Back in April, 2016, before our country’s antiquated Electoral College, Russian interference, misogyny, terrible reporting, and some sort of mass insanity resulted in the election to the Presidency of a buffoonish demagogue who surrounded himself with a crew of deplorable and corrupt fixers, scam artists, sycophants, reality stars, future jailbirds, and unqualified family members that would be laughed at in the worst banana republic, I bestowed the first AOG Linguistic Kardashian Award for overexposure to “firestorm.” You can read it here.
Since then, I feel the need to bestow another award to “the base.” I don’t know when this word became in vogue, but now, all you hear about are politicians playing to their base. Wikipedia defines “Base” as:
In politics, the term base refers to a group of voters who almost always support a single party’s candidates for elected office. Base voters are very unlikely to vote for the candidate of an opposing party, regardless of the specific views each candidate holds. In the United States, this is typically because high-level candidates must hold the same stances on key issues as a party’s base in order to gain the party’s nomination and thus be guaranteed ballot access. In the case of legislative elections, base voters often prefer to support their party’s candidate against an otherwise appealing opponent in order to strengthen their party’s chances of gaining a simple majority; typically the gateway to overarching power in a legislature.
This interesting column from Charles Houmans, the politics editor for The New York Times Magazine, from 2017 notes:
A political party’s base, for much of the 20th century, usually came with an indefinite article attached: a base, rather than the base. This was a straightforward reflection of how parties operated, as sometimes lumpy and uneasy coalitions of disparate interests.
Houmans goes on to describe how this changed:
In 1990, when Bush proposed a tax-reform package that included modest increases in some brackets, House Republicans revolted, led by an ambitious Georgia congressman named Newt Gingrich. “It is a signal,” he told The Washington Post, “that the base of the Republican Party opposes raising taxes and that the package had better be awfully good.” The base had, in Gingrich’s formulation, become something new: not a coalition to be expanded but a force to be propitiated or crossed at Bush’s peril. It was not there to be molded by politicians like Jack Kemp. It was there to give orders to them, through mediums like Gingrich — whose personal policy hobbyhorses, it just so happened, matched the base’s.
Nor are the Democrats immune to having a “base:”
today’s Democratic base is, if anything, more monolithic in its policy views than its Republican counterpart, with more uniform positions on issues like abortion, immigration and taxes.
The culmination of an increasing focus on playing to the base was the remarkable divisiveness of the last election.
Democratic voters fell out viciously over two candidates who did not differ appreciably on most policy areas but conveyed starkly different ideas of the party. Republican voters, meanwhile, passed over candidates with actual fiscal-conservative and evangelical bona fides, like Ted Cruz, in favor of one whose only sustained and consistent point of contact with past Republican practice was the winking subtext of the party’s white identity politics, delivered without the wink. One party’s base knew what it believed; the other’s knew who it was.
Turn on the news, or read an article (on paper, or online), and all you hear about is the base. That Trump’s overt racist dog whistles (or just overt racism) is designed to charge up his base. His dangerous press bashing, repetitive attacks on his own Justice Department, all of the BS about the wall, or his recent attacks on “socialism,” are playing to his base. Or, on the other hand, certain Democrats’ calls for “medicaid for all” or the disbanding of ICE, or a Green New Deal are playing to the progressive base.
As much as I hate to admit it, I think that this is the way politics is being played, more so than ever before.
If you look at the compilation of polls on FiveThirtyEight, you can see that Trump’s popularity has hovered in the high 30-low 40% range for most of his term, lower than the 46% of the popular vote officially recorded. So, it seems pretty clear that there is a “base” of Trump voters in that range who continue to support him, no matter what stupid or dangerous things he does, or how many lies he tells, or how many of his associates are indicted, plead guilty, resign in disgrace, or are openly corrupt.
Meanwhile, as the large field of Democratic challengers take shape, there is constant discussion of which one is more palatable to their base–or even what that base is. Here are a few different analyses, none of which really agree (although this one is probably the most sophisticated).
Personally, although my beliefs are probably closer to the more progressive wing of the party, I think that running a candidate too far to the left is a huge risk. At least in recent years, incrementalism has been more successful than revolution–whether it has been the slow movement toward marriage equality or the still dawning recognition of healthcare as a basic right, or the slow takeover of the judiciary by the right. And I think that the Democrats have a few announced or potential candidates who can gain the support of the progressive wing, without alienating the more centrist Democrats, Independents and anti-Trump Republicans. And not give Trump (assuming he is willing and able to run again) too easy a target. While it is way, way, way, way, way, too early to pick a candidate (for me, at least), people like Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Sherrod Brown, or Kirsten Gillibrand could fit that bill (but have I mentioned that it is way, way, way, way, way, way too early to determine if any of them are truly viable candidates? And someone else out there might spark interest, like Beto O’Rourke or Julian Castro, or even Pete Buttigieg….)
At this point, the one thing that is clear is that pretty much every word from Trump’s mouth is a brazen attempt to fire up and keep his base (or cult) motivated, because he is going to need every one of them to have a chance for reelection. And the Democrats need to make sure that their base, whatever that is, is equally motivated.
The video above is a jazzy cover of Meghan Trainor’s hit “All About That Bass,” featuring singer and bass player Kate Davis. Because my base, I believe, would rather hear this cover than the overplayed original.