Why Americans Hate Democrats—A Dialogue

The party’s message is low risk, low reward.

The day after the election, Slate’s political writers tackled the question of why the Democratic Party—which has now lost five of the past seven presidential elections and solidified its minority status in Congress—keeps losing elections. Chris Suellentrop says that John Kerry was too nuanced and technocratic, while George W. Bush offered a vision of expanding freedom around the world. William Saletan argues that Democratic candidates won’t win until they again cast their policies the way Bill Clinton did, in terms of values and moral responsibility. Timothy Noah contends that none of the familiar advice to the party—move right, move left, or sit tight—seems likely to help. Slate asked a number of wise liberals to take up the question of why Americans won’t vote for the Democrats. Click here to read previous entries.

First off, I just want to take this opportunity to say to our new Republican overlords: Congratulations! I was with you guys all the way! Please don’t ship me to Guantanamo when you re-enact the sedition laws.

So, the editors of Slate want to know why Americans hate Democrats? Well, the short answer is, actually, we don’t—55,554,114 of us voted for them on Tuesday. Admittedly, as Jane Smiley just pointed out, 58 million voted for the “ignorance inducing machine” instead—but 55,554,114 is still a hell of a lot of people. If you had a party and 55,554,114 people showed up, you would probably have to make several additional trips to the liquor store.

The very phrasing of Slate’s question points to one problem for Democrats—they’re really lousy at defining the terms of the debate to their own advantage. Republicans, by contrast, are the masters. Republicans don’t let something so inconsequential as reality get in their way—George Bush is already proclaiming a mandate, for chrissakes. If the narrow margin of victory in this election had swung the other way, does anyone doubt for a moment that an army of Republican surrogates would have immediately fanned out to the shouting-head shows to argue, until they were collectively blue in the face, that the election of John Kerry was nothing more than a statistical fluke that certainly carried with it no greater meaning?

This is not to suggest that the sole problem for Democrats is an inability to articulate a message, as if the entire Democratic Party simply needs to overcome its regrettable awkwardness around strangers. There also needs to be a message. At the start of this forum, Robert Wright described John Kerry’s campaign as “ultra-risk-averse.” The same might be said of the Democratic Party as a whole right now. Many of the issues for which Democrats stand are highly divisive—stem-cell research, gay rights, abortion—and in their attempts to finesse that divisiveness, they often seem to stand for nothing at all. In their eagerness to appear reasonable and moderate—and to avoid at all costs being tarred with the dread epithet “liberal”—they become the enablers, the loyal opposition seeking common ground (even as the opposition is doing its best to destroy them and scorch the very earth where they once stood). Gosh, they say, maybe we should go to war in Iraq for no apparent reason, and maybe gay people don’t deserve full and equal rights. And so on and so forth.

Republicans don’t have this problem. Republicans are perfectly comfortable with what they are and what they stand for (“pure evil,” the provocateur in me is compelled to suggest). They’re the ones who hope to stack the judiciary with right-wing nut cases and eventually repeal Roe v. Wade. They’re the ones who run up sky-high deficits in order to provide tax breaks for the rich. They’re the ones with the aggressive facts-be-damned policy of pre-emptive warfare. They’re the ones who exploit antigay bigotry and antiscience superstition and wrap the whole package up with a neat little red-white-and-blue bow and say, “This is what real Americans believe.”

They may try to sugarcoat some of it, but they don’t apologize for any of it.

But the most important advantage Republicans have may be their base of support among Christian evangelicals. The task of getting out the vote is made much easier when you have local institutions in place through which to actually reach the vote. All politics are local, and all organizing is ultimately community-based—neighbors talking to neighbors within the course of their day-to-day lives. Online organizing can supplement this effort but simply can’t replace it.

Democrats used to have a similar base—it was called organized labor, and the community-based institutional structure it provided gave them a far more effective way to reach their own voters than, say, parachuting in from out of town for a weekend of door-to-door canvassing. Labor unions made a remarkable push during this election, but they just don’t have the heft anymore to help the Democrats over the top. And while one can argue the reasons for labor’s decline, the tendency of Democratic politicians over the past few decades to embrace unabashed free-marketeering at the expense of their own constituency certainly didn’t help matters any. And now, the Democratic Party finds itself the unhappy occupant of a sagging home whose foundation has crumbled from neglect, and damage like that can’t be repaired easily or quickly—but it does have to be repaired. And I would be happy to explain exactly how this can be achieved—but, darn the luck, I’ve just run out of time, so I’ll have to leave that task to Katha Pollitt. Over to you, Katha!