Monday, February 14, 2005

Wishful Thinking

Strange experience of the week was checking the traffic on one of my Web sites and finding it drawing hits from left-of-left "Daily Kos" blog. Specifically this post, from someone called Armando, in which he further pushes his notion that the Democrats should base their game plan on Abraham Lincoln's 1860 campaign.

My sites are not particularly political (that is, they don't address the kind of current issues that usually absorb Kossites), but they do have a point of view. The link that was sending traffic my way was from the comments section, not the post.

[Also in the comments were deep thoughts like this:

Four decades ago the far right began killing off the leading lights of the Democratic party. JFK, RFK, MLK. That resulted in the disastrous 1968 election, and left us in disarray. I would argue that we haven't fully emerged from that devastation.

Phew. Reminds me why I tend to stay away from blogs like that. I want to keep my faith that most people who disagree with me on any political issue are essentially sane, coherent, and living, if not on the same planet I am, at least in the inner solar system.]

I did Armando the courtesy of reading and considering his argument. Even though he didn't give me a link, he indirectly opened one up, and I felt some small obligation.

It turns out to be a historical twist on the "focus on the progressive hard core, the hell with building bridges to Kansas" argument in the debate over the future of the Democrats.

Armando seems to know that Lincoln won the White House in 1860 with a mere 39 percent of the popular vote and without a single Southern electoral vote. That's a slightly worse showing than John Kerry made, and yet Lincoln won. So far, it's hopeful for the Democrats.

Armando invokes Lincoln on the modern question of "branding." He focuses on the Cooper Union Speech, and says the speech is "incendiary and divisive" and had a goal of "demonizing" the South. He says the modern Democrats ought to do what Lincoln did and reverse the charge of "extremism" and say to their opponents (in the presence of fence-sitters), "no, you're the extremists and we represent real values."

So we are left with these stark choices--abandon our values or build a winning strategy with those who can accept and embrace our values. I believe the only choice is to win with our values, to win without the South, as Lincoln did in 1860. And this does not mean a Civil War or even a civil war. We are not their choice, but neither are we so abhorrent [as they are? As Lincoln was to them? Who knows? --ed.]. And that is progress.

Well, good luck with that. But it goes right down the toilet the moment you wake up and realize it's not 1860 anymore. Someone's been staring too hard at that blue-red map from the last election, with the Union-CSA overlay, and hasn't bothered to check the numbers behind it.

Compare the electoral votes in the 33 states that then comprised the Union in Lincoln's first election to the modern map.

The enormous imbalance in (white) population between North and South allowed the 1860 Republicans to pursue a regional strategy. New York had 12 percent of the nation's electoral votes. Pennsylvania had another 9 percent and Ohio almost 8 percent. Three contiguous states with similar demographics ate up almost a third of the electoral votes.

Nowadays, only four states (California, New York, Florida, and Texas) have more than 5 percent of the electoral votes, and their demographics and pet issues, both within their boundaries and among one another, are far more scattered than were those of the key states of 1860.

But the biggest difference is the 303 total electoral votes Lincoln had to work with, compared to 538 today. The big gray space between Iowa and California on the 1860 map now is filled in with states, and votes.

And red. Of the seventeen stars that weren't on the flag in 1860, all but two of them (Washington and Hawaii) went Republican in 2004. The bulk of them are untouchably red -- states like Idaho and Utah and Kansas. That region of the country has inherited much of the orneriness of the old South, its gut-level preference for self-sufficiency (complicated by its dependence on certain government protections), and its reflexive suspicion of do-gooder social engineers from Northeastern college towns.

Lincoln wasn't chosen by his party because he was inflammatory. William H. Seward was the inflammatory Republican that year, as well as the most famous man in the party. He was the "base" candidate. But the Republicans -- not just the party bosses, but the rank and file -- had been studying this one hard since 1856, and they knew how many votes they needed to swing in three crucial Northern border states -- Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois -- that cared little for abolitionists.

Why did it work in 1860? Because the Republican party of 1860 had pored over election returns for six years, and it knew what it had to do to win. Lincoln counted on his abolitionist base in New England, wrote off the South, and appealed to local interests (textile tariff in Pennsylvania, railroads in the Midwest) in the few swing states he needed to win. His rhetoric was carefully anti-Southern, but not anti-slavery.

The Republicans of 1860 had a strategy to win the election by playing the electoral college numbers game. Modern Democrats like Armando who wish to take that as an inspiration are grasping at historical straws. They haven't done the math. Apparently, they haven't even looked at the map.

I read some more by Armando. I wasn't impressed. This longish excursion into Lincoln-land was atypical. More characteristic is his post in which he quotes three paragraphs of Thomas Friedman, and then writes, "Fuck you Friedman. Here we go again, you know what is right and we anti-Iraq Debacle folks are just naive. Fuck you." End of post.

Some Bush-backers no doubt will gleefully watch the Democrats hold the historical map upside down, misread it, and steer themselves right down the highway to oblivion (Lincoln would have called it "Salt River"). But I'm among those who genuinely like a choice in my elections, and I am sorry to see a party retreat into this hopeless minoritarian mentality.

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