The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Democratic Strategy

Dave Anderson nails it, I think:

The current Democratic bet is three fold.  The first is that there will be an internal Republican civil war that will cost the GOP numerous winning opportunities.  The prime example would be the NY-23 special election as the Teabagger+GOP vote was greater than the Democratic vote, but the Democrats won anyways.  The second is that the GOP is still fundamentally discredited and most swingable voters would be pinching their noses with three ton vises to vote for the GOP.

Finally, the Democratsa are making a bet that they bad policy that they ares supporting is “good policy” for the swing money.  And they expect to see the swing money continue to back the Democrats which will be enough to either depress GOP turnout or get enough apathetic Democrats to turnout to hold a decent size majority next year.

I agree : they are betting that they are lesser of two evils, the Republicans are borked beyond saving for at least another couple years and that the money they make through bad policy (aka: seeing to the interests of the rich rather than the majority of the population) is sufficient to make up for the negative electoral effects of those policies.


The Flashcard Version




  1. that is so pathetic

    … they are betting that they are lesser of two evils,…

    oh boy that is quite the recommendation. jeebus.

  2. If the Democrats lose seats to the Republicans in 2010, then where would we be?

    Oh, yeah. Exactly where we are now.

  3. Yes! Exactly! That’s what I meant when I said back in an older thread that an operant-conditioning approach to politics fails in the same way that it fails as a model of cognition. The political mouse (party) has more choices than the reward lever and the punishment lever.

  4. anonymous

    All relatively safe bets. I think the party symbol should be changed from a mule or donkey to a turtle.

  5. Ian Welsh

    Operant conditioning does not fail as a model of behavior. It does not explain everything, but if explains something. It is a part of how humans and other animals operate.

  6. Mark Holbrook

    Spot on. Re’re rucked. Time to look into Canadian residency requirements.

  7. The comment post order seems to have gotten messed up. WordPress bug?

    Operant conditioning does not fail as a model of behavior. It does not explain everything, but if explains something. It is a part of how humans and other animals operate.

    It explains something very narrow. As a model of learning/acquisition in particular, its value has long been known to be very limited, including as a basis for experimentation. If you can put an organism in a box and strictly limit its choices…

  8. Reminds me of a joke: A scientist wants to measure intelligence in rats, so he builds a maze, and starts running the rats through it, and timing them, and all that. So one day one of the rats builds a ladder and climbs up it to get an overview of the whole maze. Says the scientist “Hmm… A defective rat!” and euthanizes the animal.

    The moral not being a counsel of despair, but that going vertical is probably not going to be effective. Tall poppy syndrome, and all.

  9. FWIW, I’d say investing time in either of the two legacy parties has unacceptable opportunity costs. As the post points out, they’ve already got the money they need. So let them buy their messaging and hand out some walking around money and churn the content in the access blogs and our famously free press, and let the rest of us get on with saving the country.

  10. Ian Welsh

    Rewarding bad behaviour will get you more of it. Punishing good behavior will get you less of it.

    The reverse is true.

    I am not a raw behaviorist who believes in black box mental processes, but reward and punishment was not discovered by Skinner, either. The fact that people have multiple options does not change things, it merely makes practical application harder. It does not make practical application hopeless, however, unless you’ve been operant conditioned in learned helplessness.

  11. Here’s an interesting experiment:

    Brosnan designed an experiment for brown capuchin monkeys, a species well-known for strong social bonds and relatively cooperative behavior, particularly in shared food-gathering activities like hunting squirrels and locating fruit trees.

    Individuals were drawn from two large, well-established social groups of captive brown capuchins from colonies at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and paired with a partner. Pairs were placed next to each other and trained to exchange with human handlers a small granite rock within 60 seconds to receive a reward, in most cases, a piece of cucumber.

    “That may actually sound simple, but not very many species are willing to relinquish things, especially intentionally,” Brosnan said in a telephone interview. (Think of trying to pry a large bone from a dog’s mouth.)

    Only female capuchins were tested because they most closely monitor equity, or fair treatment, among their peers, Brosnan said.

    Partners of capuchins who made the swap either received the same reward (a cucumber slice), or a better reward (a grape, a more desirable food), for the same amount of work or, in some cases, for performing no work at all.

