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Public Theology: Keeping the Democratic Faith
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Keeping the Democratic Faith
Post-election analysis has lots of people talking about how Democrats can address issues of faith and politics: Michael Lind, Peter Dreier, George Lakoff, John B. Judis, Ruy Teixeira, etc.

By Ed Knudson

Below are some links to articles discussing what Democrats may be able to do to better address issues of faith and politics.

  1. Rethink First Principles. Michael Tomasky, executive editor of The American Prospect, says it is time to rethink basic principles of liberalism and the Democratic Party. "Itís not an exaggeration to say that liberalism in this country is on the precipice of being in deep, deep trouble. One more election like the last two, and movement conservatism will be in charge of Congress for decades to come." Unlike conservatism in the 1960s, liberalism does have a track record of governing and that may make it more difficult to change, to consider how policies could be different.

    Tomasky suggests having a conversation. "A conversation that really tries to figure out the difference between liberalismís first principles, on which there can be no compromise, and its secondary assertions, which may need a rethink -- is of vital importance. Also, a conversation about the intellectual basis of liberalism. Are we for freedom? What does that word mean to us?"

  2. Understand the Right's Media Machine. Don Hazen of Alternet writes: "To get their message out, the conservatives have a powerful media empire, which churns out and amplifies the message of the day - or the week - through a wide network of outlets and individuals, including Fox News, talk radio, Rush Limbaugh, Oliver North, Ann Coulter, as well as religious broadcasters like Pat Robertson and his 700 Club. On the web, it starts with" He reviews Ben Stein's work on "The Conservative Message Machine Money Matrix." Hazen believes money for progressive causes has to get out of Washington D.C. to "build progressive infrastructure at the local level where it is needed, particularly outside of the Democratic party."

  3. Rebuild the Local Party! Polls show that the American people agree with Democratic positions on most domestic issues, other than gay rights and terrorism. So Democrats represent the "people" but they haven't really been acting that way. Unions were key in organizing Democrats in the past, not just for elections, but by providing strong local organizations. That's what's needed again today, says Michael Kazin in Mother Jones Magazine: "The United States remains a nation with an evangelical soul, a fact that liberals ignore at their peril. But it is also a nation whose citizens revere volunteerism and local decision making and mistrust politicians who craft their ads and speeches to fit the latest survey. A reborn Democratic Party would draw ideas and energy from states and local communities, enlisting candidates and organizers who share the values and language of the people whose votes theyíll be seeking. It could sponsor comedy nights and dance parties and debates about whether one can support gay marriage and still be a good Christian; throw street festivals at which every immigrant society, sportsmenís club, church, temple, and mosque feels welcome; offer a place for seniors to meet and for community organizers to gather. In a word, it could act a great deal more like the peopleís party of old, and less like a traveling circus that folds its tents after the first Tuesday in November.

    Progressives who dedicate themselves to building such a party may not elect the next president. But they will be matching their political dreams and electoral aspirations to institutional reality. They will also dispel the toxic notion that they are cultural elitists who think about fleeing America whenever conservatives win a presidential election. They might even make the Democracy live up to its name."

  4. Shift Right on Moral Issues? Paul Starr, co-editor of The American Prospect, says in a NY Times piece that Democrats have been declining due to principled support of civil rights for blacks, women, and gays, and relied on the courts rather than politics to promote these rights. Democrats now need to reject interest group and identity politics if they want to win. He calls for "an expansive statement of American character and national purpose" to rally American people. OK, but what policy concepts and language are needed to move forward rather than move back by shifting to the right?

  5. Create a new national security strategy, a new way for the United States to be in the world. As of 12/29/04 I see little focus in post-election analysis on the need for Democrats to rethink its approach to national security and international policy. This is what killed Kerry in 2004. Democrats should convene major policy conferences to forge an understandable new national security strategy concerning globalization, the global environment, terrorism, etc. It is necessary to move away from the old Cold War framework which still dominates Republican rhetoric. Michael Lind has written: "The old pattern in which New Englandís opposition to a controversial and far from popular war leads to problems for the New England party repeated itself. In spite of the debacle in Indochina, the voters rewarded the more hawkish party with the presidency for most of the remainder of the Cold War. When security moved back to the center following September 11, the Republicans benefited again. George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 in spite of the disaster in Iraq, just as Richard Nixon had been re-elected in 1972 in spite of the disaster in Vietnam. A case might be made that the Iraq War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Vietnam War were all unnecessary. But in each instance, the New EnglandĖdominated [now Democratic] party paid a heavy electoral penalty for its opposition to a war that was bungled or lost." Democrats enjoy strong support from anti-war constituencies but cannot be just "against war" but for a new way for the United States to relate to others in a complex and dangerous world.

  6. Rethink New England values of reformism, intellectual elitism, and anti-militarism, become the party of economic not social liberalism, recast Democrats as a loose federation of regional parties, choose a Midwest presidential candidate. Michael Lind in The American Prospect writes a very interesting history of political parties, says Democrats should not court the religious right but focus on economic proposals which improve the lives of working Americans.

  7. Mobilize a new center-left coalition and nominate candidates appealing to white working-class voters. John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira in the The American Prospect examine voting groups and conclude the 2004 election is not a realignment for Republicans, a new majority, but the survival of an old one. Kerry failed to attract the white working-class, especially working-class women, with a clear economic message. A new center-left coalition of suburban professionals and college-educated women along with youth was organized through the Internet and this will be important in the future.

