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Here's to Losing

Democrats must push for progress, even though it's risky

By Samuel M. Simon

As the pain of another lost election begins to subside, Democrats have begun to do what we do best: Monday morning quarterbacking. Everybody has their own theory about what went wrong. Liberals note that Bush successfully painted Kerry as a political opportunist and flip-flopper—a task that was made easier by the candidate’s inability to stand firm on the war in Iraq—while conservatives point to statistics showing that rural voters turned out in droves to vote against a candidate they saw as out of touch with their “moral values.”

What’s gotten lost in the debate over tactics is a question that should be more important: what do we stand for? Consider a hypothetical that may not be too far from the truth. Let’s say rural Bush voters came out to support the President largely because of his stand on “moral values.” (This is what exit polls seem to show.) Let’s say “moral values” is a code for homophobia and opposition to a woman’s right to choose. (It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that “moral values” Republicans aren’t looking at the moral value of providing every child with healthcare.) Finally, let’s assume that rural voters aren’t idiots. They know what they care about (conservative social legislation) and they vote based on that interest. (Some Democrats claim that if we just ignore social issues, rural voters will vote their economic interests. But Kerry could not have talked less about social liberalism, and 20 percent of voters still made their choice based on “moral values.”)

So where does this leave us? The pragmatic solution is to throw gay people out of the party, tell women their rights just became a secondary priority, and go into the heartland with a Bible and a tax plan. And that’s why the pragmatic discussion is so limited. Social liberalism isn’t a campaign strategy we picked up for this election. Democrats believe in equal rights because we are the party of every group that has ever had to fight for respect. We know what it feels like to be second-class citizens, and we have fought and bled for equality for 30 years. We believe in women’s rights because we are the party of women. Democrats are pro-choice because we know what back-alley abortions look like. We can’t forget our heritage just because certain voters don’t like what we stand for. I don’t believe we lost this election because we were too true to our values. But if we lost this election because our belief in the dignity of each human being didn’t mesh with certain voters’ “moral values,” we should pat ourselves on the back. I hate losing, but if the cost of victory in this election would have been cowardice, I’m glad we didn’t pay that price.

Most of the people I’ve spoken to since Nov. 2 don’t say we need to jettison core values to win rural America. The problem, they say, is not substance, but tone. Democrats, they say, are arrogant. But I think it’s a little disrespectful to suggest that rural Americans voted for Bush because Democrats sounded snobby. Rural Americans aren’t angry because Democrats support equal rights with a certain tone. They’re angry because we support equal rights. And even if our nominee runs away from social liberalism, rural voters know what the Democratic Party represents. It is insulting to rural voters to suggest that this very real disagreement will go away if Democrats just change their tone. This is not to say that Democrats shouldn’t change their tone to appeal to rural voters. I just don’t believe that it will work.

In the short run, we may have to look elsewhere for votes. A larger and larger portion of single women have been voting, and this group is overwhelmingly Democratic. More importantly, we can win their votes with strong positions on healthcare, childcare, and choice. We don’t need to sell our souls for their votes.

In the long run, we need to have a real conversation in this country about gay rights, women’s rights and whether or not we want one group’s intolerant moral code to govern the nation. We can only have this discussion if Democrats have the guts to take strong stands on these issues and bring the rest of the country to us. We need to have enough respect for rural America’s intelligence to engage them in discussion, rather than changing the subject every time “moral values” comes up.

In the 1960s, conservatives warned that if the Democratic Party took a stand on civil rights, we would lose the solidly Democratic South. Our stand was neither as strong nor as forthcoming as it should have been, but today we are the party of civil rights, and we have lost the “Solid South.” But because we were willing to stand up, this nation had a discussion that has moved the country forward and is still moving the country forward today. If we stand up for what we believe, we may lose some of rural America—at least for a while—but we will start to move America forward, and we will ensure that there is still a voice for human dignity in this country. I hope the price of standing up isn’t losing at the polls. But if it is, the test of our value as a party is our ability to lose.

Samuel M. Simon ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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