Monday, June 19, 2006

Red America Or Blue America?

Time for a little pure politics, I think. I read quite a few different political blogs and pundits, gathering what I feel is a good cross-section of just what my progressive brothers and sisters believe about politics in general. Normally I write about the issues that interest me and leave the pure political gameplay to others who have a much better sense of these things than I. However, I keep seeing a recurring theme pop up in various places that I think is very dangerous to the progressive movement heading into November.

That danger manifests in what I believe is a serious misunderstanding about the character of a mythical beast known as "the average American" or, collectively, "the American people". As everyone knows, every politician and political party understands exactly what "the average American" needs and each politician has just the cure required for what ails "the American people". Right. With George W. Bush and the Republicans in Congress essentially in a race to the bottom in the regard of the American people, it's no wonder that many progressives are beginning to see a rout in the offing for November. Certainly the polls (check out First Draft, as Holden does a fairly frequent rundown of the national numbers) bear out the perception by some progressives that the rule of the Republican majority is swiftly drawing to a close. I hope they are correct but, sadly, I'm not that optimistic and I'll explain why.

Certain liberal pundits and commentors, online and otherwise, have lately been expressing the belief that the national polls indicate a tipping point has been passed for conservative voters. These voters, the thinking goes, have seen that Bush and the Republican Congress have not delivered as promised, either on social issues or foreign policy, and thus are likely to either vote against the Republican party or, more likely, not show up to the polls at all. While I certainly agree that turnout will be low for the mid-terms, as it normally is, I don't necessarily think the low polling numbers for Bush and Congress will manifest in turnout that is unusually low. The reason why rests in the tenor of the voters.

I have lived in both urban and rural areas, including rural Illinois, Chicago, Indianapolis and now rural Wisconsin. As such, I feel I have a pretty good impression of the political bent in a good portion of "Middle America". As such, I am convinced of two things concerning conservatives in the Midwest.

First, I am convinced that a greater number of people identify themselves as conservatives than as liberals in the Midwest, and the number is growing all the time. Certainly this is not a problem for Illinois, as Chicago is a bastion of liberal politics and likely will remain so for many years to come. However, outside of the cities, such as rural Wisconsin, the pervasiveness of political conservatism is much greater than many pundits realize. Every aspect of life is informed by belief in a kind of old-fashioned conservatism that binds the small rural communities in this area. It's a conservatism that believes in religious freedom, as in everyone should be free to worship Jesus in their own way. It's a conservatism that believes property taxes are too big a burden, yet also believes that schools should be well-funded. Well, schools should be well-funded as long as that funding isn't moving in too great a quantity into the pockets of the teacher's union. For that matter, it's a conservatism that doesn't trust unions much at all, and considers the salary and benefits of union shops to be unfairly inflated. It's a regionalist conservatism; it revels in the righteousness of obscure places like the "Coulee Region" while condemning the moral vacancy of Milwaukee or Madison. Most notably, it's the conservatism of the Second Amendment, as opposed to the liberalism of the First. All this conservatism wrapped up in small communities where liberalism stirs feelings of unease and atheism feelings of outrage. This is Red America inside "Purple" Wisconsin and it's tightly knit community.

The second thing I'm convinced of concerning the conservative folks of the Midwest is their lack of swing voter potential. This is where I think the pundits out there cheering for a big swing in November towards the Democrats may really be missing something important. After having lived in the Midwest my entire life, in rural and urban areas, and having spoken to many people about politics and read local letters to the editors it's clear to me that, for most conservative Midwesterners, the only thing worse at this point than George W. Bush and his Rubber Stamp Republican Congress is the possibility that they could be replaced by liberal "Ted Kennedy" Democrats. And that's a reality that I think is not getting nearly enough attention, either by progressive pundits or the Democratic party.

The conservative folks in the Midwest, many of them, are fed up with George W. Bush. They are outraged by the excesses of Congress and its refusal to act as a brake on presidential power. And yet, when they contemplate their political fortunes, these conservatives are not going to vote for a Democrat (all of whom are liberal as far as Midwestern conservatives are concerned). They believe George W. Bush has mishandled the war, but trust that he will protect their perception of a strong, morally-certain America better than the Democrats. They believe that most social welfare beneficiaries are gaming the system and receiving benefits that are unearned. They believe that Democrats will raise taxes and, even worse, waste their hard-earned tax money on art endowments and pointless scientific studies. They believe that many Republicans are corrupt but that Bill Clinton was the most corrupt politician in history, and they distrust his wife and former associates much more than Tom Delay or Duke Cunningham. They believe that, for all his faults and failures, George W. Bush is still a good Christian like they and that his party will represent Christian values while the Democrats represent godless secularism. They're afraid of Mexicans, afraid of gays, afraid of Muslims but most of all they're afraid of change and progressive politics are the politics of change.

Now, I realize that these are all gross misconceptions of both parties but they are very real among Midwestern conservatives. I suspect these same concerns and mistaken notions are common in the South and Rockies as well. Conservatives realize that the Republicans are bungling significantly, but they also believe that liberalism, encapsulated by the Democratic Party, is the bane of everything they hold dear about America. It's a terribly fractured view of the country and one that movement conservatives worked very hard for many years to foment. From the Nixon years onward, conservatives have worked diligently to construct the most frightening straw man of liberalism possible and have sold it completely to at least half of the American people.

This is the key that I think many progressives are not understanding about conservatives: no amount of Republican corruption and bungling is going to win them to the Democratic side. At best, the low poll numbers indicate a lack of will from conservatives to actually get out and vote. More importantly, though, is those polls indicate a dissatisfaction with the leadership that does not necessarily translate into votes away from that leadership. In fact, I think conservatives are going to stick with the Republicans in November, so long as the Democrats continue to fly on auto-pilot. After all, better the Devil you know than the Liberal you don't...

What's desperately needed for the progressive movement is for the Democratic party to take a leadership position for November. They need to stop watching the Republicans flounder and instead toss them an anchor! Run on leadership instead of issues. The issues are good to a point, but they don't matter if liberal Congresspeople cannot get elected. Leadership, confidence, clearly-articulated values and a non-stop barrage against the Republicans are the techniques needed. These are the tools that Russ Feingold, Al Gore and Jack Murtha have put to devastating use lately, and won the accolades of liberals and the respect of some conservatives for their efforts. The substantive policy debates can wait until Democrats regain some power in Washington. Otherwise, all the well-drafted policy the Democrats can create does nothing but give the Republicans an easy target to beat on (or idea to steal). The American people deserve the government for which they voted, so let them have it. But show them that there is a better alternative than the corruption and incompetence of the Republican party. Red American will not be turned (back to) blue by Republican malfeasance alone.

[Editor's Note: I chose not to link to any bloggers/pundits expressing the idea I'm contesting against here because I didn't want to turn this into an ad hominem attack on other progressives whom I respect, nor invite the same in return. I ask your trust and indulgence. - S. Sam]

No comments: