Democrats lose a key demographic, and maybe an election, because they're unwilling to support values issues that they could very plausibly endorse.
A presidential election focused on income and wealth inequality? The Republicans clearly identified as the party of the rich, and the Democrats, just as clearly, the party of the rest of us? That's pretty amazing. We haven't had a contest like this in three-quarters of a century.
But if the voters really care so much about economic issues, as the pundits keep insisting, and inequality really is such a prominent issue, then the Democrats should be breezing to victory. So why are they clearly losing the House and facing a very real possibility of losing the White House?
My answer unfolds in two connected parts: First, the economy is not the most basic issue. Second, this year as always, the foolish Democrats are acting as if it is.
Part One: It's Not About "The Economy, Stupid."
Voters are not basing their decision primarily on the unemployment rate and the performance of the economy. When you look at the polls, as The New York Times reported, "disaffection with the economy didn't translate into support for Mr. Romney." In fact, those who suffer most when jobs disappear - the poor, single women, people of color - are most likely to support Obama. Those who suffer least - the white, the married, the rich and solidly middle-class - are the only groups giving Romney a majority of their votes.
The states with the highest unemployment rates (California, Rhode Island) are solidly blue; the states with the least unemployment (North Dakota, Nebraska) are solidly red. If this were simply a referendum on Obama's economic stewardship, the polling data should be exactly the other way around.
That's not to say the economy is irrelevant. But the mass news media blow it out of proportion. They earn their name by focusing on what's new. So they have to find a story that makes this election look different than the last. And they trumpet every shift of one or two percent in the polling (which may be due to economic news) as a huge event.
Meanwhile, they ignore what should be the most important story of this election: how little has really changed. The electorate remains virtually split between the two major parties, as it has been for decades. And it's split along the same old demographic lines.
Republican presidential candidates garner a majority among Southern whites and, in the rest of the country, among white men and white married women in the middle to upper classes who don't have graduate degrees. (For at least a quarter century, Democrats have held a solid majority of voters in the lower third on the income scale.) White married voters are more likely than other whites to be religious, and, as always, the GOP does best among whites who call themselves "very religious." These groups have been voting Republican for a long time.
Some stereotypes that emerged from past elections turn out to be less true. Whites without college degrees do not tilt toward the GOP unless they live in the South. (Over the last 36 years, Democrats have actually done best among voters who never finished high school, as well as among those with graduate degrees.) On the other hand, whites with college degrees (but not grad degrees) are as likely to vote Republican as Democrat. Though Romney will surely do well among over-65 voters, and Obama well among young voters, historical data on age do not show people voting more Republican as they get older. And the age gap may be closing a bit in recent months. So, education and age correlations are not so important.
The racial, regional, marital and religious divides are as strong as ever. But they don't make news. Instead, the demographic map is treated as an obvious fact of political life, not worth discussing because it's assumed that nothing will ever change. Yet it's the supposedly "obvious" truths that deserve the most attention. If we don't lift them up for analysis and interrogation - if they go on being treated as inevitable - they will indeed remain unlikely to change.
So, this election season should send us back to the question that has plagued liberals and progressives for so long: why do so many people of middling economic means vote consistently for the party whose policies would redistribute wealth upward to the rich?
The problem should be more acute this year than most. Obama has staked his claim as champion of the middle class. So why can't he establish a solid lead beyond the polling margin of error? It's time to ask again Thomas Frank's memorable question: "What's the matter with Kansas?"
What Does "Kansas" Really Want?
Frank's Kansas is the popular metaphor for those millions of white voters who seem to vote against their own economic best interests. Talking to these folks, Frank found that they treated economic life as if it had nothing to do with politics. For them, politics is symbolic action. It's a way to express their enraged feeling of being victimized by elites from the Northeast and the West Coast. By voting Republican, they stick it to the effete (and Democratic, they assume) snobs.
However, another Kansan, Robert Wuthnow, paints a more complicated picture of his people. Wuthnow, perhaps the most prominent authority on American sociology of religion, stresses the strong sense of communal responsibility among the good Christians of Kansas. If you are in trouble, there's a good chance they've got your back.
Of course, it's not just Kansas. You'll find the same spirit of community wherever metaphorical "Kansans" abound. They will bend over backwards to help you out - as long as they judge you deserving. But, crucially, they insist on reserving that right to judge for themselves. They won't let any government bureaucrat do it.
Why not? Wuthnow traces the distrust of the federal government back to 1938, when Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to follow through on the promises he'd made in the 1936 campaign (though he neglects to point out that FDR was blocked by a conservative Congress). Go back earlier, and there's a rich tradition of many Kansans voting Democratic for decades - people who understood the invaluable role of government.
