Breaking News, Top Breaking News, Liberal News
FORUMS | BLOG | EDITORIALS Liberal news Liberal News

Contact | Link to us
About Us

The politics of ice cream


It is funny what we remember and what memories went AWOL with the brain cells snuffed in the fear-and-loathing days of yore. I was an economics major in college. I can’t remember most of it – the equations, the graphs, the justifications for shafting the poor. But I do remember the lesson about the two ice cream vendors on beach.


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 that.

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.

John Steinberg bloviates regularly @

Copyright © 2004-05 Raw Story Media, Inc. All rights reserved. | Site map | Privacy policy