Nicholas Kristof in the NYTimes today makes the argument that “the Democratic Party’s first priority should be to reconnect with the American heartland”. He continues later by saying that “One of the Republican Party’s major successes over the last few decades has been to persuade many of the working poor to vote for tax breaks for billionaires.” Precisely. I am always shocked when I have conversations with people – doesn’t happen too often, but I try to do it when possible – who are clearly hurting the most by Bush’s politics, but who are nonetheless avid supporters.
Kristof goes on to address the issue of religion and politics in particular.
To appeal to middle America, Democratic leaders don’t need to carry guns to church services and shoot grizzlies on the way. But a starting point would be to shed their inhibitions about talking about faith, and to work more with religious groups.”
This is a point Amy Sullivan has been making throughout the year (and earlier). She has written tirelessly and convincingly about it numerous times in several venues.
Religion is the third rail of Democratic Party politics. Seasoned political operatives who can soberly discuss the details of human rights atrocities or abortion procedures start twitching when the issue of religion enters the conversation. Congressional aides who maneuver through the world of Medicare regulations or appropriations with ease become stymied by references to faith. And hustings veterans who would never dream of running a campaign without targeting racial minorities and union members look askance when asked about outreach to religious communities.
Many Democrats are religious. More than one-half of Democratic voters attend church more than once a month. But until professional Democrats get over their aversion to all things religious, they will continue to suffer the political consequences.
Personally, I would prefer that religion was a more private affair. But one need not spend too much time in the United States to understand that religion is an incredibly important component of most people’s lives, and not such a private one for many. So it is not surprising that one ignores it at one’s peril.
If the U.S. had a parliamentary multi-party system where one could choose representatives closer aligned to one’s views then a party may be able to afford to put religion aside. In Hungary, the only place I can vote, I have always favored a particular liberal party. It never comes even close to a majority vote partly because it is viewed as the party of the intellectual liberal elite (a perception, Kristof argues, the Democratic Party seems to have among many). But a vote for that party closely aligned with my views does not mean a vote completely lost, because it can still have parliamentary seats and create alliances with other parties that represent similar views. And if part of the majority alliance, it can even have representatives in the top positions. But it is only affordable to take such nuanced points-of-view, because supporters of those nuanced positions can still be represented. That is not how politics works in the U.S.. And, hopefully, most of us who would prefer to keep religion out of politics recognize that. Although it may frustrate me that religion is so central in American political discourse, I would still rather have it be part of the discourse than watch people vote for a president who will clearly not represent their interests.
On a final note, one frustration as a social scientist interested in questions of culture and religion, is that there is very little funding available for research in these areas. Given the kind of importance cultural values and religious beliefs seem to play in people’s everyday lives, I find it quite disappointing and disturbing.