The dilemma of the Democrats is so familiar by now that we feel the burden of it even in our sleep: seek to siphon votes from the existing center-right, or try to create new voters from that mass of relatively poor and uneducated who don’t now cast ballots at all. Of course between these two options is a third way: you can attempt to do both. You can champion fiscal conservatism while making incongruous populist noises, or flatter those prejudices known as values while relying on blacks, single women, gays, and greens to know you are on their side. Everyone will doubt your sincerity and therefore your character. Still it might work, and once, in 2000, it did work, barely, were it not for the electoral college and the Supreme Court.
I am not a Democratic strategist; it seems no one is. But since the defeat one of the commonest proposed remedies to our situation has been to show our opponents more respect. The trouble with Democratic voters and candidates, it is alleged, is our elitism: snug in our cosmopolitan ghettoes, speaking in full paragraphs, fondling old snapshots of France… The charge can be refuted on a number of levels. In terms of electoral power and per capita federal funds, it’s the red-staters who are the elites. In terms of money, it’s the Republican donors. In terms of cable TV platforms…
Yet the accusation of elitism has tended to stick. And it’s stuck for the simple reason that in some sense it’s true. Many of us do figure that Republicans who aren’t in the top tax bracket, and still vote year in and year out for aid to the rich, must be delusional or ill-informed. The same goes for voters who prefer Bush’s swagger to any measure of real safety. Or whose lack of health care somehow inspires them to want to privatize Social Security. How we would like to help our poor rural cousins to achieve a more sound sense of priority! If only we could do it without sounding so educated.
The trouble with our brief against elitism is that it is itself elitist and condescending. It presumes that with a little more information or education on their part, or a change in diction and demeanor on ours, many red Americans would go blue. In fact our very solicitude toward values-oriented voters must remind them of the stereotypical liberal attitude toward crime. The right’s answer to this has always been that after a certain age a person is responsible for what he does. This is at least as true for a woman or man in a voting booth as for a guy holding up a liquor store.
Most voters who went for Bush the other day did so in circumstances of adequate information and sufficient freedom. After all, these people have cable TV and radios and underfunded local libraries. The evidence, for example, that Iraq did not have WMDs and did not connive with Osama bin Laden must have filtered through to them—in which event their decision was to solace themselves with lies that even Dick Cheney, in the final days, didn’t bother to repeat.
Of course we should blame ourselves and our party for its failure. But the people mostly to blame for the Republican victory are Republicans. A lot of grown-up citizens—compos mentis and adequately informed—cherish their bigotry over the fiscal integrity of their country. They vote for Bush and against the big-city residents who live in peril of another terrorist attack because 9/11 wounded their narcissism and it would offend their self-love to change course. We are valuable to many of them mostly as potential casualties, and even then we provide only a sentimental occasion. Meanwhile they feast on cheap petroleum as the earth slowly burns. The collective attitude of sixty million Republicans could not be more elitist, or more French: “Apres moi, le deluge!” (France happens to be a country of sixty million—what if it believed it should run the world as our sixty million believes?)
No victims, unless of themselves, the Bushists are still free people. To make republicanism into imperialism, Christianity into a code of anti-charity, and deliberation into credulism were choices. I don’t know what strategic approach we should take over the next years. But for now there remains enough liberty and equality in America that to respect the right-wing voters, thinking of them as a crowd standing at eye-level to ourselves, is to despise and fear them as we do their president.