The key question one Democrat can't answer.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 5 2004 12:27 PM

Why Americans Hate Democrats—A Dialogue

The indomitable question that plagues liberals.

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.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

So many great suggestions! Thus: Democrats should speak in ringing moral, even religious, tones to honor ordinary people and their day-to-day struggles. They should denounce Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction and Britney Spears' existence on Earth, promote universal health insurance and condemn outsourcing, valorize work and mock the CEOs, hold the line on liberal social issues (abortion, gay rights, civil rights, civil liberties) but … well, maybe I missed how they would finesse these particular commitments when dealing with heartland homophobes and people who wear those Precious Feet pins. Oh, and figure out a grand narrative of America's noble purpose in the world that is less dangerous and futile than invading one Muslim country after another. Having found some organizational structure to replace the crumbling labor unions, the Democrats should choose a candidate who can convey from the heart the party's new, heartland-friendly message—Will Saletan likes John Edwards. Edwards strikes me as about as genuine as a game show host, but what do I know? I live in Manhattan. I don't know anyone who believes in the Rapture or wants the sex-ed teacher to tell their kids condoms don't work or thinks Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. I thought Anybody But Bush was a pretty good candidate. And you know what? He almost was. As Tom points out, Kerry almost won.

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Sometimes I wonder if political commentators do much more than rationalize their own worldview. While I was waiting with a huge crowd of volunteers for an Election Day bus to Pennsylvania, I ran into a famous pundit who told me Kerry would "probably" win. I was so happy I kissed him! He told me he had traveled all over the country and had found no sign of the 4 million missing evangelical voters Karl Rove was trying to activate. Maybe they were hiding in the church basement? Or maybe, just maybe, post-election analysis will determine that the "morals" vote and the Christian-right vote were overblown. Maybe Bush won because of some other factor: increased support from people with incomes over $50,000 for example. Or winning the votes of people who believe, as exit polls showed the majority of Bush supporters do, that Bush is a liberal: for example, that he favored the Kyoto Accord on global warming (51 percent), labor and environmental standards in trade agreements (84 percent), the nuclear test ban treaty (69 percent), and the International Criminal court (66 percent). My daughter, who is a high-school senior, told me months ago that Kerry would lose because people wouldn't unseat a wartime president. "What's that line about not changing horses in midstream?" She should probably have my slot in this forum.

 

The smaller problem with some of the suggestions made so far is that they would alienate a lot of people who are already Democrats. Pace Robert Wright, I detest a lot of pop culture, especially Britney Spears and the whole Jackson family, to say nothing of the misogynous posturing that is so much rap. But they call it popular culture because people really like it. Bob Dole did a commercial with Britney! She IS the mainstream. If a Democratic candidate were to Sister-Souljah Britney or 50 Cent or Eminem or similar, he might please many an anxious parent, but he would lose the young—the only age group that went for Kerry—and, depending on the target, make trouble for himself with blacks or Hispanics or even (if he attacked a female performer when we all know the men are so much worse) women. Similarly, how is the candidate going to keep pro-choicers while attracting anti-choicers, motivate single women (and single men, who also favor the Democrats) while going on endlessly about marriage and family values and God and promising to shovel yet more goodies to married couples and the suburbs? Democrats assume the base is endlessly forgiving because where can it go? This time that was true—turnout was high, Nader tanked. But we have our limits, too.

The greater problem, though, is this: The scale of the suggestions is not adequate to the scale of the problem. It's tinkering around the edges. It's assuming that Christian-right voters don't really mean what they say. If a voter wants Christian Jihad, he may not be willing to desert the cause for health insurance—especially with Republicans telling him 50 times a day that the plan is really a socialist plot to raise his taxes and poison him with Canadian drugs. And if a crucial subtext of Republicanism is—and I believe it is—the preservation of white privilege, whole swathes of the country are a lost cause for the Democrats. The Democrats had the South—and the country—when they had the racist vote. Now, thanks to Nixon's Southern strategy, the Republicans have that very large and energetic demographic.

Over at The Nation, economic populism is supposed to be the solvent in which racism—and sexism and homophobia and reactionary cultural politics and creationism—melts away. Tom Frank is arguing this position on the op-ed page of the New York Times even as I type. Maybe he's right, but not obviously so. Leaving aside whether the Democrats—dependent, like the Republicans, on corporate largesse—can afford to take up the cause of bashing the corporations and taxing business for social programs, why assume that blue-collar Republicans will choose material interests over ideology any more than prosperous Democrats do? 

    

What should the Democrats do? I'm going to be bold and say what almost no other commentator will tell you: I don't know.

Katha Pollitt is the author most recently of The Mind-Body Problem, a collection of poems.

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