Is Arkansas more conservative than it was 30 years ago?
It is hard to believe that in 1975, for instance, people here had more relaxed attitudes on issues of social tolerance (we did not repeal a constitutional amendment permitting racial segregation until 1990) or economic policy (Bill Clinton was voted out of office in 1980 mainly because as governor he doubled the price of car tags).
So how did Clinton and other moderate-to-liberal Democrats like U.S. Sens. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor get elected during that time? Could they win if their political careers were just starting today?
Yes, because Arkansas is not any more conservative in 2005 than it was in 1975. Success in politics has always been a matter of emphasis.
For example, William Saletan in his book “Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War” relates the story of the 1986 Arkansas ballot initiative that would have restricted abortion access. Polls showed that less than 40 percent of voters here supported the right to have an abortion, which is more conservative than today. But the referendum failed, because the same polls showed that 65 percent of Arkansans believed the decision to have an abortion should remain with a woman, her family, and her doctor, and that is what pro-choice activists repeated as they fought the measure.
Now, as members of the state legislature introduce anti-abortion and anti-immigration bills and the Arkansas electorate approves laws like the one that banned gay marriage last year, we are being led to believe that this kind of social conservatism is what people here want from government.
In reality, the only difference between the abortion referendum in 1986 and the gay marriage initiative in 2004 is that there was an organized opposition 20 years ago. Progressives these days have lost their nerve and their fight, and they also have problems framing their message.
An article in the latest edition of The Atlantic magazine discusses how national Democrats are finally coming to terms with their messaging problem, which isn’t that hard to understand. According to the essay, “In essence, messaging . . . is simply the process of selecting words that impart to voters whatever sentiment the author is pushing. One famous example is the Republican effort to recast the ‘estate tax’ — with its implied application to landed aristocrats only — as the much more menacing (and less discriminating!) ‘death tax.’ ”
A linguist cited in the story suggests that, instead of offering new policy ideas, the Democrats should just reposition the ones they already have, and change some unpopular terminology.
Think back again to Clinton, Bumpers and Pryor. They were far more liberal than the average Arkansan in terms of the policies they pursued as governors, their voting records in the Congress, and their personal outlooks. But they won again and again because they knew how to communicate with the electorate, especially in the way they emphasized certain aspects of particular issues over others. It didn’t hurt that all three were unusually gifted practitioners of retail politics, but that does not diminish the importance of knowing the right words to use when discussing the big topics.
The relentless and aggressive “moral values” campaign by right-wing conservatives has convinced many people that the majority of Arkansans subscribe to that philosophy. Democrats especially feel helpless to do anything but meekly challenge that orthodoxy, and they adopt many of the right-wing talking points, hoping to win with an appeasement strategy. This serves to erode their base further, because their constant tendency to compromise frustrates their most loyal supporters.
Most voters don’t have time to worry about public policy, which is why they elect people to do it for them. And they will follow whoever is willing to lead. Recently only the conservatives have charted a course and boldly exhorted everyone to head in that direction. Without a comparably confident alternative, the electorate has gone along.
Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean visited Arkansas last week, and he talked about the mechanics of organizing. Now it is time for Democratic candidates to hone their messages and deliver them with conviction.
They need to talk about fairness — in access to education and health care. They need to talk about responsibility — in balancing budgets and honoring commitments to veterans and senior citizens. And they need to talk about community — mainly in terms of social tolerance, but also to underscore why it is important to be fair and responsible in the first place.
Preach it and people will listen. After all, liberal messages have succeeded in more conservative times when delivered with eloquence, relevance and common sense.