Dig deeper into the work of Frank and Wuthnow, though, and you'll find a more nuanced view of Kansans. Through the 1950s, their powerful spirit of community was centered on home and church, where life made sense to them and they felt safely sheltered. They saw the nation's borders, too, as sheltering walls, which had to be buttressed against potential invaders. Then the upheavals of the Vietnam war era left them confused and shaken, afraid that their personal, communal and national life would never again be secure. Since then, that fear has only grown deeper.
Kansans still crave a life built on unassailable cultural foundations - "the solid rock of certainty," as Frank puts it. But they can't find certainty because they feel that life has "gotten too far away from the natural order of things"; the world has "forsaken the true and correct path," leaving "civilization in decay." So, they feel like "helpless pawns caught in a machine ... victims besieged by a hateful world," driven by huge forces that seem to know no restraint, erasing every last shred of predictability and control.
As Mark Lilla put it recently in The New York Times, the conservative mind has become "little more than a click-click slide projector holding a tray of apocalyptic images of modern life that keeps spinning around, raising the viewer's fever with every rotation" - and pushing the feverish viewer further to the right.
There's a growing body of scientific evidence to explain the conservative mind and its plight. Conservatives are generally more easily frightened than liberals. They tend to have more trouble than liberals tolerating ambiguous situations and unstable systems. They are less open to new (hence, unpredictable and unstable) experiences, which is all that the world seems to throw at them anymore, as far as they can tell. So, they are more inclined than liberals to want predictable order, to follow norms and rules laid down by others.
But looking out the windows of their homes and churches, they see a rising tide of Americans who seem to revel in breaking the rules and embracing ambiguous, unstable situations. They feel like victims of an earthquake, standing helpless as their cultural foundations tremble under their feet.
Kansans feels powerless to do anything about all this except (in Frank's words) to "join in mutual outrage against a common enemy" and go on battling "on behalf of the victimized," using the vote as their symbolic weapon.
Kansans ask political leaders to give them back their sense of a safe, predictable world, where they can feel some control over their own lives. For them, as Maureen Dowd put it, "Every election has the same narrative: Can the strong father protect the house from invaders?"
Republican politicians thrive by presenting themselves as the fathers strong enough to fend off an endless array of "invaders:" communists and terrorists abroad; feminists, drug pushers, secular humanists and pleasure-seeking liberals of every kind at home - and always, but now more than ever, "big government." All are portrayed as explosive forces threatening to burst every boundary, destroy every restraint and overwhelm every last good American.
For years, Republicans have reaped huge political profits by linking all these threats to "the 60s" - and to the Democrats. So in every election, Kansans dutifully reaffirm their faith in the Republicans as the strong, protecting fathers. Voting GOP is their way of joining together, fighting back and thus creating an illusion of control regained.
Why do men crave the solid rock of certainty more than women, and why Southerners more than the rest of us? Theories abound, but no one knows for sure. Perhaps it's logical that married people would worry more than singles about stability; they have more of it to lose. It's easier to understand why more actively religious people tend to be more "Kansan": religious practices are traditional ways to create a sense of enduring structure, so they appeal most to people who feel that need for permanence most strongly.
Part Two: Democrats Keep Acting as if Voters Care Only About Economic Issues
Of course, the times are not going to stop a-changin'. So there's no reason to expect the craving for certainty - nor the demographic impasse it creates - to disappear very soon.
This leaves Democrats stuck with a dilemma. They promote communal solidarity as the only way to serve the economic interests of "the 99%." When they say, "We're all in this together," they are talking only about the economic side of life. At least, it certainly sounds that way.
But Kansans are largely deaf to this appeal, since it doesn't speak to their overriding interest: the very non-economic need to feel that their lives have a stable social-cultural foundation - which is the very reason that they already have such a rich tradition of communal solidarity.
The Dems have two choices. They could wait to see if demographic changes give them a clear majority. But that could be a very long wait, with lots of very close elections and the real possibility of many Republican victories in the meantime. The consequences of such long-term damage to the nation would be frightening, to put it mildly.
Or Dems could say, "We're all in this society and this culture as well as this economy together." They could look for common ground with "Kansas" and try to break through the demographic impasse.
It's not that hard to find common ground. Liberals and progressives can embrace the most basic "Kansas" values. But they'll do it in their own way. When they talk about supporting the community of fellow humans and treating their lives as sacred, they mean every single human - of every color, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status, documented and undocumented alike - throughout the nation and indeed throughout the world. So they'll come out with very different policy prescriptions.
That will be a tough pill for many "Kansans" to swallow. It will take years of thoughtful, sensitive conversation. The best way for Democrats to open up the conversation is to respect and even adopt some of the basic symbols "Kansans" use to express their values. God and country are the two most potent symbols. There's no reason why Dems should let conservatives own them.
