Monday, February 07, 2005

What's The Matter With Kansas?

I just finished this great book by Thomas Frank (not to be confused with retired General Tommy Franks) that examines how his home state of Kansas, once controlled by Republican moderates, has been taken over by fundamentalist conservatives in the past 15 years. These people have sided with the GOP even as the party's pro-business policies have devastated their communities. The book seeks to explain why Kansans vote against their own economic interests in the name of moral battles that they can't really win.

While I enjoyed the entire book, I had an epiphany as I read the Epilogue. I guess I knew it subconsciously, but I never quite put it into words: I am a historical Democrat. What I mean is that my support of the Democratic Party is largely based upon its history, not the message it is delivering today. Although I still see the Democrats as the party of Roosevelt and workers, they don't talk that way anymore. They often sound merely like socially liberal Republicans.

The Republicans have been the corporate party for a long time, but for the Democrats, this is a more recent development. The decline of the Democratic Party culminated in Bill Clinton's Faustian bargain with big business. Clinton had to govern from the center to accomplish anything and to get reelected. But in the process, the economic distinctions between the two parties were downplayed, then forgotten. In fact, Clinton could be the best thing that ever happened to the Republican Party, despite how virulently they attacked him for eight years (and still do, four years after he left office). Frank points out that since the Democrats stopped standing for and talking about class conflict (i.e., workers versus owners), "moral" issues are the only argument left.

I'm not saying there aren't Democratic politicians who still believe in workers and are not beholden to big business. But they aren't conveying that message anymore. If the Democrats ever want to win back the country, they have to change their stance. That does not mean they should move further to the right; that would be the death knell for the party. They need to offer a clear alternative that really speaks to the common man's economic well-being, like the Democrats of old. While the more militant anti-abortion and anti-gay evangelicals will never change parties, other people with lousy jobs in dying towns just might if they thought it would make a difference.

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