3.11.04

IT'S THE CULTURE, STUPID.

The Democrats have discovered their policies and intentions are failing to motivate voters who view a breakdown in morals as an important policy issue. That failure to motivate strikes some observers as strange, as many such voters would -- in the view of those observers -- benefit from traditional Democratic economic policies, themselves steeped in the Social Gospel.

(The dubious link between intentions and outcomes, and the importance of the cultural carnage on the Democrats' reputations, are the subjects of two posts from this morning.)

Dan Drezner has linked to a number of posts that complement his nomination of Thomas Frank as More Valuable Policy Speaker. Via Kieran at Crooked Timber, I discover links to a writer called Amy Sullivan, who commits a flagrant act of oversimplification in leading readers to her principal thesis.
If I may condense a few decades of history into one sentence, the perfect storm that led to what we now call the Christian Right was this combination:

Angry reaction by conservative evangelicals to court rulings on school prayer, Bible-reading in public schools, and abortion motivating them to enter the political realm for the first time

plus

Outrage among Catholics, who had previously kept kind of quiet while focusing on assimilating amid anti-Catholicism, after Roe v. Wade, mobilizing them into a politically active force

plus

The realization by Republican strategists that they need to form a cohesive electoral block and that their best bet for winning the South was partnering with white church leaders, since those institutions were the last acceptable bastion of racism

equals

Rock-solid coalition of Christian Right and Republican Party.
Too dismissive. A longer article also reveals a tin ear.
When it comes to appealing to religious Americans, a party needs more than just rhetoric. It needs policies that draw on the values shared by many religious communities. Fortunately, the Democrats already have plenty of these. They just have yet to make the connection. In April, if you drove through almost any town in America, you would have read anti-war messages, not just in newspaper articles about Democrat "doves," but also on the reader boards in front of many churches. Today three of the Democratic primary candidates, Lieberman, Kerry, and Gephardt, are proposing economic incentives for manufacturers to improve automobile fuel efficiency, advancing concerns similar to those of the Evangelical Environmental Movement, which last year launched the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign urging people to "discover new ways to love your neighbor as we strive together to reduce fuel consumption and pollution from the cars, trucks, and SUVs we drive." Recently, the leaders of some environmental groups, whose members tend to lean Democratic, have recognized they share much common ground with religious communities. Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, for example, issued an apology that "the environmental movement for the past quarter of a century has made no more profound error than to misunderstand the mission of religion and the churches in preserving the Creation." There are any number of other issues, from fighting offensive spam email to expanding national service, that have a moral component, are important to voters, and that a Democrat with sincere religious convictions could profitably champion.
Outstanding. The first step in reaching toward believers is to note that many of them went to churches because those were institutions neither the National Guard nor Earl Warren could integrate. How 1963. The second step is to seek common ground with congregations whose social concerns are those of the latte liberals. There is a reason Charles at Midwest Conservative Journal refers to the "National Council of Churches Nobody Goes To Any More." And he's got a riposte to thinkers such as Ms Sullivan up already.
Memo to Europeans and American Europhiles: Americans are not Europeans who couldn't make it in civilized society. Whether we're Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox or Pentecostal, we are not Cavaliers but Roundheads, not Laudians but Covenanters, not Anglicans but Puritans. We are not like you.

We know that a very few of you still have a sort of ceremonial connection to the Christian religion but we are, for the most part, a churchgoing people. As uncomfortable a fact as it might be for you to face, most of us still believe this Christianity stuff.

The worst mistake modern liberalism and the Democratic Party ever made was secularization. When both began taking orders from the culture while abandoning any connection with religion at all(except for the liberal "Christians" trotted out to fool the rubes), when liberals and Democrats made it impossible for very large numbers of Americans to vote for Democrats without seriously compromising their beliefs was when that party's decline began. And unless the Democrats realize this and figure out how to make deeply-Christian Americans vote for them with a clear conscience, they will stay down.
Ruy Texeira at Donkey Rising grasps this.
Democrats’ difficulties with this group surely have a great deal to do with these voters’ sense of cultural alienation from the national Democratic party and its relatively cosmopolitan values around religion, family, guns and other social institutions/practices. Even the war on terror has increasingly become more a cultural issue linked to patriotism than a true foreign policy issue for many of these voters.

Given this sense of cultural alienation, it must be questioned whether candidates like Gore or Kerry can ever really be viable with these voters. Democrats may have to choose candidates in the future who do not so easily evoke this sense of cultural alienation and who can connect in a genuine fashion with these voters. I come to this conclusion reluctantly because I had hoped that an effective campaign could overcome this obstacle by, in effect, using wedge Democratic issues like health care or jobs to build support among this group. But the messenger appears to matter a great deal, just as having a message does (see point number two, above). The Democrats in the future will have to pay attention to both, I think.
What good does it do to use tax moneys to provide health care if voters perceive that the clinics are performing abortions and treating addictions and social diseases? What good is a jobs program when the workforce has been rendered unemployable by the government schools?

Such soul-searching by Democratic strategists is desirable, but methinks too many are still wedded to the old nostrums.

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