Hope for the Democrats: How-To for the Hustings

You feel lost, confused, alone in the world. Everything you do ends in failure. No one listens to your ideas, respects your feelings or recognizes all that you have to give. You’re filled with resentment and anger. Your hopelessness borders on despair. You don’t know what to do, where to turn.

You’re a Democrat, obviously. But don’t worry: The solution to your problem is only as far away as the nearest bookstore. Political self-help books—lots of them—are here to save the day.

Like the socially awkward, the financially inept and the romantically distraught, frustrated Democrats are looking for guidance and answers, and the market demand they represent is significant enough to induce political theorists to publish at a steady pace. If you’ve ever offered up a cocktail-party disquisition on “what the Democrats need to do,” some pundit has beaten you to it. Every notion has its own book—and chances are the font size won’t hurt your eyes.

The mass-market appeal of the political-strategy book is a relatively recent phenomenon, and the Democrats’ disenfranchisement is the event that made their flourishing possible. For most of American history, political parties were brands that were closed-off and corporate in nature. Average citizens through the 19th century and most of the 20th could be fiercely partisan, but their relationship to their party was not unlike that of a devoted consumer to a beloved product. Political preferences could reflect hopes for the future and deeply held values (like that hybrid car you’re so proud of), but because most people didn’t participate in choosing their party’s candidates, the only influence they could exert over its direction came in the marketplace of the ballot box: If you wanted to reform the Democrats, Republicans or Whigs, you had to stop buying what they were selling until they got the message.

It’s not a coincidence that the “Me” Generation made both self-help and the broad adoption of binding primaries possible. Self-help reduced everything in American life to the intensely personal, and politics were no different. After 1968, primaries shifted the responsibility for selecting party nominees from political bosses to individual voters—kind of. Party officials can still exclude undesirable candidates by denying access to financial contributors and, in Presidential primaries, most of the country must defer to the collective wisdom of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. However, even when the primary system falls short of pure democracy, it makes the average voter feel complicit in the direction and ultimate fate of their party. Talk to Democrats about John Kerry’s defeat in 2004, and they respond like their kid just got beat up at school—with a mix of protectiveness, anger and shame.

Once party politics became a participatory sport, it was only a matter of time before its attendant anxieties, setbacks and hopes found their ideal expression in the fusion of political-strategy memo and self-help remedy: The 12-step plan for electoral success was born.

The self-help movement is a peculiarly American one that grafts onto politics with surprising ease. It’s deeply rooted in our historical understanding of the individual unbound by, well, history actually. Contemporary European thought begins with the assumption that the individual is shaped by economic, social, cultural and historical forces beyond his control. This notion of a largely predetermined fate is foreign to most Americans reared on optimism and possibilities (and it also makes for lousy self-help books: A title like Who Moved My Cheese? Your Parents’ Educational Background and the Erosion of Manufacturing Jobs Due to Globalization—Live With It! would never scale the charts).

Self-determination is our most essential myth, and the one at the center of most advice books for Democrats. For strategists seeking to rescue their party from irrelevance, there are, not surprisingly, no demographic trends or social forces conspiring against their plans for victory. Nothing, in short, for Democrats to blame but themselves—which only seems dispiriting until, like most pop psychology, it leads to some quickly achieved self-improvement. Mirroring self-help’s belief in boundless human potential, these books share an almost unhinged optimism about the Democratic Party’s prospects.

The authors also share a yearning to transcend the blue state–red state divisiveness, which has risen in direct proportion to the Democrats’ fall from power. The divide has been exploited by the Republicans, who, despite long being the party of big business, have managed to cast themselves as defenders of the heartland and Democrats as elitist and out-of-touch. “Common man” snobbery is the only kind still fashionable in American political life and, in an effort to shore up their bona fides among the “silent majority,” Democrats have accepted the conceit. The recent recipes for a Democratic resurgence, no matter how different, are only ever seasoned with the salt of the earth.

Beyond the fervent sense of possibility and the regular-folk shtick, the other unifying theme is the fierce emotion animating the entire Democratic self-help project. They’re pissed off and ready for a rumble. E.J. Dionne Jr.’s book is entitled Stand Up Fight Back; the subtitle of Foxes in the Henhouse promises to “Run ’em Out”; Robert Reich heralds a “Battle for America”; Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga’s book is called Crashing the Gate; and in Take it Back, James Carville and Paul Begala actually bemoan the Democrats’ failure to be “ruthless” instead of simply “toothless.”