    Brosnan said the response to the unequal treatment was astonishing: Capuchins who witnessed unfair treatment and failed to benefit from it often refused to conduct future exchanges with human researchers, would not eat the cucumbers they received for their labors, and in some cases, hurled food rewards at human researchers.

    So, the Capuchins are punishing bad behavior by the experimenters….

  12. Ian:

    Understanding reward and punishment is not the problem. It’s that in real environments, organisms have to be able to perceive what the source of the stimulus is, and how it connects to the consequence. The protocol for studying operant conditioning in sea slugs is therefore necessarily different from the one used for studying rats—and that’s just in a controlled environment.

    This seems to apply well to the problem of political parties. Say for example that the negative stimulus is applied to the Democratic party (ie, major losses in 2010). The problem is not that (D) will fail to recognize a negative stimulus. The problem is that

    (a) the environment is uncontrolled, and how (D) responds will evolve not only from the stimulus, but the external consequences of (R) control of the House from that point on. (For example, (R) could make such a mess of it that people will be grateful for what (D) did during 2008-2010…)

    (b) the (D) establishment has not so far shown that it is willing to connect a negative stimulus to left-populist rejection. That is, as I said above, how the political organism—in a real, variable environment—connects a stimulus to its source is not simple.

    Multiple options is the least of the problems with this model. Your box simply isn’t big enough to reflect reality. Let’s say that the (D) establishment gamble is wrong, and they do lose 2010. OK, what happens next? Not answered satisfactorily—actually, you have, you said that they’ll lose the presidency in 2012!

    And you accuse *me* of learned helplessness…

    Far from “learned helplessness”, what I suggest is the following:

    (1) that we take a moment away from our despair at the big progblogs—for all their many, many admitted faults—and pore over the entrails of their activities and analyze what might have been positive innovations as well as problematic activities. (Fundraising, connecting people, freepery, and so on—even gaining sweet, sweet “access”.)

    (2) that we take a look at older forms of leftist organizing, activism, and intellectualizing beyond our trust in the power of the ballot box.

    (3) that we take a look at the sources of success for Rightwing movement politics. For example, a 40-year campaign of gaining access under imperfect conditions, constructing institutions (eg think tanks), and so on. To get where we/they are now, it took decades of effort.

    But one think I do know is that ballot-box operant conditioning is a very weak model for political change, and it’s not learned helplessness to say so.

  13. Ian Welsh


    nobody has said “only do this”. This is one part of what will need to be done. You accuse it of not being able to obviously work alone, and therefore that it should not be done.

    None of the things you suggest, will work alone, nor is there any reason to believe that they will necessarily work together. Does that mean they shouldn’t be done?

    This is not a closed variable experiment. You work all the levers you can, one is reward and punishment.

    Side note: I have nothing against access. At various points I have had varying amounts. It gets you less than you think, but it’s not worth nothing.

    ie. it’s part of a solution, but it’s not a solution alone.

    Imagine that.

    Nonetheless, if Dems can get everything they want without progressive voters, because progressive voters vote for them no matter what, I guarantee they will not change.

    Perhaps you’re like those people who, because in a 500 or 5,000 word essay, I haven’t covered their favorite bugaboo/solution/problem/caveat think that I’m unaware of it, disagree with it, or agree with it ignoring that this is a blog, and not a 2,000 page book.

    Do what you want, suggest what you want. But if you suggest that progressives should always vote Democratic no matter what, then you’re wrong.

  14. Do what you want, suggest what you want. But if you suggest that progressives should always vote Democratic no matter what, then you’re wrong.

    *shrug* And, let’s say they don’t in large enough numbers to turn 2010. Then what? What is the cost-benefit analysis?

  15. nobody has said “only do this”. This is one part of what will need to be done. You accuse it of not being able to obviously work alone, and therefore that it should not be done.

    To clarify (my last post was pretty abrupt), I “accuse” the operant conditioning approach of being incompatible with most ways of being otherwise engaged with partisan politics. If it were all doable and coherent all at once, I wouldn’t have anything to say.

    I mean, you can’t have “access” and work against the party’s overall prospects.

    However, I think it’s fair of me to wonder whether punishing the Democratic Party at the ballot box in 2010 or 2012 will actually lead to any positive outcomes. Note that we have already observed some variation on this experiment in the not-too-distant past, and it didn’t help much.

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