A precinct-level analysis by the Seattle Times revealed that President Bush’s support slipped from 2000 in Eastside suburbs, including some of the ritzier neighborhoods. [Bush’s Eastside support slipped]
This is not just a local phenomena; even while Republicans have cemented their hold on an ever expanding red exurbia, close-in suburbs have been gradually shifting Democratic. For example, in Philadelphia’s affluent Main Line — a longtime bastion of “Rockefeller Republicanism” — Kerry carried some precincts by historic margins as Republicans finally seemed to realize that the national party left them years ago. And in traditionally Republican Mercer Island, Democrats now hold two out of the three legislative seats.
To me, this is one of the few hopeful signs that came out of an otherwise bleak election season. And it suggests a strategy for rebuilding a Democratic majority.
Just like the Democrats lost their base in the South with their support of civil rights legislation in the sixties, the GOP risks alienating their moderate, suburban base by abandoning fiscal conservatism to focus on right-wing social issues at home, and military and economic imperialism abroad. The neo-cons may dominate the national Republican leadership, but they do not represent the majority of suburban voters.
Families move to places like Mercer Island for better public schools, cleaner streets, safer neighborhoods, and all the other public services that a higher property tax base provides. These are people who believe in government because they benefit from it every day, and they routinely tax themselves to pay for the services they want.
These are people with whom urban Democrats have common ground, and we have an opportunity to exploit the wedge the neo-cons have provided, to expand our base politically and geographically. For in addition to a shared belief that good government is necessary to maintaining a high quality of life, suburban and city voters have a mutual interest in maintaining an economically and culturally vibrant urban core.
I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, yet I always considered myself a Philadelphian; it is this larger sense of community that Democrats must encourage in metropolitan areas around the nation if we are to have a hope of expanding our political base. To do so we must continue to be a party of progressive ideals, while remaining tempered by fiscal responsibility. We must focus on efficiently providing the level of public services voters demand, by maintaining an adequate and fair tax structure.
And urban Democrats must do a better job of reaching out across the city line to work with our suburban neighbors on solving our regional problems. I’m not suggesting compromise as a political expediency, but rather the type of collaborative engagement that fosters consensus and creativity. We’re both trying to improve education, reduce traffic, increase public safety, etc… if throwing money at a problem isn’t the only solution, then perhaps Seattle has something to learn from Mercer Island?
On the larger, divisive social issues that Republicans all too often successfully exploit to their advantage, Democrats must learn a rhetorical lesson from the opposition, and deconstruct these debates to the real world choices that people understand. For example, if the abortion debate remains a choice between dead and mangled fetuses versus a vague and unwritten Constitutional “right to privacy”, abortion foes will win. But when the public is faced with a choice between dead fetuses and young women dying of sepsis from back-alley abortions… well… that’s the kind of brutally compelling argument that led to legalized abortion in the first place.
But Democrats must also recognize that there are some issues on which we are clearly in the minority, and we must not replicate the Republican leadership’s penchant for arrogantly ramming an unwanted social agenda down the throats of the public. Political leadership is not about giving voters what they want, or what we want. It is about patiently and persuasively building a consensus where none existed before.
Democrats must not shy away from voicing their support for issues like gay marriage — if that is what they truly believe — but to attempt to impose gay marriage on an unwilling public through legislation or litigation is to invite the sort of costly political backlash we saw in the November election. The legal protections of civil union may be the least we can offer to committed, unmarried couples… but at the moment, it may also be the most.
Of course, a precinct-level analysis can be a little like reading tea leaves or entrails, and I wouldn’t want my right-wing friends at Sound Politics to label me a political haruspex. In the end, voters tend to vote for candidates, not issues, and so divining demographic trends from a single election can be misleading. After all, our state GOP is making a big deal about the so-called “Dinocrats” who may have cost Gregoire the gubernatorial election, but few are suggesting that this portends Washington turning red in 2008.
What I do know is that moderate suburban Republicans are increasingly willing to buck party loyalty and vote for Democratic candidates, representing a clear opportunity for Democrats to permanently expand their base. There is an urge to look at the huge swath of red on the electoral map and ask if we need to redefine the Democratic Party to appeal to this disaffected middle America.
But for a party firmly rooted in our nation’s urban centers, a potential Democratic majority can be found much closer to home. In fact, it’s just across the city line.