There are a lot of election autopsy reports being written out there today, both in diaries and elsewhere. Consider this entry to be my two cents.
I am among those who believe that the election this year is indicative of the sea change in American politics that has been going on in this country since Ronald Reagan took office in 1980. This year, the Republicans took a formula they've been working on for 24 years and finally perfected it. With a mixture of "aww shucks" personal charm, righteous religious zeal, and white rage, Karl Rove finally figured out how to beat an arguably strong Democratic electoral challenge in spite of vulnerabilities in both foreign and domestic policy. In the face of this onslaught, the old Democratic formula of urban, organized labor, and minority voters invented during the time of FDR could not measure up. Now that Republican strategists know this, they will be able to reach for this formula again and again until the Democrats can figure out how to beat it.
Of course, it is not a formula without risks. It places the Republican party firmly and finally in the hands of the evangelical Christian lobby. This is a powerful lobby to be sure... but one that threatens to choke the more moderate, internationalist, fiscally responsible "Eisenhower Wing" of the party to death. In order to rule successfully and not oppressively, the Republican party must be learn to be more inclusive... and that means more than promising limits on civil and reproductive rights and tax cuts aimed mostly at the wealthiest one percent of the nation. It may take a while, but these policies will bear bitter fruit once their novelty wears off.
From all this, there are some fairly hard truths to acknowledge. One is that the United States really is a religious nation -- not surprising when you consider that it is populated by the descendents of people who fled religious as well as economic oppression. One can see the popular image of the liberal in the mid-West: agnostic (if not atheist), urbane, and jaded with respect to organized religion. That doesn't even begin to describe other associations within the popular consciousness that equate terms like "feminism" with terms like "lesbianism" and "bi-sexuality" that are anathema to evangelical Christian thinking. Liberals themselves have done nothing to erase this image, and even reinforced it by acting like religion is poison when introduced into public discourse.
So, I think the Democratic party will need to change both its language and its approach to governing. I think there will need to be many new faces like Barack Obama -- people other than Ivy League-educated white men -- more women and minorities in leadership positions to unimpeachably broaden appeal. I think some very old liberal vocabulary will need to be ressurected, to describe the struggle for social justice in religous as well as secular terms. Finally, religious faith can no longer be something that liberals run away from... because the struggle for the 21st century is not just to bring moderate democratic government to places like Iraq, but also to prevent the establishment of a quasi-religious fundamentalist Christian state here at home. Doing that requires challenges in the nations communities of faith, not just as city council meetings.
I tend to believe that the politics of the United States runs in cycles. A cycle of Republican power began in 1892 and continued for 40 years until 1932. In that time the social progressives were kicked out of the Republican party, and it collapsed under its own weighty, business-centric policies that led to the Great Depression. A Democratic cycle of power began in 1932 with FDR and ended in 1980 with dawning realization that the welfare state was not solving everyone's problems. A Republican cycle of power began in the 1980s, by promising to reduce taxes, increase military preparedness, and curtail onerous welfare entitlements and social policy. I believe that cycle will not end until those policies collapse under the weight of deficit debt and international misadventure. I can only hope that the last four years and the next four will represent the high water mark of the cycle, much in the same way that Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was the beginning of the end of the last Democratic cycle.
In short, until the Democratic party gets reorganized around a new liberal message and starts taking back the Congress and the state governorships and legislators, we're going to be stuck with conservative Republicans for at least another 10 years.
I do not mean to suggest that Democrats must embrace the conservative evangelical faith used by the Republicans. What I am saying is that there is a vast gulf between the half of the country that voted against George W. Bush, and the side that voted for him. I'm saying that bridges must be built. I'm saying that it is most definitely a horrible thing to call lesbians freaks or be racists. I'm saying that Democrats and liberals need to go into those faith communities and explain that we are not so far apart... and to understand that much of what Kerry stood for is social justice originally rooted in the Christian tradition. Democrats are woefully ignorant of the moral language of Republicans... and we must learn what they are saying and what they are worried about before we can change their minds and their hearts.
on 2004-11-04 at 1:16 p.m.
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