A Winning Philosophy

This is the first in a series of posts about what a winning strategy for Democrats might look like in this election year. These posts are meant to demonstrate the concepts of strategy, not take a particular political view. This first post will deal with the core of a winning strategy: an winning philosophy. Philosophy unites the leader and the organization. It also focuses the organization on its goals. A strong philosophy is composed of two parts: a standard part and a surprising part. Sun Tzu calls this qi jang, surprise standards. The idea is that we have to keep close to standard because they work, but we also must innovate in a way that take control of the situation. Bush’s “compassionate conservative” philosophy is a great example, combining traditional Republican values with more focus on caring. Traditional Democratic philosophies such as the FDR’s “New Deal,” JFK’s “New Frontier,” and even Clinton’s “Third Way” had similar blends of new and traditional ideas. What would such a Democratic philosophy look like today? The difficult part is the “surprise” component of qi jang. Surprise means change and change is difficult, but necessary for success. As Sun Tzu says, “You rely on standards to engage your opponent, but you rely on surprise to win.” Without a surprising part to their platform, Democrats can give the Republicans a good battle, but they will lose. What can the Democrats change? Whatever they change, they will alienate some part of their base, but in doing so, disarm their competition and secure a broader appeal. My job is explaining strategic principles, not advising political parties, but one possible path is adopting a surprisingly conservative position in the cultural wars. There are many other possibilities (pro-defense, pro-business, etc.), but we have to pick one to demonstrate the ideas involved in a timely manner. Democrats could, if they choose, actively opposing gay marriage, exposed breasts on television, and the anti-Christianity movement in general. They could embrace traditional Judeo-Christian values and reject the progressive coarsening of American culture. This philosophy could be summarized as “Traditions and Progress,” embracing the traditional progressive economic issues that unite most of the Democratic base while rejecting accumulated cultural baggage that alienates many others. Again, this example is meant to demonstrate that we are all free to make these strategic choices and not slaves to existing position. As an example, it demonstrates how such choices should be made. A strong philosophy is disarms your opponents. Bush has already made it clear that the cultural wars are on the table. This is an issue the Democrats lose if they try to maintain morally ambivalent positions. They can keep taking both sides on these issues (I am against gay marriage, but for it, too), but conceptions about Democratic morality are already formed. We create the momentum of surprise is only if we break with those expectations. Could a Democratic candidate today say that Clinton's sexual excesses were wrong and not a private matter? Could a Democrat say that such excesses in the White House and in the media hurt children? Sure, why not? The strategy of picking a philosophy is calculation. This philosophy position would alienate Hollywood, the gay community, and at least a few in the media. It would appeal to many traditional blue-collar Democrats, independents, and even some liberal Republicans who are think progressive culture has gone too far. This calculation requires balancing how many would be lost versus how many would be gained. Will Hollywood, the gay community, and the media support Republicans if Democrats articulate a more conservative social agenda? Has Bush lost a lot of Republican support by supporting more compassionate causes such as a drug benefit in Medicare? The fact is that core supporter feel that the opposition is much worse so they are difficult to alienate. A surprising philosophy always works in your favor. We will show how this philosophy could be used in supporting the other four components of a winning position in future posts. The lesson to take from this post is that in creating your own winning strategy, make a change. Look for an idea that you have been wedded to in the past that you can abandon in a way that will surprise people, exciting your supporters and undermining your opponents.