Take a deep breath. Calm down.
I know that we were all very hurt by the results of the election, but it’s time for all the stupid angry talk to cease and time to start figuring out what we do next. If there is one thing that we have learned in this election it is that there are least two distinct cultures coexisting in this country. One is urban and more socially liberal and the other is suburban/rural and more culturally conservative. I know I’m generalizing but I think it’s safe to make that distinction at this point, for it seems at times that we are living in two distinct realities. Your reality is determined by the information that is available to you. One person’s war of liberation is another person’s bloody mistake, but I’m not here to solve that argument. I know that Iraq was a mistake. I’m just asking you to empathize with the other side. Try to put yourself in their shoes, because if we don’t we’re never going to make them believe in us. I know we are right but the Democratic Party has done one shitty job selling that to the masses over the last 10 years.
The first question the Democratic Party has to ask itself is, frankly, “What states do we think we can pick up in 2008?” With a few exceptions, Kerry won the same states that Gore did in 2000. The theory that you can piece together 270 electoral votes just by catering to urban socially liberal voters in the Northeast, Great Lakes, and West Coast has been thoroughly proven wrong. The problem is that it doesn’t leave any room for error. For this theory to work it must work flawlessly. You lose one state that you expected to get and it’s all over. The Democratic Party needs to focus on where the party can grow and consolidate its power. The party must find ways to appeal to a larger part of the country than it has for the last 10 years.
The Democratic Party’s targeted area of growth should be the Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada). Where the Northeast and Great Lakes are losing population and electoral votes, the South and Southwest are gaining. Let’s face it, the South is a much taller hill to climb, so let’s focus on the Southwest. The key to the region appears to be the fast-growing Latino population. If the party could find ways to appeal to more Latinos nationwide, it would not only increase its chances of success in the Southwest, but it would also consolidate its urban areas and possibly swing Florida. It cannot allow the Republicans to garner 45% percent of the Latino vote as it did in this past election. Immigration promises alone will not attract this vote. The Latino vote is a diverse socioeconomic group that cannot be easily targeted with one or two issues. What we can safely say is that they are somewhat socially conservative and mostly working-class, and we need them in the Democratic Party.
An area in which the party should consolidate its power is the Great Lakes. Let me first define the Great Lakes as Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. This region should be recognized as distinct from the Midwest, much like the Pacific Northwest is distinct from the West Coast. The Great Lakes states make up that one blue island in the middle of a red sea. The Third Coast. The NFC North. There are other states that literally border the Great Lakes but do not share the same populist political heritage. Minnesota and Wisconsin have rich traditions of rural populism embodied in men like Hubert Humphrey, Robert LaFollette, Paul Wellstone, and Russ Feingold. Illinois and Michigan are mostly rural states that are dominated by large urban areas. Both states have rich labor traditions and are the homes of the Democratic Party’s shining new stars, Jennifer Granholm and Barack Obama. The one thing that distinguishes the Democratic Party in the Great Lakes is that democrat never became a term synonymous with liberal in these states. This did not happen even though the state parties supported progressive social policies. The state parties did so by not giving up on core democratic principles at that same time. John Kerry did win the Great Lakes but it was at a great cost. It was one of the most contested regions of the country. Million of dollars and millions of hours were spent to win these states. If power could be consolidated in the Great Lakes then resources could be used elsewhere. Who knows, maybe then I could expand my definition to include Ohio.
Thomas Jefferson founded the Democratic Party. It has had many directions and differing voices. From the time the labor movement began in the late 19th century until roughly 1968, the party was the party of the working man. Labor and social welfare concerns dominated its policies. Then in 1968 at the Democratic Convention in Chicago a great shift began. The youth movement of the 1960s was going to evolve into a legitimate political power somewhere, and it found a home in the Democratic Party. Since 1968 the rank and file of the party has become increasing socially liberal. This in turn has turned many away from the party. These people became Nixon’s Silent Majority, Reagan Democrats, and this past election’s Security Moms. These are the people who would always vote Democratic if they based their vote on pocketbook issues, but they do not because of the Democrats’ perceived liberal social agenda. Let me again state that I am a liberal and know that we are right on these social issues, but these issues from civil rights to gay marriage have been used against us effectively for decades now. What I am arguing is that we need to find additional reasons for people to vote Democratic. Expand the tent. The Republicans are doing a much better job at this right now. What we must realize is that we are out in front of the rest of the country on social issues. Eventually we will be proven right. Cultural conservatives are fighting a futile battle against the march of time which they will eventually lose. We need to create a cushion to make the rest of the country comfortable with these changes, and more importantly we need to bring back the issues that the Democratic Leadership Council abandoned in the early 1990s.
