It isn’t just the economy, stupid

First published Nov. 7, 2015

Matt Bevin, during his visit to Bardstown in late September for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, told me something that helps explain his nearly nine-point win over Jack Conway in last week’s election for governor.

“When I began this race, I was focused entirely on economic issues … . Yet in recent days and weeks … the social issues have moved to the forefront and probably will stay there,” he said.

This was right after a county clerk had been jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples because it violated her religious convictions, and also after outrage over revelations that Planned Parenthood had been harvesting body parts of aborted infants.

The folk Bevin talked with in every hamlet care about these things, he said.

These are the same people President Barack Obama insulted when he said working class Americans “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them” because they’re frustrated with their economic situations.

Years before, Bill Clinton’s campaign guru, James Carville, came up with his unforgettable dictum for his campaign workers — it’s “the economy, stupid.”

But it isn’t, and never was entirely.

This may come as a surprise to most Democrats, but what bothers many rural voters even more than the economy is the mindset of secular urban liberals that people like them — who honor God, enjoy guns, trucks and church picnics, and cherish traditional family values — are cretins or circus freaks.

These common people care about the environment, but also care about unemployed miners and their families. They don’t want abortion to be a crime, but they know it’s a tragedy and can’t understand women who talk about their bodies as if babies weren’t also bodies and souls. They think government should give a helping hand to those who need it, but not endless handouts to those who won’t help themselves.

The Democratic Party calls itself the party of the people, but it hasn’t been that for a long time. It mostly represents an affluent, college-educated, culturally liberal, suburban white minority.

But who represents the black Baptist preacher who is concerned about out-of-wedlock births, the drug culture and youth violence?

Who represents the teacher who wants out because she can’t control her students who have never been disciplined by their parents and have no respect for authority?

Who represents the police officer that puts his life on the line every day to protect others, only to be treated with contempt because of the actions of the few who are a discredit to their code of honor?

Voters who support public education, fair wages, affordable health insurance and the promise of Social Security, but who also are socially conservative should be the natural constituency of Democrats in Kentucky and most other rural states, but almost no one is offering that choice anymore. Their choice is either a Republican Party that cares more about millionaires’ hedge funds than Head Start, or a Democratic Party that is liberal across the board. Is it any wonder that the fastest growing party affiliation is no affiliation at all — or independent?

It’s true that Kentucky Democrats are a little different than Democrats in San Francisco or Boston.

Jack Conway, to his credit, sued the Environmental Protection Agency over regulations intended to shutter coal-fired power plants. He took a cautious, wait-and-see approach on Medicaid expansion and listened to what the actuaries were saying. And he said he favored finding a solution that would protect county clerks’ rights of conscience while ensuring that those who are legally entitled to marriage licenses can get them. But every circular that came in the mail from the Republican Governors Association mentioned Obama’s name about as many times as Conway’s, because the president is not popular in Kentucky.

State Auditor Adam Edelen did almost everything right in his four years in office and had some significant accomplishments, such as putting a corrupt former commissioner of agriculture in prison, making special taxing districts more transparent and holding them accountable to elected officials.

Yet Edelen admitted during a campaign rally at Wickland that the policies of the national Democratic Party often make it hard to wear the brand in Kentucky.

He’s right. As long as they are identified with a party that is out of touch with the bedrock moral and cultural values of most people in this state, the influence of Kentucky Democrats will wane until they are politically viable only in cities like Lexington and Louisville.

In fact, after last week’s Republican landslide, I think Kentucky is already close to becoming a one-party state, as it was from the Jacksonian era until the 21st century, when it was solidly Democratic except for pockets of Republicanism in places like the 5th House District and affluent suburbs of Northern Kentucky. But this time, the one-party state will be red, at least until the millennials become the majority, assuming they don’t become more conservative as they age, as most generations do.

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