Thursday, November 04, 2004

Living Poor, Voting Rich

Nicholas D. Kristof, writing in the New York Times, says a few things about the Democratic Party that might make us wince, but they seem to me to have a sad and pragmatic ring of a truth to them. Here is an excerpted, edited version of his op-ed piece.

They [John Kerry’s supporters] should be feeling wretched about the millions of farmers, factory workers and waitresses who ended up voting - utterly against their own interests - for Republican candidates. One of the Republican Party's major successes over the last few decades has been to persuade many of the working poor to vote for tax breaks for billionaires.

"On values, the Democrats are really noncompetitive in the heartland," noted Mike Johanns, a Republican who is governor of Nebraska. "[The Democrats'] elitist, Eastern approach to the party is just devastating in the Midwest and Western states. It's very difficult for senatorial, Congressional and even local candidates to survive."

One problem is the yuppification of the Democratic Party. Thomas Frank, author of the best political book of the year, What's the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, says that Democratic leaders have been so eager to win over suburban professionals that they have lost touch with blue-collar America.

"There is a very upper-middle-class flavor to liberalism, and that's just bound to rub average people the wrong way," Mr. Frank said. He notes that Republicans have used "culturally powerful but content-free issues" to connect to ordinary voters.

One-third of Americans are evangelical Christians, and many of them perceive Democrats as often contemptuous of their faith. And, frankly, they're often right. Some evangelicals take revenge by smiting Democratic candidates.

"The Republicans are smarter," mused Oregon's governor, Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat. "They've created ... these social issues [opposition to abortion, gay-marriage] to get the public to stop looking at what's happening to them economically."

"What we once thought - that people would vote in their economic self-interest - is not true, and we Democrats haven't figured out how to deal with that."

Bill Clinton intuitively understood the challenge, and John Edwards seems to as well, perhaps because of their own working-class origins. But the party as a whole is mostly in denial.

To appeal to middle America, a starting point [for Democrats] would be to shed their inhibitions about talking about faith, and to work more with religious groups.

Otherwise, the Democratic Party's efforts to improve the lives of working-class Americans in the long run will be blocked by the very people the Democrats aim to help.

The entire piece can be found here at the New York Times (subscription required).