The Wager Won by Losing

by Henry Farrell on May 16, 2006

“Firedoglake”: is running a bookclub on Rick Perlstein’s _Before the Storm_, which I reckon is the best book on American politics that I’ve read over the last few years. It’s very interesting how the book has come to occupy a near canonical position for left of center bloggers. It’s not only influenced wonkish types like myself and Kevin Drum, but also netroots people like Kos and Jerome Armstrong (whose recent book, which I liked, is clearly influenced by Perlstein), and “Matt Stoller”: (who describes it in the Firedoglake thread as the “single best book on movement politics” that he’s read). But there’s a sort-of-disconnect there – or at least a part of Perlstein’s argument that doesn’t really fit with the netroots agenda as I understand it.

One of the very clear messages of _Before the Storm_ is that the conservative movement won by failing. That is, when the Barry Goldwater campaign went down in flames, movement conservatives retreated into the wilderness to build up their own alternative infrastructure, and to hammer home unpopular ideas again and again until they became popular. The Goldwater conservatives, as Perlstein depicts them, were strongly committed to an ideological agenda, which was more important to them than winning in the short (or even the medium) term. But when they won, they took the grand prize, because they had effectively reshaped the battlefield of American politics on their terms. Ever since then (to mix in yet another metaphor) they’ve enjoyed a dealer’s edge, a persistent political advantage because the terms of political debate favour them and their supporters’ interests. But the netroots – as I understand it from reading blogs, the Kos/Armstrong book etc – is different. It isn’t committed to an ideological agenda, so much as it’s committed to winning. While ideas (and presenting a coherent message) is part of the winning strategy, it’s distinctly subordinate to the main goal of beating the Republicans. In contrast, the Goldwater Republicans got where they were in part because they were prepared to lose; thus, in Perlstein’s “summation”:

bq. The Democrats need to start making these kinds of measurements: to dream some political and policy dreams that are big enough to take 16 years or more to build. … this argument is for the objective necessity of political risk for irreversible commitments. And irreversible commitments are not anything to smile glibly at. If risk is not frightening, it is nothing at all. Republicans began their march to an irreversible commitment to the full conservative program in 1964. It led that year to an atrocious defeat. … Democrats must embrace an economic liberalism superjumbo, and they must stick with it even if they lose, in order to win big. Dream again, or die.

In short: to really change politics, you need to commit irreversibly to a political outlook that is likely to seem weird and unattractive to voters in the short term, and keep on pushing your arguments until they reshape the terms of debate in ways that are favorable to you. When netroots people talk about the need for long-termism, they’re talking in a somewhat different way, about the need to build up long term organizational muscle across the US. They’re not talking about the risk of 16 years in the wilderness (or if they are, I’ve badly misunderstood them), nor about battles to remake the ideological landscape. So here’s my question: is the netroots strategy (which seems to prioritize winning over changing ideas and policy goals) compatible with the Perlstein strategy (which is about taking the very real risk of losing, perhaps repeatedly, in order to have a real shot at reordering the political landscape over the very long term? None of this is to say that Perlstein is right (as he acknowledges, his preferred strategy is very risky), nor that one mightn’t be able to make manageable (if awkward) tradeoffs between the two. But I’d surely like to see the question addressed explicitly in the arguments over Perlstein’s book over the next week or so – it’s a very important one.

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otto 05.16.06 at 8:03 am

Well, this is a huge question. One might note that the netroots went for Dean in a big way in the primaries and still ‘have his back’ in many ways, even though he was probably less ‘electable’ than Kerry. (Though Kerry wasn’t that electable either). I think it’s also fair to say that although the Kos etc have been referred to as ‘all about winning’ they want to see policy change, including on Middle East policy (where they are closer to Juan Cole’s views than the Dem establishment), and many of them are unhappy with Clinton’s method of being ‘all about winning’, as reproducing Eisenhower Republicanism. See Kos’s recent repudiation of HRC’s possible presidential candidature. (Although you never know what you might get with a HRC presidency…).

