Assume a beach that is
100 yards long. (It wouldn’t be an economics story
if you were not asked to assume something, right?) Now
assume that there are two ice cream vendors working
that beach, and that people are uniformly distributed
on that beach. Where should the vendors set up? You
might think vendor A should set up at the 25-yard mark
and vendor B at the 75-yard mark – that way, no
one has to walk more than 25 yards to get their ice
cream. But look at it from the standpoint of the vendors.
Vendor A could move to the 30-yard line and pick up
a little business at the other vendor’s expense,
and run no risk that the customers who now have to walk
30 yards would choose instead to walk 75 yards to vendor
B’s stand. Vendor B then gets more business by
moving to the 65, Vendor A to the 40, and pretty soon
the two competitors are cheek by jowl, straddling the
center. Voilà – a dysfunctional outcome,
courtesy of the free market.
It turns out that this concept is pretty commonly taught
(something I didn’t know in those pre-Internet
days) – it is formally known as Hotelling’s
model, after an economist named Harold Hotelling.
And its application to politics is rather obvious.
Think of the spectrum of political views as the beach,
and citizens as sunbathers. A politician on the left
end of the beach knows that if he moves his offering
a few steps to the right, he can pick up some middle-of-the-beach
customers without losing the folks to his left.
You now know pretty much everything the Democratic
Leadership Council knows about presidential politics.
This is how they put Bill Clinton into the White House,
it is how they tried to Bubbamatize John Kerry, and
it is how they think they are going to win in 2008.
But what Karl Rove knows (and the folks running the
DLC clearly don’t) is that there is a fatal flaw
in this model.
What this simplistic model does not take into account
is that, like eating ice cream, voting is optional.
And when politicians or ice cream vendors put too much
distance between themselves and their customers, the
customers stay home.
“The Architect” understands this, and put
a simpleton in the White House with a two-prong strategy:
bond with some obese ice cream addicts out at the far
right end of the beach, and claim that there are pieces
of dead rats in the Democrat’s ice cream. The
result in 2000 (and to a lesser degree in 2004) was
high turnout among the right-edge of the beach folks,
and not so much ice cream being eaten at the other end.
Which brings us to the battle now being waged for the
soul of the Democratic Party.
I am not privy to the inner workings of the Democratic
Party. But the DLC’s positions – the backpedaling
on abortion, the insistence on marching in George Bush’s
Iraq parade – suggest that they still haven’t
figured out the flaw in the Hotelling model. The DLC
still seems to think that the way to beat insane Republicans
is by being slightly less insane Republicans. Much of
the power structure in the Democratic Party (what Ari
Berman in the Nation calls the
strategic class) follows a similar path.
These folks don’t give a damn about our desires.
They seem to think they can make a living selling ice
cream to Republicans. To the extent they think about
us at all, they assume that we will keep buying ice
cream from them because, well, who else are we going
to buy from?
This chaps my butt for the same two reasons I object
to the Republican embrace of torture: what they doing
is wrong, and even if it was right, it ain’t gonna
work. Instead, I’d like to see some effort expended
in getting more lefties hooked on ice cream. The excesses
of the right have created a huge opportunity to mobilize
and energize the millions of people screwed by “compassionate
conservatism.” There are real issues, issues that
matter, and that polls clearly show Democrats can win
on – domestic security, health care, corruption
and more. I refuse to accede to the belief that the
millions of disaffected poor and minority citizens just
don’t want ice cream. When was the last time the
Democrats put any effort into selling to their stretch
of the beach? Despite the polls, it seems that nothing
will change the viewpoint of these stopped-watch stupid
people. And because the same party hacks have called
the shots for years, we can kick and scream all we want
about how the party leadership is screwing up, but as
long as they think we have nowhere else to go, we are
going to be fed ineffective, insincere nonsense like
John Kerry’s kinder, gentler war on terror.
So how do we smack the DLC upside the head such that
they get it? Perhaps it is time to mention the unmentionable:
3rd-party ice cream.
The whole 3rd party thing gives me the willies. I would
not want to be a Floridian for Nader explaining my 2000
vote to Cindy Sheehan about now; I know George the First
might have been re-elected in 1992 but for the Perot
effect. I can’t imagine actually voting for a
third party candidate in a race that was close enough
that my vote mattered. But the folks who seem to dictate
official Democratic timidity don’t need to know
The model I am thinking of is the candidacy of 1988
candidacy of Pat Robertson. Robertson ran as a Republican,
but he clearly had the means and Christian Coalition
muscle to run as a third party candidate if he wanted
to. When he yielded to George H.W. Bush, he got his
pound of flesh, but his voters energized, and eventually
took over, the Republican Party. Can there be any doubt
that Robertson helped to bring millions of people into
the Republican Party? That he pushed George the Elder
to the right?
As smart as the move looks in retrospect, the fact
is that the Republican ice cream vendors moved right
because there was a third vendor on the beach. The only
way to neutralize him was to move right themselves.
Without the threat of Robertson’s mirror-image
on the left, I fear that all of our organizing, rabble
rousing and protesting about Iraq and other issues are
as invisible to the Democratic leadership as to the
Republicans. So perhaps we need our own stalking horse
– a third vendor on our end of the beach, or at
least the threat of one. Recent polls say that more
than sixty percent of Americans now oppose the Iraq
war, yet none of our politicians seem to speak for us.
(I know Howard Dean is a notable exception, but he doesn’t
seem to be having much luck dragging the party apparatus
with him.) We need to force the Democrats to move their
ice cream cart toward our end of the beach. Only fear
will motivate them to do so. And nothing will scare
them like new competition.
Of course, this could be the height of folly –
I’m just thinking out loud here. What the hell
do I know? My college education has been reduced to
so much fudge ripple.
Steinberg bloviates regularly @ www.bluememe.blogspot.com.