American presidential…

American presidential nominees = hot dog vendors.

One of the aspects of this election that has bewildered me is how incredibly close the election is. It just seemed implausible -- could the country really be that evenly divided, such that a presidential election could come down to a few thousand votes one way or another?

But talking to Kevin last night, I realized that in fact, it's essentially inevitable at this point that our presidential elections will be just this close -- barring gross incompetence on the part of either of the two party machines. We will see this again in 2008, in 2012, in 2016, unless we create radical change in the system. Here's why:

Imagine a wide stretch of beach -- pretty white sand, scattered broken shells, a deep blue ocean and the sun rising in the sky. Two hot dog vendors come and set up their stands on the beach. Now, ideally for the convenience and comfort of beach-goers, they would set up equidistant from each other and the end points of the beach, like this:

[end of dog dog stand.......................end of beach]

If they did that, they would both get half of the business on the beach, and customers on both ends of the beach would have equal access to hot dogs.

But one of the hot dog guys figures out that if he inches closer to the center, he can cut into some of his colleague's business. Like this:

[end of dog dog stand......................end of beach]

And the other guy says, 'hey, that's not right -- I need to get my business back!' So he moves closer to the center too...

[end of dog standhot dog stand...............................end of beach]

And you end up with the hot dog stands sitting side by side (with little perceptible difference between the two), each getting exactly half of the beach's business -- but with the people on the ends of the beach far more inconvenienced. This is a pervasive pattern of business, and also explains why you get corner intersections with four different gas stations.

So politically, both parties desperately strive to come as close to the perceived middle as they can. I want to get mad at nominees for not sticking to their ideals, but I actually can't blame them -- if I were running for election and wanted to have a chance of actually getting into office, the hot dog stand teaches me that my best shot of winning the election is to get as close to the middle as I possibly can -- and if my party researchers are doing the kind of job they can do these days, with the internet, polls, etc., then I probably have a good chance of figuring out where the middle is.

This process creates the impression that the country is firmly, sharply divided into two halves. In actuality, the country is far more scattered, and the middle shifts over time. If progressives are to have any chance in the future, their efforts must go towards shifting the cultural center of the country towards a more progressive outlook.

I've been mulling this over, trying to figure out how, in the next four years, I can have the most significant effect on politics in this country. And I think the answer is to stay with my writing; if I do the best job I can, and manage to somehow become well-known enough to have an influence on readers (or better, movie-viewers), then that's my best shot at influencing the cultural mindset of Americans, especially Americans in the less urban areas. My stomach churns at the news reports that indicate that 'moral values' play so strongly in those areas -- I don't know if I have any chance of changing minds there, or if I'm just too far to the left to reach them at all. But I'm pretty sure that's where change needs to happen.

12 thoughts on “American presidential…”

  1. I really liked this entry, but I’m not sure I agree with the hot dog metaphor. I agree that this is a good model of what’s happening in politics (although what the hell do I know), but it seems flawed as a model for hot dogs. :^) In particular, it only works if there can only be two hot dog stands on the beach: If you get to the final point, where both are in the middle, there’s a huge opportunity for a third (and fourth) hot dog stand to set up shop at the midpoints again. These new stands will get all the traffic down to the end of the beach, and will compete with the centrists for the folks between the new stands and the middles.

    Elections don’t work that way — they work like your original hot dog stand metaphor — because our electoral system makes it impossible for there to be more than two candidates in a given election. (And changing that, as nifty as it might be, seems unlikely to happen.) So it’s a good metaphor for elections, but not really for hot dogs, except perhaps as an example of why free markets and more open elections lead to more and better options for customers. :^)

  2. Josh, I think that even with more hot dog stands, you still get this movement to the center. Sure, the new guys will set up initially between the center and the ends of the beach — but again, as time goes on, they’ll creep closer and closer to the center, stealing business from their competitors. See the gas stations, one on each of four corners, for an example of this — you get a cluster in the center.

  3. Mary Anne,

    Thanks for your comments. They certainly help, and I think you hit it right on the head here:

    If progressives are to have any chance in the future, their efforts must go towards shifting the cultural center of the country towards a more progressive outlook.

