There’s been a lot of commentary since the election about how the Democrats need to rethink their identity in order to capture the voters needed to have a meaningful presence again, that they lost so badly because they’ve turned away from “heartland” American values. What the Democrats face reminds me of the old joke:
Two friends are backpacking in the woods when they are surprised by a bear intent upon eating them. One of them pulls his running shoes out of his backpack and starts lacing them up.
“Are you crazy?” his friend asks. “You can’t outrun that bear.”
“I don’t have to. I just have to outrun you.”
I do believe that the Democratic Party needs to articulate its positions better (paging George Lakoff), and to do so in a positive rather than a reactive way. However, let’s be realistic. The Democrats don’t need to win that many people over to their side for the midterm elections in two years or the presidency in four.
The 2004 election no more represents some sort of sea change in American politics and culture than the 1996 election did. In 1996, Bill Clinton received 47 million votes to Bob Dole’s 39 million. In 2004, George W. Bush received 59 million to John Kerry’s 56 million. The second election represents a much slimmer margin of victory than the first. (Note: I’m not denying that Bush won in 2004. Nor am I denying that more people voted for a candidate other than Clinton in 1996 than voted for Clinton. But did you notice how many more people voted for Kerry this time around than voted for Clinton for his second term?)
My own opinion is that if the Dems can succeed in reframing the debate, as Lakoff suggests they should, they do not need to act like conservatism-lite; they can actually stand up for the progressive values that those of us on the left end of the political spectrum believe are central to the American identity. At the very least, if progressives don’t start learning who Frank Luntz is and what he does and why it works, then we don’t have anyone to blame but ourselves for our failures.
Finally, Dems are currently enduring a lot of lectures telling them that they are elitist and out of touch, that they have contempt for middle-American values, that the urban centers that are their power base are not the true America. Let’s call these lectures what they are: political posturing intended to put the Democrats on the defensive and to continue to define them negatively against their will. Bush won by a margin of only 3 million votes. Kerry received more votes than Bill Clinton in 1996. These numbers do not tell us that the Democratic Party is out of touch or that American voters are turning away in droves.
As for the values in New York, in Philadelphia, in Washington D.C., in Chicago, in San Francisco, in Los Angeles…these are American values, too. People from all over the world flock to these cities and become American citizens because of the promise this country offers them. The people living in Peoria, in Iowa City, in Charlotte, in Topeka…these people, hardworking and respectable to be sure, do not have a monopoly on what it means to be an American.