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by Sam Smith


A STUDY OF the past brings forth some strong hints of how the Democrats might recover from their present difficulties.

For example, while the media has inundated the public with talk of blue and red states, such a dichotomy does not reveal which states won by the GOP are vulnerable to change. If you define a safe Republican state as one in which the candidate received over 55%, then the GOP states plummet to 21 in the last election. These states comprise only 24% of the population of the country. In all the other states, the Democrats were either safe - there are five of those - or one needs only change the mind of not more than 5.1% of the voters to win - voters who are already uncertain or fed up with the choices of the past and susceptible to the most hated thing in today's politics: a new approach.

Even more significantly, the number of safe GOP states is less than half as many as in Richard Nixon's comfort zone and about half as many as Reagan enjoyed. In other words, GOP support is broad but it isn't as deep as it has been in the not too distant past. Furthermore, the number of safe states shows a clear downward trend over three decades from the 46 under Nixon to 21 in the last election.

When placed on a map, these states still occupy far more geographical space than their population would suggest, but it is a distinctly different picture than the one people have been seeing of late. For example, eleven of the states up for grabs are not on either the Atlantic or Pacific coast and six of them border the shores of the Mississippi River.

Even more interesting, of the 21 safe GOP states, 11 have above average poverty, 12 have below average income and 8 have severe drought problems. If you didn't know they were sacred GOP turf, you might think they were excellent organizing ground for the Democrats.

Finally, 15 of these untouchable states, allegedly impenetrable behind their walls of faith-based family values, have above average divorce rates - all of them at least 90% greater than despicable, godless Massachusetts.

Yet while the presidential base for Republicans has become less secure, Democrats have lost ground in the House and the Senate. Their margins actually peaked in 1937, but checking the last 60 years you find something that directly contradicts the popular assumption that Democrats do best when acting like low-carb Republicans. For example, party margins in the House increased under classic Democrats Truman, Kennedy, and LBJ. Even when the party was out of the White House during the Eisenhower years the Democrats did well in Congress.

Then began a descent into confused messages combined with a rightward drift. By the time Clinton came along, the Vichy Democrats were strongly in control. Clinton won - largely because Perot was in the race - but was of little or no help getting Democrats into Congress - up two in the Senate, down 18 in the House. Clinton was the first incoming Democrat in 60 years not to have any coattails. Worst, during the Clinton administration, elected Democrats at every level did worse than under any incumbent since Grover Cleveland.

In short, despite the propaganda to the contrary loyally dispensed by a gullible media, the politics of the Democratic Leadership Council, the Third Wave, and the Clintons has been a bust.

Meanwhile, the two essential qualities of successful Democratic campaigns - a populist platform aimed at doing the mostest for the mostest while helping the weakest become part of the mostest - combined with a fervent vision of a future worth fighting for - simply disappeared.

Why didn't the Vichy Democrats do better?

One reason is because both swing voters and non-voters tend to dislike a politics that is over-contentious and under-differentiated.

Here, for example, are some comments of non-voters in an English study, although they might as well have been Americans:

"In the old days you had Labour on the left and Conservatives on the right and they had certain ideas of what was what. Now they are in the middle and you don't necessarily know what's going on or how it affects you."

"They all do the same things, they all promise to do the same things."

"This time I felt there was no distinction, they were all muddled into one and it's not going to work. I don't see the point in having a Government if you also haven't got a reasonable opposition, it just doesn't work. You need that, you need two separate parties and that's what we haven't got now. I didn't vote this time because the parties all seemed the same."

And this from study by Jack Doppelt and Ellen Shearer, associate professors at Northwestern University's School of Journalism:

"Nonvoters as well as now-and-then voters see politicians as almost a separate class, who say what they think voters want to hear in language that's not straightforward and whose sole mission is winning. Across groups, participants in our 2001 focus groups mentioned that candidates spend a lot of time putting one another down. . . . A young nonvoter said, simply, 'I think they should spend less time bashing the other person and more time telling how it is, what their views are, and how they are going to. . . change the country.'

"In the focus groups, the role of candidates' advisers particularly was criticized as intrusive and manipulative. . . Politicians are 'like a package,' or a 'super package,' according to two female nonvoters. 'You feel like you're just hearing that script over and over and you know it's not coming from them, it's coming from their script writer and so it turns a lot of people off.'"

A review of Doppelt and Shearer's work notes that "In the 1996 elections, 73% of nonvoters were 18 to 44 years old. 39% were under age 30. 48% make less than $30,000 per year. 30% identified themselves as minorities."

And the study also found that 52% agreed with the statement: "The federal government often does a better job than people give it credit for." 83% of nonvoters thought the government should have a major policy role in the realms of healthcare, housing, and education.

While a follow-up study in 2000 found that nonvoters divided pretty much the same way as voters on the presidency, the fact that they didn't do anything about it was more telling. Besides, we're talking about a huge number of people. If those of voting age had simply turned out in the last election in the same proportion as they had in 1960, there would have been 24 million more voters, nearly 25% more cast ballots. That's a lot of people looking for some difference between the candidates and some new directions.

The party, increasingly controlled by lobbyists and big contributors and increasingly corrupt, no longer exudes its old atmosphere of a circus filled with tigers, trapeze artists, clowns, and grotesque figures, an implicit sign that anyone could be a Democrat. It now looks and feels like C-SPAN; its policies opaque, its candidates dull, and its range of interests ever narrower, its hospitality lacking.

In short, history joins common sense in arguing that if the Democratic Party were to return to a broad based politics based on the improvement of the economic, educational, and social conditions of average Americans it might once again become the dominant force in this country. Certainly, following the alternative urged by the Vichy Democrats has been a disaster.