    I agree. I also believe we have to learn to talk about values without losing our own values and visions of morality. We must learn to talk to folks we’ve never talked to before. We have to take our rhetoric out of the realm of preaching to the choir and find ways to communicate with all the good people who are out there.

    Just looking at this from my perspective as a glbt activist, I am thinking back to when I came out 25 years ago. On that day, I never thought I’d see a moment when same-sex marriage was legal anywhere in our country or where the glbt community would win even one political fight. The day I came out, my only hope was that I’d have the courage to tell my family and that they wouldn’t disown me. When I was marching against the war in Vietnam in the early Seventies, I never thought a candidate who was even as anti-war as the far-too-moderate Kerry would get nearly half the vote.

    Progressives have never been in the majority in the United States. We can run and hide or we can use this election as an organizing tool and a rallying point.

    I’m not moving to Canada yet. This is only one battle in a fight that will take generations.

  4. I love your hot dog vendor analogy. It bears mentioning that the actual political process looks like this:

    Primary season:


    during primary season, the winning candidate is the one at the center of his *party* (halfway from the center of the country)

    Then the wall falls when the general campaign starts:

    [EOB……hd–>…<--hd.....EOB] and the candidates race for the middle. This is why the incumbent has a big advantage, since he doesn't usually have to engage in primary campaigning, and thus can avoid the unseemly appearance of racing from the quarter line to the middle as the campaign begins. 'Moral values' scared the hell out of me too. I assume it's a code word for 'gay marriage', since 'not preemptively bombing other countries' is a bit of a moral value for me in the general sense. As far as what to do about it: the US two party system has its advantages; Europeans often have the happy opportunity to vote for a party list which precisely represents their exact political preferences; and then the less happy opportunity of seeing that microparty sell out completely on almost everything in the logrolling negotiations needed to form a governing coalition. In the US, the coalition-building is performed in advance by the megaparties, so you can see which relatively unappetizing option you're getting. The upshot is, as you imply, that in the US social change does not come from political parties. With rare exceptions of 'bully pulpit' bravery by public officials, politicians are reflective of already expressed political opinions and the general wisdom about the political landscape. Radical social change has generally come from social movements organized outside the official political process. Third parties can be useful in America, too, particularly centrist third parties, which can scare the hell out of the Big Two if they succeed and shift the political agenda. Perot basically gave us the balanced budget and thus the economic boom of the 90s. It's always a pyrrhic victory, of course, but there you have it.

  5. This is an interesting model, but it seems to me
    that the current president is nowhere near the center. He has put together a coalition of extremists on assorted issues, and remains on the far right. (At least I hope he does not represent the center of American political ideology.)

  6. Mary Anne,

    A few other specific ways you might help – can you lend your skill at writing to some of the groups who are working to advance a progressive agenda? (one I’m particularly active in is Hope Street Group ( which could certainly use some writing help in communicating our ideas and policy suggestions.

    As well, in the upcomming months and years I suspect there will be others like ourselves who are progressives who will seek to find a political home – it may be a revamped Democratic party or it may be a new Progressives party (I will be posting something on my thoughts for a progressive party to my blog later this week)


  7. Hmm…your hot dog model is, according to all the commentary on the election by all the pundits for the last week, both before and after the election, exactly wrong. Which doesn’t mean that you are wrong and the pundits are right (pundits aren’t that smart). But conventional wisdom about Bush’s winning strategy is that he did NOT move towards the center or court the moderate vote AT ALL. Instead, he appealed directly to the fundamentalist Christians that make up his base, and concentrated on getting them all to vote. Everyone has been talking about the historic change of strategy: the decision to throw out the hot dog cart analogy has been the primary story. And again, this was true both before and after the election: the difference is that two days ago the story was Will It Work and now the story is Why It Worked.

  8. Please, no one should think I have any idea what I’m talking about. This is just something that occurred to me; I’m still remarkably ignorant about politics.

    That said, I don’t know that appealing to the evangelicals is necessarily the same as appealing to the far right. It seemed more as if it were finding the issues that were shared by the far right and the center right, and concentrating on those.

  9. I don’t know much about it either, but it seems to me that getting 51% of the vote puts Bush in the mainstream, unless half the country is made up of far-right nutjobs. (Which some people have said, but which seems like nonsense to me; talk to some normal working-class people who voted for Bush, and see what they’re like.)

