Why Americans Hate Democrats—A Dialogue

Tapping into the “Obama” factor.

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.

After the 2000 election, Democrats knew we would be up against an opponent with unlimited funds, unlimited resources, and the will to win at all costs. We knew we had to make some changes in order to compete. And we did.

We fought a tough battle, and the results are clear: Our opponents took their campaign inside the church while we mobilized outside in the community. Our opponents waged a spiritual battle. We fought ours in the streets. We thought we were ready for this battle, but we competed on a limited political terrain. Before one vote was cast, we conceded most of the country to our opponents.

Robert Reich is absolutely right: Democrats can and must remain firmly rooted in the ideals of social justice. As one of my friends in Oregon reminded me in an early morning e-mail, this is not just about the Democratic Party. It’s about the democratic rights of all Americans.

Like Jane Smiley, Diane McWhorter, and Walter Dellinger, I, too, hail from red America. The people from my native South are not necessarily more racist or less tolerant than other parts of the country. In fact, I find white Southerners to be more candid about their feelings on race and religion. Some of them honestly believe that by discriminating they are doing God’s work, and instead of pulling out of the South, Democrats should re-engage them.

My entire family was, and still is, deeply spiritual, and in our own way, we all hold strong but tolerant religious views. Some of my siblings have abandoned the Catholic Church because they believe it fails to enforce the strict moral code of our faith. Now, a couple of them are what pollsters and others consider evangelical, Christian fundamentalists.

But, unlike those who spew hate and discrimination in the name of Jesus, somehow they have found a balance between their faith and what they term “fairness.”

This is why I spent the last few days poring over the statewide and county-by-county results to see if there was any shift in how African-Americans cast their ballots. Although all of the results are still being tabulated and there are some votes yet accounted for, I can see some hints of a silver lining in the sea of red.

When one of my sisters—who, coincidentally, is a recovering Republican—was told in church that she would go to hell if she voted for Sen. Kerry, she stood up and denounced the preacher’s message. Oh yeah, the religious right, armed with new recruits from the black pulpits, came after African-Americans with the same angry messages. But, as my niece confirmed in a phone conversation this week, they all voted for John Kerry anyway. Even my sister, the once-proud Republican, is now ashamed of what happened inside those churches.

You see, despite our personal differences on matters of faith and religion, we believe that in order to be good disciples of Jesus, you have to not only know his words but also perform his deeds. That is where we draw the line with those who spend hours and hours in church, only to come out and hate everyone around them.

Our parents and grandparents raised us on Christian faith. It is that faith that got me into politics, and it is that faith that has proved strong enough to sustain me in these challenging times. Grandma once said, “When you’ve done all that you can do, you must stand … stand for something.”

Today, as liberals, as Democrats, and as progressive voters, we must acknowledge with humility that what we stand for no longer resonates with a sizeable chunk of voting Americans. Democrats must speak in a language that allows all voters to know we share their outlook for a strong and prosperous country, we respect their values of tolerance, but our leaders are in public office to help make things better for us all—not worse. A white factory worker or waitress with no health care should not be voting for a party that traditionally sides against their economic interests. My family, who is part of the working poor, unemployed, and middle class, placed their trust in a party that wanted to improve the quality of their life. They believed Kerry would and could do better than President Bush.

This is a new moment to identify and recruit better messengers. Perhaps it’s time to tap into the “Obama” factor: Scour statehouses for young, energetic, inspiring, and emerging leaders with the ability to connect the head and heart. Too many of the old Democratic guard have stayed in Washington, D.C., too long to fully recognize how most Americans live their lives. I admit that I’m also guilty of being a little out of step with some of my family members. But I can play a mean catch-up when I visit my red home state or when they visit me here in my blue colony of Washington, D.C. (Yes, we are still fighting for statehood and voting rights.) 

In this coming season, Democrats must resist going back to using terms like affirmative action, pro choice, union, and “the movement” to describe what we’re for. These words are limited and often open to negative interpretation from the right. But once we agree on a shared vision to connect our progressive social values of faith, family, hard work, loyalty, opportunity, security, and prosperity for all, we will soar again.

Democrats will build on the successes of this year. More grass-roots organizers were recruited and trained than ever before. Over $300 million was raised in one year—the most ever by the Democratic Party. We started this electoral season more unified and energized than ever before; we must continue to soar. 

When my grandma would often put us to sleep at night, she read from the Bible. Her favorite Scripture from the book of Galatians was, “[D]o not grow weary in doing good, for in due season, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

Now more than ever, we must use our faith to fight on until victory is won. Continue to soar, and together we will take back our country.