A column in The Washington Note (Steve Clemons) has attracted a lot of conversation. It’s titled “America: F**k Yeah!” The line, from the movie Team America: World Police, is portrayed as a favorite of those who subscribe to
“a kind of pugnacious nationalism that has taken hold of the American personality. . . .[W]hat Walter Russell Mead has called the Jacksonian American. These Jacksonians believe in a core set of values — apple pie, NASCAR, church, hard work, family values, gay and lesbian stuff hidden from sight. They believe in the country and aren’t bent on notions of empire. In fact, they hate our involvement in Iraq or other global problems but believe that America is the only nation that can set the world straight. According to them, we Americans don’t want to be a global cop — but if we have to, we will — and we are going to do it our way, damn it.”
It seems to me that most of the thought leaders in each party are missing the boat when it comes to these folks. There are exceptions: The Decembrist (Mark Schmitt) is a standout. But, read through the comments and postings across much of the Internet and you will see Democrats saying we need someone with a “better message” while the Republicans say the election proves that these Americans are “culturally conservative.”
Here is what I take away from the Jacksonians: these Americans, like most of us, just don’t put up with things they think are bulls**t.
The genius of the Bush campaign was the impression it created of Kerry: a windbag. The Bush campaign made Kerry seem like a waste of time. In this sense, the conventional wisdom that Senator Kerry “won” the debates is off base. Kerry lost, big time, because Bush seemed like a person, while Kerry seemed like a senator running for President. Every time he addressed specific points, he lost more ground. “I have a plan,” he said. No one really wanted to hear a plan. He should have said, “I have a dream.” The newly-maligned Edwards did far better in this respect against the gray Cheney.
Introspection is perhaps the last thing the Democratic Party needs right now. Instead, it ought to take a crash course in ordinary America. This isn’t out in the heartland. Ordinary folks are everywhere, even in blue-blue New York City and Boston. The “progressive” commentariat ought to humbly study them, not through polls and focus groups but through experience. It needs to take off its thinking caps, and go hang out at malls. Shop at Wal*Mart, not Macy’s. Cancel the subscriptions to the New York Times and to the Atlantic Monthly, and pick up a copy or five of USA Today. Quit listening to NPR. Eat dinner with the family at McDonald’s. Don’t go to Starbuck’s.
Can this must be done without condescension? Yes. Bill Clinton famously preferred fast food counters to swanky joints. John Edwards celebrates his wedding anniversary at Wendy’s. But maybe it’s too soon to expect this from everyone. People are still smarting.
Still, I worry if the time will ever come when the Democratic party takes such folks to heart. Ordinary America must feel like the child of some successful politicians do: the parent is off Saving The World but barely even seems to know, much less like, the kids back home. How many strategy leaders in the Democratic Party can say that they have a real attachment to middle America, enough so that they actually enjoy spending time there? And how many only like middle America in theory, from the comfort of learned journals?
Yes, the Democratic “message” is off, and that party needs to get a new one. But, judging not only by the post election commentary but also by all that was said running up to November 2, it looks like the sympathies are off as well.
There is a palpable divide between the Democratic Party leadership and the very people it purports to embrace. They just don’t seem to like those folks. And so, they believe the problem is that the other side has a better message, or campaigned more effectively.
This sells politics very, very short. It’s a far nobler pursuit than the message gurus and campaign technicians would have us believe. Politics is, after all, about how we will live together, not how we will attain power.
Today is the first day of the rest of the life of the Democratic Party. What will it spend this day doing?