In 1980 (and again in 1984), Ronald Reagan won in significant part because traditionally Democratic voters abandoned their party to vote for him. Those same “Reagan Democrats” have shown up frequently in the news today. Indeed, McCain is specifically targeting those same people and demographics. US News & World Report explained back in May:
As the Democrats struggle to select their nominee, John McCain is quietly finalizing his fall strategy. One of his goals will be to attract white working-class and culturally conservative Democrats who supported Ronald Reagan and now have their doubts about the Democratic presidential candidates, especially Barack Obama. This trend was particularly clear in the May 13 primary in West Virginia, where Obama did poorly among such voters. “The Reagan Democrats are in play more than they’ve been in a long time,” says Frank Donatelli, a senior official at the Republican National Committee and former White House political director for Reagan.
I have my doubts, though, about McCain being able to replicate precisely the same Reagan Democrat trend that occurred in the 1980s. Don’t get me wrong — I think this is another election that will see renegade Democrats tilt the balance in favor of the Republican candidate (color me hopeful). I just don’t think it will play out on precisely the same lines as before.
For one thing, back in 1980, the Democrat in question had a record on which to run and, boy, was it a depressing one. Carter’s ineffectual waffling almost certainly aided the Shah of Iran’s downfall, and his manifest weakness when it came to the situation in Iran was a green light for the Revolutionaries to seize American hostages and to lord that fact over the former super power of the world. Old-time northern Democrats may have liked their unions, but they liked American strength and security even more, and they weren’t about to put their faith in this pathetic American leader a second time.
The economy also suffered mightily under Carter’s tender economic ministrations, which relied heavily on high taxes and high government spending. Even long-time Democrats who believed in an expanded and strong central government could see that this approach wasn’t working.
Carter was also so damn equivocal. He seemed to have no fixed principles whatsoever. A friend of mine once tried to explain his waffling away by saying that Carter was an engineer and that he constantly recalculated things every time a new piece of data came along, thereby rendering himself completely ineffectual. That explanation sounded plausible back then, but I’ve come to believe that, in fact, Carter actually doesn’t now and didn’t then have any fixed principles. Be that as it may, Ronald Reagan, with his cheerful personality and his strong moral and political beliefs, was a welcome antidote to the vacillating, weak, grim boob occupying the White House.
Obama, unlike Carter, has virtually no record whatsoever on which to run — and this means virtually no highly visible political record that is repugnant to voters. It’s only by the most diligent digging that people who care have managed to find out information about his politics. And the sorry fact is that too many people don’t care. We who peruse blogs believe that all other Americans share our heightened interest in politics.
I suspect that the opposite is true. Most people are headline readers: They might scan Drudge, but their news major intake may be limited to reading the cover and back page of Time Magazine while waiting in the checkout stand at the grocery store. And, perhaps, they watch the first 5 or 10 minutes of the nightly news. If those are indeed their sole news sources, they keep hearing that Obama is fresh, that he’s brilliant, that he’ll change things — and since things don’t seem so hot right now, and since Bush is not an overwhelmingly popular President — change can only be for the better.
It is true that people are beginning to figure out that all is not as it seems in Obama-land. He’s pompous, he’s egotistical, his affiliations range from the silly to the scary, he’s ill-informed, he is an unprincipled vacillater, he’s hostile to many traditional American values, his politics come from the far Left end of the political spectrum, he misspeaks with almost unusual frequency, etc. But again, that news is only slowly trickling into the awareness of the average voter, especially since the mainstream media is assiduously working overtime to protect Americans from Obama’s less savory and flattering aspects.
All of the above is McCain’s first problem in courting conservative Democrats: Obama is a cipher and, while that’s not good, it’s better than being one of the worst Presidents ever. In other words, Reagan got lucky that he was running against Carter.
The second problem, and one that I think is even more serious than the first, is the fact that, in many communities, conservatives have been run underground in a way that was inconceivable even in the politically polarized 60s and 70s. Those decades were still transitional periods, during which traditional values, which still held sway in such cultural markers as the media and schools, were being given a good run for the money by the new Leftists, and were also starting to appear in the media and in schools. This meant that a lot of the old time Democrats were rethinking their political allegiance in the face of new Democratic politics that, increasingly, had little to do with FDR’s New Deal, and a lot more with Moscow’s old deal. There was, therefore, a great deal of fluidity that we don’t have now. This fluidity meant that there was room for open public debate within people’s own communities. This flux and freedom allowed for political movement.
