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Joseph A. Aistrup: What’s the matter with Democrats?

  • Published Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012, at 12 a.m.

Nine swing states – Nevada, Colorado, Florida, Virginia, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin – will determine if President Obama or Mitt Romney will be the next president. Kansas is not one of these swing states. The only question left unanswered here is whether Obama will break the 40 percent mark in Kansas.

Obama’s incapacity to run a competitive race in Kansas reflects the reality that Kansas Democrats are a marginalized minority party. After the votes are counted Tuesday night, the party likely will not control a single congressional seat and will, in all likelihood, control fewer than 25 percent of state Senate and House seats.

Why are Democrats, not just Obama, doomed to lose in Kansas and other states like Kansas?

The Democrats’ responses to this question usually begin with author Thomas Frank’s critique: Republicans have managed to use religion and cultural issues to pull the wool over the eyes of many voters whose economic interests really lie with the Democrats. According to Frank, if the Democrats would reverse the party’s stance on free trade and once again stand tall for unions and other working-class issues, these voters would no longer be distracted by the GOP’s appeals based on abortion, gay marriage and other assorted cultural issues.

Although this argument appeals to many on the left, a number of studies have shown that there is little evidence to support it. So if Frank is wrong, is there another path the Democrats could take?

Ira Chernus, a religious studies professor at University of Colorado, suggests an intriguing possibility. Instead of asking “What’s the matter with Kansas?” he changes the question to “What’s the matter with Democrats?”

Chernus begins by noting that Robert Wuthnow’s book “Red State Religion” underscores that Kansans (which is a metaphor for middle-income white Americans) seek to build communities with “stable social-cultural” foundations. The Democrats’ working-class strategy fails to appeal to Kansans. Our desire for stable social-cultural communities is more complex than simple economic considerations.

Chernus argues that Democrats need to expand their strategy to take advantage of the values that Democrats share with Kansans. After all, Democrats also seek stable social-cultural foundations for communities. The Democratic vision, however, entails valuing all members of our communities, no matter their station in life, marital status, race, creed or sexual orientation.

Chernus recognizes that not all metaphorical Kansans support this more expanded vision of community, but many do. Unless Democrats begin this conversation, Kansas and all places like Kansas will needlessly be a sea of Republican red for many years to come.

Chernus advocates using symbols that most Kansans understand – God and country. He notes that Democrats have ceded these symbols to the Republicans, allowing them to use religion and the flag in an unchallenged manner to promote their conservative 1950s vision of stable communities.

But patriotism, liberal religious values and progressive ideas can walk hand in hand.

If the Democrats can start this conversation with Kansans, Chernus argues that enough Kansans will find their progressive vision more compelling than the conservative vision that now dominates.

Over time, this will enable Democrats to add to their meager base of support in places like Kansas to become more competitive.

Joseph A. Aistrup is a professor of political science at Kansas State University.

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