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What We Can Rub in Bush' Face: Garrison Keillor: Thomas Frank
Bush won. We lost. But it’s no time for mass self-pity. The first order of business for Democrats is to ask themselves how a president who has amassed the biggest federal deficit in history and who instigated a disastrous war based on deception convince Middle America that he's the real deal.

Thomas Frank posed that question in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? That’s shorthand for “Why did Middle Class Red-Staters parade down Main Street this November 2, only to cast their votes for a fortunate son who has taken them to the cleaners?"

Don’t they know that the richest 5 per cent of Americans has benefited disproportionately from President Bush’s tax policies and will lose nothing from the cutbacks that his budget deficits require? Don’t they know per capita income growth and real wages have flatlined? Don't they know Bush has achieved the distinction of becoming the first President since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net loss of jobs? Don't they know they should have supported the Blue candidate from the Party of Social Security, the minimum wage, the New Deal and the Great Frontier?

Frank explains that Republicans channel Red-State voters away from economic issues using social issues — like abortion, gun control and gay marriage — to demonize the Democratic Party as baby killing, freedom hating, anti-holy-matrimony, Frenchified flag burners.

What to do? What to do?

For an answer, I called an ambassador of Middle America, author of the new book Homegrown Democrat, host of A Prairie Home Companion, and general swell guy, Garrison Keillor. We spoke on Weekly Signals, a KUCI radio talk show originating out of Orange County, California that I co-host with Mike Kaspar.

“What we call cultural issues are terribly potent and this is not as clear to Democrats as it ought to be,” says Keillor. “That’s the interesting thing: the density of Democrats. The potency of symbol and metaphor ought to be clear to us. Politics is in large part an art. It is not just a matter of laying out position papers and explicating policy. There is a large element of performance and creative use of metaphor and narrative…and the Democrats have lost that torch.”

How do Democrats get back to the art of politics and learn to tell a better story?

“I think first of all we need to divest ourselves of issues that are no good for us,” Keillor says. “This is something that I’ve been talking about to fellow Democrats. Some of them have been incensed at what I’m saying.”

“I do not feel that I have a basic bone of contention with Catholic friends who disagree with me on the issue of abortion,” Keillor says. “I feel that tax equity, fairness, good jobs, coming to the defense and supporting families that earn less than $50,000 a year is the crucial part of the Democratic Party. And this is it,” he says slowly and firmly. “The Catholic church shares my deepest convictions about social justice and economic justice. This is a stronger tie that should prevail over the issue of abortion. I think that the Democratic Party has to welcome back people who disagree on this subject.”

Anyone incensed yet? Before you stop reading, consider the next four years. You’re going to being seeing a lot of Dubya and probably a few Supreme Court appointments. How should Dems deal with abortion?

“Abortion has to be considered case by case. The use of abortion as birth control is one thing, the use of it to end pregnancy caused by incest or rape is another, and then there is the decision to destroy an embryo that shows signs of debilitating disease or severe retardation. In the end, it goes against common sense to require a mother to bear a child she does not want, just as you can't force husband and wife to stay together, but society can state its thoughts on the matter in the form of guidelines. I don't think that anyone really believes that if Roe v. Wade is overturned, that abortion can be put back in the bottle.”

Keillor’s cadence is mesmerizing. Apparently, he has been working on a cure for what ails the Democratic Party in the Red States… and it will be hard medicine for many Progressives to swallow. Yet, even though the possibility of a Scalia/Thomas Supreme Court revisiting Roe v Wade scares the latté out of me, I’m strangely drawn to Keillor’s logic. I wonder… what other positions are hurting Democrats and driving Middle America away?

“I think gun control is an issue that we can no longer afford to be seen as standing in favor of,” Keillor says. “Gun control means something so different in Manhattan than it means in the country. There’s no way for the Party to take just one stance. It’s way down the list of important issues, and I think that we Democrats are too emotional about this. We get all dizzy at the thought of people buying assault weapons for example. I don't think assault weapons should be legal, but I don't think it's anything to lose sleep over. There are a few thousand gun fetishists who like to put on camo (XXXL) and stand around holding guns and get their pictures taken, and they're fairly harmless for the most part, and in our revulsion at them we piss off twenty million hunters. Gun control laws tend to reflect an urban point of view — in the big city, somebody with a gun is weird and dangerous — and as liberals we ought to be reluctant to let city people lord it over rural people. If Uncle Elmer wants to keep a machine gun on his farm west of Yankton, let him keep it. There are bigger problems.”

