Politics is a Battle for Position: More Thoughts on the Election

As relieved as I am about the outcome of the national elections, I can’t get the thought of how much we’ve lost in order to “win” out of out my mind. Something an old colleague of mine told me in the 1980s keeps popping into my head: politics is a battle for position.

What he meant by that, I think, is that political fights are won or lost based on how one is positioned vis a vis the public, and relative to one’s opponents. He told me that in order to help me wrap my then relatively inexperienced mind around the idea that fighting the religious right by calling them supremacist bigots was a losing strategy. To the mainstream, religious rightists looked like church-goers exercising their religious freedom and right to speech by protesting abortion and gay rights. To get folks to listen, we needed to pivot and talk about democratic values.

On Tuesday (in addition to deploying a tactically brilliant campaign), Barack Obama won re-election because the GOP blundered spectacularly in the battle for position.

For 50 years the GOP fought to reposition itself among voters as something other than the folks who brought you the Great Depression. They did so by placing their political fortunes in the hands of a coalition of radical factions whose most powerful appeal is among white males. That move was a winner. It positioned them to win the presidency for Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes. But, while conservative white males are still influential, that influence is declining. Romney losing on Tuesday with 59% of the white vote was a clear indication of that reality.

But, too late now. That right wing coalition the GOP built dominates the party’s presidential nomination process. That’s why right wing ideologues with no business working for government much less running for president like Michele Bachman, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum were each briefly GOP frontrunners. Moderate Mitt only won by turning sharply to the right (and being the only one with a real campaign).

And on Tuesday, we, or some version thereof, won. And yes, the influence of people of color, younger voters, and women in this election may be the first few rays of light indicating a new day dawning in American politics. Maybe.

However, there’s another side to this story. It goes something like this.

The GOP wedge strategy – their 50 year campaign of using controversial social issues to split liberal coalitions and push the left out of meaningful influence in politics – did succeed for a good long time. There were a few gaps along the way. The Watergate scandal gave us Carter, Ross Perot gave us Clinton in ’92, and the Iraq War and financial crisis gave us Obama.

The one legit presidential win for the Dems since Johnson was Clinton’s second term. Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 1992 and re-election in 1996 by figuring out that the Dems had lost the battle for position in a white dominated electorate when it traded white southerners for the black vote. When Lyndon Johnson led the charge to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act he anticipated the backlash, saying to an aide, “We have lost the South for a generation.” He could have tripled that and still come up short.

Under Clinton’s leadership, the Dems moderated their message and pivoted on key issues. The Secretary of Explaining Stuff  conceded to racist attacks on welfare, reforming it by imposing benefit caps and a work requirement, but without providing a meaningful path to livable wage employment nor addressing what would happen to those who were pushed off the rolls by those caps without first finding decent jobs. Clinton also gave us the North American Free Trade Agreement. In addition to devastating the Mexican economy, NAFTA did a whack job on American workers and crushed the small farm economy in the U.S. And it was under Clinton’s watch that Glass-Steagall was repealed, and the basic architecture of the economic bubble that finally burst in 2008 was built.

Clinton also showed American voters that a Democratic president could be just as much of a hawk as a Republican one when he signed the Iraq Liberation Act, better known as “regime change,” and led Operation Desert Fox. The Iraq Liberation Act was the trail head leading to the Iraq War.

This is some of what it took to win on Tuesday. Each time the GOP took a step to the right, the Democratic Party stepped to the right to capture the territory it left behind. And the Dems kept moving to the right until, by November 6, 2012, it had made itself nearly indistinguishable from the GOP of the 1970s, with key exceptions on social issues that, as fortune and careful polling would have it, anticipated generational and demographic change.  But those positions do not represent the kind of justice great movements formed to achieve in the years before the rise of the right.

So was Tuesday a new dawn in American politics? Only if we treat the election as the beginning and not the end of our fight, and use the rays of hope it cast to find a path to justice.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

11 replies on “Politics is a Battle for Position: More Thoughts on the Election”

i thought this debate on democracy now was one of the best i saw on this topic:

dyson, in sort of an unconditional defense of obama, keeps belittling ford’s position as rhetoric, but ford is the one who brings the facts, and dyson is the one to get lost in rhetoric. i guess the truth is damning, and it’s incredibly scary how people refuse to see it and continue celebrating as if truth and justice have won. :/

Corey Robin had a good post on this, where he claims that while Democrats may have won this election, conservatives have won the battle of ideas:

“The GOP wedge strategy – their 50 year campaign of using controversial social issues to split liberal coalitions and push the left out of meaningful influence in politics – did succeed for a good long time.”

