Sunday, November 07, 2004

A highway, not a bridge 

Another year, another election when the Democrats discovered that the Hollywood-Harvard-New York axis, of itself, does not make for a triumph at the polls.

For the past few decades the Democratic Party was supported by the electoral pillars of the unionized, or more broadly speaking blue collar labor, ethnic minorities, and big city intelligencia. That rainbow coalition has been fraying now for quite some time.

Union membership and therefore influence are down; in terms of sheer numbers, it had declined from 20.1% of the workforce in 1983 to just 12.9% twenty years later. Blue collar workers are far less of a monolithic bloc than before, partly because rising living standards tend to weaken the appeal of class rhetoric, and partly because the Democratic Party's cultural lurch to libertinism has left many socially conservative and religious working men and women disenchanted with their former political home. Add to that harder issues such as gun rights and defence, and the Reagan Democrats, far from returning back to the Democratic fold, are simply morphing into Bush Democrats (the same phenomenon, by the way, is evident in Australia).

Ethnic minorities are also proving more difficult to corral. The African-Americans are the only remaining major solid ethnic bloc in the Democratic stable (when they can be turned out in significant numbers). Alas, for the Dems, the African-Americans have now been overtaken as the largest and the fastest growing ethnic group by the Latinos, who are far more evenly split in their support for the two parties. Bill Clinton might have been the first African-American president, but by the same token George Bush can be seen as the first Hispanic president.

In the end, only the big city intellectuals and professionals remain staunchly wedded to the Democratic Party, thus leaving the Dems to increasingly rely on the mainstream media, the entertainment industry and the activist intelligencia to provide the skeleton for the party.

The problems with this approach are numerous.

The mainstream media is losing its influence. Fox is now regularly outrating other cable channels, and the circulation of daily newspapers is declining. Consumers are now finding information elsewhere, for example on the Internet, which seems to be a far more diverse and open news environment.

The entertainment industry, meanwhile, continues to overestimate its reach and influence. People still watch Hollywood movies and buy CDs, but it doesn't mean they will follow the artists's political advice - any more than they will listen to voting recommendations from their butchers, hairdressers or taxi drivers. Yet the stars continue to be stuck in a narcissistic trap, believing that just because they're famous, beautiful and glamorous their opinions counts more.

Hence, this years we saw Bruce Springsteen, REM and Dixie Chicks rock a "Vote for Change" across the swing states. But on the day there wasn't much change. Yes, young people turned up in larger numbers, but so did every other age group.

Michael Moore toured America to spread his message, trying to build on the momentum of "Fahrenheit 9/11". He discovered that having the highest grossing documentary doesn't swing votes if you're merely preaching to the converted.

Rapper P. Diddy threatened "Vote or Die". The gangsta rap approach didn't work either. The impact on the voters was negligible; not so on the Dems themselves. We have seen P. Diddyfication of the Democratic Party. Just as the rap music world consists of the West Coast rappers and the East Coast rappers with nothing in between, so does today's Democratic Party.

The Dems aren't over, of course. Ups and downs are a natural part of the political cycle. The Democrats will eventually be back - but just how soon, depends on how fast they can learn the practical, as opposed to emotional, lessons on 2004.

Looking at the electoral college vote, it wouldn't take much to win the presidency the next time. The Dems can be almost certain of the continuing electoral support of New England, the Great Lakes region and the West Coast - but to get across the line they also need to swing back a few of those marginal states in the Mid West, the South or the Rockies.

To say that the voters out there is the middle America are morons and bigots is an equivalent of chucking an intellectual tantrum; it might make you feel all superior, but it won't make you any more politically relevant. The smart strategists know that bitching and moaning about the demographics is not a strategy - you have to work with what you've got, and for the Dems it means they have to offer something for the "morons" and "bigots".

The Dems need to start picking more support among two groups that currently overwhelmingly vote for the other side: white males and churchgoers. Hillary Clinton, the darling of the coastal big city sophisticates won't do it for the Dems. The most cynical advice I can offer to the Democrats is: find somebody who, like John Kerry, can be all things to all people, but who, unlike John Kerry, can pull it off convincingly.

The biggest test for the Democrats will be whether the next time they can find a candidate that won't be a bridge spanning the two coasts but a highway linking everything in between.


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