WASHINGTON — Both major political parties have their own pet rationalizations for defeat at the polls. When Republicans lose, they invariably complain that the system is rigged against them. Defeat is blamed on corrupt city-machine politics, special-interest money, gerrymandered districts, a changing demographic tide or -- have you heard this one? -- the liberal mainstream media.
Democrats, on the other hand, believe they lose because they don't fight hard or dirty enough. As Susan Estrich wrote recently: "You have to fight fire with fire, mud with mud, dirt with dirt. The trouble with Democrats, traditionally, is that we're not mean enough."
What's especially dangerous about these rationalizations is that once they take hold, they can color a party's worldview. The latest -- and silliest -- example of this is a "hip" Democratic strategy manual titled "The Great Divide: Retro vs. Metro America."
Written by a team of Democratic partisans, this slick, glossy, oversized book divides the 2000 electoral map into "Metro" (good) or "Retro" (bad) states, analyzes the myriad (morally regrettable) differences between such states and postulates a new formula that, the authors assure us, will lead to an (excellent) era of Democratic dominance.
If the method employed in the "The Great Divide" sounds familiar, that's because it is. Political analysts have been writing about the American cultural and political divide for some time. In 1998, Christopher Caldwell wrote about "The Southern Captivity of the GOP" in the Atlantic Monthly. Shortly after the 2000 election, David Brooks and Michael Barone weighed in with long essays examining the red state-blue state phenomenon. John Judis' and Ruy Teixeira's thoughtful 2002 book predicted "The Emerging Democratic Majority." Demographer William Frey, in an article for the American Planning Assn., contended that, based on the results of the 2000 census, there were three Americas, not two.
At first glance, "The Great Divide" has an academic feel to it (there are lots of maps, pie charts and bar graphs), but its purpose is undeniable -- follow Estrich's injunction.
"The self-serving Republican coalition" has "been maliciously harmful to minorities, women, children and average American families," the authors explain. They accuse the Republican Party of practicing "despicable politics" and "the politics of hate," among other depredations.
"The Great Divide" mocks the "religiosity" of Retro Americans and suggests, approvingly, that this spiritual devotion "has resulted in a dearth of scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs and captains of industry" in Retro America (no data are provided for this claim).
"The Great Divide," in short, is a Michael Moore movie in book form. And like a Moore movie, it is dangerous for Democrats. For example, the authors contend that Retro Americans want to end secular society and create a religious state in violation of "the informed work of the founding fathers, who wrote a Constitution that clearly separates church and state." But their reverence for the Constitution vanishes a few pages later, where they advocate scrapping the electoral college and call the U.S. Senate "a mockery of democracy" because it gives disproportionate power to small -- and coincidentally, Retro -- states.
"Over the past 200 years, America has paid a terrible price for the senatorial power of the small states," the authors contend. The wisdom of the founding fathers goes only so far.
The authors have advice for the Democratic Party and its presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry. Don't "waste money seeking Southern votes that will never add up to one electoral vote," they counsel. And "stop watering down [Democratic Party] policies and programs to appeal to a national constituency."
Instead, the authors say, Democrats should craft a message that appeals only "to their metropolitan base." It is worth mentioning that one Democratic candidate tried this strategy during the primary season. His name is Howard Dean.
Democrats also must abandon their current nominating scheme because "voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have little relevance to a Democratic victory." "The major Metro states" should "have a major say" in choosing the party's nominee.
Next to "democraticizing" the Senate, reforming Democrats' nominating rules would be child's play, but the suggestion reveals the biggest problem with the Retro/Metro conceit: The differences between the two Americas are so small that even professional demagogues have difficulty telling them apart. For example, New Hampshire, which "The Great Divide" dismisses with much prejudice, is nonetheless listed as a "Metro" state.
The Retro/Metro list has other logic problems.
If minorities are so important to Metro states, why is the state with the third-highest minority population -- Texas -- at the top of the Retro list?