The rage is real, but it’s employed primarily as a motivational tool, a means to the varying self-help ends the authors are seeking to promote. They’re fed up and not going to take it anymore. Are you?

And are you ready to begin that journey toward a better you? Are you ready to change? Really change? If you are, here’s a handy guide to the available political therapies guaranteed to usher in the Democratic restoration and ease your worried progressive mind.

Red States That Hate Democrats, and the Democrats Who Love Them

Ever since the Republicans’ “Southern strategy” captured the loyalties of whites opposed to the Democratic-sponsored civil-rights laws of the 1960’s, Democrats have been mourning the loss of what had historically been a solid base of support (which they won by capturing the loyalties of whites resentful about Republicans winning the Civil War). For most Democratic strategists, any return to political power will require getting back into the good graces of the South and its “kissing cousin,” the rural heartland.

This is the aim of Foxes in the Henhouse, by Steve Jarding and Dave (Mudcat) Saunders, as well as Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics and The Good Fight by Peter Beinart.

Both Messrs. Jarding and Saunders’ book and Mr. Wallis’ offer up the tantalizing notion that Democrats can be successful with culturally conservative voters with a few well-placed affectations or Bible passages.

“Mudcat” Saunders comes armed with the silly nickname and some tough talk—all of which is part of his redneck minstrel act, designed to look “exotic” to Democrats who’ve never been able to get sweet tea in a restaurant before. At one point he writes: “Democrats have to learn that when someone attacks your character with a bazooka, you attack his (or hers) with a nuclear weapon.” In addition to the rhetorical W.M.D.’s, he also recommends sponsoring NASCAR races and pressing the flesh at popular community events in rural areas. In God’s Politics, Mr. Wallis suggests, along similar lines, that Democrats undermine the alliance between Republicans and Christians by couching their favorite liberal appeals in Biblical language.

The idea is that, to win over “heartland” voters, Democrats have to show that they’re conversant in the culture of their target audience: Once a Democratic candidate can pass as “one of us” to red-state voters, those voters will be more receptive to Democratic positions on taxes, health care and the social safety net.

But it’s not so easy to pull off this kind of cultural play-acting. The evangelical tradition that Mr. Wallis comes from is unique among Christians in encouraging the regular expression of religious faith in public life. Mainline Protestants and Catholics, like John Kerry, have tended to see faith as a deeply private experience and are uncomfortable employing it as rhetorical ballast. Mr. Kerry also demonstrated the dangers of “Bubba” pandering with his often-ridiculed exclamation of “Who among us does not love NASCAR?” Richard Petty couldn’t have put it more eloquently—and that’s precisely the problem.

The more politically relevant red-state culture is found in the military, which props up many small-town economies and serves as a litmus test for sufficient levels of patriotism and toughness. In The Good Fight, Peter Beinart presents a persuasive case for a Democratic Party returned to its hawkish post–World War II roots and pre-Vietnam-era credibility in foreign policy, but picks what’s likely to be a losing fight with the party’s influential liberal base: He insists that they “put antitotalitarianism at the center of their hopes for a better country and a better world.” Despite its merits, the argument is becoming less persuasive to Democrats as the “war on terror” increasingly brings to mind the erosion of civil liberties and costly elective quagmires. If the war in Iraq continues to go poorly, the larger American electorate is likely to move with them, which will push Mr. Beinart’s ideas further to the margins of political discourse. Democrats may have lost touch for good with their inner Cold Warrior.

Learn to Love Your Liberal Self

While most of these books obsess over purely political concerns, a passionate subgenre sees the party’s diminished status as a sign of ideological flabbiness. Desperate to attract moderates, Democrats have undergone the political equivalent of way too much plastic surgery, abandoning their unique, compelling features and moving quickly from indistinguishable to ghoulish.

Worse, Republicans have consistently promoted ideological positions well to the right of the electorate, skewing the center in the process. Robert Reich’s Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America faults the Democrats for “their lack of conviction, their spineless shift toward a rightward moving ‘center,’ their weak-kneed incapacity to tell it like it is.”

