Democrats: Think Culture, Not Just Policy and Ideology

May, 2017

Washington and Lincoln -- Our two-party system in the United States, and in many individual states, is in trouble. Many of our constitutional checks and balances are undermined because of it. One-party government at any level is not good, be it one party or the other.

Although much commentary these days is devoted to dysfunction in the Republican Party, that party has enjoyed much electoral success at both national and state levels. How that success was achieved is problematic (gerrymandering, voter suppression, dark money and the like), but this post is devoted to the issues in the Democratic Party that are equally a threat to a healthy two-party system. This is a continuation of an earlier post about Democratic Party failures.

That post explored the idea that party platforms and policies can be overstated in their effect on voter behavior. If voters do not feel a cultural affinity to a party, they may well vote against policies that would otherwise benefit them. The Democratic Party is slow to recognize this. It needs to show less scorn for voters it has lost and more concern for bringing voters back by offering a political culture that is a credible alternative to the wildly careening, morally off-putting culture that has come to represent the Republican Party.

Here are some suggestions for the Democratic Party that would be appropriate to recapture voters in the Upper Midwest and Plains States, especially, in terms of political culture:

• Recapture the flag of agrarian populism, once closely aligned with the Democratic Party. The issues that animated farmers and laborers of decades ago (corporate monopolies, crop price parity, credit policy, tariffs and trade) have not gone away.

• Associate policies and politicians' behaviors more closely with the religious faiths many voters hold strongly. Many religious texts teach the values of helping the poor, of being the keeper of one's neighbors, of stewardship of the land and nature, of showing compassion and humility. An outside observer would surely be astounded that the Republican Party has appropriated religion to its benefit, and that the Democratic Party, whose policies are often more attuned to such texts, has increasingly disassociated itself from religious faith.

• Be proud of America's historical role in international affairs. America has stood for universal human rights and values, through war and peace. There have been mistakes and setbacks, but now is the time for the Democratic Party to assert its continuing, hard-won vision for a world that values human rights in all countries. The Republican Party's affinity to dictators should be a cultural disconnect to many troubled voters whose families and friends gave much in the cause of human rights.

• Advocate for good, honest, moral government, including the reduction of economic inequality through fiscally responsible approaches. The Democratic Party must talk sense about government in the face of nihilistic theories that would have voters believe all goverment and all taxation is bad. Most voters want their local, state, and federal governments to work efficiently and for the benefit of the whole society.

The goal of the Democratic Party should be to offer voters a safe political refuge, in a cultural context they can relate to without apology. Many of these voters have voted Democratic before, so it should not be difficult to move enough voters to restore a healthier two-party system. This approach is much preferable to the recent efforts of the Democratic Party to rely on identity politics, demographics, and ridicule of the opposition to win elections. That approach has failed.

Note that there is no discussion here of ideology, as in "moving left" or "moving right." Many voters do not adhere to an ideology; their behaviors and beliefs run the ideological gamut. They can be liberal on some matters and conservative on others, and even proud of it.

It is political culture that must now be the greater concern.