Democrats Face Cultural Conundrum in 2006 and 2008

Posted November 19, 2004 at 4:14pm

Only hours after Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) conceded the presidential race to President Bush, Democratic officeholders and strategists, as well as political commentators of all stripes, began addressing the question du jour: How should the Democrats handle their cultural problems with Middle America? [IMGCAP(1)]

A few observers dismissed the whole exercise as unnecessary, arguing instead that 2004 was an aberration or that the significance of cultural issues had been exaggerated. But many understood the importance of cultural issues in today’s politics.

Of course, the concern isn’t all that new. The Democratic Leadership Council identified its party’s problem eloquently in “Bridging the Cultural Divide,” in the July 12, 2001, issue of Blueprint Magazine.

The Democrats have two separate, though not unrelated, problems in trying to deal with their cultural positioning. The first is that the party represents and reflects the broad cultural attitudes of the two coasts — essentially metropolitan New York City and California — rather than the values of the rest of the country.

Notice that I didn’t suggest that the Democrats don’t have values. They do. Everyone knows that, and they knew it before Kerry spent much of his acceptance speech in Boston — and the Democratic convention as a whole — talking about the importance of values.

The Democrats’ problem is that, politically at least, they have the wrong values. While the two coasts represent consumerism, secularism, personal gratification and celebrity, much of the rest of the country values traditional family life, patriotism, religion, modesty and deferred gratification.

Yes, I know. Democrats, too, are patriotic and pro-family, and they appreciate modesty and value religion. But “red state” voters don’t see that in the political positions of many Democratic candidates, or in the personal lifestyles of many of their high-profile, “blue-state” supporters.

To the majority of people who live in the red states, the Democratic Party is Michael Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, Sharon Stone, Barbra Streisand and the rappers and rock singers who heaped contempt on Bush and who generally embrace the Democratic Party.

I’m not talking religiosity here. I’m talking something much broader.

New York and Hollywood may be hip and on the cutting edge of fashion and pop culture, but it is a fashion and pop culture that many in Indiana, Mississippi and West Virginia don’t find all that attractive.

The party’s second problem is religion, though not in the way that many have talked about it since Election Day.

The day after the election, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) commented on CNN’s “Wolf Blitzer Reports” that “Democrats are faith-filled.” “I know that many of the people who are in politics on the Democratic side do so according to the Gospel of Matthew and, indeed, the Bible. But we don’t demonstrate it clearly enough,” she added.

Two weeks after the election, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) appeared to echo Pelosi’s reaction and approach when she told The New York Times, “An overwhelming number of Democrats are people of faith. We need to be more explicit and more public about our convictions and our beliefs.”

Pelosi and DeLauro have missed the key point. Sure, many Democrats go to church, read the Bible and pray to God.

That’s not the problem. The party’s dilemma is far more fundamental — and difficult to confront.

There remains a deep fissure in this country between those who believe that one’s religious views are entirely personal and should not make their way into the public arena at all, and those who believe that one’s religious views should be used to shape matters of public policy. Democrats generally adopt the first approach, while Republicans often believe the second.

This division does not put evangelical Christians on one side and everyone else on the other. (It is often portrayed that way by liberals and those in the media, but those two groups often overlap.)

You don’t need to be an evangelical Christian or a Hasidic Jew to believe that the coarsening of the American culture is a problem, or that more traditional cultural values — which may or may not be religious in nature — ought to play a larger role in guiding societal norms, and even public policy.

Many of the Democratic Congressional candidates I interviewed this cycle told me that they were personally opposed to abortion and gay marriage. Often they noted their own religious views. But in the next breath, they also noted that they opposed limits on abortion or outlawing gay marriage.

While that unquestionably is a defensible intellectual position to take, it creates political problems in a campaign, especially given the Democratic Party’s existing reputation.

Kerry, a Catholic, drew only 47 percent of Catholic voters. And although he talked about his religion, he got clobbered among white Catholics and Protestants. He did well with Jews (who are famous for wanting an indestructible wall between religion and civil government) and blacks, who tend as a group to be very religious but generally vote on other issues and themes.

If I’m right about this, then the Democrats have two problems, not one.

The first question is: How do they change their broad cultural image when they rely so heavily on Hollywood and the entertainment community for support? How do they connect with culturally conservative voters when they are based, as a party, on the coasts, which seem to value trendiness and social experimentation over everything else?

Second, if cultural conservatives are judging candidates and parties on the basis of their positions on the issues — not on whether they can quote scripture or attend church regularly — how does the party handle cultural issues of the day?

It’s not enough to promote “social justice” theologians or liberal clergy. Will the party welcome presidential hopefuls who hold a diversity of positions on abortion rights or gay marriage or gun control? Will Democratic interest groups who have been worried about a “slippery slope” suddenly let the Democratic Party try to finesse certain issues?

If the economy is bad enough under a Republican president, or if quality-of-life domestic issues become more important, then a Democratic presidential nominee will still be able to win despite the party’s present positioning on cultural matters. But that reality ought not obscure the party’s problems on cultural issues, or its need to consider other options.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.