In the current issue of The Nation (which also featured a cover story co-authored by our own Bob Borosage), Chris Bowers pointed out a structural truth that lies at the heart of both American political parties. In the Age of Reagan, it came to pass that the GOP consolidated itself as the party of people who are white and Christian. Everybody else—black, brown, women, gays, immigrants, urban dwellers, non-Christians, you name it— found themselves on the receiving end of conservative scapegoating so often that they eventually decamped and aggregated in the other party. At this point, it's statistically true that If you are either not white or not Christian, then you are (with varying degrees of certainty, depending on what you identify as) far more likely to be a Democrat.
This has left us in an interesting situation where the vast bulk of the country's swing voters are white Christians with progressive tendencies, who can be induced to vote either way depending on what values you can activate in them. This gives them political power far beyond their actual numbers, because winning a presidential election is largely reduced to being able to find and work the political, cultural, and religious sweet spots of this one group.
It's also given the GOP a real advantage where group solidarity is concerned. Their shared grounding in white Christian conservationism gives the GOP its notoriously unshakable consensus on worldview and goals—a unity that has consistently proven to be its strongest political advantage. On the other hand, the polyglot Democrats have become a motley crew of Everybody Else Trying To Get Along, in spite of widely varying worldviews and often irreconcilable goals. Without that same kind of coherent vision of what we hope to achieve, the progressive side is damned fragile. And conservative strategists know this.
People have made endless fun of Obama's "happy talk," but all his talk about visions and values is a direct attempt to counter the GOP's narrative advantage. He know that all those progressive factions can't hope to win the White House until we learn to look past our differences and get focused on the things we have in common. We won't succeed until we have something approximating that same kind of deep consensus. Keeping a relentless focus on our common goals and shared future is his only hope in hell of pulling this off.
Looking at McCain's vice-presidential choice in this context, it's clear why he picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. She got White Christian America catalyzed behind McCain's campaign, solidifying an unenthusiastic GOP base. She's also reopened the culture wars, throwing us back into discussions of personal morality, where the GOP does best. Anything that distracts voters from the subject of effective government is a win for them. Until Palin came along, Obama and the Democrats were doing far too good a job of keeping the country focused on the issues that matter.
At this point, progressives need to pay attention to the outcome of two questions. First: Will Palin's appeal to the white Christian base also capture and hold enough of those crucial swing voters? (Some early evidence suggests that it may not be.) And second: Have Americans had enough of being distracted from substantive issues by conservative culture-war outrages? Are they going to buy into that diversion one more time?
Palin's the big news this week—but that could change as early as tonight, when Obama goes on Bill O'Reilly during McCain's campaign speech. If McCain tanks it and/or Obama gets in a few spectacular shots, we're going to be on to the next conversation by tomorrow.
And that's a good thing. We need to get this conversation off the conservatives' terms and back onto our own as soon as possible. Talking about Sarah Palin's family—and the culture-war issues it raises, like pregnancy and abortion—drags us right back into the zone where the GOP can activate all its old scary stories about who we are and what we stand for.
We won't win if we allow ourselves to fall back into those same old arguments. As soon as possible, we need to get the focus back on the our winning themes of effective governance and the common good—subjects where Palin provides an embarrassment of object lessons about What Not To Do.