Alan Brinkley has done an admirable job thinking through why George W. Bush won. I particularly agree with his analysis of the damaged state of the Democratic Party's infrastructure and aim here to deepen our understanding of what needs fixing.
Let me start with myself as one type of Kerry supporter to illustrate the problem. I'm not proud of it, but my husband and I spend most of our waking hours working, leaving little time for any associational life. Free time is reserved for our two teenage children. We participate in no organized religion, belong to few organizations outside of professional ones, and barely sustain ties to the town we live in. Our political activism mostly involves writing checks to liberal groups; our community consists of friends, co-workers, and family. We are charter members of Robert Putnam's “bowling alone” crowd.
Looking back at Franklin Delano Roosevelt's landslide victory of 1936, made possible by the entrance of new first- and second-generation immigrant and black voters into the New Deal coalition, what is most striking is the critical role played by face-to-face recruitment, whether by fledgling Congress of Industrial Organizations unions or new offshoots of long-established ethnic associations (Polish Democratic Clubs or Italian Democratic Leagues). Even the Republican mobilization of 1964 for Barry Goldwater was noteworthy not only for giving birth to such techniques of “retail politics” as direct mail but also for its grass-roots base. Middle-class southern Californians, for example, had painstakingly built a conservative movement through interacting at coffee klatches and barbecues in their suburban tract developments, on local anti-communism committees, and in their proliferating churches.
The revolution in political campaigning that Richard Viguerie launched in 1964 with direct mail has undeniably reshaped both parties over the last four decades. Democrats and Republicans have both embraced “slice-and-dice” politics, reaching out to voters as members of market segments with distinctive interests. And ironically, the Democrats, with their base in the urban and suburban milieus, have become more dependent on this retail politics than the Republicans, whose core red-state supporters remain involved in face-to-face organizations.
The historic Republican discovery in this election season was that all the sophisticated segmented marketing mattered less than face-to-face interaction with real members of a community. As an organizer of Catholics for Bush in Columbus, Ohio, put it, “The grass-roots effort did not exist in 2000. We tend to think grass roots is less sexy, but it does the job.”
In other words, it may be less significant that Republican voters have a corner on religious faith and “moral values” than simply that they go to church. In rural and small-town America, churches are part of a network of viable community institutions and organizations -- gun and garden clubs, PTAs, functioning neighborhoods -- that are fast disappearing with the more hectic pace of life in urban and suburban America. The erosion of Democratic-oriented labor unions in these communities, then, is not only damaging to Democrats in and of itself; it is indicative of a larger decline in associational life in the heart of Democratic turf.
Moreover, the Republicans were hardly naive in this election about how to use face-to-face community outreach to expand their political base. Time magazine reported that the Bush campaign asked its volunteer recruits to “turn over their church directories” and to work their community networks in “Amway-like” pyramid structures aimed at getting voters to the polls. The Democrats, meanwhile, had New Yorkers calling Iowans long-distance urging them to vote.
Go to a working-class town, even in a state as blue as Massachusetts, and you will discover a powerful social bond that doesn't help the Democrats -- a community built around the military. With brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbors, and high-school friends in the service or on call-up by the reserves, the military provides a ready recruiting ground for Republicans. One can only imagine the political capital that military identification produces in a West Virginia or an Alabama.
Of course, diagnosing this problem is far easier than remedying it. But this much is clear: Democrats must give more attention to mobilizing voters within whatever local organizations still matter. Continuing to push unionization of the growing ranks of low-wage workers who did vote for John Kerry is a must. In particular, labor unions can provide a counterforce to more conservative pulls on Latinos, who fill many low-level service jobs. Even military families struggling with deteriorating conditions in the armed services might rally to Democrats trumpeting their plight. Furthermore, if busy working parents have time for any activity, it often revolves around their children's schooling, making grass-roots coalitions for better education promising. And when aging baby boomers like me eventually have more time on our hands, who knows? We might start joining organizations and meeting our neighbors. Let's make sure the Democratic Party is ready and waiting.
Lizabeth Cohen is the Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies at Harvard University. She is the author of Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 and A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America.
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