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Post-Election Thoughts

I know a lot of people won't believe this, especially in light of my endorsement, but today wasn't as happy for me as you might expect. That's not just because I woke up with a splitting headache from a ridiculous hangover. (Note: Electoral college does not imply electoral fraternity does not imply electoral drinking game. And betting against Bush for Florida did me no favors.) A victory I didn't care much about has come at the expense of a lot of folks who did care very deeply, and that's been tough to watch.

The blogosphere has been awash with people cursing the outcome. (I'm sure that's just a fraction of the links most people could manage. I've been avoiding blogs all day, mostly due to work pressures, but also because I didn't want to read it yet.) I watched the results last night in a heavily Democratic room, and felt the mood ebb. And at the end, why in the hell did it have to come down to Ohio?

Sure, the results provide me with a bit of justification. The more or less common story is that conservative Christians turned out to vote for amendments against gay marriage, the direct result of the kritarchy of Massachusetts. I can't argue with the result: as I've said, I'm not that worried about gay marriage, but this will act as a deterrent to the next round of social change that someone wants to push through courts instead of legislatures. (I'm glad I wasn't blogging today: Waddling Thunder got to make the argument before me, and he's made it very well.)

But not Ohio. In my heart of hearts, I really wanted Ohio to be the exception. Because whatever else, I knew that people I cared for were going to Ohio. I knew that Chris had been working his guts out for his cause there. And I knew that if it came out against him, he'd be cruelly disappointed. OK, that's not a rational reason to back one outcome over the other--there are a million other activists in other states who will be just as devastated, and had the decision gone otherwise there would have been enraged Republicans--but sometimes the hopes one has for the future just aren't rational. I didn't want Ohio to pass its proposition, I hoped Pennsylvania would go red so Ohio could go blue, and I really didn't want it to be the last state.

Anyway, there's a Bush presidency, a fair amount of Republican triumphalism and a lot of Democratic angst. And pundits everywhere are looking for the "lessons of the election," which seems such a doomed effort that I'm sorely tempted to try it. If I had to give my Democratic colleagues some advice for 2008, it would come down to two ideas.

First, divorce the lawyers from the Democratic Party. The backlash against gay marriage really is the smaller part of the issue. The larger part is that so much of the intellectual (and financial) support for the Democrats come from a group of people that are very bad at convincing other Americans.

I know, that's fairly provocative (although hardly original). After all, we legal types are supposed to be trained to argue, right? And we are. But we're trained to argue in a very specific way, for a very specific audience--mostly for judges. We cocoon ourselves in a profession with exclusive rules and complex norms which cut us off from the "lay" masses. And in the end, this is simply not conducive to connecting with people outside that world: on one level, we're too used to arguing within a web of preconceived assumptions about "rights" and "process," and have a hard time stepping out of that and engaging.

The thought occurred to me today as I was practicing for a presentation of a more technical than legal nature. One thing I've noticed about law reviews and the legal world is an almost allergic aversion to diagrams or Powerpoint, but here I was putting together a maze of arrows to represent information flows. And as I was dry-running the speech, I felt my brain click: I was relaxed, effusive, in-the-zone with my audience, trying to tell them why a system would make their life easier. For the first time in ages, I was outside the assumptions, not "thinking like a lawyer."

Don't get me wrong: I love the law, and I'm looking forward to my professional career. But it is a mindset, and I wonder the extent of the effect it's had on the Democratic Party.

Second, the Democrat's big "quick win" would be to learn a language of religion. There are many voters who vote with their hearts and their souls rather than their pocketbooks, but in many quarters this is seen as something fantastic. Take, for instance, David Usborne, a writer for the UK-based Independent, quoted by Irishlaw:

Voters, especially those in the heartland states, took moral values as their core standard in deciding which candidate to support. Indeed, this may emerge as the most surprising finding to emerge from this presidential race.

As IL points out, it's not surprising if you know the voters in question, people of a deeply-held religious faith. The problem is that many--though by no means all--elements of the left trivialize that. From stunningly poor arguments posing as jokes to invocations of the "Texas Taliban", there is a strong strain of the Democratic Party that is simply not interested in engaging evangelicals and providing a good home for them. And this strain is by no means a silent minority of the party. Think of how Hollywood treats religion in movies. Even if you think that's a fair and accurate portrayal, here's a hint to the next Democratic Clinton: your moment comes when you strike out loud and hard at the next clone of Saved.

Too much of the left now thinks of religion as some form of irrational fiction, that anyone hooked on the Left Behind series must be unworthy of, or incapable of, reasoning with. But each and every one of them has a vote, and in this election they were provoked and used it. Kerry's position--that he was against gay marriage, but would leave it to the states--was untenable so long as the bulk of his supporters were campaigning against DMA, where "leaving it to the states" meant "leaving it to state judges." This was not a convincing argument to someone who did care about the issue.

