The Republicans have managed to get people so fired up about gay marriage, abortion, gun rights, and the like that they will vote for a party which lowers their wages, reduces their health benefits, destroys their environment, and outsources their jobs. It's clearly a very powerful dynamic. I know people who are taken in by the "culture war" arguments -- including family members in Ohio and Florida. How do we fight back?
It seems to me that the answer is this: Our tent must become bigger than the Republicans'. To broaden the Democratic base enough to gain electoral majorities, we need to focus on economic issues, and take cultural wedge issues off the table.
This means less of a focus on abortion rights, gay rights, and gun control. I respect the fact that many progressives are deeply committed to those issues. But the simple fact is, we can't win national majorities by advocating positions that the majority of voters are against.
Some will say that this means making ourselves "Republican Lite." I strongly disagree. First of all, I am not advocating a continuation of the DLC's kowtowing to corporate interests -- if anything, I think we need to move further to the left on economic issues, and reduce our party's dependence on corporate money. Many conservative voters not only feel culturally alienated by the Democrats, but can justifiably say that they are getting no real economic help from us either. NAFTA, the WTO, and outsourcing are as much products of the Clinton era as of the Bush era. We need more aggressively pro-worker economic policies.
Secondly, I am not suggesting that all Dems must run against abortion, gay rights, etc. I am simply saying that we can no longer maintain the leftist positions on these issues as fundamental planks of the national Democratic Party platform. Nor can they be litmus tests for major Democratic candidates. Red State Democrats must be able to be free of baggage on cultural issues. Some are already finding success by running as social conservatives (e.g. Stephanie Herseth). Meanwhile, Blue State Dems can push for a more liberal social agenda to their hearts' content.
But it's clear that our party cannot root itself in abortion rights, gay rights, and gun control at a national level. Cultural leftism may be viable on the coasts, but it is not viable nationally. Economic leftism is. We turned away from economic leftism and toward cultural leftism starting in the 1960s, and it has led to the waning of the Democratic Party as a national force. Our roots must be replanted in economic populism, because those roots can grow in red and blue states alike.
Liberal social positions should not be viewed as the roots of our party, but rather as growing from its branches. Let's focus on broadening and securing the base of the Democratic tree. Some branches of this tree -- in the safely blue states -- are able to bear the fruits of social liberalism; others branches -- in the red states -- are exposed to a harsher social climate, and can't be expected to bear the same fruit, at least not in the current political season.
Of course, advocates of socially liberal ideas should continue to be welcomed within the party. I'm not talking about "moving the party to the center" -- I'm talking about broadening it, to include centrists (and even social conservatives) as well as liberals. But if the national party continues to prioritize abortion rights, gay rights, and gun control, we'll keep losing national elections. Dems in blue states can run on those issues if they want to. Otherwise, those fights can be fought by independent groups like NARAL, HRC, Handgun Control, and others.
A final thought: People are more open to social progress when they are making economic progress. It's worth noting that the Republicans have brought many former Democrats over to a total right-wing worldview by starting with cultural issues, then gradually feeding them the free-market economic ideology.
We can do the same in reverse. Rather than fighting unwinnable cultural wars across the country, let's get people focused on pocketbook issues. As they start to see how the Republican Party is cheating them economically, they will slowly shift their partisan allegiances. In time, many will be open to more progressive social ideas as well.
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