Why Americans Hate Democrats—A Dialogue

Maybe it’s not as bad as we think.

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.

Before Democrats rush to adopt radically new policies and positions, we need to remember that last Tuesday was the first time in 16 years that the Republicans got as many votes as the Democrats in a national presidential election. And this time the Republicans may have prevailed only because election errors put Bush in office in 2000, sitting there for the country to rally around after 9/11—as they would have any president. Simply put, if one night in 2000, before going home, Palm Beach election official Teresa LaPore had just spent five more minutes at the office rechecking her (mis)design of the butterfly ballot, Gore would have won the presidency undisputed on Election Night 2000 and, it is plausible to think, would have been re-elected last Tuesday. Talk about the butterfly effect!

So, remember that we haven’t, in fact, done so badly in recent presidential elections. But there seems to be a flaw in how our governing system is working that is turning narrow victories into unearned dominance. By (at best) narrowly prevailing in two elections in which the nation was split down the middle, one party, with the support of barely half the electorate, is in position to control everything—House, Senate, presidency, Supreme Court and lower-court appointments, everything.

The purpose of separation of powers is not being fulfilled. The branches were designed as a check on each other. But the institutional divisions between legislative bodies and the executive, or between the House and Senate, are no longer salient. The ideological purification of our parties—a relatively new and unfortunate development—may have created an identity of partisan interest so strong that separate branches, when controlled by the same party, provide no check at all. Due in part to greatly enhanced partisanship, loyalty to the Senate or House as an institution is being replaced for legislators of the president’s party with loyalty to the president. The Framers thought they had produced a system that would ensure that a faction supported by a bare 51 percent of the people could not make the other party its dog. It’s not working.

Even if the Democrats are doing relatively well in presidential elections, it’s worth thinking about how we could do better. (We did, after all, fail to oust an incumbent who presided over one of the worst presidential terms in a century). The simplest first step may be to change candidates. There have been 11 presidential elections since the dawn of the civil rights movement that have altered the shape of American politics. Five times the party’s nominee has been from outside the South, and all five times the party has gone down to defeat (’68, ‘72, ‘84, ‘88, ‘04). Six times the Democratic nominee was from the South, and the Democrats won (or won the popular vote) in five of those six elections (’64, ‘76, ‘92, ‘96, ‘00). Even if the numbers are not large enough to satisfy social science standards for serious regression analysis, the pattern is pretty damn suggestive.

I’m not persuaded by Katha Pollitt’s aside (in her otherwise wonderful piece) that racism makes the South beyond reach for the Democrats. Racism in Dixie is a problem, but no more today than in the rest of the country, and maybe less so. (Katha—come down to North Carolina sometime, and go with me to most any McDonald’s in Durham. You are likely to see a lot more tables of whites and blacks from the office or the job site having lunch together than you will in Manhattan.) The main advantage of a Southern presidential candidate is not just a shot at some Southern electoral votes, but the fact that ordinary folks in the rest of the country don’t seem to think that Southerners look down on them in the way they assume that East Coast liberals do. (This may be because folks in the Midwest think Southerners are too dumb to be arrogant. But whatever—if it works, we should use it.)

Like Katha, I don’t know what else to do. Robert Reich has the best ideas I’ve seen. It is interesting to me that the heart of his insight (and Steve Waldman’s) was put forth early in the morning after the election by my strongly Democratic sister, Barbara Dellinger, who has worked tirelessly for Catholic social justice movements since retiring as a neighborhood poverty worker and county Head Start director in Charlotte. Her first reaction to the election:

When I was driving home at 8:30 last night from the polls, I heard on the radio that the exit polls were reporting that 20-plus percent listed “moral values” as their top concern when voting. I immediately knew that this was bad for Kerry. How in the world have the national Democrats that I grew up with—who knew that segregation was wrong—who stood up for migrant workers—who believed in the dignity of man—the dignity of work—ever let the Republicans get the high road on moral values … making us “second-class” moral value citizens. We have to take back this issue.

Sister, you’re right again.