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The Real Trouble With Kansas

It's not the economy, stupid

By Samuel M. Simon

Since Black Tuesday (Election Day) shattered my belief in America, I have spent a considerable amount of time talking to Harvard’s liberals and trying to answer that age old question of political losers and confused mountaineers: where do we go from here? I have heard any number of responses, from “Canada” to “the South, with a gun,” but almost everybody I have spoken with agrees on one thing: Americans rejected John Kerry because they were duped. Republicans convinced Average Americans that they represented Real American Values and tricked the country into voting against its “Economic Self Interest.”

Thomas Frank’s recentbook, What’s the Matter with Kansas, starts with a startling fact: America’s poorest county went roughly 80 percent for George W. Bush in 2000. Of course, like any shocking statistic, this one is somewhat misleading. First of all, it doesn’t imply that the Democrats aren’t the party of the poor. The rich generally voted for that guy who gave them the big tax cut, while the poor turned out to oppose the schmuck who cut all their social services. George W. Bush may be dismantling the New Deal, but the political landscape that FDR created remains in place.

But Frank’s thesis shouldn’t be so shocking. Liberal Crimsonites who want Rural Americans to vote their “Economic Self Interest” are imposing values on the rest of the country. And they’re not even our values. I’m not a Democrat because it’s good for the bottom line. I’m a Democrat because I have a vision of a more just America. I’m a Democrat, in short, because of my moral values.

When liberals see poor people voting Republican, we naturally assume that they’re being duped. We act as if all we need to do is educate these sad saps and they’ll switch sides. It doesn’t even occur to us that they are doing exactly what we are doing: they’re voting their moral vision, not their economic interests. Poor people who vote for George W. Bush because he’s going to “stop the murder of all those unborn children” may be wrong, but they’re not wrong because Bush is cutting their welfare check or undermining their 401(k). If they’re wrong, they’re wrong because their moral vision is wrong, not because that vision is the basis of their politics.

Liberals who want to insert more “Economic Self Interest” into rural America might point out that many Bush voters don’t know how bad their President is for their bottom line. But if they don’t know, it may be because they don’t care. I haven’t been able to find a breakdown of political knowledge by political priorities, but I’ll bet you that those people who think Bush loves poor people aren’t the ones who vote based on the economy. If you think abortion is mass murder and only George W. Bush will put an end to it, you don’t really have to know his tax plan.

At first glance, a moral America is bad for Democrats. If Americans voted their pocketbooks, Democrats would win every time. Kerry’s tax plan was better for 98 percent of Americans. It’s not tough to convince people that they’ll benefit under the Kerry plan. Anybody with the Internet can do that. That’s why Democrats focus on economic issues: they’re easy. What’s tough is convincing people that civil liberties, equal rights and support for the poor are all moral values.

To find out how to perform this difficult but necessary task, I called Democratic pol Steve Grossman, who seemed to be on board. He was ready to get the moral message to the people, and he had just the tool: The Holy Bible. After a few verses from Isaiah, I was ready to vomit.

His Bible-quoting wasn’t pandering. Grossman’s belief is clearly real, and his words were both touching and interesting. But the problem is that the Democrats aren’t, and shouldn’t be, the Party of The Book. We don’t have to alienate non-believers to speak a moral language. Helping the poor and the oppressed is right even if the Bible didn’t say so. Only 8 percent of Americans want a President with religious values. Americans want morality, but they don’t need religion from their political leaders. Even if we could convince religious Americans that Democratic Bible-thumping isn’t a cynical attempt to win votes, we would be doing a disservice to the country. If America is going to welcome everybody, we can’t have our politicians acting like religion is the only reason to do good.

The trouble with Kansas isn’t that it votes against its economic self-interest, it’s that it has a different moral vision. If we want to win back Kansas, we can’t just change the subject to the economy or adopt the religious rhetoric of the Republicans. We can’t ask them to vote their pocketbook while we vote our values. Democrats in every community in the country need to be talking about why we believe what we believe, because it’s not just about money for us. It’s about right and wrong, compassion and hatred, charity and selfishness. Kansas doesn’t have a problem because they talk about their moral vision; the Democratic Party has a problem because it doesn’t. It may not be easy to convince the country that our vision is better, but it’s the only way we’ll win.

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

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