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SPOTLIGHT
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What's the matter with Democrats?

Published on -11/4/2012, 12:44 PM

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Nine swing states -- Nevada, Colorado, Florida, Virginia, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin -- will determine if President Barak Obama or Mitt Romney will be the next president. Kansas is not one of these swing states. The only question left unanswered is whether President Obama will break the 40 percent mark in Kansas.

President Obama's incapacity to run a competitive race in Kansas reflects the reality that Kansas Democrats are a marginalized minority party. After the votes are counted Tuesday night, the party will not control a single congressional seat and will, in all likelihood, control fewer the 25 percent of state Senate and state House seats.

Why are Democrats, not just President Obama, doomed to lose in Kansas and other states like Kansas? The Democrats' responses to this question usually begin with Thomas Frank's critique: That Republicans have managed to use religion and cultural issues to pull the wool over the eyes of many voters whose economic interests really lie with the Democrats. According to Frank, if the Democrats would reverse the party's stance on free trade and once again stand tall for unions and other bread-and-butter working-class issues, these voters would no longer be distracted by GOP's appeals based on abortion, gay marriage and other assorted cultural issues.

Although this argument appeals to many on the left, a number of studies have shown that there is little evidence to support it. So, if Frank is wrong, is there another path the Democrats could take?

Ira Chernus, a religious studies professor at University of Colorado, Boulder, suggests an intriguing possibility. Instead of asking "What's the matter with Kansas?" he changes the question to "What's the matter with Democrats?"

Chernus begins by noting that Robert Wuthnow's book, "Red State Religion," underscores that Kansans (which is a metaphor for middle-income white Americans) seek to build communities with "stable social-cultural" foundations. The Democrats' working class strategy fails to appeal to Kansans. Our desire for stable social-cultural communities is more complex than simple economic considerations.

Chernus argues Democrats need to expand their strategy to take advantage of the values that Democrats share with Kansans. After all, Democrats also seek stable social-cultural foundations for communities. The Democratic vision, however, entails valuing all members of our communities, no matter their station in life, marital status, race, creed or sexual orientation. Chernus recognizes not all metaphorical Kansans support this more expanded vision of community, but many do. Unless Democrats begin this conversation, Kansas and all places like Kansas will needlessly be a sea of Republican red for many years to come.

So, how should Democrats approach this conversation with Kansans? Chernus advocates using symbols that most Kansans understand, God and country. He notes that Democrats have ceded these symbols to the Republicans, allowing them use religion and the flag in an unchallenged manner, to promote their conservative 1950s vision of stable communities. This is a vision that is often perceived as being ill at ease with single-female dominated households, not to mention explicitly excluding gay and lesbian members of our communities.

Chernus' point is God and the flag are founding symbols that can be used by Democrats to promote a progressive vision of stable communities, built on equality, liberty and inclusion.

However, to appropriate these symbols for progressive purposes, Democratic elites (as opposed to the rank and file) will need to partially tear down the extremely high wall they have unnecessarily built separating church and state and they will need to expel the notion that flying the flag is a sign of xenophobic tendencies. Patriotism, liberal religious values and progressive ideas can walk hand-in-hand.

If the Democrats can start this conversation with Kansans, Chernus argues enough Kansans will find their progressive vision more compelling than the conservative vision that now dominates. Over time, this will enable Democrats to add to their meager base of support in places like Kansas to become more competitive.

After every election, each political party will go through an extensive post-election self-assessment. After this election, Chernus' ideas should be included in any conversation about the future of the Democratic Party.

Joseph A. Aistrup is a professor of political science at Kansas State University.

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