By Paul Waldman
After the 2004 election, CNN correspondent Candy Crowley gave a speech in which she related a meal she had with John Kerry in an Iowa restaurant in the campaign’s early days. Kerry asked the waitress if they served green tea; she responded that they had only Lipton’s. “I advised the senator that he would need to carry his own green tea in Iowa and probably several other states, as well,” she said to knowing chuckles, going on to say that the incident stuck in her memory because it showed how out of touch Kerry was with regular folks and the regular places where they live.
But when Media Matters for America looked into it, they found not only that green tea makes up 20% of Lipton’s sales in the U.S., but that if you’re in Dubuque and you want some, you can get it at that snooty elitist foodery called K-Mart.
The point of this story is that if Democrats are smart enough to take Tom Schaller’s advice, they are going to catch hell from the elite Washington press corps. So it will take a bit of fortitude to stand up to that criticism and make the changes in outlook necessary to build a lasting majority.
Journalists like Candy Crowley operate from simplistic, stereotypical ideas of what the “heartland” is and how distant Democrats are from it. Those stereotypes inform everything they write about the two parties and where they get their votes. While the incident she talked about in her speech happened in Iowa, nowhere do those media stereotypes come more to the fore than when journalists are thinking about the South. As far as journalists are concerned, people who live in the South (and other areas where there are lots of Republicans, like the lower Midwest) are “real” Americans, while people who live in the Northeast or West are something else. In fact, Southern-ness itself has become for the media the mark of “authenticity,” the sign that a politician understands regular folks and their lives and is fundamentally “real.”
Consider George W. Bush, who is about as inauthentic and removed from the struggles ordinary people face as a politician could possibly be. Bush once responded to a single mother who told him that she was working three jobs by saying, “Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that,” as though she were not a victim of economic desperation but just a real go-getter. Yet as far as journalists are concerned, Bush is just the kind of regular guy most folks would love to have a beer with, unlike those fancy-pants phonies whom he defeated in his two presidential campaigns. Sure, his father was president and his grandfather was a senator, and he went to Andover, Yale and Harvard — but just listen to that drawl!
The fact that members of the news media (most of whom are themselves Northeasterners who went to good schools) consider the South to be the “real” America where people have “values” hampers Democrats in a dozen ways. For instance, Tom points to the importance of religion. In both 2000 and 2004, Bush won every state with a proportion of evangelical Christians higher than the national average — and the highest are in the South. The fact that Republicans do very well among people who go to church at least once a week is always defined as a “problem” for Democrats, while the fact that Democrats are equally dominant among those who rarely attend religious services — a group just as large — is never called a “problem” for Republicans.
This is just one example, but as Tom lays out in detail in his book, in area after area, whether in demographics or opinion, it is the South that is the outlier, the exception to the American norm. Political scientists have long understood this, which is why in most multivariate analyses of national data, they include a “South/non-South” variable to account for these differences.
What Tom is recommending is nothing that Republicans haven’t already done themselves, though they have been strangely immune to criticism over it. Their majority is built on the South, the Midwest, and the interior West; just like the Democrats, they are not a national party. The fact that both parties narrowed their focus to around eighteen battleground states in 2004 was somehow seen as a failure only on the Democrats’ part, as they were “writing off” large swaths of the country, particularly the South. For some reason Republicans were not criticized for doing exactly the same thing. It was supposed to be problematic that Democrats were not putting money into a futile attempt to win Texas’ electoral votes, yet the GOP’s failure to do the same in New York or California was not worthy of comment, much less condemnation.
Democrats are poised to win the House, due mostly to likely sweeps of competitive seats in states like New York and Pennsylvania. After Tuesday, the GOP in the Northeast will be a frayed husk of a party, with the once-numerous Rockefeller Republicans nothing but a fading memory. Yet this is not the story the media are likely to tell. We have already seen signals that however many seats Democrats win elsewhere, the media will focus their attention on those few conservative Democrats in the South and places like Indiana, the exceptions rather than the rule. If he wins, Heath Shuler of North Carolina — a pro-gun, pro-life candidate — will probably become the most famous member of the freshman class of 2006 (Shuler was already profiled in a long New York Times article last week). The cable networks will tell us that Shuler and others like him are the face of the Democratic victory, and this just shows how the party is beset by internal tensions, with candidates like Shuler who represent real Americans the only hope to save their party from those liberal Northeasterners who alienate Democrats from the rest of the country.
But the presence of a few conservative Democrats in the South doesn’t mean that Democrats need that region to win, any more than the presence of an Olympia Snowe or a Christopher Shays means Republicans can’t win without the Northeast. So the most important thing for Democrats to do is to stop feeling bad about not winning the South. In the months after the 2004 election, you couldn’t walk into a think tank conference room without stumbling on a forum on how Democrats can show Southerners they like and respect them. Yet there was no such breast-beating on the other side, no Republicans worrying about how they’re going to start winning again in New England or the Far West. But their problems in those regions are even more acute; in the last four presidential elections, the GOP has won a grand total of one state in New England and the West, when George W. Bush squeaked out a win in New Hampshire in 2000 by 7,000 votes.
The worst thing about all that Democratic angst is that it validates the arguments Republicans make. Yes, Democrats say, your voters are the kind of people we want to appeal to, while our voters — well, we’ll take their votes if we have to, but we don’t feel good about it. Then in election after election, they come before Southerners on bended knee in a humiliating ritual of self-flagellation. Please, oh please, they cry, don’t hate us. We love NASCAR! We love grits! We respect your unique culture! Let us stroke the anvil-sized chip on your shoulder! At the end of the day, the pandering doesn’t work, and voters around the country look at Democrats and think they’re a bunch of weaklings who won’t stand up for what they believe.
Tom Schaller is a good friend, and he and I have been discussing these issues since we both started working on our respective books offering advice to Democrats. I noticed that as he began to discuss his thesis publicly, and the copious evidence with which he supports it, the reactions he got were often highly emotional, even angry. But those who disagree with Tom have seldom been able to marshal much in the way of facts and evidence to refute him. At Yearly Kos, where they were both speaking on a panel about Democrats and the South, Mudcat Saunders shouted that Tom should “Kiss my rebel ass!” — and that was about the most sophisticated argument he offered. (Tom was too much of a gentleman to respond in kind)
Democrats need to get beyond emotion and take a good hard look at the facts if they want to build a lasting majority. The fact is that working to hold on to whatever scraps they can get from the South not only wastes money and energy they could better use elsewhere, it keeps them stuck in the mindset that there is some magic trick with which they can be true to what they believe, serve their real constituencies, and yet also win over the voters who are the most hostile to them.
The Republicans spend no mental energy on such a project. They do not worry about being a “national party.” They’re not concerned about how they can increase their votes in Berkeley and Cambridge. They don’t fret about whether writing off large swaths of the country means there’s something un-American about them. They want to win, and they’ll assemble whatever regional and ideological coalition is necessary to do so. It’s about time the Democrats did the same thing.
Paul Waldman is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America and the author of Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success. He is also a regular columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and TomPaine.com.