There’s certainly an argument for an anti-war campaign by Dean and co., (or Gore?), doomed to lose in 2006 and probably 2008, but setting the future direction of the party like Goldwater’s run in 1964, in the way that Kerryism never could. But of course it means, long term, seeing TNR and Beinart etc, and many other right-wing ‘liberals’, and the organisational support of the interest groups whose views they represent, sooner or later leaving the Democrats and joining the Republicans.


Doug 05.16.06 at 8:08 am

Well, at the Congressional level, Democrats are at year 12 of the 16-year-wilderness plan. What they are committed to is also increasingly understood. First and foremost, and in contrast to both the conservative movement and the current administration, they are committed to dealing with reality. Second, they are committed to opening America’s opportunities to all of its citizens. Third, they are committed to making everyone, particularly society’s most powerful, play by the same rules. Fourth, fifth, sixth and so on can be added as readers see fit.

I haven’t read Before the Storm or Crashing the Gates, but I would worry about a tendency toward ex post mythologization in the first. Movement conservative takeover of the Republicans probably looks much more inevitable now than it did in 1968 (when the Rs got Nixon elected to the first of his two terms), or even in 1988, when Reagan gave way to George I.

As I have understood the discussion around CTG, the authors take Democratic principles essentially as givens — while acknowledging that they are variations on a set of themes, rather than a Party Line laid down in the Politburo (or the Wednesday Meeting, as the case may be) — and focus on the practical elements where they believed they could make a contribution. They did not think the world needed another “whither the Dems?” book; instead, they thought it needed a “given present realities, here’s how” book. One of the recurring themes that I have seen at Daily Kos is that Democratic ideas are out there, and people are pushing them, and they are gaining some traction, all while large media enterprises cling to their “Democrats have no ideas” storyline.

So if the tide starts flowing our way again, and we reach our high-water mark in another dozen years, we’ll be able to look back and write a Perlstein book about the brave band that kept the fires burning and shifted the way that our fellow citizens looked at the political landscape. 2006 will look much less confusing then than it does now, and Gore’s loss may be the more iconic for having been so agonizingly close.


Louis Proyect 05.16.06 at 8:35 am

I really like and respect Rick Perlstein, who actually interviewed me for the book as an example of a young conservative who ended up on the left. (I joined the YAF in 1960 because JFK turned my stomach. He still does.) Doug Henwood was interviewed as well, since he was in the conservative club at Yale.

But on this business of the Democrats “learning” from Goldwater’s defeat, I think this is fundamentally mistaken. The Democrats are not the party they once were. This is a function of political economy rather than “stupidity”. They are for fiscal austerity, NAFTA type trade agreements, for the war in Iraq, etc. because this the logic of capital accumulation in history. Any Democrat who challenges this logic fundamentally won’t get funding from Goldman-Sach’s et al.

Here’s something I wrote about Rick and the DP a while back:


Steve LaBonne 05.16.06 at 8:39 am

Otto- I would not be altogether unhappy to see that scenario realized. As a Democrat I worry about the party getting suckered into taking power in 2006 / 2008 only to get mired in the thankless task of cleaning up the Republicans’ mess, leading to an early exit from power (on the other hand, as an American I have to swallow pretty hard when contemplating any extension of destructive Republican misrule). And exiling the TNR crowd may be the unavoidable prerequisite to having a Democratic Party that really stands for something other than opportunism.


Seth Finkelstein 05.16.06 at 8:44 am

But the netroots – as I understand it from reading blogs, the Kos/Armstrong book etc – is different. It isn’t committed to an ideological agenda, so much as it’s committed to winning.

Argh! No offense intended, but in my view, I think you SEVERELY misunderstand the reasoning. Almost to the point of complete inversion.

The netroots types absolutely hate the idea of committed to winning, over an ideological agenda. If there’s anything that Kos hates more than the Republicans, it’s perhaps the Democratic Leadership Council types (no smiley! – the guy almost literally declared a political jihad on them). It’s viewed as Beltway wimpiness which pleases the top Democratic Party apparatus, but loses elections. What you’re missing is that the netrooters think that winning will happen *from* an ideological agenda. They look at the way the Republicans have organized the Religious Right (and that sure hadn’t been done by appeals to moderate, sensible, rational discourse), and they think they can do that same thing by organizing Netheads. Which was the Dean Dream in a nutshell.

