Understanding The American Electorate: Party, Policy, Priority, Personality, Pragmatism

For most of American history there has been a massive misunderstanding of what motivates the electorate and why turnout is so low. The American electorate can be broadly categorized by the 5 Ps though there is important nuance as well. Nearly every voter is driven by some combination of party, policy, priority, personality, and pragmatism. Different candidates even running on relatively similar platforms in similar constituencies often generate very different electoral results.

We’ll use Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders,, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as examples. Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton through Personality and Priority. Clinton and Obama had about equal cache among Party voters. Hillary easily lead Obama on Pragmatism and Policy. Sanders lost to Hillary by being strong where Obama was strong without the Party power to back his campaign up. Trump meanwhile rode the same strategy as Sanders AND Obama, again with minimal Party support. The difference was his party had a dozen other candidates splitting the vote. His personality was also more interesting for the media than that of Sanders. Obama was like Trump in that way.

Different traits are more valuable in primaries versus general elections as well. Party is a worthless advantage for instance since it can’t grab non-party voters. Policy is a similarly weak power because general election voters are less educated and less politically involved than primary voters. Pragmatism is mostly a comparative value, so its more useful in primaries. Personality and Priority are the most valuable of the traits in general elections and its not for nothing that candidates winning on those traits ended up being more powerful in general elections.

Lets really dig into what these traits are actually about. Policy is relatively obvious. Having a lot of detailed and thought out policies for every conceivable issue helps a candidate seem prepared and knowledgeable to the elite interests in a party as well as other politicians. The weakness of Policy is that it affects mostly those who would support a candidate because of party anyway. The kinds of voters who swing one way or another in the general election generally don’t concern themselves with details.

Party is also an obvious one. A large percentage of voters in primaries and a vast majority of politicians are wedded to the organization rather than the platform of their party. They devoted time and money and for staffers and politicians they get their job and their paycheck from the party. We often see the sort of familial loyalty to parties even as their positions are rapidly changing. Similarly party voters often take the positions delivered from on high by party elites as their own positions. The recent flip in the Democratic party on Dreamers and immigration are an example.

Pragmatism is relatively related to Party and opposed to Priority. People with the pragmatist trait often focus on proclamations from the elite about who has the greatest chance to win. Hillary in both 2008 initially and in 2016 the whole time was presented as the pragmatist’s candidate. Sanders was too progressive to win a general election and such things. However pragmatism is often a problematic issue when it misunderstands what kinds of priorities voters have.

Personality is mostly about the backstory of the candidate, their personal charisma, how interesting they are to voters and the media. Personality can include traditional attractiveness and charisma but also includes things like authenticity, which powered the Sanders campaign. This is a very valuable general election trait because people make lots of subconscious and snap judgments based on manner and appearance during first impressions.

Priority is one of the most significant traits. Priority represents the sort of overall high level message of a campaign. Obama did hope and change while being extremely generic and bland, which is what made him so successful on top of his personality factor. Trump was bombastic and take charge and he presented simple solutions to significant issues. The drain the swamp push was the most important, probably followed by building the wall. Sanders spent his time talking about healthcare and economic equality which was a powerful message for those unimpressed by the ACA and by the elite driven economic recovery. Clinton meanwhile represented the status quo while the previously mentioned candidates focused on change. Change is almost always a superior strategy, especially with ISIS and the failure of the ACA and immigration in the news day in and day out. Its also a critical strategy when your party is the one with an outgoing two term president.

Voters in a general election are likely not going to read your bland and impenetrable policy papers. The whole point of representative democracy is that voters select other people to solve political problems. If you aren’t a healthcare expert than reading a candidate’s wonky detail heavy healthcare policy doesn’t benefit you because you can’t evaluate it. You want to elect someone you trust will fight for your best interests.

Also relevant to note that having too many policies is actually off putting. You can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time but you can’t also play the tuba, create nuclear fusion, and write an essay while doing that. A clear focus on a few issues is the essence of the value of Priority.

Leverage, Bluffs, And Authenticity

One of the most valuable tools for holding politicians accountable is to give them what they say they want. Many, many Democrats and donors are saying one thing and doing another. This happens on so many topics like Dreamers, healthcare, wages, unions, etc. In the second phase of creating viable third and minor parties when a federation of groups has built up enough support they can begin to promise to get campaign promises fulfilled in exchange for policy compromises and support for things like election reform. Its very easy to make promises and ignore them when no one is holding you accountable.

Once there is another option you either have to make fewer promises to win easy votes or you have to make deals for things you don’t like in order to show supporters you are committed to their issues. This is the primary fear of Democrats and why they hate the idea of more open democracy. Competition in the political marketplace is a direct and massive threat to their power.

