Fluid and flailing

The third in a four-part series of essays on the forces driving social division and political polarization in America.

The book’s premise is an exaggerated overgeneralization. Not all Republicans drive trucks, not all Democrats drive hybrids. But the conclusion Prius or Pickup? reaches is hard to dispute. Both major parties have undergone worldview cleansing. Republicans embraced what the book’s authors call a “fixed” worldview and purged liberals, progressives and moderates from their ranks. Democrats opted for a “fluid” worldview and parted company with conservatives in general and country folk in particular.

Not so long ago there were conservative Democrats. The blue dogs are now an endangered species. The Dixiecrats switched sides and paved the way for Republican seizure of the south. In Wisconsin, conservative Democrats lacked a clever nickname but their numbers were significant. Rural conservatives like Gervase Hephner of Chilton and Dale Bolle of New Holstein populated the state legislature. Other small-town Democrats like Tom Harnisch of Neillsville, Harvey Stower of Amery,  Bill Rogers of Kaukauna and Bob Dueholm of Luck were more moderate or even liberal and their numbers were substantial, too. They’re long gone. The Democratic Party used to appeal to rural voters, but sure doesn’t today. It has become an urban party.

With an unpopular president, declining public approval for the Republican Party, GOP leaders coping with white supremacy in their ranks, and with support for Republicans starting to slip in the suburbs, you’d think the Democrats would be the nation’s majority party by default. That’s not the case. Even after Democrats made major gains in the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans still control most of the country’s statehouses as well as the U.S. Senate and the White House. Despite the Republicans’ shaky status, public approval of the Democratic Party reached its lowest level in a quarter of a century in the year leading up to those midterms.

Democrats have solid backing in the cities, but those are a few blue islands in a sea of red. The party has lost the support it once had in rural areas. The worldview cleansing that’s been done on the Democratic side is a big reason why. It’s created single-mindedness on social concerns but leaves the party without a coherent philosophy on pocketbook issues.

There used to be Democrats on both sides of the abortion debate. No more. There used to be Democrats on both sides of civil rights questions. Not now. It is difficult if not impossible to get elected as a Democrat nowadays without being socially progressive. But it is entirely feasible to run as an economically elitist, pro-Wall Street, corporate Democrat.

Today’s political landscape is littered with Democrats who favor the economic status quo — meaning a continuation of feed-the-rich, trickle-down economic policies — from the Clintons on the national stage to the likes of Ron Kind here in Wisconsin. Then there are economic boat rockers — including democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who want Democrats to get serious about the grotesque economic inequality in America.

These two camps are more or less of one mind on social issues, creating a united front on lifestyle. But they are at odds on economics. For the most part, the economic status quo Democrats have had the upper hand. Right there is why Democrats have fallen so badly out of favor in socially conservative, economically distressed rural America. You simply cannot be socially progressive and economically elitist and have any hope of winning in rural areas.

So here we are, with two major parties, both of which have stopped trying to bring together people with differing worldviews, neither of which currently is remotely capable of uniting our country. Where do they go from here? Where do we go?