I believe there’s some cargo-cultism and very understandable envy here: If stoking up war-mongering and bigotry works for the Right, in terms of an organizing principle, why shouldn’t passionate anti-war and anti-bigotry work for the Left?

There’s problems, though. The Right’s not *only* ranters, they have lots and lots of money, as well as troops-on-the-ground. The Left doesn’t really have anything comparable. The idea then is that The Internet will supply both (as well as some pixie dust and magic ponies). But that assumes the Right can’t use it also (a very false assumption). And translating netheads into votes tends to be spectacularly bad. So, sadly, that leaves the ranting :-(.


Rick Perlstein 05.16.06 at 8:55 am

Not to short-circuit another brilliant agenda-setting post from Henry but I’d like to invite you all to take this discussion to Firedoglake on Sunday afternoon, when I’ll be in residence.


Henry 05.16.06 at 8:56 am

Seth – I don’t think that this is right. As I understant Kos etc their objection to the DLC is less about ideology than the supine attitude that the DLC has in re: the Republican party, the belief that bipartisanship is necessarily a virtue etc etc. In short, they perceive the DLC as losers who aren’t prepared to be sufficiently partisan and gung-ho. Armstrong etc have been happy to adopt the causes of people like Mark Warner who are definitely on the right of the Democratic party, as long as they’re not of the craven right. In short, their opposition to wimpy moderates is primarily b/c of their wimpiness rather than their ideology. Or am I wrong here? Certainly, one of the themes of the Armstrong/Kos book and of their blogging is that policy issues can be sorted out once we win – and that beating the Republicans is the first key step before anything else. This is an entirely reasonable claim – but it’s not the claim that Perlstein is making.


Henry 05.16.06 at 8:58 am

And yeah – what Rick sez. Save your smarter arguments for Sunday.


otto 05.16.06 at 8:58 am


Can I ask Rick at that time to discuss the question of which parts of the current Democratic party coalition may need to be ejected as part of a long-term strategy?

After all, dumping the Northeast was as much part of the Goldwater strategy as gaining the South.


Steve LaBonne 05.16.06 at 8:59 am

No more appearances by Howard Dean on the 700 Club might be a good start…


Bruce Baugh 05.16.06 at 9:17 am

The Democratic problem seems to be different from the one Goldwater’s movement faced. There they had a genuinely not-majority ideology, and it took time to find ways to win support and shape the debate in their terms to tilt things to where, finally, they had enough support to win. The Democratic Party of the present, on the other hand, has the problem of leaders who will not commit even tentatively to sentiments that are clearly widely held, in some cases by large majorities. Goldwater had to change the public; the Democratic netroots have to change their party.


Richard Bellamy 05.16.06 at 9:18 am

It is unfortunate that there are these attempts to draw parallels between what the Republicans “did” and what the Democrats “should do”, because they fail to see the disconnect between what the two parties “are.”

I would think that a Euro-influenced blog like this one wouldn’t fall into the same mistake of looking at Democrats and Republicans as “equal and opposite” parties. If you look at politics and important parties among all of the major, industrialized democracies it is painfully obvious that the Republicans are on one extreme, and the Democrats are in the center (with leftist, socialist, liberal, green, etc. parties to their left populating Europe but largely absent in America).

Now, from my perspective in Pennsylvania as a self-identified “Moderate”, I always vote Democrat in my state and national elections here because I much prefer the Democrat’s message to either the right-wing Republicans or the left-wing Greens/ Socialists/ Randomthirdparties. It’s an easy call for me.

I much prefer wonks who work to get a functional system over ideologues who will push their agendas whether it is working or not. I actually LIKED Bill Clinton.

So it strikes me as ridiculous to try to fit the Democrats into the mold of the Goldwater extremists. What they did worked for them BECAUSE they were the extremists. The Democrats couldn’t follow that mold without either becoming one of those left-wing parties to the left of them (which, maybe, is what people are actually calling for), or look ridiculous playing “Extreme Moderate.”