  8. Preach traditional liberal moral values. George Lakoff in The Nation says Democrats must clearly articulate core values of liberalism: care and responsibility, fairness and equality, freedom and courage, fulfillment in life, opportunity and community, cooperation and trust, honesty and openness.

  9. Majorities are liberal on key social issues. Exit poll results at CNN demonstrate that most voters are "liberal" on key social issues. 55% say abortion should be always or mostly legal. 60% say homosexuals should be allowed to legally marry (25%) or enter into civil unions (35%).

  10. Build Message and Movement. Peter Dreier writes an outstanding article on Why Bush Won; What to Do Next: Analysis of the 2004 Election. He promotes "message and movement" as the key variables for a winning strategy. And he tells liberals who have the post-election blues to get over it and start organizing.

  11. Learn how to create character narratives. How Character Counted: Perspectives on the 2004 Election, a discussion sponsored by the Center for American Progress on November 15, 2004. Republicans seem to know how to use popular culture against the Democratic candidate. Explicit efforts were made to trash Gore, for example. Kerry was attacked as a flip-flopper and not really manly. Democrats don't know how to create these negative "character narratives" against their opponents. David Frum says Democrats are a ramshackle coalition with more extremes such as rich and poor, whereas Republicans represent the middle, middle income, middle education, middle of the country. He said Kerry's association with 1971 anti-war testimony raised questions in voters' minds about whether he can really lead the country in wartime. Bob Edgar of the National Council of Churches said that moderate to progressive folks should not be discouraged; just a few thousand votes in Ohio may have changed things considerably. He said the private piety issues of abortion and gay marriage are not the sum total of what moral values really mean. He thinks candidates can be elected who stand firm on issues of justice and peace. Jesus taught us to be concerned for the "least of these". Ruy Teixeira said that Bush increased his election margin by 3% and these voters were primarily non-educated working class white folks. The election was driven by values as defined by the president. It was not a tidal wave of evangelical support; Bush picked up votes from less religious voters. Teixeira also claimed Bush picked up increased votes from all areas, urban as well as rural. Democrats had trouble framing their values issues, such as economics and environment, that voters find compelling. Democrats need to find a way to support modernity, which too many people are scared of. He says 9/11/2001 was critical for the Bush win; without it he couldn't be where he is, but because of it Democrats probably couldn't win no matter what they did. As we get further away from 9/11 it will influence elections less. Teixeira spoke forcefully about the fact that Kerry's message never got through; he just didn't speak in ways that people remembered what he stands for, like Clinton did with the phrase "put people first".

  12. Ignore rural red states. Some say Democrats should give up on the rural, religious red states and focus on winning in the blue urban states. This is the view of an alternative newspaper in Seattle, The Stranger, which uses analysis from the book The Great Divide which calls the red states the "retro" states because they receive more federal payments than they pay in taxes. The blue "metro" states are the tax paying states; they pay more in federal taxes than they receive in federal payments.

  13. Promote Broader Values. Alan Cooperman writing in the Washington Post reports a post-election poll which indicates voters are more concerned about a broader range of values than is usually assumed. He says liberal Christians are challenging the "values vote". The poll was sponsored by the Catholic peace group Pax Christi, the New York-based civic advocacy group Res Publica and the Washington-based Center for American Progress.

  14. Get More Religious. David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times on November 17, 2004, says Some Democrats Believe the Party Should Get Religion. The article discusses advice from religious conservatives like Richard John Neuhaus on changing positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. I am not sure I believe Democrats should get more religious, but they should learn how to speak into a public culture where religion is a significant factor.

  15. Need a central theme. Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post on November 17, 2004, says that the Democrats again in this election had no one, central theme.

  16. Clearly articulate liberal values. Derek Kilmer won the election for state representative in the Washington state district in which I live, beating a religious right incumbant. Sandeep Kaushik writes about how he did it based on liberal values (November 18, 2004).

  17. Directly address race issues. Mapping the Election. Tom Englehardt in Mother Jones provides a survey of electoral maps which is very illuminating, including racial divisions.

  18. Confront phony populism. Marc Cooper in the LA Times in a review of's post-election meetings says that external issues are less important than internal attitudes of the Democratic Party: "Notably missing from the recipe dashed out by the MoveOn meetings are anything resembling an aggressive agenda that directly confronts the phony populism of the Republicans. Make no mistake about it. A progressive strategy has to consciously undercut the GOPís appeal among working- and middle-class families by offering a tangible realignment of national politics. Urging people to vote against Republicans because they are bad and evil, or convincing yourself people vote Republican because they are ill-informed, stupid or brainwashed ainít gonna cut it. I hope that that much, at least, has been learned from the November debacle."

  19. Listen to local officials. Washington state Governor Gary Locke in the New York Times writes: "The next generation of leaders at the committee must take the initiative to begin a dialogue with, and perhaps more important, listen to what governors and state and local elected officials have to say. We know our states and the concerns and hopes of the people who elected us. We can provide the fundamental ingredients for moving forward with a collective agenda and cohesive messages that reflect voters' priorities from state to state."

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Date Added: 11/10/2004 Date Revised: 2/15/2005 12:28:49 PM

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