There's an ugly but resonant line usually attributed to Joseph Goebbels, but apparently written by the Nazi playwright Hanns Johst, which goes, "When I hear the word 'culture', I reach for my revolver." And ugly as it is, I am tempted to say that when I hear Democratic consultants, who made millions spinning and strategizing and rainmaking over the last decade, opining about Red State culture and the need for Democrats to break bread at Applebee's to commune with the zeitgeist I'm overcome with a similar feeling.
There is no end of Democrats in Washington and certainly in every state across this country who often eat at Applebee's or Bennigan's or Coco's, and not simply for research purposes.
Nor did they need election disappointment to put them on the case.
And perhaps this is an element of the problem. It's just time for some of these folks to go -- not because they're bad people (though more than a few are opportunists and backstabbers) or they lack expertise but because the party needs some new blood. The lessons of the 70s and 80s or even the 90s are not directly relevant to today.
If you've lived in Washington for any length of time you know it's laughable to imagine that the Republican operators are any less well-heeled or disconnected from lives of most Americans than their Democratic peers. Indeed, increasingly over the last decade, the big torrents of easy money flow into Republican hands. (With Congress under GOP management, business has much less need to hedge its bets.)
But the Democrats do have an aristocracy of operatives --- and the âaâ word is appropriate on a number of levels. Some have been around for decades, a few of the best came up with Clinton in 1992, and others came in during the '90s when the getting was good and mistook the power of incumbency for their own skill.
More than anyone or anything else they are the Democratic party. With organized labor as diminished as it is and party organizations at every level less institutions than conduits for political money, these folks are the power-brokers, the institutional memory, most of everything that persists over time, cycle after cycle, long after the race horses (i.e., the candidates) are put out to pasture.
So for all these reasons there is something rich and precious about hearing some of these folks sagely noting how the leadership of 'the party' is out of touch with the Red States when they are the party, when they're the folks who've been in the drivers' seat for years. If thereâs a problem and especially if it revolves around being out of touch with the lives of ordinary Americans, then by all means the first place to start is for some of these folks to say a collective, my bad, my time has passed and depart the scene --- especially if their proposed remedies are as clichÃ©d and pathetic as the ones many of them are offering.
The problem for Democrats is not that they don't cite scripture enough or that they don't live for NASCAR, though they do need to be able to appeal to both. Democrats who just tack a few gospel references on to their standard speeches will simply compound losing an election by losing their dignity. That's not a disparagement of religion; it's a recognition that mere pandering will achieve nothing politically and invite deserved ridicule.
Those arenât the heart of the problem. The difficulty for Democrats today is that they excel at the libretto of politics but have little feel for the score.
Democrats frequently console or rally themselves with the fact that most voters agree with them on individual issues. And then they're mystified when they don't win elections. Sometimes it seems, or people convince themselves, that it's because one candidate is more likable than the other. Some people think that's the case with this just completed presidential election. And perhaps it is to some degree. But the bigger difference is that Democrats don't do anywhere near as good a job at telling a story with their politics.
If you want an example think of a movie with great acting and set-design but no discernible plot.
Yes, you're for this and that policy and you have this, that and the other plan. But what story or picture does it all amount to? What things does it say are important and which things less important? What does it all amount to in terms of who we are as Americans and who we want to be?
I think I can tell you what the Republicans are for and without referencing hardly any policy specifics. They're for lowering taxes in exchange for giving up whatever it is the government pretends to do for us, (at a minimum) riding the brakes on the on-going transformation of American culture, and kicking ass abroad.
Thatâs a clear message and a fairly coherent one, whatever you think of the content --- itâs about self-reliance and suspicion of change. And Democrats have a hard time competing at that level of message clarity.
What's the Dems' message, boiled down to as few words, and framed in terms simple imperatives and aspirations, rather than policy? And which are the do-or-die issues, and which are expendable?
Nor would it be a simple matter for Dems to compete on the terrain of traditionalism and religiosity. For years Iâve joked about Republicans who find themselves saying, wittingly or not, âWell, weâve locked up the white racist vote. Now, if we could just get the blacks too, then weâd be cooking with gas!.â As I wrote in an article in the late 90s, âThe GOP's problem with minorities isn't incidental; it's fundamental. Any genuine effort to aid minorities or the poor would instantly alienate a substantial portion of the Republican base. It's an electoral bind, inexorable and fixed. The Republicans can't be the party of both black opportunity and anti-black resentment, no matter how big the tent. The Democrats tried it; it didn't work.â
A similar logic applies to the urban vs. rural, modern vs. traditional cleavage that is so apparent in our politics today. I believe as fervently as anyone that the Democrats canât allow themselves to be seen as the party of irreligion. And Democrats must at least be competitive throughout the Midwest and Southwest, if not necessarily in the core states of the old Confederacy. But letâs not be like the Jack Kemps of the GOP and forget the intensely dynamic nature of coalitional politics.
The Dems did not get 48% of the popular vote for nothing. They got it because of what they were clearly for and clearly against. 48% isnât enough for the White House or enough to be the countryâs majority party. But itâs nothing to sneeze at either. And many changes that would gain Democrats votes in the Red States would lose them votes or unity in the Blue ones.
This doesnât mean Dems should just stand-pat or be satisfied with what they have. They shouldnât; indeed, they canât. It is only to say that there are real limits to how many positions and rhetorical styles Dems can ape to good effect. And it means having a little more respect for themselves, their voters and what they claim to believe in than to collapse into a puddle of self-doubt just because this election didnât go their way.