Seth Finkelstein 05.16.06 at 9:25 am

Henry, I think we were just talking past each other a little, sorry.

I agree with you that “Certainly, one of the themes of the Armstrong/Kos book and of their blogging is that policy issues can be sorted out once we win – and that beating the Republicans is the first key step before anything else.

But this leads to the very obvious question of HOW to win. You’re right, it’s not policy issues in terms of the claim that Perlstein is making. But what does that leave then? Being “sufficiently partisan and gung-ho”. Over what, if not a set of policy? In essence, what remains is Culture War from the Left.

I read “not committed to an ideological agenda, so much as it’s committed to winning.” as “not committed to partisanship, so much as it’s committed to pragmatism”. Whereas it’s more like “not committed to any set of policies, so much as it’s committed to partisanship” (leading to a partisanship of a kind of political identity politics rather than policy :-()


David Weman 05.16.06 at 9:46 am

Henry, I believe you’re right that Moulitsas/Armstrong’s thinking is different from Perlstein’s, though I think you mischaracterize both of them a bit and exaggerate the differences. (Rick can correct me if I’m wrong.) Presumably, they found things to like in Perlstein’s books without buying his thesis wholesale.

You’re very wrong to equate Moulitsas/Armstrong with “the netroots”. First of all, Atrios and Hamsher’s blogs are as much netrots as the election-focused blogs. Secondly, most of the other MyDD and DKos bloggers, and a lot of commenters, are probably closer to Perlstein than Moulitsas, see for instance Stoller.


David Weman 05.16.06 at 9:56 am

I don’t think Rick he says there’s any need to “commit irreversibly to a political outlook that is likely to seem weird and unattractive to voters in the short term”. The progressive’s predicament now isn’t analogous to the new right’s in 1965. There’s a bunch of stuff one should emulate, as well as some *negative* examples, and lots of things that just doesn’t apply.


butOur 05.16.06 at 10:13 am

Another difference:

The Goldwater agenda had to take an ideological plunge because its ideas really were far out of the mainstream. Most of the years in the wilderness were spent crafting elaborate lies to cover unpopular proposals (e.g. let’s gut the government, do it by cutting taxes, and tell the lie that lower tax-rates will increase government revenue). What the conservatives had to do was to build up a party apparatus to drown out critical consideration of their real proposals–Regnery, Limbaugh, etc. That way, people would sign onto candidates and policies that amount to a huge bait and switch. That’s why the con is falling apart now–now that people see the blot behind the Rorschach, they don’t like it at all.

The Democratic agenda is intrinsically far closer to the mainstream of American political sentiment. Why should the party go out of its way to *look* for extremist views, just so that it can be farther from the mainstream?


otto 05.16.06 at 11:07 am

Sadly, anti-militarism is not currently mainstream in the United States.


garymar 05.16.06 at 11:09 am

Deep agreement with Butour’s comments above: Democratic stances are much closer to the opinions of the majority in this country, so why must we emulate the extremist guerrilla tactics of the Right?

I read Before the Storm several months ago and it was extremely compelling in its depth of detail, but the names of the real players – the people who manned the mimeograph machines during the darkest period – has already faded from memory. I’ll have to read it again. I was 11 years old during the 1964 campaign, and very frightened by Goldwater. I may have seen the “little girl picking flowers/mushroom cloud” anti-Goldwater commercial when it aired, but memory can play such tricks on you! I probably only remember rebroadcasts from later documentaries.


Grand Moff Texan 05.16.06 at 11:56 am

Apropos of nothing:

Awesome. They even try to puff up their need to lie down and rest whenever the temperature in the kitchen goes up by one degree by imagining that it’s just what Roman Legionaires did in the heat of battle.

Did you know that the typical Spartan warrior would put on 15-20 pounds of fat during the course of a typical campaign session from eating processed military food? Or that Hannibal developed his battle plan for Cannae while spending a week in his mother’s basement? Also: Persian accounts of the Battle of the Granicus all agree that Alexander’s hands were stained bright orange somehow. Finally, “wanker” was a term of great respect the Classical world, awarded to military units of great distinction (it occurs regularly in Xenophon’s ANABASIS, for instance).



