E.J. Dionne points out in his column yesterday:
In the 2004 election, according to the main media exit poll, President Bush won 63 percent of the votes cast by Americans in households earning over $200,000 a year, and 57 percent from those in the $100,000 to $200,000 range. All things being equal, wealthier people vote Republican.
But conservatives counter that Democrats are the party of choice in swank, well-educated latte enclaves: suburban Boston, New York and Philadelphia; Montgomery County, Md.; and Microsoftland around Seattle, Silicon Valley and Hollywood. John Kerry's blue states are, on the whole, richer than George Bush's red states.
Yes, Bush carried a lot of poor states -- but with heavy support from the rich people who lived in them. The class war is being waged more fiercely in the Republican states than in the Democratic states. The income divide is especially sharp in the South, where it is reinforced by a strong racial divide.
Why should the rich support the Democrats in the blue states and the poor support the Republicans in the red states? This isn't that hard to understand. Thomas Frank explains it very nicely in his What's the Matter with Kansas? His thesis, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is that poor and middle-income cultural conservatives in heartland states have been persuaded that the GOP is the party of morality and traditional values and that the Democrats are the party of moral license. To heartlanders concerns about what they perceive as immoral policies are more important than their economic interests.
It's a pretty common attitude in the more hardcore precincts of red-state land that a vote for a Democrat is a vote that if it doesn't condemn the individual voter to hell, will more than likely send the country there. The Democrats in their view are turning American into Sodom and Gomorrah. The religious right, therefore, are on a mission from God to save the country from itself. And the GOP is their political tool to accomplish this.
The hardcore religious right in this country is pretty nutty, but from what I've read, about a third of the electorate is pretty comfortable in the mental world as they have constructed it. (If you're asking yourself who in the world the 34% that are still giving Bush a positive approval rating, there's a big part of your answer.) And the GOP braintrust has recognized that it is a good, fanatically loyal base from which to build a coalition so long as you throw them a bone once in awhile, like a Supreme Court judge. My take is that this braintrust is pretty much dominated by the corporate Libertarian right, who are indifferent to traditional cultural values except as they can be used as a political motivator to keep their base on the bus. They do care about reducing taxes and governmental regulations, and they see the religious right as their political tool to accomplish their goals in those arenas.
As the GOP has become dominated by southern and mountain-west barbecue elites (pushing to the background the traditional Northeastern, blueblood elites), they know the importance of old-time religion in shaping a kind of primitive identity politics that works effectively to keep the rank and file marching to their tune. They've been using divide-and conquer tactics to convince poor rural whites that their interests are not the same as poor, rural blacks since Reconstruction. They understand how to fan the flames of their rural resentment toward the city folk whom they have branded as effete, condescending decadents. The new GOP elites understand, as well, the red state love of guns and of their mindless support of any war their leaders get them into, no matter how disproportionately they pay the price in blood for them.
I've laid all this out in other posts I've put up about the "intexication" of American politics. The bottom line is that the new southern and mountain west GOP elite are applying the political strategies that they used so effectively to maintain their one-party oligarchy through the Democratic Party in the South before Reagan. Since Reagan, the GOP has become their political tool, and the moderate Northeastern Republicans have been pushed to the side as viciously as have the Democrats.
Politics these days are not about debating the subtleties of the
issues. Those who grasp the subtleties have no political clout. We don't vote for people who take positions on the issues; we vote for or against symbols. It's all about branding and branding is about appealing to the most primitive human symbolic thinking. The GOP understands the branding dynamic in a way the Democrats simply have not yet grasped. And the GOP has used their advantage to put the Democrats into a hole they may never be able to get themselves out of.
The Republicans, on the other hand, have been able to build a coalition around a very strong core constituency for their base in the heartland states by finding a branding formula that galvanizes support in a way that the Democrats have not been able to match. They are able to add to that base all those who have bought into the branding of the the GOP as the party standing for traditional values (religious right), minimum government interference (wealthy libertarian right), and a strong military (neocon right). The GOP therefore establishes itself on the symbolic high ground as the party of traditional piety, self-reliant economics, and military valor. What does the Democratic party symbolize?
The Democrats continue to make the mistake of believing that "it's the economy, stupid". It should be: "It's the power, stupid." They've been outmaneuvered and still don't understand what happened to them. They were fat and complacent, and they lost the power that they took for granted since FDR, and they're not likely to get it back because they have three branding issues going against them:
- One, it doesn't matter that there's a lot of economic distress out there, because nobody believes the Dems can plausibly deliver economic relief. The Hillary Clinton health insurance debacle branded the Dems as naively incompetent and politically impotent in that regard. And their having been coopted by the DLC/WTO wing of the party makes them very unattractive to the traditional blue-collar constituencies who saw the Democrats as representing their interests. This is the element that for me makes it most difficult to enthusiastically support Dem candidates. I see them as coopted by the Libertarian corporate agenda. They are toothless and pathetic on economic issues.
- Two, they continue to be perceived as weak on national security because they are branded as the host for the naive "visualize world peace" element that does in fact compose a faction within the party, uninfluential though it might be. It doesn't matter in the world of symbolic brand engineering. The Dems are branded, and as a result the GOP has inoculated itself against any criticism from the moderate left--any prudent alternative to the aggressive warmongering promoted by the GOP is branded as wimpy.
- Three, they are branded as the Hollywood party of moral license, abortion, and gay marriage. They are perceived not as the party of responsible freedom, but of undisciplined decadence. It doesn't matter that blue-state Democrats have statistically more stable marriages and family life. It's the symbol that sticks. Facts are boring; symbols vibrate and glow.
So what's the solution? I think there's a chance that the Dems might make some gains in November because of disgust with the current administration's incompetency, but I don't see them holding such gains for very long unless they can develop a way of countering these three negative branding features. I've suggested before that they have to find a way to develop new energy by redefining themselves from the radical center and to see their agenda as retrieving the New Deal vision for America that the Libertarian/Red State GOP coalition has been working so assiduously to destroy. The Bill & Hillary vision for the party is not the answer, and I fear that in the next decade the party will wither into dithering irrelevancy.
It's not that I care about the Democratic Party in itself. The way I see it, we'll continue to be dominated by the GOP by default until a coherent, robust alternative can be developed. And so the demise of the Democrats would mean nothing to me if another viable alternative would arise to contest GOP political hegemony. They matter to me because right now they are the only alternative. The Greens understand the threat posed by the Corporate Libertarians in a way that the Dems don't, but they are still stuck in a secularism that heartlanders and the urban middle and blue-collar electorate cannot feel comfortable with. The Greens will always be a fringe phenomenon in American politics.
I don't have an answer, but I trust sooner or later one will develop.