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December 26, 2006

Triangulation, Pandering to the Right, Both, or Neither?

Kos diarist Frederick Clarkson has started a very thought-provoking conversation today. Just how far should the Democrats go to get votes? Must we pander to the religious right in order to be seen as people of values? If we do, will we lose more votes from the left than we gain from the right?

It turns out that a consulting group called Common Good Strategies is currently helping Democratic candidates craft messages that omit the use of the well-worn phrase "separation of church and state". They claim that it's divisive, that 80% of Americans identify themselves as religious (a poll number I, personally, don't trust) , and that the phrase is not explicitly found in the Constitution. But there are dozens of phrases that aren't found in the Constitution that we still hold as guiding principles, ie., "pension security", "health care for all", "right to travel", "equality for women"... The fact is, the phrase "separation of church and state" clearly explains a concept ingrained in the opening line of the First Amendment to the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise therof.

It's also a phrase that has been uttered repeatedly by the Supreme Court, in upholding that section of the First Amendment. Obviously, concepts benefit from the repeated use of understandable phraseology.

I share Clarkson's trepidation about the hiring of triangulation consultants like those from Common Good Strategies. We've heard a lot about the need for Democrats to "frame the debate", but if Democrats are going to avoid certain language in order to avoid offending someone, that pretty much gives the right wing all the power over the debate. If we are afraid to talk openly about what really matters to us - which "values" we hold dear - then we may as well pack it up and let a new party emerge, one that takes it's values and its underlying principles of liberty seriously.

Clarkson puts it quite simply:

Which important constitutional, Democratic, progressive, or common sense principles will also be abandoned by Democratic Party operatives because the words don't appear in the Constitution? What other elements of textual literalism shall we advocate to help make Antonin Scalia a happy man --  and to pander to the religious right? What central tenets of constitutional democracy and the advancement of human and civil rights shall we abandon in the name of short term political gain?

Now that Democrats have proven we can win crucial elections by staying true to our core values, why should we ever pander again? Triangulation is just so... 1990's. Let's get back to the future and start shaping a real public policy - as Democrats who know who they are and aren't afraid to say so.

Posted by shoephone on December 26, 2006 at 09:07 PM in Strategery | Permalink


I don't think it's triangulation to try to bring religious people into the Democratic Party. I once tried to hand a pamphlet about a church program that help men get off the street to a city council aide, and she threw her hands up and said "separation of church and state!" I was offended, as that aide's boss is a leader on homelessness issues.

I don't think the fact that Democrats won the House and Senate should be viewed as confirmation that Democrats should ignore religious voters. After all, many of the Democrats who won seats are not secular fundementalists. Folks like Baron Hill (D-IN), Brad Ellsworth (D-IN), Heath Shuler (D-NC), and Jim Webb (D-VA) are ALL people who take openly about how their faith informs their politics.

Posted by: Will | Dec 29, 2006 10:08:09 PM

I reread the diary at dkos, and found that I don't disagree with most of it.

I don't trust those consultant firms very much. I do believe wholeheartedly in the separation of church and state. But if some Democrat running in some scarlet-red district doesn't want to use the phrase, then that's ok too.

Posted by: Will | Dec 29, 2006 10:44:49 PM

I agree - there's nothing inherently wrong with a candidate bringing personal stories into a campaign, and that includes discussion of their faith. But how much of a role should "faith" play in getting someone elected to political office? And which kind of "faith"? I think we've already seen how some conservatives use the Christian faith as a measuring stick for qualification, something I view as very dangerous. Glenn Beck and others have tried to castigate and humiliate a freely elected congressperson, Keith Ellison, for daring to use the Koran as a symbol of his commitment to serve the people of Minnesota. And this unjustified, racist attack on Ellison's faith went completely unchallenged by the rest of the mainstream media. Interestingly enough, Ellsion rarely spoke about his religious faith on the campaign trail.

What about candidates who don't swear to a religious faith? When was the last time an avowed athiest ran for the Senate?

The reason these types of consultants concern me so much is because they buy into the right-wing framing on the matter, and then try and capitalize on it - literally. And, in my view, they are the ones who are being divisive, and helping to paint a scarlet letter on anyone who doesn't conform. If Webb or Schuler or Obama wants to talk about their faith on the campaign trail that's fine, but I don't want them doing it because a consultant told them it's the only way to win votes. That's too cynical and dishonest for my blood. It resembles how Southerners have historically used "codewords" to appeal to white voters (something George Allen tried, and thankfully, the voters were too smart for him). If there's one thing the Dems proved this election it's that we can win in every region of the country by speaking to the issues that Americans truly care about: war and peace, our role in the world, economic justice for all our citizens, and being good stewards of planet Earth. If faith informs a candidate's stand on those issues then so be it. But if common sense, logic and ethics informs his/her stand on the issues, that's just as admirable. And no one should be afraid to say so. That's real diversity.

One thing I didn't mention in my post (because a number of other bloggers already have) is the consultants' strategy on abortion, which also hews closely to right-wing talking points on the phony issue of so-called "partial-birth abortion". I can tell you that reproductive choice is a non-negotiable issue for me. And any candidate who tries to play both sides against the middle on that one is not getting my money or my vote. We fought too long and hard for that legal right, and it will be a cold day in hell before I'll accept seeing women and doctors going to jail, or women dying from botched procedures because some Democratic candidate listened to a consultant telling them to finesse the issue.

Posted by: shoephone | Dec 30, 2006 12:01:34 AM

I think any candidate who is "consultant driven", who doesn't know what they think about religion and social issues, is probably screwed from the outset.

When folks say to me that "politics and religion should be separate," I remind them of Martin Luther King Jr. The person usually rolls their eyes and says "Duh!", but my point is made. Democrats and liberals don't have to do the "religion thing" the same way the GOP does. Frankly, there are lots of evangelical christians out there who are mad as hell about poverty, and how Bush is screwing working people. The trouble is that Democrats aren't even trying 100 percent to win their vote right now! That doesn't mean we should ditch our beliefs on abortion or gays or whatever, it just means we talk about what the Bible says about poverty. (Here's a hint: poverty gets talked about in the Bible thousands of times; gay marraige? maybe once, if at all) But candidates who aren't religious shouldn't fake it.

I think Howard Dean's excellent 50 state strategy relates well here. If Democrats want to pick-up a Senate seat in Mississippi or a House seat in Nebraska in '08, they'll have to adapt that strategy to those states.

America as a whole gets the heeby jeebies about atheism. I imagine we've already elected an atheist president/senator, it's just that they were in the closet about it. It's unfair for sure.

As for Glen Beck or any of these other clowns, they're all assholes. I imagine most bubbas in the hills of Virginia couldn't give a shit what book the guy swears on. Besides, Ellison is a class act all the way and he's handling this well. There will be more people of diverse religios backrounds in Congress because of the good example he's setting right now.

Posted by: Will | Dec 30, 2006 1:07:25 AM

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