Leftnecks, Get Local

A week of hand wringing has produced a remarkably clear narrative of the 2004 election. The answer for Democrats – according to the pundits' blather – is that they need to close the God gap. Only by framing progressive issues in terms of pious morality can the heartland be brought around to vote for their own economic interests at long last.

But that's simplistic – and not just a little condescending. The notion that the problem for Democrats' – and the liberals who continue to believe in them – can be boiled down to "God, gays and guns" doesn't address the way social issues have provided an infrastructure for the rise of conservative populism during the last 30 years.

What has driven the right's anger – and activism – is that on many issues of concern to social conservatives, liberals have fought hard against the will of a majority of the people with whom they interact every day in their communities. We may consider some of those issues to be contrived, but we dismiss them at our peril.

Instead, liberals should start separating substantive policy issues from the symbolic aspects of public life. We should be fighting on the substance and figuring out a way to render the symbolic issues moot on the national level. The answer, I believe, is in a long-held conservative position: states' rights and local self-determination. Savvy Democrats could shift the terms of the national debate away from vaguely defined "values" by consistently stressing that our communities should reflect local values, not those of either party in Washington. If conservatives were to oppose that ideal, their intolerance would be brought into sharp relief.

Historically, liberals have resisted states' rights arguments, and with good reason. The last big battle like the culture wars we see today came during the civil rights movement. Then, as now, liberals were portrayed as using "judicial tyranny" and the federal apparatus to run roughshod over popular and democratically enacted Jim Crow laws. It was the George Wallaces and Strom Thurmonds who argued for state sovereignty.

While history has redeemed that liberal project, the cultural battles of the day are more complex. Fighting for civil rights was a necessary crusade, even when it ran counter to the majoritarian principles upon which democracies are based. Today, social conservatives feel put upon by the left for the same reasons we feel put upon by them. Just as I don't want my kids to have to pray at school in California, the people in Mississippi care more about their public institutions reflecting their culture than what happens in Seattle or New York.

Which leaves us an exit from the culture wars. The key to taking these issues off the national table is to argue – clearly and consistently – that Alabamans shouldn't legislate in Vermont and Minnesotans shouldn't dictate to Georgia. States' rights is an idea that progressives can afford to embrace for the simple reason that we've won the biggest federalist fights – the battles over race, the legality of abortion and, more recently, the decriminalization of homosexuality.

That means we have the luxury of leaving many (not all) of the "wedge" issues to local activists and taking them off the national stage. State legislatures would still be constrained by the constitution; they could bring a moment of prayer back to schools but couldn't make it a Christian prayer. And so long as our essential protections are safe, it doesn't bother me if courts in Alabama have the Ten Commandments hanging in the lobby. If I ever find myself in an Alabama courthouse, I suspect the decor will be the least of my problems.

Localism would also set liberals free to pursue truly progressive agendas in their communities without risking a nationwide backlash. Recall that some gay rights activists feared just such an outcome when San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom allowed gay marriages in his city. Barney Frank (D-Mass), the only openly gay member of Congress, told the Boston Globe that he feared it was a "distraction" that could hurt gay rights activists nationally. "I was sorry to see the San Francisco thing go forward," he said.

Frank was right to be concerned, as candidates on the national stage were painted with the broad brush of the "tyrannical" left with its activist judges. States' rights would allow national candidates to respond that what happens in San Francisco is an issue that only Californians need to decide.

Coalition-Building, Coalition Breaking

'De-linking' the national debates – even in part – from the culture wars might also lead to the emergence of a new generation of Southern populists to challenge the corporatism of the GOP. If you want to know how important that is, look no further than last week's Louisiana Senate race, where Democratic candidates Chris John and John Kennedy ran away from the national party like they were being chased by hungry gators.

They wouldn't need to run from the top of the ticket if that ticket represented the big tent of localism; they could be part of a progressive coalition that was economically liberal and also reflected the social mores of its varied communities. The conservative movement is built on just such an alliance – known as the "fusionist" marriage of social conservatism to a big-business agenda.

The potential for a broad, progressive coalition is clearly there. Last week, new minimum wage laws in Florida and Nevada passed with 70 percent of the vote. Montana passed a medical marijuana initiative and Colorado voters called for a five-fold increase in their state's share of renewable energy. The Democrats should learn from the grass roots efforts that brought about better policies for those four so-called "red states."

Because at the same time, the religious right is beginning to grumble about the GOP's big tent – they see that the Republican machine has made enormous headway in deregulation, privatization and assaulting organized labor, but aside from throwing the occasional bone to their base, the GOP leadership pays little attention to the evangelicals' agenda after the ballots are counted.

That means the Democrats have an opportunity to turn the tables on the Republicans. If they were to use states' rights to answer those hot-button social issues, the GOP would suddenly be the "obstructionist" party. And that plays to one of our greatest advantages: conservatives need a divided America but liberals don't. Republican leaders know full well that without the culture wars, their socially conservative base would either start looking harder at their economic policies, or just stop turning out altogether.

Making Leftnecks

As a secular liberal myself, I am as loathe as the next lefty to give even an inch to the religious right. I can't abide their reactionary primitivism, and I am not sounding a retreat on social issues. But by choosing which of those issues are significant enough to justify a fight on the national stage and which ones we can afford to fight locally – even if it means losing them in some states – we can reach a large swath of voters whose economic ideals are as anti-elitist as their social views.

We'll make inroads with the Republicans' coalition when we stop telling ourselves that social conservatives are too stupid to see past gays and guns to their own interests. The truth is that they have a different idea of where their interests lie. Our focus should be on where their goals and ours converge: around healthcare, education, the economy and corporate accountability, among others.

When we recognize that, we'll smarten up, take some of these hot-button issues off the national table and start creating what Joe Bageant calls "leftnecks" – working-class Southern populists. We can build a coalition that embodies the finest aspects of liberalism: inclusion, tolerance and concern for the needs of people with whom we disagree. That would take all of the populist anger that has been shrewdly diverted to the "liberal elites" and redirect it back where it belongs – squarely toward corporate control of the American "free market." If the Democratic party is smart enough, this is an approach that it can use to return to its roots – and win.

Do you have ideas about building a states' rights and localism movement where you live? Send them in to AlterNet.


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