May 17, 2004
Author of "The Two Americas: Our Current Political Deadlock and
How to Break It"
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Itís not often you hear a Democrat say, "Our party should disengage from fighting the culture war." Well, that is exactly what Stanley Greenberg says in his book "The Two Americas: Our Current Political Deadlock and How To Break It." Greenberg, a pollster and adviser on Bill Clintonís war-room team, thinks fighting the culture war alienates large numbers of voters and stymies important issues from being raised. Greenberg lays out a game plan for winning the support of the country in which the Democrats would put forth bold ideas and create a powerful vision and get away from divisive cultural politics. We interviewed Stanley Greenberg about his book and his thoughts on the Democratic Party.
Stanley B. Greenberg is Chairman and CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. He has served as polling advisor to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and President Nelson Mandela.
He advised the Nobel Prize-winning campaign to ban land mines and directed the year-long "People on War" project for the Red Cross -- a consultation with people in the principal war zones of the late 20th century. He also is a strategic consultant to the Climate Center of the Natural Resources Defense Council for its multi-year campaign on global warming. Greenberg is co-founder of Democracy Corps -- a national research and strategic initiative to aid progressive organizations.
Greenberg was educated at Miami University and Harvard University, where he received his Ph.D.
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BuzzFlash: You stated in your book, "The Two Americas: Our Current Political Deadlock and How To Break It," that you have become a conscientious objector to the culture war, and you think all Democrats should do the same. Would you say that position makes you more conservative? We should also point out that you were a judge for MoveOn.orgís "Bush in Thirty Seconds" video contest.
Stanley B. Greenberg: First off, ideology is defined in cultural terms. Whether you are labeled liberal or conservative comes down to a few issues like choice, guns, gay marriage, etc. I recognize the Democrats are a pro-choice party and a diverse party, and those positions are important and right, and we could never move away from that. But that doesnít mean we have to fight our elections on the cultural battlefield. Many voters are searching for a political party that will talk about opportunity and remaking our economy and addressing big issues such as health care.
BuzzFlash: In your analysis, does fighting the culture war mean weíre constantly locked into a short-term way of thinking, thereby never engaging in a long-term dialogue about what America should look like ten years from now?
Stanley B. Greenberg: Fighting the culture war enforces the status quo because it focuses both parties on deepening the relationships they have with their own base. For the most part, I think politics has been dominated by the cultural wars over the past three presidential elections. Itís a status quo strategy, constantly deepening support with your traditional supporters. Many voters who do not easily fit into either partyís base are looking for a politics that is outside the cultural war.
Voters will get drawn into the culture war on some level for sure. Both parties will force the voters to make a cultural choice. But what I want to do is get Democrats to recognize that there is a whole part of the country, and large segments of the population, that have varying stances on cultural issues -- and they canít get their issues raised because the parties donít rise above the cultural war.
The President has clearly gone down this road. I mean, the State of the Union Address was entirely a cultural address focused on Bushís base.
BuzzFlash: You raise an interesting point because, when you look at the total population, over half the country doesnít vote at all. Of the 50% of Americans who do vote, one-third leans Republican, one-third leans Democrat, and the remaining third comprise the independents and swing voters who tip the election. We have to remember that, when we talk about voters, weíre really talking about a small number of people who are making choices for everyone else.
Stanley B. Greenberg: I think thatís exactly right and that the politics of the culture war drives would-be voters away from the election booth. Sure, speaking to your base will probably mean youíll get higher turnout from your base. But across the electorate you donít. And youíve got many voters in America whose issues just arenít being heard. If the Democrats took the lead and abandoned the culture wars as the main battleground, they would not only reach voters who are stuck in the middle of the two major parties, but I believe the Democrats would bring voters back into the electorate and change the equation altogether.
BuzzFlash: Is part of your view premised on the fact that, when it comes to the culture war, the Republicans are more likely to win? Is it always to their advantage and is it their strategy to beat the Democrats by engaging in the culture war?
