On his way from the display of a life-size Butter Cow to the fried Twinkie stand, John Kerry turned to an aide and asked, “Could we get a smoothie?” In the land of corn, where the Iowa State Fair serves everything fried, it was a sign of perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Democratic Party: not losing its capacity to cast a wide net of unity over sectional differences.
Remarking to reporters — regardless of intention — that winning the South is not necessary for the Democratic nominee to win in November, might be mathematically correct, but is nonetheless disastrous in the political calculus. It is true that Kerry would only have to carry Missouri, in addition to the states carried by Gore in 2000, to win the White House, but that is missing the essential point.
The strength of the Democratic party originated in its ability to unite people across sectional divides — working at the grassroots level to bridge gaps and forge local partnerships. The arithmetic of electoral politics realistically means that John Kerry — like the Clinton-Gore Campaign before him — need not follow this tradition to win this November; the future of the Democrats, however, requires it.
In an age of D.C. politics and patrician New Englander nominees, it is perhaps easy to forget that the roots of the Democratic party lie in the bluegrass country of the Upper South. But more importantly, it’s easy to forget that the ideological roots of the Democratic Party lie in its ability to articulate common interest beyond sectional differences.
Nationally, the Democrats are on the verge of nominating someone who asked for a smoothie at the Iowa State Fair, where the only dishes served are steak and fried Twinkies. This won’t be a problem, however, if instead of simply calculating the electoral significance of various regions, the party remembers its ideological origins.
In fact, the Democrats would do well to take a cue from New Haven politics.
In Ward 22 — consisting of four Yale colleges and New Haven’s Dixwell neighborhood, which lies just across the street from Morse and Stiles — there is a partnership that reminds us what Democrats are all about. Here, a Yale student — Alyssa Rosenberg, a sophomore in Silliman College — and Sheneane Ragin, a Dixwell resident, are running together for Ward 22 Democratic Committee co-chairs, responsible for party endorsements, neighborhood advocacy, and holding elected officials accountable. In a city often divided between Yale and the neighborhoods around it, Alyssa and Sheneane’s partnership is not only unprecedented; it also represents the sort of partnership that has been sorely lacking among Democrats, both nationally and locally.
As Kerry and Edwards struggle to articulate plans that target the specific constituencies they hope to sway — like Edwards’ rural issues focus in south-central Iowa or Kerry’s reduced wire fee rates to target southwestern Latinos — Alyssa and Sheneane are demonstrating how even “divided” communities can be addressed as a collective whole.
Here in New Haven, Sheneane and Alyssa have chosen to focus on reopening community centers that serve both Dixwell residents and Yale students, stopping speeding cars that endanger 4-year-olds on Ashmun Street and students on Tower Parkway, and rebuilding community policing efforts to protect shops on Bristol Street and students traveling to or from DKE late at night. These issues don’t address just Dixwell or just the residential colleges. They address all of the people in Ward 22. And Alyssa and Sheneane are asking all of the people of 22 — students and Dixwell residents alike — to come out and vote for them on March 2.
The partnership reminds us of the importance of creating local bridges; the importance of campaigning on unity, not sectionalism. It reminds us that smoothie and fried Twinkie aside, there are issues at the heart of the Democratic platform that have the capacity to invigorate all voters.
Perhaps the Democratic Party will be reminded of this too.
If so, then it won’t be just a great March, it will be a great November.