Conviction Politics

It may be a bit much to begin my remarks by putting pressure, like a deconstructionist, on a single word -- a word that may have been just a throwaway -- but I'll take the risk. Near the beginning of his thoughtful essay, Alan Brinkley writes, “[I]t's not hard to imagine centrist Democrats winning presidential elections in the future, even in four years.” The word that stuck out for me is “centrist.”

I do find it hard to imagine a Democrat who counts “centrism” as among his defining features winning a presidential election in the future. I'm not proposing liberal purity in centrism's stead; there are still lessons to be learned from some Democrats' earlier failures to frame themselves within the cultural mainstream. But this easy, a priori assumption that centrism solves all the problems that liberalism throws up needs to be seriously re-examined in light of this year's presidential election results.

In The New Republic, Jonathan Chait recently argued that “New Democrat–style centrism saddles its adherents with positions that straddle the political divide” -- thus leaving them especially vulnerable to the Republicans' most devastating recent rhetorical attack: that they are flip-floppers. Brinkley acknowledges the point when he writes that John Kerry was hurt by “his image as a man without deep conviction.” Contrariwise, voters who disagreed with George W. Bush's positions told interviewers that they voted for him nonetheless because he was a man of conviction.

This makes hash out of one of the most cherished findings of political science: the “median voter theorem” -- recycled, at least in bastardized form, by pundits waxing on about the paramount importance of reaching swing voters. Swing voters, we are finding out, are not attracted to swing candidates. So what to do?

Reach out to evangelicals? I'm afraid most progressives offering that suggestion have no idea what this would actually entail. People who believe that intercessory prayer is an effective way to improve people's lives but that government action is not, will not be easily reached by Democrats attempting to speak “their language.” The most indelible lesson I've learned this year consulting with apostates from southern evangelical culture is that we have deeply underestimated the organicist, hierarchical, mystical, and -- God knows -- hypocritical elements in its makeup. (The divorce rate in Mississippi is higher than that in Massachusetts, a point that can't be repeated often enough.) Reaching self-described “Christian voters” is more complicated and compromising than we have been bargaining for.

Here is a better first step to retaking red-state voters. We talk about southern culture, blue-collar culture, NASCAR culture -- which overlaps, in complicated ways, with evangelical culture. Certainly one tenet they all share is this: When somebody punches you in the gut, you don't smile, stride halfway between his position and yours, and say that maybe the guy has a point. Behaving like that is precisely what has made the Democrats look so unsympathetically unfocused and confused to so many people. You have to convince them that you've got a fighting faith, too. Or else you can't fight.

Fortunately, we do have one: “that government can help provide us with the basic tools we need to live out the American dream.”

Language like this would sound crazy -- paleoliberal crazy -- if this were not a direct quote from a speech the other day from the only Democratic hero to emerge from the mess on November 2: Barack Obama. Amid all the talk of Obama's shimmering appeal to a post-racial future, his light touch on the stump, and his language of faith and family and responsibility -- all the things that convinced centrists he was fundamentally one of them -- what most commentators managed to ignore was that the core of Obama's politics is traditional economic liberalism.

He delivered that message up and down the state, even in its conservative southern portions -- rather like in an earlier Illinois Senate race. In the second Lincoln-Douglas debate, Stephen Douglas said his opponent would be singing a different, conservative tune once he was “trotted down into Egypt” -- using the nickname that signified downstate Illinois' cultural affinity to the slaveholding South. Abraham Lincoln, like Barack Obama, pulled no punches on his core economic message -- anywhere. The difference is that Obama won where Lincoln lost. Obama has a winning message, one whose time is ripe: that government can help people overcome their economic vulnerability. Kerry was not able to forthrightly deliver that message.

This is not to slight Obama's extraordinary skill at framing his liberal convictions on economics in ways that offended no one's cultural sensibilities: in terms of faith, family, and patriotism. He did it, however, while never splitting the difference with the Republicans programmatically. Obama understands that policies that close the inequality gap are a punch to the gut of a conservative coalition that is a lot more fragile than at first it appears.

Rick Perlstein is chief national political correspondent for The Village Voice and the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.