Criminal Justice Reform Can Still Be a Democratic Priority

(Bloomberg View) -- Let's talk parties, policy and elections.

After a FiveThirtyEight conversation in which Nate Silver downgraded the issue of criminal-justice reform as a policy that electoral-minded Democrats should highlight this fall, Elie Mystal was fed up -- not with Silver or FiveThirtyEight, but with the Democratic Party (and I recommend reading the whole thread): 

Elie Mystal @ElieNYC
@NateSilver538 makes the arg that Dems should IGNORE criminal justice reform, b/c while it important it doesn't mov…

What can we say about this, other than both Mystal and Silver are correct? A few things:

  • Democrats will do badly in 2018 (and every election) if black voters stay home. 
  • The real-life Democratic Party isn't one in which white people sit around and decide what to do; it's a coalition that includes black voters and organized black groups (and Latino groups, and others). Coalition politics is tricky and painful, sometimes involving difficult compromises. 
  • Party politics involves exactly these kinds of fights. What are the issues each group within the party deeply cares about? What is it willing to give up? What is urgent? Now -- during the primary season in most states -- is the time to debate these things. 
  • This kind of jockeying within the party forces candidates to take positions, sometimes very public ones. Politicians don't like doing that! Sure, some candidates care deeply about some policy areas and are happy to talk about them, but it's in their self-interest to retain as much wiggle room for the general election, and then for governing, as they can get. 
  • Threatening to stay home in November is an ineffective way to influence parties. For one thing, when it comes down to it, most people active enough to carry through on such threats will also see gaps in policy between their own party (no matter how weak it is on an issue) and the other. For another, it's extremely difficult to send messages through a general election vote (or failure to vote).
  • On the other hand, showing up at party events and advocating within the party is a very effective way of sending messages. It's much harder to misinterpret a demand delivered in person than by ballot. 
  • The best way to influence the party, and to force candidates to publicly commit to a policy position, is to dive into coalition politics through the party and nomination politics. 
  • The truth is that most candidates don't simply tailor their message to whatever a pollster advises. They're stuck with a lot of what they'll say on the campaign trail and what they'll do if elected, because they've already publicly committed themselves in order to win the nomination.
  • Most of the people surrounding politicians are themselves party actors who are committed to a party's position in most policy areas. Most Democrats in Congress wouldn't think of flipping to an anti-abortion position, in part because their campaign and governing staffs are fully committed to choice, just as most Republicans have campaign and governing staffs fully committed against abortion. The more advocates can convince party actors that their position (abortion, guns, criminal-justice reform, etc.) is a top-of-the-agenda, must-act-on priority, the more it won't matter all that much whether they campaign on it in November because they will act on it anyway. 
  • Content-free campaign operatives will only take over to the extent the party allows them to. Using them can be a virtue if the party has already fought its battles within and set its agenda; it's no virtue if it's a substitute for that process.

The bottom line: These are exactly the kinds of fights that can be won. Parties are permeable to outsiders, but in the case of police violence and the Democratic Party, we're not talking about outsiders; we're talking about core groups within the party. 

1. At the Monkey Cage, James Bisbee on where protectionism is popular.

2. Kevin Greene and Kristin Kanthak at Mischiefs of Faction on whether a libertarian candidate cost Republicans a House seat.

3. Heather Hurlburt on President Donald Trump and James Mattis

4. At the Hill, Scott Wong and Mike Lillis on reporters crowding Capitol Hill. I'd like to see more confirmation of this one, but interesting. 

5. And my Bloomberg View colleague Barry Ritholtz argues it was Congress that hurt the U.S. Postal Service.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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