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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Culture Gap, Continued

There’s a reasonably strong consensus now that an inability to address cultural concerns is one–not the only, but one–of the reasons Democrats are struggling to build an electoral majority despite the extremism and failed policies of the Republicans who run Washington these days.
But the debate over the “culture gap” among Democrats remains mired in imprecise thinking about what we are talking about, and who we are talking about.
Beliefnet’s Steve Waldman, who, along with The Washington Monthly’s Amy Sullivan, remains the best advisor for Democrats on culture and religion, has penned an excellent Slate piece that slices and dices the problem with real precision. Democrats cannot and should not try, says Waldman, to win the votes of self-consciously Christian Right voters who think abortion is murder, feminism is disobedience to God’s will, and homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. Yet there are millions of voters, including Catholics and “freestyle evangelicals” who don’t share the views of the American Taliban, but who simply want to know that Democrats have some sense of moral resolution about good and bad behavior, and not just for the executives of Enron and Halliburton. Waldman cites Bill Clinton’s success in making personal responsibility (at least prior to the moment when his own failures of personal responsibility became manifest) a key theme for Democrats as a model for the future.
In a separate article for Beliefnet, Waldman usefully warns Democrats that just dressing up liberal policy nostrums in “God Talk” is not going to solve the party’s problems, and could actually make them worse.
Some of you may recall that a couple of weeks before the election, I did a post quoting from John Kerry’s campaign book A Call to Service that discussed the meaning of his Catholicism. It focused on the two “Great Commandments” laid down by Jesus–love God and love your brother as yourself–and interpreted the first as an injunction to seek out right from wrong, and the second as an injunction to make love and justice the most important truth.
When Kerry discussed his faith during the campaign, the second “Great Commandment” came through clearly, but the first was ignored or muted. It was all Gospel, no Law; all New Testament, no Old Testament; all Christmas and Easter, no Advent and Lent; all love and justice, no moral clarity. That was the missing signal to culturally-oriented religious voters that Waldman is talking about. And it’s not a problem that’s attributable to Kerry personally; it’s a systemic problem Democrats have in talking about the political implications of faith.
To those of you who aren’t religious at all, I’m sure this sounds like superstitious gobbledygook, but trust me on this, it matters to a lot of people who wouldn’t give Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson the time of day. Democrats can reduce the “culture gap” without compromising their principles–indeed, maintaining our principles is the only way we can speak and talk authentically about values–but it must begin with an understanding of how the people we are talking to actually think and believe.

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