That doesn't mean, as one Democrat on the radio said today, that they'd be best off nominating a President who doesn't support gay marriage or abortion. There are good religious arguments for same-sex marriage that have been made, and with some force. They're not, however, silly lists from Leviticus or pointing out that Jesus never speaks against gay marriage directly. They' complex, well-reasoned, and speak within the language of faith. Most importantly, they're generally made by individuals of stong and persuasive faith themselves. It takes much more courage to embrace--not "nuance"--a contrarian position within a church than outside it.

It certainly takes more courage than the standard Kerry line of "Whatever my religious belief, it shouldn't be our nation's." That the argument makes sense to secularists does not make it a particularly useful line to woo the section of the electorate that is not secular.

Instead, "learn the language." Learn what someone of faith cares about and how to argue within that sphere. (It's not unlike learning to "think like a lawyer.") And then come out full-bore for homosexual marriage with arguments that treat religion as a source of authority and a driving factor in why such marriage must be recognized, not as an obstacle to be overcome before one gets to the secular reasoning. People resent being considered obstacles. And when naysayers complain this tactic won't work, just point out that it only has to work a very little on the margins: much as Republicans win if we can crack a fraction of the African-American vote, Democrats can make great gains quite quickly here.

I'm not sure how seriously he meant it, but the most poignant Democratic statement I read today came from Brian Leiter, who said, "I do not know the country in which I live." That statement shouldn't be an indictment of the nation, but an exhortation to learn about it.

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» Not So Cool Thing About NYC, Post Election Edition from Half the Sins of Mankind
I don't think this has to be explicitly religious language, as Tony Rickey counsels. [Read More]

