Friday, November 26, 2004

"Red" States Part I

We're still having a dialogue regarding "red" states v. "blue" states in the media. (The Times touched on it again with Bill Carter's Monday front page piece on what people are watching on TV.)

This issue is the one I've gotten the most e-mail on. It started coming in after the "Bring the Boys [and Girls] Back Home" blog entry and it's continued non-stop. (The topic I've gotten the most e-mail on remains the NY Times/CBS News poll.)

I think it's a serious issue and one we need to pay attention to. And there are a lot of people in the south or with family in the south who are getting offended or hurt by the comments which sometimes pass themselves off as "jokes."

A lot of people have sent in hard data. Many more have sent in personal experiences. I've spent the better part of three hours attempting (yet again) to weave this into something coherent for a first entry on this subject. (This won't be a one entry blog.)

It's just not coming together. (Which is my fault.)

But we need to be thinking about this, all of us, "red" states resident or "blue" state resident or people interested in the politics here in the U.S. but that live elsewhere.

I read these e-mails on this subject that I've printed up and I come across phrases like "it's tearing me up"; "it's breaking my heart"; "how can people be so ugly"; etc. People are very upfront about the hurt they're feeling because they voted for Kerry and live in a "red" state or their friends or family live in a "red" state. And trying to do justice to the wealth of facts, emotions, histories and experiences these people are kind enough to share is frankly overwhelming me.

So I've decided to start with an e-mail. It has been edited (with permission) . It's been circulated to some people online so you may have already read it. But I think it brings up some important points and I think it will make a strong starting point for this series (or intended series). I'm going to swipe from Bob Somerby of The Daily Howler and title this series of entries as well as give them "Part" numbers so that it will be easier for people who choose to read previous entries on this subject to find them.

I also want to note and thank Natalie who early on shared her own feelings on this via e-mail and then went on to contact other people about sharing their stories. I apologize that this is starting so late but you know from the e-mails that you forwarded how many people have been hurt and upset.

I'm starting with the e-mail below not because I think it's better or more important than the others but because I think it touches on a large number of issues in a very concise manner. It also starts off with a mention of Kent Conrad and as KT pointed out, "You sure seem to push Senator Conrad on this blog!" [see note at end of this blog entry] :

Confronting a Republican senator on the NewsHour in 2003, Kent Conrad noted that just because you repeat something six times doesn't make it true. Yet here we are on the left endorsing spin, supporting it, spreading it. Was it only a few months ago that David Brooks' Great BoBo divide was being debunked?

Stereotypes and hate speech pass for entertaining fact and we're all nodding along about "blue" state versus "red" state while the hot meta-narrative is that the "red" states are a "Jesus Land" that can't currently be won.

While it's true that the south as a whole was written off by the Kerry-Edwards campaign (as were those states not considered "swing states"), that's not being touched on. Looking at Nov. 2nd's results, we were shocked, SHOCKED, that states that weren't on the campaign trail and didn't benefit from advertising buys didn't vote Kerry-Edwards.

If the Democratic party wanted to deliver southern states, they should have competed there. Not just in terms of the candidates visiting and advertising, but in terms of the structure. Example: A friend calls long distance wanting to know where to go to pick up some Kerry yard signs. I tell her she's just got to drive six miles to her county seat, go to the town square, and she'll see the county headquarters for the party. She does get the signs. But not there. There's no "there" there now. Turns out they closed it down. Instead, she's had to drive over an hour and a half, leaving her county, traveling through another before arriving at a third county which happens to have the closest Democratic party headquarters in her area now. This is October 2004, a month before the election. We have a problem.

The party structure in the south has gone so underfunded that voting straight ticket still requires deciding whom to vote for in many county and municipal races because there's no Democratic candidate on the ballot. We have a problem.

National Democratic organizations pour funds into Congressional campaigns in the south for candidates who won't allow the word "Democrat" to appear on their yard signs or in their advertising. (And many incumbents run on how closely they vote with Bush.) We have a problem.

The party structure in the south has gone underfunded and been allowed to wither to the point that the top of the ticket isn't campaigning there, Congressional candidates are ducking into the closet to avoid being "outed" as Democrats and we can't even fill all the races and the problem is solely southern voters? The voters have failed but not the party?

I'm sure the DNC appreciates that "logic" and I'm sure those pushing for the party to veer right are lapping it up. The DNC doesn't have to examine strategic failures if the turnout is the result of "Jesus Land." Those wanting the party to turn a hard right are of course loving it because it perpetuates the spin that "values" cost the election and that those pesky grass roots are just too darn liberal for the nation. I mean, if "Jesus Land" and "red" states are the real issues (and why would the press ever not give us the real issues?) the answer must be to distance ourselves from abortion rights, from gays and lesbians, people of color, etc. The answer is clear, after all. Or as one talking head who refused to answer if he wasn't saying that the party needed to go right responded, "I don't want to talk about left or right, I want to talk about making the party better." Better for whom?

Strip away the party base and strip away what the party has stood for and you're next presidential candidate will rightly be dubbed a "flip-flopper."

The media is a problem. They've focused on contractions and clothes and assorted other "issues" while never informing us what the campaigns were offering. So if some want to suggest that we learn how to craft our message better to convey what we stand for, great.