GKurtz 05.16.06 at 1:09 pm

Seth, your argument about Kos, etc, having an ideological stance sounds one-quarter right to me. Henry’s covered half of what’s wrong. The other half, as you point out, is their idea that “winning will happen from an ideological agenda”. You miss half of that half, though: these guys do have an ideological agenda, but it’s an essentially moderate one, and comparisons to the Goldwaterites fall apart right there. Kos, Atrios, etc. liked Dean because, like him, they are center-center-left Democrats who seem to genuinely like the ideological position you get when you take a handful of clear center-left stands (opposing the war on realist grounds, making health care a priority issue) plus a handful of emphatically moderate stands (wanting balanced budgets, opposing single-payer health insurance). They liked Dean for reasons of style, too, but you don’t have to share Dean’s ideology to like his style, and it seems that the Tribunes of Blogland liked both.

If we want to play with analogies to Goldwater, we should look at the actual real-live left: people who in Europe would be called socialists or social democrats. As for whether the Goldwater people are a good model for the American left, I’m skeptical: if the right & the left are qualitatively different, the same strategy might not fit both. I like the argument (which I associate with Mike Harrington & Bayard Rustin) that what matters most is not the ideas in and of themselves but the coalition you pull together. Purist self-isolation is great for articulating ideas, but it doesn’t build interesting coalitions.


Matt Hellige 05.16.06 at 1:25 pm

Is the title a nod to John Brunner? I hope so… The Traveller in Black is severely underrated…


joel turnipseed 05.16.06 at 1:37 pm

Perlstein’s book is very good–but the strategy that he takes from it in, say, Superjumbo is suspect (though I may not be giving him the credit he deserves).

Goldwater’s moment may have been a defining moment, but history is just way too complex to think that it’s some magic “cut-and-paste” formula for success. Buckley’s National Review was started well before the Goldwater campaign, Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom came out in ’62, “I was a communist” confessionals were already a well-established trope, and so on.

But those are, so to speak, insider issues. There are deep strains in our popular culture that are very favorable to the Republicans. I’m thinking here of recents reads like Sean McCann’s Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise & Fall of New Deal Liberalism and John Hoberman’s The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties here, the Scientology, Ayn Rand and Left Behind cults, the Tom Clancy juggernaut… It’s quite a list, and there’s not really a countervailing force, is there?

The American Liberty League opposition to The New Deal was probably the best-financed, most aggressive reactionary movement in our history–and who remembers it? Nobody, because the cultural moment was all wrong for them. This isn’t to say “all hope is lost!” (it’s not–and butour’s point is well-taken)–just: let’s not get too reductive here, or underemphasize the difficulties of building some great left coalition in America (and the left, FWIW, didn’t exactly cop to the New Deal for its part–that was FDR’s great political achievement: he did it in face of opposition from almost every side).


joel turnipseed 05.16.06 at 1:42 pm

short version: every catalyst needs a reactant.


Henry 05.16.06 at 1:42 pm

bq. Is the title a nod to John Brunner? … The Traveller in Black is severely underrated…

Yes on both counts. More on the substantive issues later …


Timothy Burke 05.16.06 at 3:49 pm

You know, the “lose by failing” thing was for me the least important insight in the book, and the least reproducible. I don’t suppose I took out of it a recipe for successful party politics. What I learned from it is that you could write a very good social history of conservative politics and discover some things that conventional wisdom on the left was fundamentally incurious about or actively misbelieved. That’s what I read most avidly: an account of the social roots of the political base attracted to Goldwater, particularly the small-town business owners.