Things are different now. Conservatives slink around, afraid of public attacks and social isolation (something I’ve blogged about here and here). In Hollywood, which has the most visible, vocal liberal community in America, departing from the prevailing liberal orthodoxy can spell career death. (See here, here and here for articles spelling out what’s going on in Hollywood.) Liberals speak with increasing frequency of prosecuting political speech with which they disagree, and have resorted to thuggish tactics to suppress donations to conservative causes. If you’re reading this, I probably don’t have to remind you of the way in which conservative speakers are either barred entirely from America’s campuses or are harassed and attacked. This is not a fluid time politically. It’s one that is very fixed.
What all of this means is that people who have historically self-identified as liberal, and who live and work in liberal communities, are very isolated. They don’t feel as if they’re part of a movement. The younger ones are especially hampered by a culturally dominant belief that Republicans are hate-filled old fogies who want to suck money away from poor people in America and who keep KKK hoods hidden in the back of their closets.
The problem, then, in true Blue Communities is to give conservatives positive visibility. In this way, the ones who waver can look around and think, “Hey, I didn’t realize What’s His Name was also thinking of voting for McCain. We ought to get together and talk.” There’s really a heady rush that goes along with discovering that you’re not alone, especially if you’ve made a rather painful journey from one end of the political spectrum to another.
I discovered I wasn’t alone in Marin when I bravely journeyed out to my first Marin for McCain meeting. I learned at this meeting that at least half the people there were former Democrats and that, of those, half of them are scared to let anyone know about their political transformation. Significant parts of the organizational meetings, therefore, are given over to brainstorming ways to convince Marin’s shy neo-cons (or anti-Obamites) that it’s okay to be a conservative. I wanted to share with you some of the thinking outside of the box that goes on at these meetings as we work to break through the monolithic liberal attitude that pervades Marin, and other Blue communities.
My favorite suggestion, and one that I think will play well all over America, is to co-opt the concept of Flash Mobbing. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, here’s the Wikipedia definition: “A flash mob is a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual action for a brief time, then quickly disperse.” The idea is a good one right off the bat since the flash mob concept is closely tied to emails and text messaging — it therefore has a young feel to it.
A conservative flash mob could work this way: Politically active conservatives would agree to show up at some agreed-upon location (a mall or a farmer’s market) wearing their McCain t-shirts. There’s wouldn’t be anything threatening about these appearances. That is, the conservatives wouldn’t group together or do cheers. Instead, they’d just be there, at the mall or the farmer’s market, in their McCain shirts, showing local residents that McCain voters actually exist. Someone would then take photos of these McCainiacs wandering through the mall or mulling over the fresh fruits and vegetables, and send these photos to a website — providing further proof that conservatives exist in Blue regions. For the conservatives who show up, there would be a wonderful feeling of camaraderie. And for those who hear about it and see the pictures, there would suddenly be a visible reminder that they are not alone.
Other ideas for enabling conservative Democrats to become McCain Democrats include using bloggers like me, with stories of breaking away from the computer and working for the McCain campaign; making the McCain headquarters a welcoming place for police and firefighters by offering food, drink and toilet facilities for them; finding local conservative musicians (they do exist), to liven up the campaign headquarters; taking out silly ads in local newspapers (with the latest idea for our dog crazy community being an ad showing dogs in McCain way); and handing out free M&Ms to remind people that Marin is for McCain.
As I said near the start of this post, I believe quite strongly that, as the election draws near, more and more people will be become frightened of Obama and back away from him. (Or if Hillary comes back, enough people are already frightened of her to render that avoidance prophecy true.) The challenge is to get these frightened people to take an affirmative step. They shouldn’t just avoid voting for Obama; they must vote for McCain. And its our job in the coming months to make that, for them, very big step, as easy and fun as possible.
Cross-posted at Bookwormroom.