Sunday, December 17, 2006
Whistling Past Dixie
Tom Schaller has a book out called Whistling Past Dixie, explaining that while the Democrats need to do a fifty-state strategy, it mustn't be at the expense of core Democratic values. He was invited to Fire Dog Lake to discuss his book, and here's what I see as one of his more enlightening comments (emphases mine):
taking some of the themes from recent comments and questions about southerners’ attitudes and progressives and targeting, let me stop a moment and share with everyone a dirty little secret about this book…. …ready? it’s really a big book about game theory. i don’t use terms like “probabilistic” or “dominant strategy” and such. and i am a progressive who believes in the argument. but if i were a conservative republican and looked at the demography (which is largely how i built the argument) and was asked to advise democrats, i’d tell them the same thing: in our “49-49 America”, where targeting is more sophisticated than ever and resources must be spent as wisely as possible, why would the more liberal-progressive of the two parties reach for the least-likely voters–the most conservative voters in the most conservative states in the most conservative region? one never hears anyone–not rove, not broder, not matthews, not carville–suggest that george bush should wear a sideway-turned red NY Yankees cap and some bling to appeal to what i call the “J-Lo voter”? that voter is female, urban/suburban, younger, single (or serially single, in J-Lo’s case!), minority, and liberal on cultural-religious issues. yet somehow dems are supposed to go after “nascar dads”–married, white, christian, blue-collar, non-college educated, males in a country where the traditional family share, whites, christians, non-college educatees, and men are a declining share of the population and/or voters each election cycle! NASCAR may be becoming more popular, but the NASCAR profile is a declining market share.That's exactly it.
The real problem, I think, is that no one can define core Democratic values any more. When half of the Senate Dems vote for the Bankruptcy Bill, we have a problem.
But the Republicans have also defined the culture war issues and Democrats's response has been confused and directionless. As a soundbite, "pro-life" trumps "pro-choice." Democrats have failed to expose the weakness of the Republican rhetoric, and they have failed because they haven't really thought through the issue. The public wants the incidence of abortion to decrease, as evidenced by the popularity of Bill Clinton's phrase, "Safe, legal, and rare." The stable point politically, the point at which one can command an absolute majority, is rape/incest/life of the mother. If Democrats had a plan for working toward that goal, it would totally destroy the power of that issue.
I don't understand why Democrats refuse to let candidates "talk Christian." Many Christian beliefs are almost universal in popularity, but it's very important for conservative Christians to hear that they are the root of a candidate's beliefs. Right-wing evangelicals are dumping the Republicans because of Republican contempt for the environment. The Christian phrase for caring for the environment is "stewardship." Is it such a big deal if a candidate says, "We can fulfill our role as stewards of the earth by strengthening the Clean Water Act?" But that phrasing means A LOT to conservative Christians and doesn't harm anyone else. Bill Clinton did it well, but most Democrats don't. They sound like they are playing at religion, that they're cynically and hypocritically using it for electoral purposes. You don't even have to believe in God to suspect that a candidate who isn't straight about his religious beliefs will be less than honest about other stuff too.
Why shouldn't Democrats go after "Nascar Dads?" They may be a declining market, but any marketer will tell you there's very, very good money to be made in the aftermarket.
The one thing Democrats should not do is pretend to like Nascar for the sake of attracting voters. If they don't like it, they can politely say so, and people will respect them for being honest.
Let's look at the Democrats who voted for the Bankruptcy Bill. Most are Blue Dogs, most of whom a) are based in the South (though as Ellen Tauscher and Collin Peterson show, Blue-Dog-ism isn't confined to the South by any means) and b) prone to voting against core Democratic values nearly 50% of the time.