The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was founded after the Democratic Party lost three consecutive presidential elections in 1980, 1984, and 1988. In 1988 Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and other centrist Democrats formed the DLC to steer the party towards the center. Now knowing that Clinton served two terms, one might say that their plan worked, but I would argue that it is the main reason why we find ourselves on the losing end today and that Bill Clinton was the kind of politician that does not come around very often. The DLC decided that it would make itself virtually indistinguishable from the Republican Party on issues of defense, deregulation, trade, and fiscal policy. Where they would distinguish themselves from Republicans was in social policy—in particular, abortion. This is where the problems began, because at that point they painted themselves into a corner. When they sided with the Republicans on certain issues they essentially made these topics non-issues. In doing so they dropped some of the core beliefs that made the Democratic Party strong and alienated its traditional core: the working class.
We all remember Ross Perot with his charts and graphs in the election of 1992. Do you recall him talking about “a giant sucking sound”? He proposed that if the United States signed many of the free trade agreements that were on the board at the time, manufacturing jobs would be siphoned out of the country so fast that the vacuum would create a giant sucking sound. Listen closely. Do you hear what I hear? This country is losing manufacturing jobs at an alarming rate. Most people agree that free global trade is something we should all be working toward. The problem is that in all of these trade agreements (NAFTA, FTAA, or the WTO) labor and environmental concerns are given short shrift if mentioned at all. Nowhere do you find language concerning the rights of workers to organize, uniform labor safety codes, or uniform environmental codes. This makes the movement of labor to the developing world so attractive that American companies must move to compete. It creates a race to the bottom to find the lowest labor costs, and since there are no provisions for increased regulation of labor and environmental concerns in these trade agreements, wages will be effectively held down worldwide. In their current configuration these trade agreements benefit nobody but the shareholders of these corporations. Yes, they do hold down consumer prices, but what good are low prices if your wages are also low? This basically creates a “Wal-Mart Effect”. Companies leave the United States to find cheaper labor. They then export the cheap consumer goods back into the country. The people who were formerly producing these goods cannot find jobs that offer comparable wages and are forced to work at places like Wal-Mart. It is akin to the old company towns of the 19th century where people only worked to get credit at the company store. It’s one big low-wage hamster wheel and it was supported by Democratic Leadership Council and signed into law by Bill Clinton.
The first piece of federal legislation proposed by the Clinton administration was the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that recognized gays in the military. Once again, I support gay rights and believe that it is the civil rights movement of our era, but for a moment put yourself in the shoes of Middle America. At that point the Democratic Party was working against labor and supporting gay rights. This is where the Republicans could start to sell the idea of a liberal elite. If the Democratic Party had supported both, as they should have, we would not have been painted into this corner. Middle America no longer sees the party as being its defender as it traditionally has been. It sees it as the party that only supports a liberal agenda. The Republicans seized on this, had their Contract with America in 1994, and took control of both houses of Congress. Clinton then decided just to play ball to save his own neck. He needed to work with Congress to get things done and, being the political animal that he was, he made it work to his advantage. At that point all the party had left to run on were very divisive social topics. Can you really remember any big issue from the 2000 election other than appointments to the Supreme Court? If judge appointments are all that you have left to run on then you’re screwed, because most of America does not understand the ramifications. It’s not their fault; everybody does not have the time or inclination to pay attention as much as we do. Once again you must empathize.
The first thing the Democratic Party must do is take a stand for American labor. I’m not talking about unions in particular, but the American Worker. The party should propose a reexamination of some of the trade agreements we have signed and in the long term support the addition of provisions that deal with labor and environmental concerns to these agreements. These trade agreements were only supposed to work if labor forces in the developing world could afford American-made goods. If that doesn’t happen then you have the one-way street that we have today. The Democratic Party needs to do everything it can to hold on the manufacturing jobs we still have. These jobs are still the pillar of the middle class and they are still the best way for people to work themselves into that class. Most of us have benefited from one of our ancestors coming to this country and finding a good-paying job. A job that let them buy a house and send their kids to school. It is an essential part of the American story and it is slowly disappearing. To those that would argue it is a natural progression from industrial to post-industrial, I would point to the other post-industrial nations of the world. All of them have a social welfare system that pays for the things a good job cannot: health care, housing, and good schools. You cannot have a totally service-based economy without having a welfare state. If you do not do this you create a permanent under-class. Do you want to have a permanent under-class, pay more taxes, or find people higher-paying jobs? These are our choices.