I don’t think anything Perlstein describes is reproducible, as Joel Turnipseed observes above. What is important for the Democrats is to not be seduced by casual dismissals or callow summaries of the Republican base, and to look carefully at the historical roots of post-Goldwater conservatism for signs of deep structural stress or contradiction in the coalition the Republicans eventually assembled under Reagan.


ben alpers 05.16.06 at 4:28 pm

What an interesting, and complicated, topic and post. A few thoughts that may or may not fit together and amount to something larger (with apologies in advance about the length of this post)…

1) The Republican Party and the Democratic Party have never been isomorphic. The difference is not, however, that the GOP has tended to extremism, while the Democratic Party has tended toward the center (however much that description might fit today). The more general, longterm difference is that the GOP was, from its start, a fundamentally ideologically unified party, though its ideology has obviously changed a lot since the 1860s. It was created largely in opposition to slavery (and in favor of a particular free labor ideology). The Democratic Party, in contrast, has historically tended to be an odd coalition whose parts often disagree greatly on ideological questions (hence Will Rogers’ famous quip that “I’m not a member of any organized political party…I’m a Democrat!”)

In the 1930s and early 1940s, the Democrats were simultaneously the party of the New Deal and the party of Jim Crow. In the 1970s, they were the party of Scoop Jackson and George McGovern.

Obviously there have been moments of relative ideological diversity within the GOP (the 1910s and the 1950s – early 1970s being two good examples), and perhaps of relative ideological unity within the Democratic Party (harder to identify these moments…any nominees?). But each party has a tendency to revert to type. Attempts to impose ideological unity on the GOP have historically been much more successful than attempts to impose ideological unity on the Democratic Party (FDR’s failed attempt to oust anti-New Deal Dems in the late 1930s being just one example).

Though it’s hard to identify what exactly accounts for these tendencies in the long run, if one takes them seriously, then what worked for the right within the GOP post-1964, might not work for the left within the Democratic Party.

2) The Democratic left had its 1964 in 1972. And it responded very differently to its lost wager. By and large, progressive Democrats have been team players ever since 1972. Rather than continuing the fight against the party’s center and right that (arguably) began in Chicago in 1968, progressive Democrats have by and large gone along as the party has drifted steadily rightward. Progressives have accepted party reforms designed to limit the ability of the progressive grassroots to control the presidential nomination (e.g. Super Delegates and Super Tuesday Southern primaries), and have by and large supported center-right candidates that the party has tended to nominate since 1976. Compare the traction that Reagan’s candidacy got in 1976 to that garnered by Kennedy’s candidacy in 1980.

3) The story of the conservative movement post-1964 is a story, first, about a fight within the GOP. There’s simply no analogic situation for Democrats today. It’s not just kos and the “netroots” crowd who have not joined in a similar ideological fight within the Democratic Party. There is no such fight going on. If anything self-identified progressive campaigns go out of their way to emphasize their loyalty to the current direction of the party. Yesterday, for example, I heard a report on NPR about the Pennsylvania Senate primary. A representative from one of the two progressive candidates’ campaigns emphasized that part of the point of their campaign was to make progressives feel that they’d had a say in the race, so that they would then feel more comfortable supporting the anti-choice Bob Casey, who’s the likely Democratic nominee, come November. Nearly everyone in the Democratic Party is more invested in covering up ideological differences within the party (or suggesting those differences are a strength), than in bringing them to a head and insisting on their resolution in favor of one side or the other.

4) Since at least the mid-1980s (and arguably since 1972) the center-right of the Democratic Party has understood that it will have a hard time convincing the grassroots of the party of the merits of its positions. So it has tended to couch its arguments in terms of electability. As a result, the last thirty or so years of internal Democratic politics has been dominated not by a discussion of ideology and policy, but rather by a discussion of electoral strategy. Kos and company are very much in this tradition. And it makes them fundamentally unlike movement conservatives of either the 1960s or today.


anon 05.16.06 at 4:34 pm

Quite a few facts wrong in this thread. First, the assumption that the right spent 16 years in the wilderness. They did not. Goldwater lost in 1964. That was the height of the civil rights revolution, and 1968 was the year that the Dixiecrats lost their veto power in the Democratic party.

I believe the migration of the white Southerner to the Republican party completely tracks the move to the right of the Republican party. This was a somewhat gradual process but by no means 16 years in the wilderness. Right wing ideas were completely acceptable and current in the South even in 1964. (I was there and heard it on the radio, in the newspaper, and in the speeches of preachers and local community leaders.)