    Mary Anne: You’re right that there may be continued pressure to drift towards the center, but even so, the constant churn of new entrants means that the folks at the end of the beach aren’t always screwed. :^)

    I think this happens in non-geographical ways too: Artists like musicians and authors, for example, often start out edgy and hip, with a small esoteric audience; and then drift towards mainstream blandness as they grow more popular. You have to have a pretty strong commitment to providing a fringe product — and a lack of desire to grow beyond a certain size — to avoid this, I think.

  10. I think the hot dog model is the basic model of american politics and has a lot of truth to it; certainly in comparison with PR parliamentary systems, it is still very much true.

    But it is also true that the brilliance of Karl Rove in this election was, in relative terms, to throw out the hot dog model and concentrate on “energizing the base” rather than trying to win over swing voters.

    (Note that this *is* in relative terms — Bush still doesn’t come right out and say that he’s going to abolish Roe v. Wade, or go on about the estate tax and supply-side economics much — he was still *defensively* positioned not to lose the middle. So while it was a really radical strategy in American terms, he still acted a lot less right-wing than he really is, just as Kerry acted less left-wing).

    In retrospect, it seems obvious to me why this worked. It’s not a question of right-wing nutjobs at all — it’s a question of the slumbering 50% of Americans who are apolitical. In this election, there were maybe a few percent of politically minded, likely-to-vote Americans who hadn’t yet made up their mind — and a huge 45% or so of the eligible-to-vote population who in a normal election would go fishing or play Tomb Raider rather than standing in line. It’s obvious where the leverage is.

    And the brilliantest peice of political strategy was the gay marriage issue. As much as the Democrats had huge success in beating down doors and getting urban voters out to the polls — don’t ever think you failed, Mary Anne, going after those aunties, you and all the other volunteers did one hell of a job — the Dems just didn’t have a similarly energizing issue. The war in Iraq, the Farenheit 911-style accusations of corruption, those are all things that burningly interest the already political 50% of Americans who already vote. The nonpolitical potentially left-leaning Americans are pretty proficient at tuning that stuff out, or else way too cynical about it to bother going to the polls.

    But, as it turned out, there were a few million rural Americans out there who usually don’t pay any mind to politics, and don’t claim to know much about it or care one way or the other… but who do know that marriage is between a man and a woman.

    They aren’t nutjobs. They just live in a very different world than you and I do. And I don’t think you’re far off, Mary Anne, in thinking that staying with your writing is your best bet to have an effect on this. Because this is not an issue of people having fixed and well-rehearsed positions; it’s an issue of people opening their hearts.

    Another thing: personally, I have zero trouble telling the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans this time around. Shannon, I somewhat fear your Progressive party. I don’t want the Democrats to fragment now. I want us to come up with another Bill Clinton — a white male centrist Southern Democrat with political experience and charisma — for our next presidential foray. Barak Obama can wait for 2016; for the moment, I’d just like to stop the slide into plutocratic, kleptocratic millenial militarist empire.

    (If you’re going to start a third party, start a centrist one, a la Perot. American third parties are capable only of pyrrhic victories, but centrist third parties at least don’t install the people they most hate in power.)

  11. Okay, now that I looked at Shannon’s blog, she is talking about a centrist movement… I wouldn’t use the word “progressive” then, though — it’s generally understood as a code word for “leftist”…

    I think the most effective thing is to passionately pursue *movement* politics — the marching, the sit-ins, the petitions, the guerilla theater — which are narrowly issue-focused and as radical (but nonviolent) as you want to be — and at the same time, pursue *electoral* politics which are broad-coalition, centrist, and actually have a chance of *winning*, which inevitably means odd bedfellows and gradualism. The movement politics and art wake people up, impress them with your heartfeltness even if they think you’re nuts, and begin to make radical ideas more acceptable to the majority; meanwhile, the electoral politics are there to try to achieve a sensible, moderate, least bad option for governance of the whole community.

  12. Ben

    – I’m male – just quick FYI.

    By “progressive” (some people I know actually use the phrase “Centrist Progressives” it is most definitely NOT a code word for leftist – in many ways far from it. For one, I (and many people I know) are fairly fiscally conservative, deeply engaged in globalism and in capitalism (I’m an entrepreneur, most of my clients are Fortune 500 firms).


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