November 11, 2004

Brad Carson on the Blue/Red Divide

For a sobering take on the 2004 election, check out this New Republic piece by Brad Carson, the Democrat who lost to the ultra-conservative Tom Coburn for the Oklahoma Senate. An excerpt:

As a defeated Senate candidate in the most red of red states, many people have asked me for insights into the Democratic Party's failure to connect with culturally conservative voters. Much has already been written on this topic, and scholars will add more. But I do know this: The culture war is real, and it is a conflict not merely about some particular policy or legislative item, but about modernity itself. Banning gay marriage or abortion would not be sufficient to heal the cultural gulf that exists in this nation. The culture war is about matters more fundamental still: whether nationality is, in a globalized world, a random fact of no more significance than what hospital one was born in or whether it is the source of identity and even political legitimacy; whether one's self is a matter of choice or whether it is predetermined, before birth, by the cultural membership of one's family; whether an individual is just that--a free-floating atom--or whether the individual is part of a long chain that both predates and continues long after any particular person; whether concepts like honor and shame, which seem so quaint, are still relevant in a world that values only "tolerance." These are questions not for politicians but for philosophers, and, in the end, it is the failure of liberal philosophy that we saw on November 2.

For the vast majority of Oklahomans--and, I would suspect, voters in other red states--these transcendent cultural concerns are more important than universal health care or raising the minimum wage or preserving farm subsidies. Pace Thomas Frank, the voters aren't deluded or uneducated. They simply reject the notion that material concerns are more real than spiritual or cultural ones. The political left has always had a hard time understanding this, preferring to believe that the masses are enthralled by a "false consciousness" or Fox News or whatever today's excuse might be. But the truth is quite simple: Most voters in a state like Oklahoma--and I venture to say most other Southern and Midwestern states--reject the general direction of American culture and celebrate the political party that promises to reform or revise it.

I wouldn't get too discouraged reading Carson's argument: Oklahoma is almost certainly out of reach for any Democratic presidential candidate in the foreseeable future, and the key to winning the "culture war" isn't for liberals to compete for votes in the church that Carson describes. (The greater challenge for the party might be to appeal to slightly less conservative Christians--to people who may be open to a less radical message, but who aren't introduced to many other viewpoints.) Even so, it's a sobering read.

My biggest criticism of the piece, however, was its conclusion: "And, while the defeat was all my own, the failure was of the party to which I swear allegiance, which uncritically embraces a modernity that so many others reject." That statement seems a little strong to me--and comes dangerously close to hinting that Democrats are on the wrong side in the culture war. That isn't the sort of thing you expect a highly-touted Democratic Senate candidate to tell readers of a center-left magazine.

Update: This Washington Monthly article on Montana Governor-elect Brian Schweitzer is an interesting counterpoint to the Carson piece. Montana--like Oklahoma, Carson's home state--now has a Democratic governor, suggesting that if the circumstances are just right, the party can compete in red states. I'm just afraid that the circumstances won't be right very often...

Don't worry: I plan to start posting less about politics soon.

Posted by Ed at November 11, 2004 08:48 PM
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