So no, “had to lose in order to win” is inaccurate. I would suggest that a good analogy to the truth is a chemical process whereby a precipitate settles out of solution. The right wing consolidated in a single party due to race.


Raleigh 05.16.06 at 6:30 pm

to echo anon’s point about race, i think it’s important to note two things: the historical conditions that produced the new conservative success might not recur should the left try a similar strategy. as ideologically pure as the new right sounds in the book, they were also supreme opportunists who took advantage of the Civil Rights Bill, the furor over Vietnam, and of course, evangelical protestantism, to put together a movement that’s less ideologically coherent than it sounds–racists, christians, cold-warriors, and free marketers and tax-cutters who funded the movement to get their own goals accomplished. they also didn’t overlook the necessity of winning at all costs on the “lower” or more local level of government. Ingenues such as Rehnquist winning their stripes by denying Hispanics the right to vote in the southwest played as important a role as the high profile grandstanding at the national conventions. Unfortunately for Dems, most of their historic victories until the onset of the Cold War came from playing up the race card–being the party of white supremacy. Their hold on power despite slowly becoming the civil rights party as of Truman’s presidency came from the legacy of the New Deal, and the South’s own historic distrust of the Republican party from Reconstruction days. Lee Atwater himself wrote that the New Right came into power by exploiting the race card and equating federal power with stereotypes about minorities. So, this begs the question–what do the Democrats need to learn from the book? What is the grand strategy that will pull whites back into the party without descending to the same white supremacy politics that landed them there? Do we wait until whites are a plurality in this country and then overwhelm them with numbers? how do we deal with the race card?


M. 05.16.06 at 6:59 pm

Brad Delong once pointed out that the loss was much bigger than the later win — since the loss meant the arrival of Johnson and Great Society, and the win has meant twenty years of trying and failing to undo that.


Nicholas Weininger 05.16.06 at 9:37 pm

It is worth remembering that right-wing Republicanism as it emerged after Goldwater bears little substantive resemblance to Goldwaterism. The *rhetoric* is very similar, but the actual policies implemented are completely different– which was Reagan’s genius: he saw that the rhetoric of Goldwater, combined with a policy of continued welfare-mercantilism plus a shift in the distribution of federal loot toward his base, could make for a winning combination. But no Republican politician save Ron Paul has, at any point in the last twenty or so years, seriously advocated anything close to Goldwater’s program; even the Contract with America was much less radical and its proponents were total opportunists, clearly not committed at all to actually enacting any of it.

So if the left tries to come up with its own version of the Goldwater movement, it may well end with the triumph of a deeply corrupted welfare-mercantilist movement dedicated to handing out spoils and special protections to pliant interest groups while pompously mouthing the rhetoric of “social justice”. The netrooters ought to ask themselves if that’s really what they want.


Doug 05.17.06 at 4:44 am

In re: 25 above, immigration may be the powerful reactant that blows up the Republican coalition. Look at California after Pete Wilson; ten years and counting of political wilderness at the statewide level. Arnold (an immigrant) as the only exception. A big burst of Republican nativism at the national level could convince enough Hispanics to vote Democratic to ensure gains for the Dems for a long time to come.


David Weman 05.17.06 at 7:18 am

Where progreessives want to emulate Goldwaterites.

“And let me close by saying this: we will all win, eventually. With few exceptions, all of the challengers who ran against the party establishment today will prove victorious in the long run. *While victories such as mine were rare, all of the progressive and reform defeats will eventually succeed as long as the people who participated in those losses keep trying*. If there is one thing the establishment is not prepared for, it is a dedicated group of people who will keep trying to win even after temporary setbacks. Even if our victories are few, our victories will keep multiplying as long as we keep running. Hell, that is probably how the establishment came to power in the first place. As soon as it is clear that you will win sometimes, and that you will not be deterred even when you do not win, eventually those in power have no choice but to accept that you have a role in determining the future of the party. Give up easily, and be defeated easily. Never give up, and eventually you will govern.”


theorajones 05.17.06 at 10:49 am

Compare the Republican response to the Goldwater loss in ’64 to the Democratic response to the McGovern loss in ’72, and it’s perfectly clear why Democrats are losing today.

