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If you're familiar with What's the Matter With Kansas? (an amazing book -- I'm reading it now), you know about the paradox of working- and middle-class people voting for "values" but getting an economic system that shafts them.

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.  

The Democratic Party needs to return to its economic-populist roots.  This doesn't necessarily mean full-blown protectionism, but it means a focus on jobs, labor rights, well-regulated markets, and constructive government programs.  With roots like these, the party can grow strong in all regions of the country.  

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.

More commentary at The Situation Room

Originally posted to Geheimbundler on Thu Nov 04, 2004 at 01:59 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Recommended (none)
    I argued the same thing in another diary.  

    I think we can start to split the business interests from the Republicans.  There are alot of moderate Republicans who don't like deficits or a conservative social agenda.

    If I didn't read and think for myself, I could be a Republican

    by bonddad on Thu Nov 04, 2004 at 01:59:12 PM PST

  •  hello (none)
    you already have social conservatives in the party. they're called minorities. i don't know why people keep forgetting substantial numbers of folks in the party differ with orthodoxy on abortion and gay stuff. having an "abortion reducing" plank would help. not supporting WTO/NAFTA would help. co-opting a Nader position or two would help.

    go read a WIlliam Jennings bryan speech for inspiration on our Democratic  populist past.

    •  You're absolutely right... (none)
      ...about minority voters.  Many of them hold their noses when they vote Dem, because of the party's positions on abortion and gay issues.

      Others -- especially Catholics -- are deserting the party in ever larger numbers over these issues.  

      •  not a matter of holding noses (none)
        it's just not that important in the context of racial profiling, the drug war, unemployment, poverty, health care, etc etc. as long as Democrats emphasize those issues, they are fine. those are moral issues to us too. we come from a tradition that link civil rights with Christian prophecy. when i told my mom about Dean, the last thing i would mention is the civil unions. she disagreed, but liked him anyway. however, Rove knows that gay marriage is the one issue minorities may agree with him on and he milks it for all its worth.
    •  broad brush (none)
      Most African-Americans, that I know at least, could not be pegged as cultural conservatives but rather as cultural moderates who may have a discomfort with homosexuality and certainly with gay marriage, but don't support gay marriage bans becasue of a distinct understanding of oppression.

      There are certainly some, maybe many, true cultural conservatives in the black community, but I doubt a majority - rather a large plurality who do indeed still vote for Democrats. Non-whites are a heck of a lot smarter about voting for personal and community interest rather than affiliating with perceived power and self-righteousness.

      "The revolution starts now / When you rise above your fear / And when you tear the walls around you down" - Steve Earle

      by pHunbalanced on Thu Nov 04, 2004 at 06:24:09 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Frank's book is OK (none)
    but, I think it has serious blind spots. The following is taken from my diary below:

    First off, less well off folks who vote GOP are not voting "against their own self-interest." And this is not a new phenomenon. It has been occurring since at least the 1980s in its current guise, and voting patterns like this have long history in all democracies. (For example, the Tory Party in Britain would never have won elections during the 20th century if it hadn't won a significant share of the working class vote). Rather, people vote as they do because of the way in which they are politically socialized. Tailoring one's message is all well and good - and I think Kerry did a good job in this regard this year - but it only gets one so far.

    Think about it. How do people formulate their political ideals? Well, step one provides the raw materials: one's life circumstances, one's racial/ethnic identity, one's upbringing, etc.. Now step 2: how are these raw materials shaped? Well, when the Democratic Party was the majority party in the mid 20th century, it was no accident that unionization rates were over two times as high as they are today. Thus people's "raw materials" were shaped to a much larger extent by participation in such an institution.

    It is no accident that the period of post 1973 economic globalization and deindustrailzation has led to a rightward shift in the United States. As rates of unionization and other forms of civic engagement has fallen, one of the only institutions that provides folks with a means of organizing and understanding their life circumstances is the church. To denigrate the contribution that churches provide many in this country is not only highly presumptious, condescending, and politically self-defeating, but it does not fully grasp the fundamental dynamics that drive the political process.

    Politics has and always has a social basis. Simply saying "we have values too" is not good enough. Speaking of "blue state values" is fatuous. What is needed is four things: union organization, the recreation of other forms of civic engagement (which the blogosphere provides, albeit not a solution to why, say, folks in trailer parks in TN support Bush), and finally, a real respect for faith and the power religion plays in many people's lives in this country (many of whom did in fact vote for Kerry in this election). And finally, the formulation of a clear narrative that connects one's lived experience - both instituionally and individually - to your political party.

    This is why Clinton was such a great politician, but why his success was ultimately limited: he spoke that language, he knew and lived those values. He provided a "narrative." Yet, the institutional basis did not exist for Clinton's success to be long term. I could definitely see that woman in Michigan voting for Democrats. But at the same time, I understand why she votes for Bush and why that vote makes sense to her. She is not "voting against her self-interest" as she understands her self-interest.

    If you are wondering what you can do, I'd suggest getting involved in the union movement. Organize the service sector. Organize Wal-Mart. Work on creating a media infrastructure that competes with the SCLM and the right wing noise machine. Work to create the social and institutional bases of politics you like.

    The United States has a conservative political culture defending a liberal heritage. The modern Republican Party's problem is that it is neither.

    by Ben P on Thu Nov 04, 2004 at 02:17:51 PM PST

    •  I don't disagree... (none)
      ...with any of the ideas you mention.  I think all of your points are good.  But I still think we have to take cultural issues off the national Democratic agenda to make the party viable in socially conservative areas.

      As you say, some poor conservative Kansans don't think that they're voting against their interests when they vote for Republicans who are both pro-life and pro-business... because they care that much about the abortion issue.

      If we take that issue away as a reason to vote against Democrats, then social conservatives may look more closely at the economic questions, and vote for economically populist Dems.

  •  I'll give you an example (none)
    A senate committee meeting late last year convened to talk about flag burning.  The GOP had packed the house with veterans with tiny little flags.  

    The GOP started in with their usual idolatrous bullshit.  

    The Dem's replied by rattling off all the ways the GOP was fucking the veterans.  Bread and butter stuff, healthcare.  

    Game over.  

    Not too many people would rather starve than give up on glurge.  



    My lack of God! It's TROTSKY!!!

    by Grand Moff Texan on Thu Nov 04, 2004 at 02:58:56 PM PST

  •  It's Socio- Economics that define the red/blue (none)
    divide. Decades of population shift from rural areas by the young or progressives have resulted in a divided mindset. Red areas are conservative, never leave, never change people. Blue areas are progressive, 'things can be better', I / we can do better.

    I lived this socio-economic migration. It's the opposite of a melting pot.

    A link to USDA rural socio-economic migration story.

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