The failure of the Democratic Party to articulate the relevance of traditional liberal concerns in the current political climate is echoed in both Mr. Dionne’s Stand Up Fight Back and The Return of the “L” Word: A Liberal Vision for the New Century by Douglas S. Massey. These authors begin with the assumption that voters have a certain respect for politicians that diminishes as their ideas and rhetoric are vetted more and more through focus groups. If the case you make is clear and your heart is true, then the majority will overlook stances that, in a weaker candidate, would prove fatal.

The left-wing version of political self-help justifies this position with the same “common man” appeals that animate the other books in the genre. Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America brilliantly catalogs the ways Republicans use targeted populist stances on social issues to win over rural, working-class voters, only to award them with the passage of a corporate-friendly economic agenda.

Most Democrats are trying to reach these same voters with Saunders- and Wallis-style cross-dressing, but Mr. Frank and the other liberal authors sincerely believe that the spirit of (as Mr. Frank puts it) “the old class-based language of the left” can rebuild the party’s credibility with them more effectively than any of the other more calculating, strategic approaches.

It’s as persuasive as any idea that’s failed repeatedly in practice can be. The only Democratic President of the last 26 years championed welfare reform, tactically bashed liberal interest groups and, yes, was a working-class Southerner who knew his Bible and, like Republicans, used its language to impressive political (if not moral) effect.

The conservative governing coalition is also much less ideological than liberals would like to believe. The Republican Party is made up of sometimes-competing interests that are kept together by speaking sotto voce to each—maintaining the base in one pitch and reaching out to moderates with another.

Some tough love: The inconvenient fact is that ideologically pure parties are almost never majority ones. To build a majority requires the kind of political posturing and compromises that look cynical to the true believer.

How to Win Elections and Influence Voters

Some advice books want to do nothing more than flatter Democrats by suggesting that their failures are purely tactical rather than strategic. The party doesn’t need to appropriate Republican poses or rhetoric, and their ideas and vision do not need to be remade. Instead, like a fashion-show contestant, they need to stand up straight, speak clearly and look good while doing it. Nothing could be simpler—in theory. To execute the plan, however, Democrats have to wade through a staggering number of lists and rules.

Take It Back begins with an invocation to be tough and express big ideas, and then quickly sinks into a list of issue-by-issue Democratic Party talking points with built-in counterarguments to each corresponding Republican position. It feels less like a long-term vision for the party and more like paint-by-numbers pragmatism.

Don’t Think of an Elephant, by George Lakoff, analyzes the Republican Party’s success at framing debates by structuring the language and terminology they use. The crude, though not entirely incomplete, version of the argument is that policy becomes more palatable the better it sounds. Republicans turned “tax cuts” into “tax relief,” the “estate tax” into the “death tax,” and a little used medical procedure to end pregnancy called “dilation and extraction” into “partial-birth abortion.” Mr. Lakoff would have the Democrats battling the Republicans in a war of euphemisms, because he fails to see the difference between a compelling vision for the nation’s future and how it’s packaged.

In Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga’s Crashing the Gate, the party’s message will come alive only through a more democratic medium, guided by an organizing force the authors call the “netroots”—destined to usurp power from the party mandarins. (“It is not inconceivable that we might see these online activist numbers grow to twenty to twenty-five million by the end of the decade.”)

Online political activity is still disproportionably made up of liberal activists, but if it does become a more effective organizing tool, conservatives won’t be far behind. In fact, a striking feature of all the advice books that focus on ways to organize and effectively communicate a message is that they’re easily translatable to a myriad of issues that have no grounding in progressive politics. Democrats will walk away from them feeling prepared, but uninspired—and that’s because they’ve been fed function without form.

All of the self-help books for Democrats are deeply flawed. However, if the party makes gains in 2006, which seems likely, and takes back the White House in 2008, a host of strategists will claim the credit. Democrats have mapped out a veritable maze of paths to victory—backtrack along any one of them and you’ll find someone poised to gloat. (Of course, the confluence of gas prices, war and corruption may be creating the kind of historical tide that sweeps people to their fate despite themselves.)

Republicans will have to take stock, look inside and learn to let go: Americans just weren’t that into you.

Jason Moring is a writer living in New York City. Hope for the Democrats: How-To for the Hustings