Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.

Paul Krugman on (one of) the differences between George Bush and Barack Obama:

Bush and his handlers were masters of dog-whistle politics — of conveying to their base, in ways that went under the radar of mainstream media, the message that he was really one of them….Obama, however, seems to go out of his way to convey the message that although he rode to office on a wave of progressive enthusiasm, he and his people don’t respect the people who got him where he is….In fact, it often seems to me that there’s an almost compulsive aspect to the administration’s anti-dog whistling. Maybe it comes from hanging out with the political and business establishment, which leads to a desire to seem respectable by dissing the DFHs. But memo to the president: Wall Street will hate you anyway. All you’re doing is undermining the enthusiasm of people you need.

I agree, but I’ll repeat a point I made a few weeks ago: this is baked into the cake of modern American politics. Every local race has its own dynamics, but it’s still worth taking a look at the Gallup chart on the right to get a sense of the broad national hole that liberals are in. About 40% of the electorate self-identifies as conservative and getting their votes is critical for any conservative politician. If you piss off a few moderates in the process, that’s life. After all, if you win the conservative base convincingly, then on average you only need to hold on to the most conservative 10% of moderates to win an election.1

But only 20% of the electorate self-IDs as liberal. So the math is exactly the opposite: you need to win nearly all the moderates in order to win an election. If you piss off centrists by playing too hard to the base, you’ll lose.

This is a bummer, but it’s reality, and lefties really need to suck it up and get less annoyed by the fact that politicians react to the world as it is, not as we wish it were. Like it or not, most pols just can’t afford to give the liberal base too much rhetorical lip service until and unless it gets a lot bigger than it is today.2

Still, there’s a mystery here. Not why Obama feels the need to market himself the way he does, but why he lately seems so clumsy at it. As Krugman implies, dog whistling can be subtle but still clear. So where’s the subtlety in the Obama White House these days?

1To repeat: on average. Every district is different. But the national numbers still give you a good idea of what party leaders are going to do and which way most politicians are likely to lean in their rhetoric.

2Which, granted, would be more likely to happen if more liberal politicians tried to help out on this score. Still, the self-ID numbers have barely budged in over 40 years, so the basic imbalance isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate