What Wal-Mart can teach Dems.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 8 2004 3:56 PM

Why Americans Hate Democrats—A Dialogue

Forget Starbucks—head to Wal-Mart instead.

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

There are those— like Walter Dellinger —who argue that last Tuesday's events were less than disastrous for Democrats. In fact, things really aren't so bad, they say. After all, as Bruce Reed points out, we really won last time, and this time, well, Kerry nearly hit the finish line. "See, the people still love us Democrats" some will say. "We just need to tinker, and those of us in Washington will have plenty of time to figure it out. We'll have a confab. Eat croissants. Sip some tea. Eat health food. When not discussing politics, we can sit and discuss gyms, vacations, and how much we love our money managers." 

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But Democrats don't seem to learn. They keep telling people what's good for them. And the people keep telling the Democrats they're wrong. In fact, this election probably concludes the critical realignment in American voting patterns that began in 1968 and resulted in the election of Richard M. Nixon. The legacy of that Democratic defeat is the nearly impregnable Republican coalition of Southern Protestants and Northern—especially Midwestern—Catholics. Voting as a result has been a fairly constant dynamic of region and religion. White men over 40 have been leading the charge with voting levers in hand as scimitars to slay nearly every Democratic messenger. They'll sacrifice better economics to protect icons and their sense of faith.

The person that Republicans and Democrats keep fighting over is probably a 40+ white male, devoutly Catholic, with a strong alliance to or a member of the United Automobile Workers, Teamsters, or building trades. His father and/or grandfather served in Korea and/or Vietnam. His Southern brother left the Democrats a long time ago and would never even consider thinking about coming back. He doesn't like liberals. He likes his union when it delivers. He's not crazy about abortion, likes prayer in school, and loves his gun. He lives in the Midwest. And this time, as is so often the case, the Republicans grabbed him by his heart. The Democrats wanted his brain, but shucks, that isn't the place that creates love. 

A simple non-anecdotal fact supports the theory: Only one Democrat since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been sent on to a second term. His name is William Jefferson Clinton. And when he found himself in trouble in early 1995 after the Republican seizure of Congress in the then-recent midterm elections, he imported non-Washingtonians to do the work. The result? A value-driven campaign manuscript with visual imagery to match that spoke of faith. He defined proposed Republican cuts in Medicare as "violating our duty to our parents," proposed cuts in education as "violating our duty to provide opportunity for all," and cuts in the environment as "violating our duty to protect our heritage."

Sound religious? Well, it is. And the religion is Americanism, in the spirit of the values of those who sought better once before by making America democratic, and of those who take seriously the words on our money. Remember them? In G-d we trust. Clinton talked about faith and responsibility. He asked us to be the Americans we should be. And America responded.

The Democratic challenge now? Look in the mirror. Understand the calculus. In America—where too often Los Angeles and New York City do not reside—live tens of millions of people who have forsaken a fair economic system (one that Democrats can and have provided) for a series of rhetoric-driven emotional arguments in support of icons both true and false. We the Democrats have failed them.

The greatest political scientist and student of American politics in the 20th century, V.O. Key, in his last book, The Responsible Electorate, appeared to chide and challenge the public-opinion persuaders when he wrote that voters respond to the information they are given. They don't want Republicrats. They want economic Democrats as strong on defense as Harry Truman and FDR. They don't want confabs. They want to talk to real people about real issues. Mostly they want their values respected, and they don't want to be told they're dumb, that people from the East are just so much smarter.

So, dump the croissants and spend some time at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. Go to the local Wal-Mart, not to Starbucks. The Democrats might learn a lot more and then begin to understand the long road to winning this republic back.

Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant, has worked on campaigns on four continents, in nine foreign nations, and in 46 American states at every level, and served on the creative team for President Clinton's re-election effort.

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