Nowadays we’re seeing a new form of this strategy, now that the Left has abandoned its backbone. Since Democrats have moved so far to the right that even the Republicans have trouble catching up, the conservatives have come up with a new way to weaken the left. The liberal base which holds its nose and votes for Democrats despite their warmongering, border policing, and drug crackdowns is made to vote for radical rightwingers. How is this alchemy achieved? Through libertarians!

The Koch brothers founded the Libertarian Party in 1980 and David Koch himself even ran as the VP candidate. Gary Johnson’s campaign is made up of former Republican operatives, one of whom specialized in getting Republicans to win elections by supporting “spoiler” third party candidates. The Johnson campaign even robocalled throughout swing state Colorado, warning voters about Obama’s medical marijuana crackdowns.

In elections, Republicans have a libertarian red herring who lures away the liberal base from the Democrats by promising to end the wars and legalize weed. This siphons off Democrat votes, allowing Republicans to win more elections. And if the libertarian should win by some miracle, they’ll put the real goal of libertarianism first (protecting the rich) while ignoring all the crap they told the gullible liberals. A win-win for conservatives!

Thanks for this and for the link. I share your concern about how capital is likely to realign its interests. I read a study concerning generational change that points to a number of GenY cultural shifts that support your prediction. The trend toward uncritical anti-authoritarianism, subsequent support for smaller government and local control, and social liberalism, even among those who consider themselves economic conservatives lean in that general direction.

When Lyndon Johnson led the charge to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act he anticipated the backlash, saying to an aide, “We have lost the South for a generation.” He could have tripled that and still come up short.

I know this is hard to believe, but LBJ was wrong. Dems did not lose the South for a Generation. They lost it in. Thats quite a difference.

In 1964 a generation was about 20 years. Below, the 33 Governors and Senators from the 11 former confederate states in 1974…1/2 a generation out.

George Wallace D
John Sparkman D
James Allen D
Dale Bumpers D
John L. McClellan D
J. William Fulbright D
Reubin Askew D
Lawton Chiles D
Richard Stone D
Jimmy Carter D
Sam Nunn D
Herman E. Talmadge D
Edwin W. Edwards D
Bennett Johnston, Jr. D
Russell B. Long D
James E. Holshouser, Jr. R
Jesse Helms R
Sam Ervin D
William Waller D
John C. Stennis D
James Eastland D
Winfield Dunn R
Bill Brock R
Howard Baker R
Dolph Briscoe D
Lloyd Bentsen D
John Tower R
John C. West D
Strom Thurmond R
Ernest Hollings D
Mills E. Godwin, Jr. R
Harry F. Byrd, Jr. I, but caucused with Dems
William L. Scott R

As you can see, Republicans held only 8 of the 33 positions.

Thanks. But I have to correct myself. The South was not even lost in a generation (20yrs).

Below, same metric: the 33 Governors and Senators from the 11 former Confederate states…but now for 1984.

[D] George Wallace
[D] Howell Heflin
[R] Jeremiah Denton
[D] Bill Clinton
[D] David H. Pryor
[D] Dale Bumpers
[D] Bob Graham
[D] Lawton Chiles
[R] Paula Hawkins
[D] Joe Frank Harris
[D] Sam Nunn
[D] Mack Mattingly
[D] Edwin W. Edwards
[D] Bennett Johnston, Jr.
[D] Russell B. Long
[D] William Allain
[D] John C. Stennis
[R] Thad Cochran
[D] James B. Hunt, Jr.
[R] Jesse Helms
[D] John P. East
[R] Lamar Alexander
[D] Jim Sasser
[R] Howard Baker
[D] Mark White
[D] Lloyd Bentsen
[R] John Tower
[D] Richard Riley
[R] Strom Thurmond
[D] Fritz Hollings
[D] Chuck Robb
[R] Paul S. Trible, Jr.
[R] John Warner

Less than 1/3rd are Republican.

thanks again. i think we use very different metrics. i’m a community organizer and a social movement analyst. i tend to look at the world from the bottom-up. you apparently look at the world from the top-down. i’m aware that the democratic party was the part of white supremacy in the south – even to the rooster as a symbol of white supremacy. i’m also aware that sncc was the place the first gave birth to the idea of the black panther as a symbol of resistance to white supremacy – a different mascot to help folks distinguish between various factions. and, i’m aware that as long as we separate civil rights from substantively constitutional reform and actual substantive programs, including programs to address longstanding problems of poverty in the black community resulting from inter-generational oppression by race, the dems and the republicans could easily have flipped and the script and today might be in very different positions. i see the cynicism in democratic appeals to communities of color, presenting themselves as the party of civil rights. i also believe that part of the failure of the dems at building a durable coalition between working class whites and communities of color is the result of their rather cynical approach to the issue of rights.

but, i think that while, for the sake of speaking to larger historical dynamics within my self-imposed word limit, i shorthand this process of change, avoiding going through exhaustive lists of votes and positions of specific leaders, your lists are a shortcut of another, and i actually think somewhat misleading, type. i don’t mean to say that they are purposely misleading, but i do think they overlook grassroots community dynamics.


