Moral Politics: Democrats Can Play, Too

Dayton City Paper | November 12, 2004
It’s one thing to be robbed of an election, like in 2000. It’s an entirely different matter to be defeated like last week. But it hurts deeper knowing that your defeat came at the hands of extremists, whose stunted moral development has not evolved since the early existence of this country.

Astonishing as it may seem, the 2004 election map of red and blue states eerily mirrors the pre-Civil War map of “free” and “slave” states and territories. Tellingly, every one of the 1860 slave states and territories voted for George W. Bush, while all of the 1860 free states and territories voted for John Kerry with the sad exceptions of Ohio and Iowa, which regressed to red.

Only now we can refer to the red states as “anti-gay” states.

The map reminds us that we’ve always had two moralities in this country. One cherry-picks the Bible for convenient political purposes and the other wants to move beyond the hate and injustice to a healthier, happier country.

With that map in mind, it now seems completely shameful that church ministers, many of them black, bit on Republican fear-mongering and urged a yes vote on Ohio’s Issue One to define marriage between only a man and a woman — particularly when we know that, in 1860, anti-abolitionists used the Bible to justify keeping blacks in slavery.

For the most part, Democrats have always taken the approach of advantageously ignoring the Christian right except when Supreme Court Justices were to be named.

This election should make it obvious to the Democratic Party that they must deal, not with the Christian right, but with the perceptions they have engendered about Democrats by means of their twisted interpretation of Christ’s mission. Their narrow understanding of Christianity affects modern Americans in a way even Richard Wagner, one of Adolph Hitler’s inspirations, would admire.

We must be able to counter the manipulation of the issues and the message at a local level. That’s what earned top Bush aide Karl Rove the title of “master strategist” in national politics. His focus on local politics flipped Texas to staunchly Republican during the 1990s and paid handsome dividends in 2000 when the Republican Florida statehouse helped Bush cheat his way to the Oval Office.

This time, Rove allowed local ballot issues do his “Get Out The Vote” (GOTV) for him across the country.

Not only should this strategy have been apparent to Democratic leaders — after all, Ohio’s Secretary of State Ken Blackwell blatantly sent fundraising letters boasting of working with national and local officials on the gay marriage amendment to turn out the vote for Bush — it should have sent shivers up Democrats’ GOTV spines.

This begs the question of why the DNC (Democratic National Committee) didn’t send the heavy artillery into Ohio in May, June, and July to fight the signature-gathering stage of Issue One before the Republicans amassed enough to place it on the ballot.

Strategically, this was a breakdown of epic proportions for DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe. He failed to realize the effort to place conservative issues on the ballot in swing states as the underhanded GOTV scheme of Karl Rove. Four major swing states — Ohio, Michigan, Arkansas, and Oregon — had gay marriage issues on their ballots. Florida placed an abortion issue on theirs. And Arizona had an anti-immigrant issue on the ballot.

So, while one party values people, the other specializes in marginalizing certain types of them. But what can liberals do about these competing moralities? The conservatives have spent millions and millions of dollars on think tanks and media to turn the judgmental tide in their hollow direction. And we all know what is meant when Republicans say the word “moral.”

Liberals possess more of an acceptable moral compass, with our concern for the have-nots and other social justice issues. While we’ve communicated our policies, we haven’t communicated our values. Our policies reflect our empathy — the ability to identify with another’s pain. Republicans are not capable of empathy. In fact, they exploit empathy’s opposite emotion — hatred — for political gain. World history has demonstrated that hatred is easier to communicate than empathy, whether it’s the traditional conservative enemies such as immigrants, communists, unions, liberals, or gays.

Democrats need to re-communicate our positions on the issues in terms that make sense to the type of modern Americans that elected Arnold Schwarzenegger to public office.

Terry McAuliffe should hold communication trainings to re-program Democratic language on every level — from the party’s popular pundits squawking on CNN to state level candidates, to every precinct captain in places such as Dayton, Ohio. “Moral Politics” by Dr. George Lakoff, a noted linguist, and anything by Kevin Phillips should be required reading before those trainings.

Democrats talk about the issues by using specific policies such as an increase in the minimum wage and more stringent accounting practices to avoid another devastating Enron. In reality, Democrats are fighting for a “Moral Economy.”

Democrats must work now to re-package our worthy issues by invoking patriotism. We must care for our collective “National Family” by passing universal health care and protecting social security. And, finally, we must continue to fight for affirmative action, the right to choose and gay civil rights because that’s what a “Constitutional America” looks like.

With our liberal moral compass leading the way, there is nothing wrong with the Democratic Party that can’t be fixed by what is right with the Democratic Party.

Gabrielle Williamson was a 2002 candidate for the Ohio House of Representatives. She is the owner of GW Group, a political consulting company. She also sits on the Board of Trustees for Dayton Access Television.

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