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Comments

Well, as you can imagine it's been a grim couple of days around the office here. Personally though I was encouraged by the high turnout - at least people feel they have a stake in the process. I was encouraged by Barack Obama's acceptance speech, if I ever move to America I'll be OK in Chicago. Of course Bush's victory bothers me on many levels. From the coming razing of Falujah to the much further off and even more important raising of the oceans. I think a Bush presidency will see the US economy underperform - costing us all money. What struck me though is this notion of the US as a country. It's two countries with massive differences between the edges and the middle. And, as has been noted it votes increasingly on racial and religious lines. I agree that the Democrats need to learn to speak to those in the middle in a way they understand, but I'm not with you on the whole analysis. I think they speak just fine to the Black churches and the Jews. I think they make a lot of sense to certain types of faith. But the born again christian community remains the one they can't or don't reach. So I'd suggest that the problem is not with all religion, but with one specific religion, although I'd agree that success here offers a quick win. However the point is not about winning and losing. Politics is about principle and that means you have to make appeals to those you disagree with in a way that finds common ground, common cause and agreement. The fault lines in America run very deep these days, and neither side crosses them well. Still, you've got what you wanted and as my old headmaster used to say before exams - I'm sure you'll get what you deserve.
I really enjoyed the post, I'm not certain about the comment above. The important thing to learn about the election is to avoid hate, speak a language people understand, and don't overstate or patronize. I really think that Michael Moore and Dan Rather combined to immunize voters against attacks on George Bush and that hatred of Bush, like the hatred of Clinton before it, blinded people. Regardless of what the candidates really were, they were both seen as extremes with no one in the middle. There is a reason Bush was afraid of Leiberman and was happy to run against Kerry.
Dear Martin: Please don't misunderstand me: I don't think that the Democrats should give up their principles and change what they believe in. Politics is about principle. But there's a difference between being able to speak someone's language and agreeing with what they say. I think Kerry should have come out for gay marriage, but done so in a manner which didn't dismiss religious concerns as illegitimate. He could have said something like,
"There's something I'd like to say to the many Christians who oppose gay civil marriage, or civil unions. As Christians, we believe that love is sanctified; as Americans we believe that strong families and strong social bonds make our country strong. Promoting such bonds among loving homosexuals is neither Christian or un-American. And while it is not my place to decide what relationships a state will recognize, I believe that providing these rights to homosexual couples willing to make a lifetime commitment--whether we call this "civil union" or "civil marriage"--is the right thing to do.
I know that this view is controversial among Christians, and yet we are a faith that has weathered as many divisions as have divided us. But no law of any state may tell you that God recognizes these relationships: that is between you and your creator. In time I hope that you will come to believe as I do--but if not, that at least you will recognize that the state does not, indeed cannot speak for God. It should not try. The separation of church and state runs both ways, after all, which is what makes it a bulwark of our liberty. Now, let's talk about jobs."
I think any kind of speech like that would have picked up support for Kerry. It wouldn't turn a majority of evangelicals--not even a quarter would be my guess. But I think there are enough evangelicals out there amenable to an argument from faith, or indeed merely an argument without condescension, that it would make a considerable difference. Perhaps election-tipping. The trouble is that a large swathe of the Democratic party, and a very vocal one, is of the opinion that belief is illegitimate.
While I agree that the Democratic party's public face tends to regard most Christians as freaks, and "learning the language" is important, I think I'm also going to have to argue that after some of the things that were said during this election cycle, "learning the language" isn't going to be enough. They are also going to need a dose of sincerity, and I'm not sure that the Party can muster that. I may be biased. As a Black Christian Republican (incidentally martin, the Dems don't know how to work all the Black churches, only certain denominations), I have felt insulted on numerous levels by Democrats on the whole. But I really think that the sincerity is the thing. John Kerry went to Black churches as photo ops, but it in no way felt like anything more than that. I don't want to be pandered to. Don't tell me what you think I want to hear in what you consider to be my language, because in the end, you'll only make it worse. I just have an ugly feeling that what it's going to take to win even a fraction of that vote over is beyond this incarnation of the Democratic party, which always seems to have a smirk on its face, but doesn't seem to realize it.
"Ain't no time for love, Docta Jones." In a rush, will respond more later. In the meantime, on the part about religion, a koan: Why do political consultants always praise political jiu jitsu (sp?), the art of using your opponent's _strength_ against him? There are at least two answers.
Ivy was right. (I'm a white Christian Republican law student living in a blue state). When Kerry came to speak at "Black Churches" (hmmm... How does that square with 26 U.S.C. 501(c)(3)?), the ministers had to plead with the members to ignore their moral inclinations and support Kerry anyway... What does that really tell you about how well the Democrats are connecting with the predominantly African-American denominations of Christians? What Democrats simply refuse to address, AT ALL, is the fact that the anti-Christian fever that they possess IS a religion in and of itself. It takes faith to believe that everything came from nothing and organized itself into what exists as we know it without intervention from a higher power/intelligence. Currently, the Christians see anti-Christianity as the virtual state-religion. It's not enough to demand equal treatment and non-coercion, anything that resembles Christianity is attacked. A. Rickey, I'm going to have to disagree with you, somewhat. Christians see "marriage" as an institution created by God. If you attack the meaning sanctioned in the Bible, and use the name "marriage" to cover something which is not consistent with the Biblical definition of marriage, then you will organize Evangelicals against you. HOWEVER, if you say, "Marriage as an institution pre-dates the US, so we won't touch it, however, it's consistent with our understanding of fairness to allow some recognition of stable homosexual unions, so let's have civil unions," then you won't get too much disagreement. A very strong argument can be made from the Christian perspective that we shouldn't demand compliance in the non-violent interactions of non-believers with our religion-imposed norms. A lot of Christians won't feel comfortable with it, but they won't be motivated against it. Did you notice that President Bush came out in support of civil unions, and there was no Christian backlash? I agree with your sumation, however. The fact that the Democrats are so unfamiliar with the largest set of voters in American history should be a wake-up call for them. The fact that their agenda motivated millions of good-and-decent, normal, everyday Americans to get up and oppose them with everything they've got should be taken as a crystal clear message that they do not relate who who non-big-city Americans are, and THEY are the ones who need to work hardest to fix the disconnect.
I think I missed the part where President Bush supported civil unions. Whaaa?
PG: He didn't. He made a statement saying that states should be able to have civil unions if they voted to implement them, which as Republican traditions go isn't that big a deal. (And, since at the time he said it there was very little chance that they would be, it wasn't shocking.) But a lot of people have reported it as "Bush came out in support of civil unions." Here, see Volokh's take on it.
"The fact that the Democrats are so unfamiliar with the largest set of voters in American history should be a wake-up call for them. The fact that their agenda motivated millions of good-and-decent, normal, everyday Americans to get up and oppose them with everything they've got should be taken as a crystal clear message that they do not relate who who non-big-city Americans are, and THEY are the ones who need to work hardest to fix the disconnect." I disagree with this statement completely. I think that these Americans voted FOR Bush and believed the hype about continuing what Bush started on the war on terror and agreed with his cultural values. They didn't vote AGAINST Kerry; they weren't alienated by anything Kerry did or said. They just agreed with Bush's values. If any party in this election was motivated to vote not FOR a candidate, but AGAINST a candidate, it was the Democrats-- how many people were so anti-Bush that they would vote for anyone except him? There were tons. The born-again Christian vote didn't HATE Kerry, they just liked Bush a lot. I think the Democrats did everything they could to win this election and can hardly be blamed. I also think the born-again population hardly constitutes the largest voting block in the U.S. Two things combined made Bush win this election, and either one alone would not have been enough for him to win, but both together made him almost unbeatable -- (i) the war on terror/ fear/ people's belief that he would protect them and that his foreign policy was good (the reason my Jewish Republican family voted for him), and (ii) Christian values/ his stance on social issues consistent with the Christian right (the reason those critical Ohio evangelicals voted for him). Bush needed both and he got both. Kerry didn't lose this election because he was bad or because Democrats can't relate to the American populace. He lost the election because Bush was good and had just enough of the issues going his way to win by a hair. The disconnect....the disconnect??? I hardly think losing an election as close as this one is a symptom that Dems are disconnected from the American public. 3% of the popular vote and 20 some electoral votes is hardly this huge loss that is symptomatic of a great and awful disconnect that Democrats have with the American populace. Let's not go too far here. If the Democrats were truly disconnected to Americans, the election wouldn't have been so close.

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