When bank robbers roamed the streets of my old neighborhood of North Hollywood with semi-automatic weapons, gun control seemed like a gigantic problem. But given a choice between gun control and a living wage, I think I’d opt for economic justice over passing laws to deprive Uncle Elmer of his firearms fetish — especially if losing Uncle Elmer’s vote meant losing another election to a GOP/Halliburton conglomerate.

Anyone else incensed? Buck up or stop reading, leave the room, and sulk about the election while I ask Keillor if there any other positions Democrats should jettison.

“I think that gay marriage is also an issue that does no good for us and I want to see us divest ourselves of this,” Keillor says. “The symbolism of gay people marrying is terribly potent, terrible powerful, and we ignore this at our peril in our party.

“I think that gay marriage/union/benefits must be a state and city matter. Gays have tended to migrate from hostile places to friendlier places — San Francisco, New York, New Orleans — and this migration has been a boon to the friendlier places. Gay-friendly areas are the richer for it, in all sorts of ways. Tolerance has economic and cultural benefits. And so we can allow Missouri or South Carolina or South Dakota to be hostile to gay marriage and suffer the consequences.”

A recent survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black-oriented research think tank, showed that Bush's African-American support is at 18 percent, up 9 percentage points from the Center's 2000 poll. One of the prime reasons given for that increase in support is our current President’s belief that marriage "is between a man and a woman." Chew on that while you consider the fact that since Bush took office, African American unemployment has risen 28 percent, reversing Clinton-era prosperity, when it declined by nearly 50 percent.

I’m all for gay marriage. In fact, I’m all for straight marriage, too. Yet, I wouldn’t sacrifice economic justice on either alter.

Now that the faint of heart have stopped reading, let’s ask Keillor what led him to conclude that in order for the Democratic Party to stop losing elections it needs to drop social issues and concentrate on the economy.

“Years ago, I was lobbying for the National Endowment for the Arts at the time of the Robert Mapplethorpe controversy,” Keillor says. “I talked to congressmen and senators about supporting the NEA. What dawned on me then, was the tremendous potency of those pictures, and also the sculpture — the picture of the crucifix in urine — Piss Christ by Serrano. These had the power of a lit match. You could not simply excuse this away as freedom of expression. The combination of public taxes and that art created a conflagration that was powerful enough to bring down good people in public office. This simply is a fact and if people don’t recognize it — people in the arts or people in politics — then they’re making a grave mistake.”

Keillor’s point was driven home this election day and there were warning signs. An October 26, 2004, a Los Angeles Times headline claimed, “Cultural values, more than the economy, are dividing the country between Bush and Kerry." Turn that sentence around and make it true: "The economy, more than social issues is dividing the country between Bush and Kerry." Given the current economic climate, Kerry would have won in a landslide. Instead, Democrats are spending November 3 desperately trying to get a grip on an America that according to Keillor is "sliding away." Sliding away into what? Neo-Voodoo economics? Misguided foreign policy? Bad art?

“There’s this great transfer of wealth that has taken place," says Keillor. "I see people who are working at McDonalds who are college graduates. They’re my age, in their sixties, flipping burgers at a minimum wage job. They used to have an office. They have fallen so far in the world. To me, this is not an individual anecdote. This is a social anecdote. I see this as a terrible shift that’s taken place in this country. I believe fervently in the middle class as the backbone of the country and if it is losing its grip, if it is sliding, if people are being forced to work a 60-hour week in order to keep up their life, to me this is a disaster.

“I’ve had a wonderful good life in America, and America has been awfully good to me. Public schools and the University of Minnesota gave me my life. I’ve had a wonderful lucky life and it seems to me that I have an obligation to do whatever I can to see that people in their teens and twenties, who are getting launched in the world, are getting the same chances that I had. This is basic justice. It’s a moral obligation on my part and if I shirked it, I would feel deeply ashamed of myself. I have many other things to be ashamed of, but I don’t want to be ashamed of that.”

Me too and me neither. To paraphrase America’s Catholic Bishops, the economic decisions made by the next Bush administration will have tremendous human consequences and moral content. As policy, they will dramatically effect the quality of justice in America. Bush spent the last four years diminishing the quality of justice. We can look forward to four more years of the same. Yet, although he won the election, Bush's prize is a divided America, a faltering economy and a costly war. In other words, our cowboy-in-chief has stepped into one gigantic economic policy cow pie. As Democrats, let’s get our priorities straight and rub his face in it.

— Nathan Callahan, November 3, 2004


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