It's an action plan. But abandoning our message or hiding what we believe in isn't. Reframing is to be applauded, reinventing isn't. And anyone who remembers the "triangulation" that derived from "reinventing government" should be very concerned that people who never gave a thought to reframing until after the election day are now trying to co-opt the term and use it to insist that we abandon certain beliefs.

Bean counters get a lot of credit. They come along and think up a slogan like "It's the economy, stupid" and suddenly they delivered all the votes! Not quite. 1992 wasn't just about "It's the economy, stupid." That helped gain some swing voters (and mollified Wall Street) but 1992 was about firing the base up. The vision spoken of, the issues supported started the momentum going. A group of advisors to the Kerry campaign told the New York Times (post-election) about the various missteps "Kerry" committed re: messages from the campaign -- things that "Kerry" didn't do, lines that "Kerry" didn't clearly draw. But, oops, aren't these same advisors the ones who were responsible for crafting the message from the campaign?

In a campaign that never made the Court a serious issue or discussed the implications of appointments on Roe v. Wade, it's interesting that now we're being told abortion rights cost us the election. Or that a candidate who states that same-sex marriage is an issue that should be left up to the states is now judged as too "gay friendly" for the "red" states. How about the one that it was too "far left" to want to end the war -- even though our candidate never spoke of anything more than ending it in four years?

All of these "way out there" positions and many more supposedly meant we didn't have "values" and as such lost the south. The term for this tactic is "revision." It's certainly not reality.

And with an eye towards 2006 and 2008, we'd do well to evaluate reality. The first step that's going to determine where our party's headed and the next head of the DNC will play a role in that. Howard Dean noted numerous times that if you want to be competitive in the south, you have to COMPETE there. That's his strategy for all the states: communicate and compete. Maybe he doesn't want to be head of the DNC, but of the names being tossed around, there's no one I can think of who better gets the reality of what we're up against. Look at the raw data and you'll see that though the south's been left to wither, northern states aren't doing a lot better. Bean counters have been able to come along and "build" victories on the work done grassroots and party structure builders of the past. But there's been no infusion going on to maintain or rebuild the structure. This is an issue Howard Dean would address.

We can turn the party over to bean counters who'll decide which stance will win the most votes with the least work and, who knows, maybe win some elections in the short term right away. Or we can realize that there's some serious work that needs to be done and that it will take serious attention. That means relying on reality, not myths. That will mean competing not saying, "Well there's no real chance of a win there." That will mean not assuming Hawaii is a lock for the party until the week before the election and then going into a panic lining up surrogates to visit the state.

Grassroots organizations and grassroots individuals did their part in 2004. They did it with very little help from the DNC. We can get lost in the cycle of "values" and the maze of "red" states or we can be realistic and look at what actually went on. This summer, Rolling Stone interviewed a Democratic surrogate and a Republican surrogate. One spoke of the importance of the youth vote? Want to guess which one? It wasn't the Democratic surrogate, he was too busy telling readers that young people didn't vote and how he'd rather focus on retired voters. Maybe he assumed he was speaking to the AARP? But the problem is some mythical "red" state vs. "blue" state "values" narrative?

Repeating this nonsense about the south is counterproductive. For all the cathartic release it may give you in the short term, you can be sure Karl Rove or Karen Hughes have already noted it and are already prepping the "The Democrats Hate Southern People" message.

We need to quit playing into their hands and we need to stop stereotyping. Most of all, we need to seriously address the shortcomings of this presidential campaign. ABC's reporting that the vote for the next DNC head will be in February. If we're still stuck endorsing spin, we're not going to be prepared for it and we'll be spending four more years asking why Democrats are trying to "out Republican" the Republicans. There are serious issues regarding rebuilding party structure that we need to address. It might not provide the easy laughs of stereotyping, but it's the way to ensure future wins.


Note: Pushing Senator Conrad on this blog? If so, that's largely because this blog started on a Friday and by the next Saturday, Conrad was speaking out against the provision in the budget bill that would allow elected reps (and their staff) to peak into personal tax returns. Senator Conrad is a moderate Democrat so it's unlikely he would become this site's patron saint. But if a candle is lit to him here it's because in the last two years he showed more willingness to speak out than many of the other Democrat Senators. Senators Byrd and Kennedy have spoken out. They're the party elders and their outspoken natures are appreciated. Senator Barbara Boxer is another example of a strong senator -- someone who's not going to go on TV and say, "You're right! Why does my party do that? I'm so embarrassed and ashamed to be a Democrat! Can I come to a Republican mixer?"

There are other Democrats in the Senate who are doing their part and feel free to e-mail your choices at or to post your choices in the posting section.

When Conrad first started speaking out, I was honestly surprised because it didn't seem to fit the impression I had formed of him based on his previous televised moments. His new attitude on camera comes off as genuine. And anyone who says "That's a lie!" to a lie is someone this site will gladly note. Prior to this new attitude, he always struck me as the type who was constantly attempting to find common ground and work from there -- the nice, upstanding high school senior serving on the student council whose good manners and temperment meant he had to swallow a lot of ____ daily and did so with quiet reserve and a gentle smile. But something's lit a fire in him lately and for that he deserves applause.