Living Poor, Voting Rich

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

November 4, 2004

In the aftermath of this civil war that our nation has just fought, one result is clear: the Democratic Party's first priority should be to reconnect with the American heartland.

I'm writing this on tenterhooks on Tuesday, without knowing the election results. But whether John Kerry's supporters are now celebrating or seeking asylum abroad, they should be feeling wretched about the millions of farmers, factory workers and waitresses who ended up voting - utterly against their own interests - for Republican candidates.

One of the Republican Party's major successes over the last few decades has been to persuade many of the working poor to vote for tax breaks for billionaires. Democrats are still effective on bread-and-butter issues like health care, but they come across in much of America as arrogant and out of touch the moment the discussion shifts to values.

"On values, they are really noncompetitive in the heartland," noted Mike Johanns, a Republican who is governor of Nebraska. "This kind of elitist, Eastern approach to the party is just devastating in the Midwest and Western states. It's very difficult for senatorial, Congressional and even local candidates to survive."

In the summer, I was home - too briefly - in Yamhill, Ore., a rural, working-class area where most people would benefit from Democratic policies on taxes and health care. But many of those people disdain Democrats as elitists who empathize with spotted owls rather than loggers.

One problem is the yuppification of the Democratic Party. Thomas Frank, author of the best political book of the year, "What's the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America," says that Democratic leaders have been so eager to win over suburban professionals that they have lost touch with blue-collar America.

"There is a very upper-middle-class flavor to liberalism, and that's just bound to rub average people the wrong way," Mr. Frank said. He notes that Republicans have used "culturally powerful but content-free issues" to connect to ordinary voters.

To put it another way, Democrats peddle issues, and Republicans sell values. Consider the four G's: God, guns, gays and grizzlies.

One-third of Americans are evangelical Christians, and many of them perceive Democrats as often contemptuous of their faith. And, frankly, they're often right. Some evangelicals take revenge by smiting Democratic candidates.

Then we have guns, which are such an emotive issue that Idaho's Democratic candidate for the Senate two years ago, Alan Blinken, felt obliged to declare that he owned 24 guns "and I use them all." He still lost.

As for gays, that's a rare wedge issue that Democrats have managed to neutralize in part, along with abortion. Most Americans disapprove of gay marriage but do support some kind of civil unions (just as they oppose "partial birth" abortions but don't want teenage girls to die from coat-hanger abortions).

Finally, grizzlies - a metaphor for the way environmentalism is often perceived in the West as high-handed. When I visited Idaho, people were still enraged over a Clinton proposal to introduce 25 grizzly bears into the wild. It wasn't worth antagonizing most of Idaho over 25 bears.

"The Republicans are smarter," mused Oregon's governor, Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat. "They've created ... these social issues to get the public to stop looking at what's happening to them economically."

"What we once thought - that people would vote in their economic self-interest - is not true, and we Democrats haven't figured out how to deal with that."

Bill Clinton intuitively understood the challenge, and John Edwards seems to as well, perhaps because of their own working-class origins. But the party as a whole is mostly in denial.

To appeal to middle America, Democratic leaders don't need to carry guns to church services and shoot grizzlies on the way. But a starting point would be to shed their inhibitions about talking about faith, and to work more with religious groups.

Otherwise, the Democratic Party's efforts to improve the lives of working-class Americans in the long run will be blocked by the very people the Democrats aim to help.