Stanley B. Greenberg: No, I donít think that is true anymore. 2004 is not 1988, when the elder Bush defeated Dukakis by waging cultural wars. The country is far more diverse. There are the cosmopolitan, globally oriented regions of the country that compete very strongly in the culture struggle and win. Younger voters are more tolerant and diverse racially and ethnically.
The majority of people under 30 years of age support legalizing gay marriage. Youíve got a dramatic shift away from married households to unmarried households. And now there are many people who donít go to church at all, or very seldom.
I think Democrats are at a point where the growth of secularism can hold its own against more traditional or religious communities. But I donít like dividing up the country this way. You donít build a majority, you donít create a sustainable majority of the country, by dividing the country on these fault lines.
But let me be very clear. I do feel it is possible for Democrats, when and if they do fight the cultural war, to fight at least to a draw. Again, I donít think that fighting to a draw is actually very healthy for the party or for the country. But I think itís important to note that, as Democrats, weíre not on the defensive. I wouldnít assume that all the cards are in the hands of the conservative side in a cultural war.
BuzzFlash: In the State of the Union Address, Bush called for a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman and effectively ban gay marriage. This is certainly the biggest cultural issue in this election year. What should Democrats do to maintain their credibility with their base that theyíre not conceding, or afraid to stand up for what they believe in, on a heated cultural issue such as this? Many would say gay marriage is a cultural issue, but one that does not affect the overall direction of the country compared to being bogged down in Iraq, or having the largest recorded deficits, or losing millions of American jobs. Many rightly see gay marriage as a moral issue -- itís really about civil rights.
Stanley B. Greenberg: Itís a good question. First of all, I would attack the Republicans for trying to overreach the government in dictating peopleís lives.
But then I would actually go to the heart of your question, which is to put the focus on this question to the voters. At a time when weíre facing terrorist threats, immense decisions to make about our relations with the rest of the world, with jobs being lost and important issues not being addressed like health care, do you want to have an election about gay Americans? I think the country will, in fact, demand a bigger objective. And I think the President will pay a price for pursuing this strategy.
BuzzFlash: The BuzzFlash position is that the election will be about a cultural war if Democrats allow the election to be defined that way. I also want to talk about some of your ideas that you outlined in The Two Americas on how the Democratic Party can remake itself and energize Americans to vote for Democrats. You say that the Democratic Party is lacking in bold ideas. One of your ideas is the proposal to make college tuition free across the board. At the heart of your book, youíre saying that the Democratic Party needs to prove to the American people that the it is for America, and not for the Democratic Party.
Stanley B. Greenberg: Absolutely right -- that Democrats are not so caught up with themselves and their special interests, but are devoted to the country and to building a better country. Democrats need to show that they are bold enough to make politics relevant again. It is not going to be easy, because the public, at least half of them, have been driven out of the electorate because of the campaign to convince voters that Democrats only stand for special interests. Democrats need to convince the rest of the country that they really are reformers and agents of change. The party needs to convince Americans that they have serious and bold ideas. Until now, the policies that have been proposed just have no relationship to the scale of the problems -- whether weíre dealing with income and equality, or with changing educational needs in the society, or with our big environmental challenges.
BuzzFlash: One of the ways Republicans have been able to box in Democrats is on fiscal policy, especially on taxes. Some of the bold ideas you propose, such as universal health care and free college tuition, would require money to support these programs. How could the Democrats put forth bold initiatives like you propose and still not be framed as tax-and-spend liberals, or weak on defense by cutting the military budget to pay for programs?
Stanley B. Greenberg: The starting point for all Democrats has to be radical tax reform. One of the most urgent is the repeal of corporate tax cuts that have deprived us of much-needed revenue for taking on the major problems in our country. The Bush administration wants to deprive the government of the resources to attack problems. Thatís a big philosophic difference at the start between Democrats and Republicans -- one the Democrats should take to the American public -- that the Democrats are up to the challenge to solve some of these problems facing our country.
