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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Theses on 2006

Am I happy? Of course I'm happy! (Not as happy as I'd be if Harold Ford, Jr., had won, but happy enough.) But rather than dancing about in delight and at length, let me try to keep this short for once.

1. Blue Dogs and Populists?

While a part of me really wants Rod Dreher and Larry Kudlow to be correct, I strongly suspect that Matt Yglesias's take on the election is much more accurate: "the overall impact is clearly to shift the composition of the House to the left without having any particularly dramatic impact on the balance within the Democratic caucus." (Though Jacob Weisberg suggests that, if you leave social conservatism out of the mix, the economic nationalist strain amongst the Democrats has definitely grown this election cycle.) I still stand by all my previously expressed hopes (both on Monday and two years ago), but I've no illusion that last night saw us populist communitarians cross over some sort of Rubicon and into the mainstream. Thanks to various Democratic wins, there are now a few more socially conservative, economically liberal folks in the House and the Senate than before, and that's a very good thing, but their victories do not appear to have had much to do with their particular mix of views (consider that Jim Webb, strong basher of open borders and free trade, drew most of his support from the Democratic northern Virginia suburbs, which is surely the most cosmopolitan and least populist part of the state). This election isn't telling us anything, unfortunately, about an emerging populist/left conservative movement; it's merely telling us that the Democrats, this time around, were more somewhat more willing than in the past to recruit, work with, and build a national campaign alongside such candidates.

2. The New Democratic Party?

Clearly the party has some momentum now, and momentum means a lot when you're doing the difficult, complicated work of simultaneously cultivating ideas and constructing an organization. But I'm going to want to wait and see data on more state races before I claim too much for the Democrats. Here in Kansas, it was a very good day for the party: Democratic candidates for governor and attorney general won, and the party picked up several seats in the House (including one race where one of my students was the candidate's campaign manager!). But if you look through other state-wide races, you'll find Democratic coattails to have been pretty short. I suspect that will be the case throughout the nation: to the extent that Democratic candidates could plus themselves into the anti-Republican mood (as the Kansas Democratic candidate for attorney general did, making the race into a referendum on the huge influence which the anti-abortion lobby has on Republican politics in this state), they did well; when such connections couldn't be drawn, the results were far less impressive (but still, as above, worth noting and building upon, where possible).

3. Whither the "homelanders"?

The best book this political season as far as I'm concerned was Brian Mann's Welcome to the Homeland: A Journey to the Rural Heart of America's Conservative Revolution. It's not a perfect book by any means--much of his research is sloppy, or at the very least confusing presented--but it does two things very, very well: it actually sympathetically considers the coherence and the motivations behind the white, rural, Protestant embrace of socially conservative and religious priorities (thus showing far more imagination Thomas Frank and many of his imitators); and it explains in detail exactly how much of a minority this perspective is. Eight out of 10 Americans live in either cities or suburbs; the number of Americans that constitute the exurban and rural "homelander" (as Mann calls them) base makes up, at most, perhaps 50 million people, only about 15 million of whom can be reliably counted on to vote Republican on Election Day. Which is still, when it comes to building coalitions, nothing to sneeze at: John Kerry received only 12 million African-American votes in 2004. Nonetheless, the homelanders don't constitute a stand-alone majority. While they aren't going to just go away anytime soon--which is good; I don't want America to lose the religious, communitarian, small-town sensibility they can bring to our society--but they've definitely punched far above their weight in recent years, almost solely because our political structure (with the Senate, the Electoral College, etc.) has allowed their hard work and activism to translate into a great deal of power when united under a single banner--namely, the Republican party. The question is what they will do as the Democratic party wises up and starts doing more to appeal to moderates and religious believers in the exurbs and even some rural areas. (See, for example, Bob Casey winning the Catholic vote in Pennsylvania, and Nancy Boyda winning over moderate Republicans here in Kansas.) The homelanders, like I've long said about the South in general, can and should be a big part of any change in the Democratic party; but if the homelanders refuse to rethink their allegiance, and thus rethink their own priorities, they may lose out as the Democrats realize that populist economics and social conservatism isn't the sole province of white, Southern Baptist farmers from Oklahoma.

4. And Next?

No major thoughts at the moment, except that I hope 1) the Pelosi and Reid will be able to resist the calls to fill the next two years with investigations and subpenas, and 2) that I hope Harold Ford, about whom Josh Marshall says the right things here, will stick around his state for the next two years, taking folks about to dinner, building up favors, developing a little more local cred in Nashville, and will give it another shot against Lamar Alexander in two years. It won't be nearly as positive an environment in 2008, with Alexander as an incumbent and a presidential race to boot. But Ford is too impressive an individual not to try make use of; he's hoping the Democratic party keeps him as front and center as possible.

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