Reclaiming Democratic Values: By BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday November 19, 2004

Even though the election’s been over for two weeks, we continue to get many letters, commentaries and news analyses about what happened. A famous sociolinguist, Dr. William Labov, used to do his research by asking people to tell stories about times their lives were in danger, which produced a torrent of language which he could then study. The last five years, culminating in the election, are perceived by left-of-center political people as one of those experiences: a time when values they hold as dear as life itself have been endangered. Yes, the word is values. Believe it or not, Democrats have values too, just like evangelical conservatives. A touching report in Thursday’s papers reported that the Democrats are starting a task force on faith and values in politics. A congressman from New Jersey was quoted as saying that the task force would seek to promote such traditional Democratic values as “caring for the poor, the elderly and children and standing for the fiscal discipline embodied in the budget surpluses of the Clinton administration.” He hoped this would spark a Democratic victory in 2006 congressional elections. 

Now, fiscal discipline per se has not always been a traditional Democratic value. One of the clever tricks of the Clinton regime, with Senator Kerry a willing participant, was to prioritize a balanced budget to an extent which many economists thought was unnecessary. All too frequently, the budget was balanced on the backs of, yes, the poor, the elderly and children. “Welfare reform” a la Clinton and Kerry is the notorious example.  

Sooner or later, and sooner would be better, the Democrats must stand up again for the old traditional Democratic value of taxing the rich to take care of the poor. Kerry’s definition of the middle class, whose standard he was bearing, as people making less than $200,000 a year, did not, for good reason, resonate with the masses who are not part of that kind of expanded middle. The people who might listen to the Democratic message are more likely to be trying to support a family on less than $50,000 a year, but many of them have been working too hard to think much about elections. 

Americans strongly resist thinking of themselves as “the poor,” even if they’re working three jobs to put food on the table and don’t have health care. But if Democrats all over the country, and not just in the states which went Democratic in the last election, concentrated on educating voters about why their lives feel like such a struggle, it would make a great difference in the results of the 2006 election.  

Putting out a paper which is distributed for free, with bus stops a prime place it’s picked up, has taught us a lot about how to convey information to busy, harried people. You don’t have to talk down, but short and sweet is important. Web-based organizing is a great help, but racking up votes still depends on door-to-door personal contact with the citizens who might not have computers. Perhaps the most important job the web groups (MoveOn is pre-eminent) can do now is to put together a simple set of materials which can be printed out cheaply on home computers all over the country, even in the red states, and used as talking pieces by volunteers reaching out to the voter equivalent of what missionaries used to call “the unchurched.” A little newspaper which could be printed at home and handed out in working class neighborhoods and poor rural areas would be great.  

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a lot of the energy of bright people is being devoted to chewing over the election numbers. It’s quite possible that fishy things happened in some places, notably Ohio and Florida, and they shouldn’t pass un-noticed. But the most important fact is that approximately half of the voters, give or take a few, actually did vote for Bush, most of them against their own self-interest. The next two years should be dedicated to helping them to understand what’s going on in their lives, and how voting differently in 2006 can change things for the better. 

—Becky O’Malley