The power of political authenticity truly comes into its own when mainline parties must compete with effective opponents. Sanders could be lauded for his authenticity by Democrats as long as he was limited by their ability to point to his idealist but impractical goals. Joy Ann Reid herself once referred to Sanders as the great clarion voice in the Democratic party. That was before he was in a position to actually achieve anything. Then the knives came out.

However, this strategy cannot be deployed until the non-mainline parties position themselves to be an actual help or hindrance. As long as disunity and infighting reign there is no power here. These parties and groups need to get together and demonstrate their competence and potential right now or else be dismissed as self-important egotistical do nothings who deploy rhetoric to get sympathy and influence and feel self-important without achieving actual change.

Outside, Inside, Side By Side

One of the most critical aspects of strategy when trying to create change in politics is having a comprehensive plan. You need to understand the realities and possibilities of politics and not allow ideological purism from limiting what you can accomplish. Mainline political parties are large and heterogeneous groups. Depending on the way that issues are aligned between your national duopoly you are going to find people you can work with from both parties.

You probably align more closely with 1 but its not 100%. Certain groups in American politics refuse to accept that even one party has politicians they can work with. This makes no sense because in a truly open multi party system most parties understand the need for a coalition. Most successful positive policies have been passed into the mainstream this way. The Green Party in Germany and their work with the Social Democratic Party is an outstanding example.

Working side by side with politicians that lean your way inside mainline parties is critical. Its also critical to pair this work with having your own party create incentives and pressures on mainline politicians to campaign for your positions. Non-party pressure groups as well as third parties waiting to welcome voters frustrated with mainline parties are both powerful ways to shape mainline party policy in a favorable way. Finally you need an inside strategy. Influencing voters to support your ideas causes the politicians that represent them inside mainline parties to change their stances. Both direct pressure on politicians and indirect pressure from their constituents are important. Your approach is three-fold. Outside, Inside, Side By Side.

Campaigning By Governing: Be The Change You Want To See

Everybody in the world can write a pretty policy platform on a website and claim to be engaged in politics. But the truth is that you aren’t engaged in politics till you engage in politics. Messy, dirty, complicated, difficult politics. The best evidence of an ability to be successful at politics is being successful at politics. As long as the many non-mainline parties in the United States cannot organize themselves as a coalition, federation, or union to take the fight to the two mainline parties they cannot sincerely believe that anyone would take their political activity seriously as something to become involved in and fight for. The only way to begin the long slog of transforming American politics is to transform their own situation from one of division to one of unity.

The path to unity is going to require some of the very same compromises that are made in mainline politics. Compromise cannot is evil, only individual compromises can be. If those outside of establishment politics demand of the establishment positive and beneficial compromises they must be prepared to demonstrate significant and impactful compromises they themselves have made to achieve their goals. There are approximately a dozen relatively major socialist parties in America today but they not only cannot unite into a single party but lack any sort of meta organization to bind them together and empower them. This is not a positive signal which will result in less engaged or ideological voters being willing to support them, even if the nation goes through the immense process of creating a more open and fair political system. This is a significant political failure with deserved consequences.

The leadership of the Green Party, the Justice Party, and other non-socialist parties on the progressive/leftist/liberal side of the American political spectrum possess similar problems. Meanwhile the most effective third party since the united Socialist Party of the late 1800s and early 1900s is the Libertarian Party. In their most successful attempt to gain vote share and influence politics they had 2 Republican ex-governors as their presidential and vice presidential candidate and they had Rand Paul inside the conservative establishment during the primary. They received 4 and a half million votes to the Green Party’s 1 and a half million. That is less than half what the party received under Ralph Nader and one reason he did so much better was that he was a well known and successful public figure while Stein has few achievements of note. Nevertheless he received far fewer votes and a lower percentage of the votes than the Libertarians did in 2016.

Bernie Sanders meanwhile by engaging in the Democratic primary process in a compromise to avoid splitting the vote gained far more votes, over 13 million, as well as far more attention and support and he succeeded in shifting Democratic party consensus on many issues to the left. Sanders is now poised for an even more successful second primary run should he decide it is worth it and he also has significant, though not singular, power in the Democratic party. He has succeeded in getting more political candidates at high levels elected than any third party since the 1968 political realignment. That is not to say that Sanders is the ideal. He still falls far short of what could be achieved by proper political action. His success merely demonstrates the power of compromise. Compromise is 100% necessary in a legislative government system, sometimes even more slimy than the compromises Sanders has made in his career.

In further articles I will discuss both in the abstract and in concrete examples the consequences of this as well as related political concepts. America has entered the days of decision where every political group must attempt to make beneficial changes to take advantage of the complicated political environment. No one outside of the mainstream has more than a few decades to produce change before the door is shut. Its been almost 100 years since Eugene V. Debs gave his speech talking of a new dawn. We haven’t got another 100 years left.