But not all of these things require a great deal of money to accomplish. For example, the amount of money involved in the college tuition tax credit to make four years of college universally available is trivial compared to the other initiatives weíre talking about, whether itís a well-devised prescription drug policy or universal health care.
One of the other reforms, which I actually think is a quick addition to all of this, is my proposal to give each voter a $50 voucher to use for contributions to candidates so we can swamp the private money in the system with public donations. It would enable politicians to actually act in the public interest. Again, that does not require a lot of money to achieve, but it would be a big change in the system.
BuzzFlash: What are some of the groups that you list as swing voters to pull over to the Democrats, and what will it take?
Stanley B. Greenberg: The most immediate group and the most reachable in the narrowest possible way is the aging blues -- essentially older and retired Americans. Older women, particularly, are the ones most upset about health care, most upset about the job losses abroad, most upset about the spending for military and overseas expenses. And they are also the most anti-corporate.
The group that I think is probably at the heart of the electorate is country voters -- people who live in rural counties, mainly outside the South. They are 20% of the electorate. They moved to the Republicans in the late nineties and 2000. As the cultural war really got heated up and people were upset about the Clinton scandals, these rural voters pulled back from the Democrats. Gore got slaughtered by them. But those rural voters are the reason Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa -- states which Gore won and which lean Democratic -- have now become part of the battleground and will be heavily contested. Rural voters will likely tip the balance.
But also Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Nevada have significant rural populations which are key to any Republican strategy for winning. Voters in small towns did not like the moral decline, as they perceived the Clinton scandals. But they also donít like the moral decline under the Bush presidency, which is reflected in the scandals in corporate America where greed and irresponsibility are so rampant. A move of only 5 percentage points toward the Democrats, and youíve got several states now back in play for the Democrats to win.
BuzzFlash: One of the most basic political strategies is to divide and then conquer your opponent. Do you think the Democrats should make it a priority to bring in Nader voters and progressives?
Stanley B. Greenberg: A dynamic passion among Democrats to oppose Bush was reflected in Howard Deanís candidacy. Dean represented a strong oppositional force, and many Democrats wanted their candidates to be much more confrontational to the Bush administrationís policies. But some of the Democrats didnít do it, and they paid a price, and so Howard Dean took off.
Once the other candidates also became strongly opposed to Bush, they had a much broader agenda than Dean did. Dean was still talking about being the only one who opposed the war, and the message just didnít get out to a broad enough coalition.
Although Nader is certainly pulling votes from Kerry, my suspicion is that progressive voters will, given the determination, eventually want to see the Bush presidency come to an end. I think there is tremendous pressure for progressive voters to come aboard to defeat Bush. Yes, Democrats ought to reach out to those voters. The issues they are concerned about, such as globalization and the environment, and choice, have resonance. I also think Democrats are in a much stronger position to appeal to those independent and progressive voters.
BuzzFlash: What would you say to Democrats and progressives about how to build the base of the party and fight for some of the bold ideas you propose such as health care, campaign finance reform, energy independence from the Middle East, etc.
Stanley B. Greenberg: I think low-risk strategies and tactics are simply weak choices. Democrats will win, and win the respect of voters, when people see Democrats talking about relevant issues and attacking big problems for the country. One of the arguments Iíve had about our history is that political parties come into power for the most part, not because theyíve won over some swing group of voters. They come into power because they are able to tackle a problem for the country that the previous party couldnít handle.
A good example is Herbert Hooverís loss to FDR. The Republicans just couldnít handle the Depression. The Democrats came in under Roosevelt as a party that fought poverty and then fought fascism. The Democrats back then took on big trends for the country, and thatís how they won respect.
Weíre a country with immense wealth, in some sense, but also with a major divide. Our country has failed to make sure that everyone can share in the opportunity as reflected in education and whatís happened in health care and whatís happened to middle class incomes.
There are so many areas that, if we take on the task for the country with a clear vision, we will achieve power. But we need to have a sense of historic mission for the country as a precondition for winning.
BuzzFlash: Mr. Greenberg, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Stanley B. Greenberg: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW