @ Lawrence — That makes me want to go back in time and work at NASA and have those skills today. What a cool job. And how amazing that those probes are still (mostly) working. When you think of the limited amount of equipment they had to carry, the fact that they’re still providing useful data is a testament to the different teams that worked on the different aspects.

  3. @Frank Which they are not going to do. Today at the NV Democratic Convention to finish their bloody insane caucus process, the Sanders people were throwing fits because some of them de-registered from the party and then were told they couldn’t be delegates.

    So they won’t be able to change the party because they left it and then wonder why things don’t change. It is a puzzling thing since they do seem to want to fix the process but they don’t want to put in the effort. They don’t want to be sullied with it or something.

    • I’m not hopeful because Sanders supporters skew young, and you know what that means: their young. But I’m still going to push this because this is the way politics works. And luckily, we don’t need the kids. There is a lot of good will toward Clinton in the party. That’s why she’s winning. But ideologically, the party is more liberal. And I think it will continue to move in that direction. And I still hold out hope that Clinton is going to surprise people. I think she’s a lot more liberal than he husband on economic issues. But politics is not ultimately about individual candidates. Sanders has done well because of what’s happening in the party; he didn’t make it happen.

      • She is also winning because she hired someone who is familiar with how modern campaigns work.
        Looking at that string of wins, he knows what he is doing and is effectively doing it. Granted he has aged out of the YDs but he is still pretty young.

        I agree that people should get and stay involve but too often they seem to think one set back means they should quit. Political process is super slow and they don’t understand that. Either willfully or because no one has bothered to explain it to them.

        • Or even when they win. Obama because president so it was time to tune out because he would solve all our problems. I wish it weren’t so. But I can’t be too hard on people, given that they are the normal ones and people like us are the freaks. I mean, politics? Really?! There are lots more interesting things. At least, that’s what people tell me.

          • Politics are in every facet of life. Office, family, church, literal party planning groups….In fact that is is why I refused to become a teacher. The politics of being a teacher.

            This just has more of an impact on your life then people want to admit.

    • Yeah, but I can hope. And they aren’t a monolith. If Hillary Clinton were 25, she’d probably be a big Sanders supporter too!

  4. @Frank I did have one question since you bring up programming-is there any way to create an Excel spreadsheet, upload to a webbased database system like the Voter Access Network to do a cross check of names and addresses in the database?

    Because I am going into the local D office on Monday to volunteer and will have to check manually every name and address on the petitions in the system and wondered if there was a simpler way. AKA lazy way.

    • Yes, of course. But you would either have to turn the DB into a spreadsheet or the spreadsheet into the DB. The easiest thing to do would be to import the spreadsheet data into a new table in the DB and then write a query. But I see many problems. First, you aren’t a database coder. Second, they would never let you do that with their database because it would allow you to screw up and destroy their database. But if this is something that needs to be done all the time, you should find the keeper of the database and talk to them about creating a tool. You could, for example, write a PHP program that would pull data from the DB and from the spreadsheet and do the comparisons for you right there in a webpage. That’s the kind of help I could provide the Democratic Party, if I didn’t get embarrassed staring at women’s breasts. :-)

  5. @ Elizabeth — I’m up much later! But I’m just in a good mood because I managed to solve a computer problem, and now the machine is running well. It was so bad before it would have taken me ten minutes to type this sentence! So I’m happily typing meaningless stuff.

  6. @James Good, do you think there is a way to solve my problem? I really would rather type up an excel spreadsheet but I am like the worst with computers.

    • Sorry, I’m afraid! My skills basically involve typing “how do I” + the question into a search engine and following the instructions. I’m good at following laborious instructions.

      It is insane how these machines/software work. They’re so powerful, yet they’re designed to do very specific things, so if you want them to do something that few others want them to do (not enough others to make developing the software profitable) you have to hope others have found a trick and shared it.

      Good luck! Maybe someone at the D office can help you.

  7. We must not forget that reagan attacked the Democrats by making liberal a four letter word calling the Democrats “a knee jerk liberal.” For many years (up to the year 2000) the republicans could yell “liberal! liberal! liberal!” in talking about the Democrats and it would disparage us. We have picked up the word progressive to describe ourselves and downplay the term liberal although liberal is becoming very less toxic.

    • I think it goes back further than that, in fact. For me, however, the more comfortable I have become calling myself liberal, the more that I don’t see that it fits. The word really does have a history to it, and although I might have been a liberal a hundred years ago, I’m really not now. But then, “socialist” doesn’t seem to fit either. I will say that in a social sense, I’m a liberal. In an economic sense, I’m not: I don’t believe we should just let the economy do whatever it wants. Now I realize this isn’t how the word is used. But it really is the case that I’m liberal about how you manage your personal life, but not about how you manage your economic life, because it can be gamed so much to the detriment of society in a way that your sexual proclivities just can’t.

      But it is sad that liberal was turned into a dirty word. Of course Republicans might hate “closed minded intolerant conservative” too — if they were capable of shame.

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