Time for Some Democratic Soul Searching

by on November 3rd, 2004

No Democrat has won a majority of the popular vote since 1976, when Jimmy Carter managed 50.1% against Gerald Ford. As “popular” as Bill Clinton was, he got elected by pluralities in three-way races. Some soul searching has been in order for years, and some needed reconsideration of basic beliefs was only delayed by the weirdness of the 2000 election. With George Bush’s victory, the Democrats need to get on with reforming themselves.

The first thing that they need to realize is that America is a conservative country. For instance, the GOP got a large evangelical vote out thanks to a few referenda against gay marriage. There is a values dimension to the American electorate that doesn’t easily yield to economic arguments. A leap of imagination is needed for the Terry McAuliffe crowd to realize that people who are against Roe v. Wade, like their hunting rifles and object to judges banning school prayer aren’t going to be swayed by arguments over the minimum wage, health insurance and Head Start funding.

Related to this is a second point that explodes a great Democrat fable. There is no huge bloc of votes lurking on the left that will turn out if the right candidate is nominated on the right message. There aren’t more black voters to win over, there is no monolithic youth vote aching to vote their hopes rather than their fears (the under 30s were 17% of Tuesday’s overall vote, unchanged from 2000), and the single woman vote turned out to be a newspaper article rather than an energized voting bloc.

Third, Americans don’t vote for their social betters (if such a thing exists). The Democrats may yearn for the days of JFK and his French-speaking wife, but the average American would rather vote for someone a bit more approachable, someone with whom they could comfortable have a beer. This may seem like a shallow and stupid point, but that only shows how far apart the Democrats, and the voters they need really are because it is an issue of trust. Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry are both Yalies with rich dads and summer homes. But Mr. Bush isn’t the patrician type.

Which brings us to a fourth point, the need to “educate” voters. Democrats deep in their bones can’t quite believe that a well-informed person could possibly vote against them. This leads to a condescension in framing issues that alienates rather than appeals to voters. No one likes to be talked down to, and small town America has had enough Democrat condescension to last a long time.

Finally, some policies are losers, and they’re going to have to go. This is not going to be easy for some grass-roots organizers, but there are some issues that lose votes no matter how ideologically pristine they may be. Henry Clay said he’d rather be right than president, and that is much the same choice Democrats face today. For example, most gun owners I know are single issue voters. They aren’t ignorant or thoughtless about other matters, but for them, gun ownership is a litmus test that benefits the GOP. Taking guns off the agenda will bother a lot of Democrats, but leaving them there bothers far more Republicans and independents.

That doesn’t mean abandoning principles, merely policies. Chinese Communist leader Deng Xiaoping excused flirtations with markets and capitalism in China saying that the color of a cat makes no difference so long as it catches mice. Could an anti-war movement be run as a pro-life campaign? Could universal healthcare happen at the state, rather than federal level? Could Halliburton’s no-bid contract be attacked as contrary to American capitalism? People who hunt and fish have a vested interest in a healthy environment, but when have the green activists talked to them (rather than yell at them)?

Civility and cooperation are needed in American politics, and that’s very much a two-way street. But with the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court in GOP hands, it’s up to the Democrats to make the first move. But they should think first.

Jeff Myhre