Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Conversion vs. Adaptation

A review of various postings on liberal blogs reveals an on-line battle for the soul or future of the Democratic Party. These debates, between the so-called liberal and so-called moderate wings of the Democratic Party are basically a debate over whether the Party should focus on Conversion or Adaptation as a means of attractive more voters. Below is a brief analysis of the pros and cons of each approach.

Conversion: Converters tend to have fixed principles. Pro-Gay Marriage. Pro-Affirmative Action. Pro-Choice. Pro a lot of beliefs whose popularity may be waning among the existing electorate. Their response is to publicize and advocate these beliefs in a pure and uncompromising way, mostly so as to (i) convert new voters to their cause or (ii) convert a few moderates who may have voted for Bush out of fear or misplaced priorities.

Converters favor radical change in the leadership and methods of the party. They feel let down by Adapters, who have sold out on some core liberal beliefs in a doomed effort to gain voters in the middle. Converters doubt whether there really are moderates because they feel that the differences with conservatives are so stark that there really is no meaningful middle ground.

Adaptation: Adapters are not as non-ideological as one may believe. Indeed, they are very ideological, but is most about how change might be effectuated. They believe more in the importance of accumulating power as a means of implementing change. They believe that the electorate needs to be brought incrementally into the fold. By moderating some of the party's position and appealing to some amorphous notion of a "middle class," Adapters believe that they can redfine some of the core concepts that have been successful for Republicans, i.e., values fiscal responsibility, etc.

Adapters actually believe in their positions. Their values are just different. They tend to be more ambivalent about some issues that are fundamentally important to converters. Gay rights are cool, but they are not paramount. Affirmative action is not a comfortable concept. But, promoting fair trade or fiscal responsiblity are crucial.

Analysis: Adapters and Converters differ on both tactics and values. Republicans have been successful because they have balanced both, and have benefited more from favorable political environments. Reagan won in large part because of disillusionment at the failures of the Carter administration and frustration at where the country was in 1980. Once in power, they converted people using the power of Adaptation. They did not immediately eliminate affirmative action, but used their power to raise questions and change the way it was perceived and administered so as to gradually undermine it.

The party in power has the power of the bully pulpit, and can lay the foundation for conversion through adaptation and manipulation. Concurrent with their hold on power for 16 of the last 24 years, the Republicans have encouraged grass roots advocates efforts to advance more radical agendas, letting some of their concepts seep into their modes of governance just enough to give them legitimacy and the power of persuasion.

Democrats should focus more of accumulating power, whether at the local, state or national level. There, they can make more of their core beliefs normative over time. Relying on new voters is dangerous. Some are young and ideological which favors Converters. But, many are new citizens whose values may tend more "conservative" inasmuch as they have coopted populist language and imagery.

Adapters with a more moderate, but clear ideology are probably better positioned to marginalize some Republican beliefs without being susceptible to empty, but powerful labels. Weighing which principles to adovocate now as opposed to later allows the Party to expedite the accumulation of power without sacrificing long-term objectives (e.g., gay marriage tomorrow, not today).

The label "liberal" has come toxic, but at the core all Democrats believe in fairness. At the same time, Converters should be encouraged in their grass roots efforts because there does need to be a paradigm shift, and accumulating power is only part of the effort.

Kerry failed because he used the patronizing concept of "fighting for us" to frame the fairness issue. He was a coreless adapter, and a half-hearted converter. Americans can fight for themselves, they do it every day. They want a clear vision of what you think is right and wrong, and they want to make their choice. It feeds into a general libertarian streak in us all. They, therefore, want to be empowered, not taken care of. I am not convinced that Bush was chosen by moderates because they thought he'd take care of them. They probably said, yeah I kind of believe in some of the things he does and he won't be telling me what to do. Both Adapters and Converters, if they are to succeed, have to push this notion of freedom, fairness and empowerment. It is more likely that in the long run, you are more likely to convert long term through short term adaptation focusing of selective emphasis on compelling (when it comes to elections, not ideologically) issues.


Blogger Spiral Stairs said...

I always thought that Kerry's "Fighting for us" theme had an unpleasant retro feel to it, too. Like he was going to fight off an OPEC embargo, or unionize sweatshops, or something. It didn't seem to fit in a 2004 election.

It was, as you say, empty of principle as well, and voters never connected with it (or Kerry).

9:01 AM  

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