Most Americans have always wanted religion mixed into their politics, and for the foreseeable future they probably always will. It makes no sense to cede this nexus to the Right. The religious Left has a proud history in this country, and it has been reviving its strength markedly in recent years. Most Dems already have some kind of interest in religion or spirituality. So Democrats could build on those strengths. They could recognize that there is a right way and wrong way to mix religion and politics, then get to work doing it the right way.
And why let conservatives own the flag? There's no reason for even the most progressive among us to be afraid of patriotism. And there are plenty of good reasons for flag-waving on the Left. Martin Luther King Jr. never hesitated to boast that our own nation was the first based on the idea of human equality. He taught us that nonviolence, global human rights and patriotism can go together just fine.
Of course Dr. King also taught that they go together only when we constantly work to make America's realities live up to its highest ideals. True patriots never say, "My country right or wrong." Their most patriotic act is to demand that the country right its wrong, that every person truly enjoy the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That's why liberals get active in politics: to build a better America, an America that will serve all its people and the whole world. Why not say it, loud and proud?
We can feel equally proud of the incredible diversity of our people, because from the beginning we have welcomed huddled masses from everywhere, yearning to breathe free. And of the purple mountains' majesty and the amazing natural beauty of every kind, from sea to shining sea. To make sure we all breathe free, every day, and to protect all that natural beauty are not merely progressive goals. They can be testimonies to our patriotism.
This is not a call for liberals and progressives to abandon their values and move to the right. Far from it. It's a call to stay just where we are, to speak out honestly about America's shortcomings, like the tragic failure to embrace all immigrant peoples equally and the terrible neglect of our natural resources.
Yet if we feel firm enough in our values, we can encounter conservative values and the conservative worldview with a dispassionate, curious, inquiring mind, a mind open to finding unexpected shared goals and opportunities for constructive conversation.
If Democrats would blend their appeal to economic self-interest with a genuine respect for basic conservative values like community, God, and country, and offer a genuine interest in creating the "single community" Dems talk so much about, some of the white middle-class voters of "Kansas" would begin to look at the party and its candidates with a more open mind.
How many would open their minds? No one can say. But suppose even 10 percent who now vote Republican would return to the party of their grandparents and great-grandparents - and urge their children to do the same - over the next decade or two (and we're talking about a very long-term process here). Today's toss-up states and Congress would turn permanently Democratic. That would cause a bigger leftward tremble in the political landscape than we've seen since 1932.
Let's face it, though. It's very hard to imagine the Democratic party putting this obviously logical strategy into practice. A big chunk of the Dem base simply can't bring themselves to reach out to "Kansas." They can't feel respect for the powerful spirit of community that prevails in "Kansas," nor the symbols it relies on for a sense of cultural security - especially God and country. The "Kansans" are right about one thing: Since the early '70s, the Dems have cut themselves off from those politically rich symbols, letting the Republicans own them and harvest the votes they yield.
That big chunk of Dems who resist all talk of God and country in politics would rather cling to their own cultural self-interest - standing firm against all that "Kansas" represents - than explore ways of cooperating with "Kansas," which might break through the political divide and create a long-lasting Democratic majority.
Though the Dems' single-minded focus on economic change protects their cultural self-interest, it ultimately stands in the way of the very economic change they want to create.
If that's the choice many Dems want to make, so be it. But at least they ought to make that choice consciously, knowing the price they will inevitably pay.
PS: To readers who are so far on the left that they don't care if Democrats win or lose:
The advice I just gave to Dems I would give more than ten times over to the truly progressive left, because genuine progressives can't get even a tenth of the votes, nationally, that mainstream Democrats get - even though so many Dems endorse progressive positions on so many issues.
The problem is that most Democrats and independents, even the liberal ones, also have a fear disorder and a need for symbols of predictable structure. The liberals just have less of it than conservatives.
Centrists and many liberals still see the Left as a threat. Back in 1968 the Jefferson Airplane sang that they were proud to be "forces of chaos and anarchy." That's the picture of the Left that has dominated American society ever since.
It's not enough to explain calmly that it just ain't true. (Try to imagine Ralph Nader or Dennis Kucinich seriously promoting chaos and anarchy!) If the Left hopes to become a significant political force, it's going to have to bend over backwards to prove that it ain't true.
If Left progressives make that effort, they'll find that some of their issues get a better hearing in parts of "Kansas" than in the more moderate segments of the Democratic party. "Kansas" has a long tradition of taking care of business at home rather than meddling in other nations' affairs.
That anti-imperialist strain may now lie a bit underground, but it's still there to be tapped. "Kansas" also has the same mistrust as the left of the Democratic leadership's all-too-cozy relationship with Wall Street and corporate America. And "Kansas" demands that its benefits like Social Security and Medicare be protected at all costs.
There's no reason for even the most leftward progressives to fear the advice I've given to Democrats. The United States has a rich tradition of combining community, God and patriotism with radical politics. The Left will have to start building on that tradition if it hopes to become a real player in American politics again.