They are also the ones most likely (see Harold Ford) to try, with varying degrees of success, to "talk Christian", play the race card, and do other things that they think will get them the Southern white vote. Meanwhile, as Schaller says, they and their fellow travelers in the GOP have spent a great deal of time over the past few decades attacking and demonizing those people who have the biggest share of core Democratic values:
....But let me just say, and with all due respect, is there not an anti-northern attitude that northerners must suffer? Is not the GOP the party that has made hay for DECADES now openly villifying “northeastern liberals” BY NAME? You don’t hear democrats villifying “southern conservatives” by name, even though almst every progressive change in our histry was generally supported by NE liberals/progressives and opposed by southern conservatives (Dixiecrats until mid-20th, and then a mix and now Republicans). Go look at the history of american constitutional amendments–for suffrage, child labor, civil rights. The southern conservatives fought them all. Are we liberal-progressives (northern or otherwise) allowed to take offense with that?
as for being patronized, isn’t all the “these people” comments about “urban folks” in the northeast (often just code for “lazy, shiftless blacks who want my welfare dollars”) patronizing…or worse?
there’s plenty to take offense to, all around.
As both Digby and Schaller note, the South is by far the most conservative region of the country and always has been, and the most opposed to core Democratic values. Even the West, long considered to be following the South's lead into conservatism, is turning bluer again, especially in Montana and Colorado (seems that in Colorado, the evangelical imports are irritating the libertarians there to no end, which is one reason why Colorado's state legislature has gone from solid Republican to solid Democratic control in the space of six years).
As Schaller notes, no Democratic politician is attacking Southern Democrats by name, much less keeping any of their fellow candidates from "talking Christian". Yet those Democrats who are "Southern"/Blue Dog (as Chris Bowers shows, Southern Blue Dogs are generally more likely than Blue Dogs anywhere else to vote against their own party) by affiliation and mindset have gleefully attacked (and will continue to gleefully attack) the "Northern liberals" Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton, among others.
Senate Dems (from here
Sen. Joe Biden (D-Delaware)
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Delaware) Captain
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska)
Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota)
Sen. Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia)
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota)
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin)
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-Lousiana)
Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Connecticut)
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas)
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida)
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas)
Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colorado)
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan)
There are five southerners, unless you want to count South Dakota.
I think that continuations of the Civil War, which is what villification of "northeastern liberals" amounts to, play into the hands of those who would divide this nation in order to subdue it. Granting that the southerners in the Democratic Party tend to be much too concerned with the welfare of the well-off, it's a mistake to blame the problems of the party on them. Where that leads is schism, as happened between the Republicans and their northeastern roots, and eventual defeat. Rather than draw the circle to shut southerners out, draw it larger to draw them-- and others-- in.
Larger does not mean abandoning or toning down core values. But Democratic politics is way too sectarian. In speaking, our politicians bow to constituencies -- and then ignore them after the election. Better that they bow to justice in the courts, to fellowship and respect among citizens, to brotherhood with the poor, to stewardship for the environment, and for peace in our foreign policy. Those are things that even Nascar Dads can kinda get in on.
And also, as my previous comment showed, the Southern Blue Dogs voted against core Democratic values (not just the B-Bill -- there was other evil legislation that year, believe it or not) more than did the non-Southern Blue Dogs (with Collin Peterson of Minnesota, to my eternal shame, being the chief exception; only Alabama's Bud Cramer was more against Democratic positions than he was). Chris Bowers noted that the California contigent of the BDs were the least Blue-Doggy of the lot; go check out his stats.
As far as blaming the Blue Dogs for everything: Look at all the legislation over the past decade that you don't like. Then look at the people who took the lead in promoting it. Chances are good that a Blue Dog -- southern or northern or western or eastern -- was behind it; the DLC, for all the lumps it takes, is far less disloyal to what have been key Democratic values over the past decade.
Now perhaps, as Chris Bowers noted last year, it might not be wise to run primary challengers against those BDs in heavily-red areas, such as in the South. But people like Steny Hoyer and Ellen Tauscher, in much bluer areas, are in serious need of primary challengers.
Of course, the media is in love with the Blue Dogs. That should tell you all you need to know.
I'll also gladly agree that Blue Dogs have sponsored ill-considered legislation. I haven't forgotten Jim Cooper's sabotage of the Clinton Health Care initiative.
I just don't think that splintering the party when it has a bare majority and faces a ruthless opposition is very wise. Replacing thirty Republicans with thirty Real Democrats in the House will have a lot more impact than trying to discipline anyone.
And I should note that some of the very best Democrats have come from the south, including a number of whites. Al Gore, for example. Incredible that people were willing to reject him as a leader just because his wife didn't like potty mouth records... now they've had a chance to see what real repression looks like, I hope some priorities have changed.
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