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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Lessons Learned, Part III

Regular readers of this blog know how I feel about “cultural issues,” but in this post, I’d like to take on the subject more systematically.
There’s been a less-than-illuminating back-and-forth debate on the importance of “moral values” in the 2004 elections that’s been going on since November 3. Some observers saw that “moral values” was the single most important factor cited by voters in the Edison exit polls, and went stampeding off into a variety of colorful hysterics about the vast gulf in weltanschaung between “red state” and “blue state” Americans.
Others then noted both the vagueness of this category, and the unnatural importance assigned to it by the exit-poll practice of dividing up other issues (e.g., national security and domestic governance) into smaller categories that diminished their apparent significance. But these same observers often stampeded off into ridiculous overstatements of the irrelevancy of cultural issues, typically by arguing they were no more significant this year than in 2000–which is a bit like saying that baseball salaries aren’t too high because they didn’t much go up over the last twelve months.
The first step towards clarity about “moral values” is to distinguish the two very different ways in which this term is typically used: (a) the relative ability of politicians to frame their biographies, their principles, their agendas, and their messages in terms that convey a distinct sense of the values that matter more to them than personal power and ambition; and (b) a set of concerns about “moral issues” which typically touch on various perceived threats to “traditional values,” including the nuclear family, parental and social authority, personal responsibility, the strength of faith communities, and in general, the belief in the ability of Americans to perceive and enforce clear standards of “right” and “wrong” behavior.
There is a pretty strong consensus among Democrats today that we need to do something to strengthen the party on the first definition of “moral values.” And that’s a very good thing. As a coalition party, Democrats have to try harder than the ideologues of the GOP to articulate the values that unite them, even as they sometimes disagree on policy positions or political strategies. And as the party of public sector activism, Democrats inherently have a more complex agenda and message than the ostensibly anti-government Republicans, and have to try harder to avoid the gobblydegook language of government programs and policy nuances.
This should not be a matter of simply wrapping Democratic policy positions in “values language” or, God forbid, “God Talk.” What’s needed is a re-engineering of Democratic message to place values first, policy goals second, and programmatic ideas third and last. And for those of you who think of the DLC as unprincipled, poll-driven opportunists, I will mention here that we have been conducting values-based message and agenda training for state and local elected officials for seven years, pushing literally hundreds of Democrats, many of whom had no prior relationship with us, and some of whom disliked us going in, into rethinking their basic principles, uniting around values and big policy goals, and then developing an ideas agenda aimed at reflecting those values and implementing those policy goals. In many cases, these Democrats came up with policy positions the DLC would not necessarily agree with, but we didn’t care (please note this, Kos, since you consistently claim the DLC is determined to impose some ideological litmus test on the party).
I’m not arguing that there’s anything unique about our approach, but Democrats of all stripes should undertake something similar, as a matter of principle and of political survival.
But it’s the second definition of “moral values”–the one that deals with what we think of as “cultural issues”–that hangs fire among many Democrats.
The case for trying to improve Democratic performance among voters worried about “cultural issues” is pretty obvious: we are consistently losing millions of voters, especially white non-college educated men and women, whose economic interests would normally indicate support for Democrats. And to those who argue that only a hyper-populist economic message can win these voters back, the big counter-example is Bill Clinton, who won them in both 1992 and 1996, in no small part because he was able to deal with cultural issues more directly and sensitively, without in any way abandoning progressive policy positions.
What did Clinton do that Al Gore and John Kerry couldn’t do on cultural issues? He did two simple things: (a) projecting a message that acknowledged the legitimacy of cultural concerns, and found common ground, as in making abortion “safe, legal and rare,” and defending both gay rights and the right of states to define marriage; and (b) directly addressing concerns about cultural threats to the traditional family by advancing a limited but family-friendly agenda of proposals (derided by pundits at the time) like expanded family leave, youth curfews, school uniforms, and V-chips. And had the issue fully emerged during his presidency, there is almost zero doubt that Clinton could have found a way to support public partnerships on social projects with faith-based organizations in a way that honored religious communities’ contributions without abandoning separation of church and state.
Simply emulating Clinton’s approach would be a good first step towards de-toxifying cultural issues, but in today’s more polarized and mistrustful atmosphere, Democrats must do more. And the obvious place to start is by extending the routine Democratic demand for corporate responsibility to the entertainment corporations which purvey the sex-and-violence saturated products that emblemize the threat to traditional culture so many Americans perceive.
The unwillingness of many Democrats to “go there” is strange but pervasive. Some, of course, simply view Hollywood as a reliable source of campaign contributions that must not be criticized, a cynical approach that reinforces every conservative stereotype about the party. Others change the subject by claiming that any effort to promote some self-regulation of entertainment products amounts to censorship or even repression, as though the utterances of Paris Hilton, as opposed to those of Joe Camel, merit judicial protection. And still others resist the very idea of “compromise” with the yahoos who watch reality shows three hours a night but profess to deplore the hellbound direction of American culture. (History, of course, shows repeatedly that the most culturally threatened people are those who are complicit in the tranformation of culture from what they honor to what they desire).
It’s not that hard for Democrats to identify with, and reassure, culturally threatened Americans that they live in the same moral universe, and that they are vastly superior to the GOP in their ability to manage change–economic, cultural, and geo-political–in a way that reflects our common values and respects our differences. But we can’t do that if we continue to deny or minimize this problem, or pretend that cultural concerns are a fool’s substitute for material matters.
The lesson we learned in 2004 is that our obtuseness on “moral values”–in both the senses discussed above–enables a cynical and in many respects immoral GOP to pose as the cultural champion of people they fully intend to betray. And continuing to let them do that is the ultimate, damning judgment on the “moral values” of Democrats.

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