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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Greenberg, Drum, Streamlining, and Populism

The Washington Monthly has been publishing a lot of discussion of the idea that Democrats can win back the white working class, which supports many of their proposals, if and only if the Democrats convince them that the Democrats will streamline government and make it more efficient. Kevin Drum is skeptical. I am much more skeptical. My post below was originally a comment on his post here. It is really a critical discussion of Stanley Greenberg's analysis of his team's important research here.
The Average Joe’s Proviso Surprising numbers of white working-class voters will support the Democratic agenda—if Democrats promise to reform the government that would carry it out. By Stanley Greenberg

I object to the bolded words in the title and abstract.

I am not at all convinced by Greenberg's interpretation of the polling and focus group data he presents. He insists that the Democrats problem is that people think government is inefficient etc and the solution is to convince people that the Democrats will streamline government. But first he found strong support for the Democratic message among people *not* prompted with the prior clean up government message. The claim that white working class Americans would like the government to do more but only under the proviso that it is cleaned up first is just not supported by his description of his raw data. What he found was even more support for the Democratic message if it is preceded by a clean up government message. "proviso", and "if" used to mean "if and only if" overstate the evidence.

I quote Greenberg's report of actual data

We asked presidential-year voters to react to a battery of bold initiatives that could form a Democratic economic agenda for 2016. They include policies to protect Medicare and Social Security, investments in infrastructure to modernize the country, a cluster of policies to help working families with child care and paid leave, and new efforts to ensure equal pay and family leave for women. Voters embraced these initiatives, and they tested more strongly than a Republican alternative.
Notice no "provided that" or "so long as" or anything which justifies "proviso" or "if". Of course voters would also like a more efficient government (why not).

Much more importantly, the message which caused increased support for Democratic proposals was absolutely not a streamline government message. It started with denunciations of money in politics (along with Republicans are bought and paid for by selfish greedy billionaires). Then it went on to dump on bureaucrats. there is no way that Greenberg's analysis of focus groups can distinguish between the hypothesis that "streamline government" is a winning message and the hypothesis that populist appeals to anger and class resentment are the winning message. He included both. I think a distaste for the politics of resentment, the politics of division, the politics of class struggle (called class war by oponents) is blinding people to the strong evidence of powerful populist anger.

This from Greenberg's article

one of the most effective campaign attacks we tested linked big donations to politicians advancing the interests of wealthy donors who used unlimited, secret money to make sure that billionaires’ and CEOs’ taxes remained artificially low and their loopholes stayed protected.

The power of this attack comes from the central role of the corrupt Washington and Wall Street nexus in the new economy. While working-class men struggled, the Republican candidate was helping government work for big corporations and special interests.

When Democracy Corps tested this attack in Louisiana, North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Colorado, and the other Senate battleground states, it was among the most powerful attacks on the Republican candidates.

Of course, none of the Democratic candidates ran that ad.

Note the effective attack, as described by Greenberg, includes no discussion of streamlining government or making it more efficient.

Here is the main report of new research

in a straight test, the presidential electorate is as enthusiastic about a reform narrative as the middle-class economic one. The first part of the narrative focuses on big business and special interests that give big money to politicians and then use lobbyists to win special tax breaks and special laws that cost the country billions. The second part emphasizes how special interests and the bureaucracy protect out-of-date programs that don’t work. The bottom line of the narrative is that government reform would free up money so the government could work for middle-class and working families rather than big donors.

Most importantly, when voters hear the reform narrative first, they are then dramatically more open to the middle-class economic narrative that calls for government activism in response to America’s problems.

See how the effective priming narrative appeals to anger at big business, special interests, lobbyists and big donors. It strikes me as a populist message not a "streamline government and improve efficiency" good government message.

I guess my alleged point is obvious. I'm just saying that here we may have the wonk version of the pundit's fallacy -- wonks who devote their lives to trying to figure out how to make the government more efficient argue that this is also the way to win elections. Well I prefer to think about how to improve policy than to appeal to anger and resentment. But Greenberg's data are Greenberg's data.

I absolutely agree with Kevin Drum's view that it will be impossible to convince people. I'd add that even actually streamlining government and making it more efficient (which can only be done after massively winning elections) wouldn't convince most people. Most people don't think that Democrats cut taxes for most US families in the period 2009-10 -- their own taxes were cut by the ARRA and they didn't notice. Most people think that the ACA is costing more than forecast. If people can't even notice that actual spending is lower than forecast spending, how anyone hope that they would detect something much more subtle like streamlining or efficiency ?

Here is evidence supporting my claim but quoted from Greenberg's article

In the spring of 2010—a year into the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—Democracy Corps asked voters, “Who are the main beneficiaries of the Economic Recovery Act?” Almost half, 45 percent, said that unemployed Americans benefited a lot or some from the act, and a lesser amount, 34 percent, said the middle class was benefiting. But three-quarters said the big banks and financial institutions were the beneficiaries, and 50 percent said they benefited a lot—more than eight times the number who said that for the middle class. White working-class men were particularly outraged, with six in ten saying that the banks benefited a lot. White working-class respondents were the ones most likely to say that they themselves were not benefiting: just one in five said they benefited from the Economic Recovery Act.
Almost all had benefited at least from the making work pay tax cuts. In contrast the ARRA helped big banks only becaues it helped the economy. Respondents conflated the ARRA and TARP -- two completely different programs (initiated by bills signed by two different Presidents). The ARRA spending included unusually little fraud and abuse. It was, in that sense, streamlined and efficient. But that does the Democrats no good if most people think that the ARRA was TARP.

Note that this proof that good policy is not always good politics is found in an article cited by many as supporting the claim that the key to winning elections is streamlining government and making it more efficient.

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