WHY IT MATTERS.
March 25, 2005
Guest: Garance Franke-Ruta
WHY IT MATTERS.
I've been exceptionally impressed with the quality of the comments on this blog over the past week, which have been wonderfully intelligent, thoughtful, and polite. One question that's come up over and over, however, is why this topic mattered, or should matter, to those outside of elite media circles.
Let me try to answer that. Recall that the majority of Democrats are women. Given that, the absence of female voices on Op-Ed pages means that half the liberal/Democratic family is not getting its views across to the public, where they can be debated and have influence. That puts the Democratic Party at a substantial messaging disadvantage, especially, I believe, on values issues. White men are the most conservative demographic group in the country, and to the extent that they overwhelmingly dominate political speech on Op-Ed pages and in the blogosphere, the range of political issues under debate winds up being restricted to what they know, what they are concerned with, and their perspectives on values questions.
Take what is, I believe, the single most important issue facing middle-class families: the rise of the 50-80 hour work week and the disappearance of the weekend. Anne Applebaum wrote about this recently. I bring the issue up in story meetings at the Prospect at every available opportunity. And I’m regularly surprised by the number of young, progressive women I know who tell me that the thing they dislike most about the Democratic Party is its obsessive focus on abortion instead of the question of how to combine work and family and not go crazy. They want to be approached as mothers and potential mothers, as well as people with jobs and aspirations, not as atomized rights-bearing individuals given to crisis pregnancies. But those who raise such issues often cannot get any traction because there are simply not enough voices in high enough positions in the press or the party to create buzz. And so the topic remains a cultural issue on the left, rather than a matter for political consideration and action. Result: middle-class mothers vote Republican, and the Democratic Party has won a smaller fraction of the female electorate each presidential-election year since 1996. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party carries on loudly about the outsourcing of manufacturing sector jobs, which are mainly held by men, and judicial appointments, which are crucial to preserving reproductive rights but, once again, turn the focus back to abortion. No wonder the so-called “Mommy Party” now routinely loses the votes of parents and the married. Recall, too, that the "Year of the Woman," 1992, helped boost Clinton into office.
Or take abortion itself. I expect that male politicians and pundits are not always cognizant of the way that men who are vehemently pro-choice can come across as creepy and irresponsible to some women. This has nothing to do with those women being opposed to choice; it has to do with a broader sub-rosa argument this country has been having for decades about male irresponsibility and untrustworthiness and the way that a lot of women in contemporary society wind up feeling used and cast aside by men. This argument and social worry lies at the heart of some of our most prominent media obsessions, from the Scott Peterson trial to the right-wing response to Terri Schiavo. The right wing has been trying to turn Michael Schiavo into Scott Peterson, and petite, brunette Terri into petite, brunette Laci. The O.J. trial was a variant on the same basic theme of the irresponsible, potentially violent mate who wants to be rid of his all-too dispensable wife. Such stories ricochet through a social landscape split apart by divorce and often ambivalent about its American Pie-style sexual ethics.
Virtually every values issue in this country can be reduced to a debate about how men and women are supposed to relate to each other. How can such a debate be won by men of the left only? It seems to me that it cannot. Reviving liberalism in America and growing the Democratic Party is not a sales job for a small cadre of men. It is the joint responsibility and project of every member of the Democratic coalition. The Republican Party's efforts to pick off members of the coalition, by targeting Hispanics and African-Americans, just makes that universal responsibility even more urgent.
Kevin thoughtfully offered some folks an opportunity to discuss one small slice of this broader problem. I thank him for his good intentions and for the opportunity to be part of this experiment on his blog. Thanks also to Amy and Katha, and to all of you for sharing your comments and thoughts. You can find me most of the rest of the time over at Tapped.