As for that social safety net, the Democratic Party needs to stand up to special interests and fight for the New Deal. We should be incensed when Republican attack dogs disgrace the work of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and label his reforms as outdated socialism. We have FDR to thank for the prosperity this country enjoyed in the latter half of the 20th century and that should never be forgotten. The Democratic Party needs to fight tooth and nail for Social Security, Medicare, and a fair tax system. We Americans work harder and longer than any other workers in the developed world. We deserve these benefits. We deserve to be able to retire on our Social Security, even if that only means a mobile home next to a fishing pond. We deserve it and the Republicans are trying to take that away. Yes, they sell their reforms as partial privatization but it’s called Social Security for a reason. It is socialized and secure. That sure as hell isn’t my definition of the stock market. The Democrats need to remind people that there was a time in this nation’s history when we won a great war, had economic growth, and took care of our people at the same time and it happened under Democratic leadership.
I am not asking the Democratic Party to only look backward; I am also asking the party to do something major to position itself for the future. As I have said throughout this piece, I am a station-wagon driving liberal, but I do think we have to reconsider our positions on some social issues. I’m not talking capitulation. I’m talking about diffusing the divisive social issues that cleave this country. We need to have enough faith in our beliefs to risk them. I’m talking about states’ rights. As I said before, it’s obvious now that there are two realities coexisting in this country, and we should have the faith in our beliefs to put them out in the marketplace of ideas. The Democratic Party should adopt more Libertarian ideas related to social policies and be the party that is going to let you decide how you want to live your life. The Republicans always have been seen as more paternal and the Democrats more maternal. What I’m saying is that we should treat the American people like adults and let them make their own decisions on these issues. Like adults they then would have to accept the consequences of being right or wrong. I know that our beliefs would prevail in the end.
What about the 14th Amendment? The 14th Amendment to the Constitution states that federal laws should always prevail over conflicting state laws but only when there is a federal law in place. Let’s face it, if Bush gets to appoint two new judges to the Supreme Court then Roe v. Wade will be overturned. There goes the federal law in place and at that point abortion is a states’ rights issue. The Democratic Party would then need to gain back control of the presidency and both houses of Congress to enact new federal legislation. How long would that take? Winning the a few governorships and state houses would appear to be a much easier task. Not to mention that important Republican governors, like George Pataki and Arnold Schwarzenegger, are pro-choice and much more liberal than the national party. Right now the progressive power base is in state governments, and that is why we should fight for increased states’ rights. Gay marriage is already a states’ rights issue and attempts at passing federal legislation to ban same-sex marriages have failed in both houses. Democrats will not frame abortion and gay marriage as states’ rights issues in 2008. They already will be. This “new position” on these issues could help them appeal more to socially conservative voters, like Latinos, and the party wouldn’t have to lift a finger.
With abortion and gay marriage thrown back to the states the biggest social issue left on the board would be gun control. I think Howard Dean was dead-on when he said that Vermont and New York should not have the same gun laws. I live in Chicago but spend much of my time in rural Wisconsin. I think all guns should be illegal in major cities, but if I lived on a farm I would definitely own a gun or two. They are different realities. One size does not fit all.
I’m not saying that Democrats should concede on gun control, just back off a little and leave it up to individual states. If they did so they could consolidate power in the Great Lakes as I suggested before. While campaigning in northern Wisconsin this past year, I was surprised to find that gun control was one of the major topics on everybody’s mind. Republicans had been passing out literature suggesting that Democrats were going to take everybody’s guns away. By framing gun control as a states’ rights issue the Democratic Party could lock up Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Who knows, it may even contest a southern state or win Ohio.
If the Democratic Party could frame abortion, gay marriage, and gun control as states’ rights issues then they could focus on where they are the strongest: issues of labor and the social safety net. The Democratic Party could no longer be labeled as the party of the liberal elite. It would be seen as libertarian, not liberal, on social issues, and it would regain its place as the defender of the common man.
Copyright 2005, Geary Yonker
Image: Carter O’Brien
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