By John H. Bunzel
In light of widespread Republican vulnerabilities (e.g., President Bush’s low approval ratings, the war in Iraq, voters viewing the country headed in the
wrong direction, etc.), Democrats now feel they can make significant gains in the House and Senate in this year’s midterm elections and in laying the groundwork
for winning the White House two years from now.
But the political scene is extremely changeable, which is why electoral success for the Democrats will require more than bashing Bush. For Democrats who
know that the not-so-secret of winning elections is to give voters what they want, they will have to confront some stubborn realities, beginning with the
fact that America in important respects remains a moderate to conservative country. As many polls have reported, only about 15 percent of all voters said
they would vote for a liberal Democrat for president. Even among self-identified Democrats, only 27 percent say they are liberals.
These same polls also show that far more voters support Democrats rather than Republicans on issues such as education, rising health costs, social security
– the list is long. But a major issue that has hurt Democrats with voters is their perceived hostility to the “`culture of the deeply religious.’’
In the past two presidential elections, they failed to understand how often their concern over economic and class-based inequalities was trumped by moral
values issues, among the most important of which is religion. This issue has spurred a realignment of voters that has seen churchgoers and those who are
“faith-friendly’’ favor Republicans, while the non-religious or irreligious (a much smaller number) favor the Democrats.
Some new political research by pollsters Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger (reported in greater detail in the February 2006 issue of the American Prospect)
shows how voters of both parties “have developed an increasingly moralistic politics as a reaction to the new cultural order,’’ and how frequently, in
the 2000 and 2004 elections, the Democrats’ concentration on economic-related matters left them “almost irrelevant in terms of electoral politics at the
Voters, they found, regarded traditional economic issues “as having little to do with them, being mainly manifested in costly government social programs
or political alliances with labor unions and minorities.’’
Nordhaus and Shellenberger do not claim that economic concerns do not matter. The hope for the Democrats, they assert, is in recognizing the interrelationship
of culture, the economy and politics, and that the party’s inattentiveness to cultural issues left too many Democratic voters with “absolutely no sense’’
that the Democrats were talking to them.
The 2005 electoral success story of Democrat Tom Kaine’s election as governor of heavily Republican Virginia should signal to party officials the importance
of a values-based campaign. A devout Catholic who opposes the death penalty as a matter of deep religious conviction, Kaine proved that Democrats can talk
about values and their faith and convince voters that they share common goals about the direction of the country. People appreciated, Kaine said, “that
I have a moral yardstick, even if they don’t have the same one.’’
Let me put this in more personal terms. I am not a believer in a divine presence. Nor do I locate moral authority in a transcendent source such as the Bible.
But I strongly believe that the Democrats, if they want to become the majority party again, cannot ignore the changing role of religion in our political
life today. As elections expert Michael Barone has noted, “Americans increasingly vote as they pray, or don’t pray.’’
Furthermore, a 2002 survey revealed that 87 percent said religion is important to them. Millions of Democrats may dislike the Pat Robertsons, Jerry Falwells
and others on the religious right, but they don’t dislike religion.
One can argue whether polarization truly describes the state of the American electorate, or is confined mainly to the political elites and members of Congress.
But there is considerable agreement that the issues that have increasingly divided Americans — in ways that matter politically, especially in recent presidential
races — are moral values issues.
This has proved difficult for many Democratic Party leaders to accept — for example, the most leftist activists in the organizations that control the party
(in particular, in presidential primaries) and who dominate its fundraising.
As social analyst John DiIulio has observed, they keep trying “to sell culturally moderate-to-conservative working-class people,’’ who think of themselves
as middle class and want a better life for their children, “on hating the rich Republicans.’’ It’s an appeal, he notes, that in 2004 failed to win the
Democrats Ohio, which had lost 200,000 jobs since Bush became president.
Democrats need never abandon their commitment to the “forgotten majority.’’ But they also need to figure out, as Kaine did, “how to talk culture’’ to
shore up support among voters in the “vital center.’’
JOHN H. BUNZEL is a past president of San Jose State University, a former member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and a political scientist and senior
research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.