"What's the matter with Kansas?" asked Thomas Frank 14 years ago in a book of that title. His painted Kansans as posters children for what's wrong with American politics, specifically that Republicans had convinced people to vote against their own interest by rallying them around hot-button cultural issues like abortion. Since then Frank's demographic analysis has been roundly criticized as statistically naive, but much of his argument is valid.
Among his more salient, and still relevant, points is that the Democratic Party establishment has (and is) foolishly trying to beat Republicans at their own game, going after corporate donors instead of grassroots support and sticking close to centrist, so-called "moderate" campaign planks. Instead, Frank writes, all the evidence of history shows that Democrats win best when they appeal to their progressive elements.
There are problems with such sweeping generalizations. Bill Clinton, for example, won twice with a decidedly centrist platform. But Clinton's victory may be the exception to the rule. And his last victory was 22 years ago. Vast quantities of water have passed under the bridge since then, including the most recent attempt to stick with the safe candidate, who just happened to share Clinton's surname.
One of the things that have changed is the ascendancy of Bernie Sanders and those who have successfully embraced his quasi-socialism (i.e, well-regulated capitalism). Democrats at the top of the party's power pyramid say that Sanders and candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may be great for New Hampshire and New York City, but states like Kansas need to stick with more conservative options because, well, because Kansans are conservative.
Really? James Thompson, a Democratic congressional candidate running a strong campaign in Kansas, doesn't buy it.
“If a centrist model is what works (in Kansas) then why has that centrist model not won the past 20 years, and in fact lost by 20-30 points in every election since (1992)?” Thompson asked me. “The idea that we need to be more like Republicans so we can beat Republicans is asinine. We need to have a clear choice. Something to vote for instead of against.”
The polls say Thompon is running only five points behind the Republican opposition. And if you want to get inspired, read The Guardian's examination of his chances. Here's how it starts:
In a dim corridor backstage, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders looked down at Kansas congressional hopeful James Thompson’s denim jeans and black boots. “Hey James,” Sanders said without cracking a smile. “Could I borrow your cowboy shoes?”
Thompson took just a second to recover from the razzing.
“I wear them because the shit’s so deep around here,” he replied.
How do you not immediately begin to like the guy? Thompson clearly has the charisma that can take one far in life. A friend mine from Indiana lamented the other night that the Democrats have no chance of taking back the White House in 2020 until and unless they find someone with enough natural charm to get people fired up the way they Obama could. He could be right. But that's not the challenge this year.
This year it's about the mid-terms. And there's absolutely no reason why we can't generate the enthusiasm of the quantity and quality of Thompson, Sanders, and Ocasio-Cortez at the local level. And at least here in Western North Carolina, the incumbent Republicans that we're trying to dislodge don't have a monopoly on charisma. If anything, they are bland and uninspiring generic GOP bench-warmers. Our Democratic candidate for House 113, Sam Edney, for example, gives a great stump speech and can easily know the socks off of Cody Henson when it comes to rhetorical acumen. And how hard should it be to get rid of someone as manifestly unqualified as Ralph Hise?
Here's some more of the Guardian story, just to drive home the point that a healthy dose of spunk can go a long way in this game, if we're just willing to stick to our convictions, rather than play it safe:
This scrappy attitude is not the empty bluster of a fearful ego with an orange combover seeking to preserve itself. It is a knowing of one’s own strength, fortified by the mortal dangers of poverty, labor, misogyny, white supremacy.
It is the Statue of Liberty looking a bully in the eye in a barroom and saying to someone standing behind her: “Hold my torch.”
Read the whole thing. I guarantee you will feel better about November if you do. And then watch Sam's campaign video.