Denial is a fascinating emotion. In the face of damning and irrefutable evidence, humans placate their fears and doubts by simply claiming the opposite is true. Democrats refuse to accept any culpability for their losses on Nov. 2. Instead, many blame alleged delusional, ignorant, Fox News-watching, religious zealots in the nation’s heartland for their poor electoral fortune. Refusing any self-reflection and contrition – though emotionally therapeutic – is indicative of a party oblivious to its own history and doomed to perpetual failure in the maintenance of the status quo.
In recent years, Democrats have abandoned the legacy of Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Clinton by trading in hope for cynicism, vision for nuance and tolerance for close-minded attacks. Perhaps most disturbing is the party’s willingness to abandon a large group of voters in the Midwest and South who – despite superficial appearances – could be receptive to a coherent and compelling liberal message.
Lost in the debate over supposed “moral values” – issues such as gay marriage and abortion on which there is substantial disagreement and a high unlikelihood of compromise – is the fact that these issues only arise in campaigns that fail to address fundamental issues for Americans. Facing a stagnant economy, rising unemployment and a war with an enormous human cost, President Bush had little option but to appeal to the base emotions of Americans in the hope of scaring them enough to vote for him anyway. Because many in the Midwest and South are both socially conservative and deeply religious, Democrats and John Kerry conceded them to Bush.
Unlike the two greatest Democratic presidents of the 20th century – Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy – both of whom, coincidentally, hailed form the Northeast – Democrats in this election cycle failed to formulate a coherent vision that inspired rural voters to look beyond these contentious issues. What made Roosevelt and Kennedy so effective was their ability to connect with people and plug them into something greater than themselves. The Democratic Party of today is unable to do so, and the country is much worse off as a result.
Instead of dismissing these red-state voters, Democrats must aggressively return to the liberal populism that won the hearts of voters during the heyday of the party. First, it must shed the pompous notion that those who disagree with them on social policy are somehow backward and ignorant. While reserving the right to disagree with them, socially conservative ideas are just as serious and intellectually worthy as liberal ones. Instead of being condescending, Democrats must convince socially conservative voters that their well-being is safeguarded better by someone who is serious about improving their condition in life rather than protecting them from an issue unlikely to affect them on a daily basis.
Democrats must also find a way to unite Americans around a common cause and purpose. Roosevelt drew Americans together through the New Deal, Kennedy through encouraging service to one’s country. In the current age, Democrats should lead the nation to embark on a quest to develop renewable energy, secure the homeland and ensure the benefits we inherited are passed on to our children. Uniting the country in a cause greater than themselves forces people to look past their own superficial interests and appreciate the issues that affect everyone.
Fortunately, there was one Democrat who employed such a strategy successfully. Barak Obama, despite daunting odds, convinced socially conservative voters in counties who traditionally have voted against black candidates in Illinois, to support him. He did so by acknowledging and respecting the viewpoints of socially conservative voters and directing their attention toward issues that affected them everyday. The end result was a stunning landslide for him not only in traditional liberal strongholds such as Chicago, but also in downstate counties that almost exclusively vote Republican. In the tradition of liberalism, instead of constantly focusing people on what was wrong in their lives, Obama fashioned a vision inspiring people to think of how great things could become.
It was Roosevelt himself who declared, “Without vision, the people perish.” Democrats are at a dramatic crossroads. They can be the party of negativity or the party of vision. They can be the party of hope or the party of fear. They can be the party of inclusion or the party of condescension and anger. While America is culturally conservative, history has shown an inspiring Democrat can persuade voters to vote with their minds instead of with their guts. The reemergence of such a methodology is critical for the future of the United States.
-The writer, a junior majoring in international affairs, is Hatchet opinions editor.