I’m debunking the belief that Dems lost the South for a generation after 1964. LBj did not mean that they would lose grassroots community football games, but rather elections. You appear to know this, as you referenced Presidential elections yourself. So I followed your lead and took a look at Senators & Governors.

I’m quite sure if we were to look at the State and Local level, we will find Republicans faring even worse for the 20 years in question. So I not sure how “grassroots community dynamics” changes anything.

My last word on this, and only because you say you’re not sure how community dynamics changes anything. I actually think community dynamics is the most important thing. One look at this year’s presidential election results re: Latino vote makes that, I think, pretty clear. But, I get your point. I misspoke. What I meant to say was that the community dynamics started shifting at this point. A number of forces were at platy, including a stead erosion of support for the Dems, the rise and fall of the dixiecrats, and the rise of the evangelical movement, which was at least in part a response to the rise of feminism and changing social mores in the U.S.,

LBJ’s statement was technically wrong, and you’re correct in pointing that out. It took more than a generation for the party to actually lose the south.. But, it’s also not as if Republican support remained firm and unchanging and then along came Reagan and everything shifted. The religious right-Reagan coalition organized something that was already there – community dynamics if you will – such that less than a decade away from Watergate, the GOP was able to position itself as the party of a chauvinistic brand of family values and of backlash politics. Basically, as the party of race sensitive whites.

The more important point, I guess, and one I’m assuming you agree upon, is that race has always been a winning issue in the former slave territories. The electoral map is starting to shift some, but for a long time blue and red (if you use red to indicate whichever party is most directly appealing to racism) was the same as non-slave states and slave states. Race is a big driver of the political dynamics we are witnessing.

Scot, thanks for the quick acknowledgment of the facts. But its not just that “LBJ’s statement was technically wrong.” There is a deep moral significance in the fact that Dems maintained a stranglehold of the South for a generation following 1964. Allow me to explain.

Aside from Strom Thurmond’s switch, Ronald Reagan’s “States Rights” speech is probably the most infamous datapoint of how the South was won. But consider this. During Reagan’s terms, Dems had 2 men who voted against the 64cra as their leaders: House Speaker Jim Wright and Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd. I’m quite sure the latter was an unrepentant segregationist at the time of his ascension. I’ve never heard the former repent but that doesn’t mean he didn’t.

If you take a look at the long dry lists I posted, you will see some of the vilest psychopathic maggots to ever infest the US Senate and Governor’s Mansions still there, long after LBJ whined about losing the South: Wallace, Heflin, Stennis, Hollings, Fulbright, Thurmond, Helms, etc.. Indeed, 8 (7 D’s and 1 R) who opposed the 64cra found themselves in the Presidential Line of Succession post-64…and afak none of them had publicly repented for segregation by that time:

1. Richard Russell (D)
2. James Eastland (D)
3. John Stennis (D)
4. Jim Wright (D)
5. Robert Byrd (D)
6. Strom Thurmond (R)
7. Allen J. Ellender (D)
8. Carl Hayden (D)*

The Republican Southern Strategy exists. I don’t deny it. But I cannot see any consistent way to condemn that without acknowledging this. The oft-repeated LBJ quote erases this racism from history. Liberals/Leftists/Dems should stop using it not only because it’s false, but because it is racist.

* I add him for the more sophisticated out there. Even though he voted Y on the 64cra, he voted against cloture. (Cloture was more important than the final vote)

Thanks, Manju. As in previous exchanges, I feel like we’re not disagreeing. I continue to engage because I find it interesting that a self-professed libertarian, right winger and I agree on a number of things, even if we disagree some on interpretation. It really speaks to a challenge the left will face as the GenY baby boomlet leans toward certain aspects of libertarianism. But, I can’t avoid the temptation of saying, I don’t think the LBJ quote erases racism from history. I think it acknowledges the political cynicism behind much of the politicking around civil rights. This cynicism evident in everywhere h the party even among current leaders. After all, the war on drugs, as just one example, continues under a Democratic president. Obama has been responsible for detaining and deporting a record number of immigrants, etc. It’s one to say you’re for certain rights and another to act on those statements.

As always, thanks for the comments.

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