The most important lesson I’ve learned in politics is not a complicated or profound idea. It’s pretty simple actually. But it has helped immensely in my understanding of how things work politically speaking. It’s been especially useful when I have had to come to terms with why my (usually left-leaning) ideas, despite being so obviously wonderful (at least to me), too often do not succeed when put to a vote of the electorate.
The lesson is this:
Positions near the extreme ends of the political scale, right or left, almost never get adopted by the electorate as a whole. It doesn’t matter whether an idea is the most incredible one to come along since humans discovered fire. It’s doesn’t matter by what objective criteria one can prove that the idea is superior to any conceivable alternative. It’s not going to be implemented as long as the position remains seated at the far edge of the political spectrum. Why? Because, almost by definition, positions near the extremes have the support of only a small minority of voters.
In many cases, this restraint is a good thing. It acts as a protection against passage of laws that go off the rails by moving too far in one direction or alternating laws that wildly swing back and forth like an out-of-control pendulum.
But what about those times when an extreme idea is actually a great idea? Is there really no chance for such ideas to be implemented?
We needn’t be that pessimistic or cynical. There is a way for such ideas to succeed.
To obtain success, rather than push for your idea in the short run, you need to go for a long run shift of the political spectrum towards your desired direction — so that your “extreme” idea is no longer at the fringes.
Superficially, this approach may not sound all that different from what I just declared as impossible. However, the two approaches are very different. And this gets us to the core of the “lesson.”
Think of it this way: Suppose you could assign a number to all political ideas, using a scale of 1-100, with 1 being most left and 100 being most right. Let’s further assume that the range of ideas up for debate at any point in time represents only a portion of the total scale. After eliminating any “lunatic fringe” notions, let’s say the current spectrum spans from 35 to 65.
Now let’s say your extreme proposal ranks at 38 on the scale. For people in the middle or to the right of the middle (50 or above), your idea represents a shift of 12 points or more. This requires too big a leap for center and right people to make in one election cycle, no matter how compelling your idea or how persuasive your arguments. As you’ll need support from at least some of these people for your idea to win an election, you have no hope of getting your idea into law. At least not today.
So let’s try something else. Let’s work over the long term of several election cycles to move the whole political spectrum in your direction, step by tiny step. With a combination of skill, luck and shifting demographics, let’s say you manage to move the spectrum 10 points in a dozen years. In this hypothetical example, this would mean that the spectrum now spans 25 to 55. Suddenly, your “38” idea isn’t so extreme any more. In fact, it’s only only two points away from dead center. Put it up for a vote now, and you have a good shot at winning.
This is precisely what conservatives have been working to achieve ever since Barry Goldwater lost his bid for the presidency back in 1964. And it’s what’s they have largely succeeded in doing ever since Ronald Reagan was elected president. Most political analysts would agree that that today’s political spectrum is “center-right” and far more right-leaning than it was back in the 1960’s.
This is partially why “liberal” has become almost a derogatory word, with few if any Democrats wishing to describe themselves with the term. In contrast, as evidenced by the most recent presidential primaries, Republicans eagerly scramble to see who can grab the crown of being hailed as the most “conservative.” When it comes to legislation, Democrats remain largely on the defensive, trying to hang on to the status quo, while Republicans keep pushing for more and more conservative legislation — often with great success.
But this pendulum swing to the right may be coming to end. It’s still too early to say for certain, but signs are sure pointing in this direction.
This is a year when Colorado and Washington passed laws legalizing recreational user of marijuana. It’s a year when Maine and Maryland joined an increasing number of states that have legalized same-sex marriages.
Tammy Baldwin, an openly gay woman, defeated former Gov. Tommy Thompson to become the next Senator from Wisconsin. A clearly left-wing Elizabeth Warren defeated Scott Brown in Massachusetts. In other key Senate races, Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly defeated Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock respectively, defeats for those that believe in “legitimate rape” that is “God’s will.” More seriously, it was a defeat for those Republicans who mistakenly believed that women (or men for that matter) didn’t care about such issues.
This election almost certainly signaled the end of a strong push for more restrictive immigration laws, as even the most conservative of Republicans come to terms with how their anti-minority positions are hurting them at the polls.
And, of course, Obama won re-election in an electoral college landslide, taking seven of the eight swing states. And he did so on a platform that strongly asserted an intention to raise taxes.
Here in California, Democrats have a super-majority in both legislative houses for the first time in decades. And Proposition 30, a critical proposal to raise taxes, passed.
Perhaps most significantly, in regards to the point I’m making about shifting the spectrum, “Obamacare” will now be the law of the land. The dangers of a Supreme Court overturn or a Romney repeal are gone. Obamacare is still a far cry from the “universal health care” that those on the extreme left would prefer. But take heart lefties. The spectrum has shifted. Not too long ago, Obamacare was considered so extreme as to have no chance of becoming law. And yet here we are. I predict that, in another few years, Obamacare will be viewed as the “middle” position in the debate — making universal health care seem far less extreme than it is today. This doesn’t guarantee its passage — not by a long shot. But it moves universal health care from impossible to doable.
And that’s how formerly extreme ideas become law. You don’t get the country to support an extreme position. You get the position to no longer be considered extreme.
A few years ago, who would have thought that a gay couple could get legally married in this country, serve marijuana instead of wine at the reception, and not worry about getting arrested? Times change.
Heck, not too long ago, who would have thought an African-American could get elected President?