Let’s assume, for a moment, that Red and Blue really are inalterable and opposed. It’s not a wise or accurate assumption, but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume just that. What could Democrats do?
Grant McCracken has had a series of posts giving Democrats advice from a semi-disinterested Canadian’s point of view. It’s probably worth a read, left or right. He wants a conversation to really argue sincerely down to first principles in order to build respect for one another. He hopes it isn’t so that there are only a few fundamental, inarguable differences. Free markets can achieve social justice goals, or gay marriage can strengthen families overall.
But pretend for a moment he’s utterly wrong, and there’s no compromise possible on these first principles, but given the shared history and sheer annoyance of it all, you rule out total war or secession (or just giving in, buying a plaid flannel shirt and learning who Michael Waltrip is). What would be a political strategy for Red staters and Blue staters to both get what they want, assuming they still want to live in the same country?
Federalism. States’ rights. Local control. Devolution. It has many names, but they are all terms for getting decisions out of DC and down to as local a level as possible. Sure, it’s inconvenient, and there are certain constitutional quagmires (else gay marriage in Massachusetts would not have frightened evangelicals in Texas so). But think about it: if you want to preserve your Blue state lifestyle from those meddling Republicans in DC, well, you’re getting a taste of what Jon Stewart termed “the last 30 years were like for [the Red staters].” Now you may know why they were so eager to resurrect the banner of “States’ Rights” during the 60s and after.
But as long as you thought you had the power and it couldn’t be usurped, well, you could just make them hillbillies fall in line. Of course, it’s happened, and now you feel it coming from the other side. That kind of power isn’t fun on the receiving end when it’s your values being crushed by people who think you’re just as wrong as you thought they were (and are).
Say for a moment that “values issues” are driving a wedge in the traditional base, and you want to get them out of the way. Let Massachusetts have gay marriage and a liberal welfare system, and let South Carolina have God in public schools and no unions. You get yours, they get theirs. Sure, it’s ugly because you know that it’s a raw deal for those who don’t like banning alcohol sales on Sunday, but let’s face facts: you’re in danger of having a Federal mandate being passed for just such a thing–in New York.
Think of it if these issues were to devolve to the local level. Once they were gone, bread and butter national issues (the economy, foreign policy, etc.) would become the dominant game in DC. And on that front you have a fighting chance. Once blue-collar types who would normally vote for you are secure in their non-gay-marriageness, they might turn to other issues you’d like better.
The nice thing is that it’s not about turning the Red states into the Dark Ages forever. Despite the lack of Federal action on the subject, Red states have been getting rid of blue laws to the point where Pennsylvania and New York are different, but not noticeably less restrictive overall, than South Carolina when it comes to alcohol sales.
Several polls indicated that evangelicals turned out in about the same proportion they did in 2000. That means support for these issues may be widespread but weak. So the intellectual battle over gay rights is not over. However, it’s not going to be moved at the Federal level any time soon.
So argue for devolution. Currently several Federal restrictions prevent states from implementing some of the cultural conservative’s agendas. Offer to support Bush in removing them in return for devolving Federal responsibilities back to states and localities. Then don’t give up the fight on cultural issues, but instead argue reasonably that your states aren’t turning into Gomorra just because a few sodomites are getting access to health benefits. Give aid and comfort to those working in Red state legislatures. Then only once there’s a broad consensus, argue for technical reasons that things should be standardized at the Federal level. As noted in the link above, there may be such a consensus for civil unions.
For my next trick, I’ll argue why in a few years Democrats may want to become the party of smaller government.