In ’64, Right-wingers set out to make their ideology the dominant one. They didn’t just define themselves, they launched a full-out attack on liberalism and identified it as the root cause of all of today’s problems.

In ’72, Democrats, on the other hand, decided that they couldn’t win an ideological debate. They abandoned the field of “ideology” for “competence,” and decided to go with whatever small left-leaning ideas they had that polled decently. This was a dumb move.

At this point, we’re completely polarized between a Republican party whose every public action–however incoherent or inconsistent–is seen as a part of a potent and appealing ideology, and a Democratic party with very popular policies & white papers out the wazoo, that is constantly mocked as “flip-flopping,” “adrift,” and with “no new ideas.”

I think it’s time for Democrats to realize that we’re not going to win elections with better policy papers or press conferences. There’s a declining marginal return to one-offs or changes in the fine details of various policies, and we’re at a point where tweaks are more likely to hurt us on the “flip flop” than they are to increase our substantive appeal.

It’s time for us to re-engage on the battlefield of ideology. We’ve got to attack CONSERVATISM and define our ideology in contrast to conservatism’s least appealing features. Also, it’s a good idea to call our new ideology “progressivism”–less because liberalism is a tarnished brand, and more because a) a new name means a new idea and b) it has the word PROGRESS in it! That’s KICK ASS! Everybody loves progress!

We really have to stop pretending that ideology doesn’t matter. It does matter. It matters a great deal, because it’s the storyline that all your other public actions–from policy positions to initiatives to your personal character–will fit into.


RickD 05.17.06 at 11:37 am

I would agree with Seth Finkelstein that you’re misreading the netroots, if you think that they are not ideological. The word “progressive” is used constantly on the major left-wing blogs, and it’s well understood that one of the motivating philosophies is that the Democrats have been losing because they are perceived to be devoid of ideology or, worse, the ideology adopted by many Democrats (notably Lieberman, but also the Clinton/DLC group) is to offer themselves up as a corporate-friendly Republican-lite.

It’s true that many of the leading bloggers are really upset at Democratic turncoats who seem more interested in staying on the good side of President Bush than in representing the traditional constituencies of their party. But that observation doesn’t mean that the netroots leaders have no interest in ideology.

What is true, however, is that the netroots consists of many people who would like to see a bare minimum of honesty and competence from government. But there’s still a belief system in place that competence tends to correlate with a liberal belief system.

Let’s put it this way: if the netroots were solely focused on winning as opposed to ideology, they wouldn’t get quite so worked up about things like the Alito nomination.


Adam Stephanides 05.17.06 at 4:06 pm

To elaborate a bit on anon’s point, the Republicans got not just a long-term payoff but a short-term payoff by moving right: converting a large and growing region of the country (the South) from solidly Democratic to predominantly Republican. I don’t see any such opportunity for the Democrats to make short-term gains by moving left.

Nicholas Weininger: “It is worth remembering that right-wing Republicanism as it emerged after Goldwater bears little substantive resemblance to Goldwaterism…. [N]o Republican politician save Ron Paul has, at any point in the last twenty or so years, seriously advocated anything close to Goldwater’s program[.]” I haven’t read either Perlstein’s book or his essay, but based upon what I’ve read about them, this strikes me as a very telling objection, and I’d be interested to see how Perlstein would respond to it.


Daragh McDowell 05.18.06 at 8:04 am

As interesting as this whole debate is, I think we’re ignoring a crucial factor: the relative increase of the speed in which ideas can be disseminated in the Forty plus years since the Goldwater candidacy. The Internet, 24 Hour news networks etc. These have all accelerated the pace at which political thinking and intention can change. Look at the rapiditiy with which the Dean candidacy came together, or conversely with which it fell apart.
The rapid speed to which the modern day news cycle has accelerated, means that a Left wing ‘movement’ ala Goldwater’s might not need to wait so long to build a coalition around ‘progressive’ ideas. It might even be possible within the space of a single Presidency. Given Bush’s poll numbers, it may already have…

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