It shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the various ways in which the shift in the party has been telegraphed of late, in everything from Hillary’s test-runs to the right to Dean’s
Kansas has been an iconic state for the Republican right, a symbol for issues such as teaching creationism in schools and fighting abortion rights. The modern Republican party, masterminded by political guru Karl Rove, has harnessed fury over such topics to allow the Republicans to dominate US politics since 2000. This was the topic of Thomas Frank’s hit book of the 2004 presidential election campaign entitled: What’s The Matter With Kansas? It used the state’s falling under the spell of conservative Republicanism to explain national American politics.
But in a swath of heartland states such as Kansas, Democrats are seeing the first signs of their party’s rebirth. Parkinson is not alone in switching sides. In Virginia, Jim Webb, a one-time Reagan official, is seeking to be a Democrat senator. In South Carolina, top Republican prosecutor Barney Giese has defected after a spat with conservatives. Back in Kansas another top Republican, Paul Morrison, also joined the Democrats and is challenging a Republican to be the state attorney-general.
Democrats are hoping that the Republican party of President George W Bush has passed its high-water mark. That, faced with disaster in Iraq, a host of domestic troubles and terrible opinion poll ratings, they can start to retake power in November. From there they can start to take aim at the White House itself. They hope the powerful conservative movement born in states such as Kansas will also die there.
Like I said above, it’s no surprise. But the most telling part of the article is how they plan to win over “heartland” voters.
One of the key reasons Kansas Democrats are in fighting mood is their governor, Kathleen Sibelius. Sibelius’s vote represents an island of Democratic blue in a sea of Republican red on the political map, and she has impressed by reaching the middle-ground voters in a startlingly successful first term. Shunning the hot-button social issues, she has focused on education, jobs and health. This has earned her approval ratings touching 68 per cent in a state that was overwhelmingly pro-Bush in 2004.
Sibelius has cracked the political holy grail: persuading heartland Republicans to vote Democrat. ‘Her style works here, and then bringing over Parkinson to the Democrats has been the coup of all coups,’ said Professor Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University near Topeka.
“Shunning the hot-button social issues.” There you have it. The question is, to what degree does that entail (and victory along with it) shunning constituencies concerned with those issues? For that matter, to what extent does that mean ceding those issues — reproductive choice, marriage equality, etc. — to the right? And if this strategy should work in terms of regaining power, what kind of party will result from it?
But over and over I basically hear about all of the above “If that’s what we have to do to win … ”
And then I remembered something I heard a certain A-list blogger (who honestly seems to care about these issues, and keeps asking how Dems should talk about them) say a while back: just getting Democrats elected is not sufficient. Certainly not if they’re going to put their constituents and the convictions in the closet in order to win. A party that believes it has to put its own values on the back burner in order to win must not believe that it can and should win based on its values. It becomes something else entirely, and will find it hard to go back if the trick should work.
It’s already in the works, if you look at how the Democratic field is behaving as it shapes up. Some of the loudest voices of the netroots have long proclaimed that “party unity” must trump “special interests” “single issue” constituencies (nevermind that gay & lesbian equality, for example, isn’t a “single issue” but one that is related to just about every other issue you can name, from education to immigration to social security and beyond) and that just getting Democrats elected will benefit everyone issues.
But if the Democrats get elected by keeping quiet about the issues that directly affect me and my family, and if they have to stay quiet about them in order to remain in power (and who doesn’t want to hold on to power once they’ve got it?), I fail to see how it helps us in the slightest. As I’ve said before, from my perspective just getting Democrats elected isn’t sufficient.
The benefits of a returning to a Democratic majority would likely be lost on many of us, if the party has to move further to the right to get it. Gays & lesbians and other constituencies, then, get left behind with a vague promise that they’ll come back for us later.
I think we’re moving to a point where progressives in the Democratic party will have to differentiate and possibly even organize themselves in order to stop the drift rightward. Either that, or we’ll have to choose between being progressives and being Democrats. With the Republican party appearing to move more rightward, and towing a significant portion of the Democratic party along with it. I have to wonder what’s going to happen to progressives in this country. A third party? Or several decades of wandering in the desert?
So, in a sense, the article isn’t news, so much as it it a promise fulfilled. And I think at this point the train has left the station, so it’s too late to try and stop it or turn it around if you don’t like the destination. So the choices are to stay on the train that’s headed somewhere you don’t want to go, or jump off and get bloodied in the process. Not the best metaphor, perhaps, but I think it’s a pretty good analogy for the choices progressives face in this election year and probably in the next.
This is the crux of the problem I have with this strategy for Democrats, and calls to put “party unity” above single issues, with promises that the party will get back to those issues after it’s safely back in power. But if they regain power, with narrow margins and while winning the support of moderate-to-conservative voters by stepping back on issues like gay equality and reproductive choice, will those same moderate-to-conservative voters let Democrats return to progressive positions on those issues and remain in power?
Probably not, at least not without the help of the very people from whom the Democratic party is distancing itself; help by working on those issues in our own back yard, moving the ball down the field against some pretty tough opposition while the party watches and waits from somewhere near the end zone. We have to get the ball down the field on our own. In states like Maine, it might happen. In states as conservative as Texas it ain’t gonna happen. And on a national level chances are slim we’re going to get much support. We’re basically abandoned on the field, at least until we’ve moved our issues far enough that it’s safe for the Democratic party to take them up again. Even if we’re able to do that, we’re probably going to take several hits and get rather bloodied in the process.
At the very least, as we — and by now the people I’m talking to here know who they are — get closer to having to chose between being progressive or being Democrats, we should also watch and take names so that we know who’s on our team and whose abandoned us in the field; and so that we know who to support and who not to support down the line.