Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter With Kansas? explored the transition of Kansas from populism to jingoism, from concern for the poor to concern for the unborn. (Once you’re born, you’re screwed.) Frank’s analysis was the more compelling because he grew up in Kansas and considered himself a Republican in his youth.
One of the major lessons I took from the book was that the Republican culture wars work as electioneering because the Democrats have agreed to take the economic issues off the table. When we’re no longer talking about money because that’s class warfare, all that’s left is belief systems; and when it comes to aping a belief system, Republicans are in general much better than Democrats.
The traditional Republican party was essentially a business party. As a bunch of radical dispensationalists — the Wahhabis of Christianity — gradually took control of the Republican primary system, the natural party reaction was to cater to the customer. After all, the intended transaction is at best something less than open and fair, using rhetorical sleight of hand to generate public support for candidates and measures whose clear intent is to harm the common weal, comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted. Customers who consider this world less important than the next would appear to be ideal marks for such legerdemain.
The problem with this particular set of folks as marks is, they’re well organized. On this earth. Of course that’s a feature when elections are held; they can get orders to the troops through their network of mega-churches and television chapels. They can get out the vote, if they choose to. Therein, however, lies the rub.
The right-wing so-called Christian organizations tend to be very hierarchical, to the point that they’re often identified by the names of their founders or leaders: Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and so on. In hierarchical structures, power is concentrated in a small number of players. Thus we have a handful of confused, repressed, highly partisan people, most of them eagerly awaiting the end times — wackos, if you will — determining the worthiness or otherwise of Republican Presidential contenders. As a result, Republican rhetoric has shifted so strongly toward the eschatological that it often resembles articles of faith for the premillennial dispensationalists.
This, it appears, has driven some old-style Republicans, the small-government balanced-budget conservatives, into the waiting arms of the Democrats. In Virginia, James Webb, Secretary of the Navy under Reagan, is running for Senator as a Democrat. In South Carolina, top Republican prosecutor Barney Giese has defected to the Democrats after a fight with the religious wing of his old party. In Kansas, the Democratic nominee for attorney general is Paul Morrison, a recent convert from the Republican party. Mark Parkinson, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor there, was only a few weeks ago the chairman of the Kansas Republican party.
… as he left Parkinson lambasted his former party’s obsession with conservative and religious issues such as gay marriage, evolution and abortion.
Sitting in his headquarters, the new Democrat is sticking to his guns. Republicans in Kansas, he says, have let down their own people. “They were fixated on ideological issues that really don’t matter to people’s everyday lives. What matters is improving schools and creating jobs,” he said. “I got tired of the theological debate over whether Charles Darwin was right.”
Naturally a trend like this arises from contextual as well as individual elements. Part of the context in Kansas appears to be an intelligent governor.
One of the key reasons Kansas Democrats are in fighting mood is their governor, Kathleen Sibelius. Sibelius’s vote represents an island of Democratic blue in a sea of Republican red on the political map, and she has impressed by reaching the middle-ground voters in a startlingly successful first term. Shunning the hot-button social issues, she has focused on education, jobs and health. This has earned her approval ratings touching 68 per cent in a state that was overwhelmingly pro-Bush in 2004.
It’s not a tricky message to deliver. Who’s against education, jobs, and health care? These are basic Democratic issues, the ones the Democrats abdicated. Somehow the Republicans let the issues lie fallow; perhaps they didn’t feel comfortable with trying to fool that many of the people that much of the time. In any case, the issues are still available; if a couple of Democrats would simply dump their corporate sponsors and go with the classic Democratic platform, they’d soon find themselves at the head of a very large parade.
If, for example, Ned Lamont can overcome Joementum and capture the Democratic nomination for Senator from Connecticut, it’ll send shock waves through the Republican wing of the Democratic party. Even if Lieberman spends his way to a win as an independent, a point will have been made; and if Connecticut manages to toss the most embarrassing member of the Senate, it will be a great day. We’d dump a war supporter (especially if the war is against someone Israel doesn’t like), the most hypocritical person in the Senate; but we’d also send the DLC folks a message: if we wanted Republicans, we’d vote for them.