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March 03, 2006
There's nothing the matter with Kansas

Democrats and Middle America: What's the Real Problem?

A fascinating article saying that the reason we can't figure out why the Democrats aren't focused and on-message is because.... Well, mostly it's because we keep misunderstanding who the Democrats were, which has a lot to do with what they've become.

Basically, we're having the wrong arguments, arguing about people voting for or against their economic interests or voting their religion instead of, let's say, an extension of the social equality this country is supposedly based on.

Many interesting ideas come up.

If voters like your position on the issues and dislike your cultural affinities, you win votes by making people focus on substance. You must tone down cultural appeals, identify issues that affect everyday lives, and sharpen differences over those issues until people pay attention. That’s why Hillary Clinton’s foray into foreign policy is so futile. Hawkish gestures remake her image about as much as Paris Hilton’s sojourn on an Arkansas farm makes her seem folksy. The intensely polarizing cultural dimension of Senator Clinton’s persona remains unchanged, sure to overshadow the substance of her platform and dominate voter attitudes toward her presidential candidacy.

This is an excellent example, but can I ask us to give it up on Hillary? I really don't think she's our candidate.

It’s not as if Democrats can talk about economics and simply ignore culture. The oft-cited “traditional Democratic” electoral appeal based purely on economics is a myth—and one rather recently hatched. In reality, the New Deal Democratic Party was a hybrid. It bore the fruits of a European-style class party, but its branches were grafted onto the trunk of a nineteenth-century American party organized around sectional and ethnic allegiances. Together with union members and distressed farmers, it covered a spectrum that included southern whites, from tenant farmers to plantation owners, and Irish Catholic businessmen alongside their working-class coreligionists.

By its nature, this mixture had a limited lifetime. With policies trimmed back to reconcile opposing interests, class politics lost vigor.

Makes perfect sense. One of the issues that we can't seem to get around is how to mobilize the lower classes without telling people that they're, well, lower class.

This just isn't an approach that works in today's society.

If Democrats were to remain a majority party, something new was needed. As this dilemma became clear in the seventies, the party faced a choice. It could, as Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington had suggested a decade earlier, become a genuinely class-based party with program to match, along the lines of European social democracy. Or it could pursue what was called the New Politics, a coalition of minorities with a newly radicalized stratum of students and the educated. The New Politics strategy, in its pure form, was quickly discredited by George McGovern’s crushing defeat in the 1972 election. But opposition to a class-based party was too strong for the alternative strategy to be chosen, and the party dithered.

And we dither still.

Anyhow, the article goes on to discuss the rise of the "centrist" Democrats.

The suggestion that we rebuild the "Democratic majority" by being "sensitive" on "cultural preferences" sounds like trouble to me, but much of the rest of the article should make you think.

(As long as you're over there, you might want to glance at, The Democrats’ Opportunity: Are They Ready?. It annoyed me more than it impressed me but then I've never understood why the corrupt, fraud-riddled, scandal-plagued Reagan years were the target of so much political veneration.

Still, the article goes on to discuss the opportunity in front of the Democrats today.)

(Anyone want to lay odds on whether or not they continue to blow it?)

Anyone still in the mood to contemplate democracy and the Democrats can check out Responsibility. Community. Competence.

Posted by AnneZook at 07:14 PM