Tuesday’s post was about Lee Siegel’s theory that Republicans win by focusing on heartland culture while Democrats waste their time talking about policy. Today’s post addresses what Democrats can do about this problem.
Some of the easiest, fastest responses are tactical. For example, Democrats should divide and conquer: they can discuss policy with standard liberal audiences and talk culture to the heartland. In addition, they should be advancing their own cultural narratives, particularly those that tap into Siegel’s call for “vicariousness.” Show Obama and Biden being regular people: shopping, going to church, driving their kids to soccer practice. Distribute the message via the cultural milieu itself rather than through the media. Have the candidates talk about their personality and their dreams. And Obama, please, lighten up a little. The Democrats should take Spiegel’s trope of “ordeal and humiliation” and use it, playing up their own descent and rebirth narratives. Obama has the single mom/neglectful dad angle, and Biden has his car crash (yes, it’s utterly debased to use it, but his son already opened that door during the convention).
But these tactical moves don’t really turn Siegel’s thesis to our advantage. A larger solution is to emphasize the Democratic culture. Fortunately, that culture actually synchronizes with policy, unlike the Republican culture, which fundamentally conflicts with Republican policy. But what is this Democratic culture, and is it lived like the Republican one?
I posit that the Democratic culture is the culture of the founding fathers, which is so ingrained in the American psyche, so elemental to our identity, that we live it every minute of every day. The Democratic culture is one of equality and opportunity, where people who work hard deserve a better life for themselves, regardless of class, color, creed or gender. This is a culture that takes seriously the words “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” The Declaration of Independence is one of America’s totemic documents, and I think just as powerful as the Jungian archetype of descent.
For the Democrats, this culture is not a political strategy but the very essence of the party, the manifestation of their values, and thus is inseparable from policy. This is a culture, backed by policy, which favors hard work over family connections. It sides with student loans, not yacht owners; with sick children, not insurance companies; with producers, not paper pushers; with main street, not Wall Street. During a week when financial debacles are destroying value at unprecedented rates, it is worth remembering whose culture, and whose policies, support a market that is free but regulated. Democratic culture lives in churches that help the needy, in safety nets that help the disadvantaged, in methods of supporting families’ choices, and yes, in the ability of a mixed-race man with a single mother to become president.
If indeed people respond more powerfully, more viscerally, to culture than to policies, then let’s talk culture. In both red states and blue states people believe in the culture of forming “a more perfect union,” but only one party includes everyone in that union. The Democratic culture is built on supporting the average American, on making real a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” so don’t hide that culture – embrace it, spread it, and follow it to victory. Because what’s great here is that Democratic culture can speak to the heartland just as forcefully as the Republican culture can, and the Democrats can back their culture up with policies that reflect and actualize their culture of equality and opportunity.
Many thanks to Septa for her thoughts and edits.