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.
The Democrats still don’t seem to understand that times have changed. We are now at war. We must take aggressive, yes, at times even pre-emptive action to defend ourselves against the enemies of liberty. If we don’t, the Republicans will use our very openness and good nature to defeat us.
If, as Laura Kipnis suggests, political debate in United States takes place at a junior-high-school level of sophistication, let’s put it in Nickelodeon Channel terms: The Democrats are goody-goody student government types. They’re earnest, studious, well-manned, talented debaters. And after working so hard on their speeches and staying up all night making election posters with fluorescent paint and stencils, they just can’t understand why the jock with a C-minus GPA and a permanent smirk on his face won the election. It’s just not fair. Why does everyone hate us so much?
This reaction to Kerry’s defeat speaks volumes about why the Democrats lost.
As Tom Tomorrow points out, the ex-model-student-government Democrats are hopeless at spin while Republicans, the Eddie Haskells of American politics, are masters at it. First of all, America does not hate the Democrats. Forty-eight percent of Americans voted for Kerry. Despite what the Republicans say, a margin of 3 percent is not a landslide *. Democrats fret that Bush won on moral values. But they should greet this news with relief. Bush won on character. That means he did not win because of his policies; he won despite his polices. So much for Bush’s self-proclaimed mandate. Rather than emphasize these facts, the Democrats—earnest wonks that they are—desperately speculate about which policy positions cost them the “moral values” vote. (Abortion? Gay marriage?) How can the Democrats expect the voters to see through GOP spin when they themselves can’t?
As spin doctors, Democrats kill vigorous patients. Meanwhile, Karl Rove can nurse a relic back to health. For example, the Democrats’ version of “tough talk” is to accuse Bush of proposing to “privatize” Social Security. But “privatize” is a dirty word only to hard core liberals: For everyone else, it’s a way to make the public sector more responsive and efficient. Bush doesn’t propose to “privatize” Social Security. He proposes to eliminate it and replace it with glorified 401(k) plans—the same plans that have kept so many senior citizens working into their golden years after the stock market tanked in 2001. He plans to eliminate Social Security—still the most popular federal program in American history. George Bush wants to eliminate Social Security. Say this three times. Now say it every time you speak to the press, no matter what question the reporter asks you.
The emergent conventional wisdom is that moral values cost the Democrats the election. This proves what many have suspected for some time: Democrats can’t connect with the heartland because they don’t attend church regularly. If they did, they would realize that there’s a big difference between expressing a commitment to moral values (say to your pastor, to fellow congregants, or in an exit poll) and actually wanting to live by them. The bad news for Democrats is that evangelical religious moralism is quite broad. The good news for Democrats is that often, it is not very deep. Many of the relatively new evangelical churches are a hybrid of entertainment, business networking, and free child care. True, there’s a hard core of true religious zealots—people who speak in tongues, kiss venomous snakes, or eschew indoor plumbing based on their faith. The Democrats will never reach those people. And from the distance of my hometown of San Francisco, where a typical Sunday morning ritual includes use of the name “Mary” only when it is immediately preceded by the word “Bloody,” all of the heartland evangelicals sound like zealots. But the key to the appeal of suburban evangelism is that it doesn’t require much in the way of sacrifice or risk.
This is potentially good news for Democrats because it means these “morals voters” may be almost as scared of the real religious zealots as we are. They’ll support symbolic reforms like prayer in school. They’ll vote against gay marriage. They’ll say they categorically oppose abortion. But despite (because of?) their superficial religious piety, their teenage daughters are getting knocked up at alarming rates and a lot of them are getting safe legal abortions. They can afford to rail against abortion rights, safe in the knowledge that the people they vote for can’t actually take them away. At least not yet.
Democrats should not pander to religious zealots or religious hypocrites—the Republicans have cornered that market. Instead, they should appeal, unapologetically, to another set of values: separation of church and state and respect for individual privacy. Plenty of evangelical Protestants and Catholics believe in these values too. Democrats should remind voters that before Roe v. Wade the United States was not an abortion-free zone—it just hosted more dangerous abortions in its back alleys and as a result a lot more young women died. Remind voters that right-to-life extremists would outlaw abortions even in cases of rape and when carrying the child to term threatens the mother’s life. They would force a woman to bear her rapist’s child even if she had to die doing so. Say that three times. Now say it every time a reporter asks about filibustering extreme right-wing nominees to the federal bench.
I’m sure I’ve come off as another bicoastal cultural elitist scoffing at the sincere faith of the landlocked hoi polloi. Yes, I said the red state “moral values” voters are a bunch of self-righteous moralists. Just like the rest of us. In a sense liberals are the biggest moralists of all, and perhaps this is the real reason the Democrats can’t connect to the heartland and the reason they’re so bad at spin: Liberals want to be “right” more than they want to win elections. They distain rhetoric and razzle-dazzle; they won’t sully themselves with brazen Imagineering. Democrats can’t talk about faith convincingly, not because they aren’t religious, but because they honestly don’t think it’s appropriate to mix religion and politics (it’s a bit like mixing plaids and stripes). This goody-goody student government style priggishness has also kept Democrats from effectively framing issues to their benefit; they think that the electorate should see through image and spin and recognize that their interests lie with the Democratic Party. The Democrats are willing to lose election after election because they won’t “stoop” to the tactics that might help them win. How different is that from those who vote against their material interests based on “moral values”?
It’s time to stop being polite and start getting real. Or, maybe Democrats could just stay the course and hope for the pendulum to swing back to us. After all, how bad can it get? At least Bush can’t run for president again.
But he does have a brother …
Correction Nov. 10, 2004: An earlier version of this piece misstated the percentage of voters for Kerry, as well as Bush’s margin of victory. Forty-eight percent voted for Kerry, not 49 percent. Bush won by a margin of 3 percent, not a margin of 1 percent. Return to corrected sentence.