John Kerry vs. George W. Bush. Michael Moore vs. Mel Gibson. Hillary Clinton vs. Newt Gingrich. Smarter kids vs. smarter bombs.
According to an advertising blitz that saturated the New York Times and the Washington Post starting in early August, and the book those ads promoted, the first of each of these pairs is Metro and the wave of the future; the second Retro and consigned to the past.
It was a catchy campaign, but it’s more than clever ad work. The economist authors of The Great Divide, the free downloadable book at www.retrovsmetro.org, are providing what the Kerry campaign has failed to: a pithy, forceful, easily grasped conceptual framework that casts the Democrats as the party of a bright and prosperous future and the Republicans as ossified and doomed. It may be the best thing to hit the Democrats all campaign season.
Kerry’s focused assault Monday on Bush’s miserable record in Iraq gave supporters fresh hope that the campaign is shedding its timidity. But even muscular criticism of Iraq is not enough. Kerry needs a singular, positive vision for the country, a loud, empowering “yes” that drowns out Bush’s disingenuous retorts and the rest of the Republican noise machine.
The Great Divide supplies one. The simple prescriptive offered in the book is that Metro America, basically the Blue States, is on the ascent, while Red-State Retro America totters toward extinction, and if the Democrats succeed in revitalizing their Metro base they are assured success in retaking Congress and the White House, if not now, in 2006; if not in 2006, then in 2008.
It couldn’t come at a better time. While Democrats test and discard slogans and visions (whatever happened to Two Americas?), this framework offers an original, map-based model for understanding US politics, and it packs the added credibility of having been created by economists rather than politicians.
The flashy-yet-wonky ad campaign outmaneuvers the Republicans‚ simple and memorable, but false and bitter sound bytes (remember “the danger is we’ll get hit again”?), beating them at a game they have dominated for far too long.
Most importantly for a dispirited left, it portrays the Democrats and their natural constituents as winners. This is not the Democrats as critics of a war they initially supported in overwhelming numbers.
This is not the Democrats as defensive line against an onslaught of Christian right values or a Republicanjuggernaut of tax breaks for the rich. This is the Democrats as the party of educated, diverse, open-minded people who are leading the way to the future, the party of “Inclusion, Science and Security.”
John Sperling, the trade unionist-turned-entrepreneur who became rich after founding the University of Phoenix, a pioneer in higher education for working people, is bankrolling the project. He has spent more than $1 million on advertising, starting with the weeks-long tease campaign in the Times and the Washington Post depicting diametrically opposed icons cryptically labeled “Metro” and “Retro.” During the Republican convention, a full-page ad opposite the headline “Social Conservatives Wield Their Influence on Platform” read: “99% of Republican state and federal legislators are white.” Another ad trumpeted “Take Back America One Page At A Time.” More than 100,000 people have visited the Web site since its Aug. 16 launch; of those, more than 30,000 have downloaded the book at no cost. Another 25,000 bought it on Amazon.
Sperling has succinct advice for Democrats groping for a strategy: give up trying to sway swing voters in Retro states and focus on the traditional base.
“The Democrats have got to realize they’ve got to write off Retro America. It’s gone,” Sperling says. “They’ve got to become the party of Metro America. It’s a lot of hard work, but the numbers are in their favor. If they do it they’re almost inevitably going to become the majority party.”
Metro America, according to Sperling and his co-authors, is the seat of the New Economy, the best universities, progressive social and cultural movements, ethnic diversity and secularism, the birthplace of the country’s future wealth and cultural inventions. Comprising New England, the mid-Atlantic, the Great Lakes states, and the West Coast, it’s populous and wealthy. Home to 65 percent of the US population and growing, richer Metro America pays $200 billion a year to support Retro America through oil, mining and agriculture subsidies. Between 1991 and 2001, Metro America paid $1.6 trillion more in federal taxes than it received, while Retro states received $800 billion more in services, subsidies and cash than they paid in taxes.
Retro America, conversely, is characterized as mostly white, deeply religious, socially conservative, wedded to the old extractive economy, and dependent on federal welfare. In many of these states, the fruits of federal dollars flow to the rich, leaving public schools and other services underfunded and contributing to Retro America’s dismal records on education and income parity.
“Retro America is on the dole,” the authors write, “yet uses its political power to limit and ultimately eliminate social programs that assist the nation’s poor.”
Consisting mainly of southern, Rocky Mountain and Great Plains states, Retro America is shrinking as job-seekers and immigrants head for Metro states.
“Gerrymandering and the growth of the fundamentalist churches might retain the Republican majority for an election or two, but whether the party chooses to remain White or become multiethnic, the Republican will probably become the minority party,” according to The Great Divide. “If our analysis is correct, demographics will slowly bring the current Republican ascendancy to an end, even in Retro America.”
At that point, the authors write, the Democrats will be able to reinstate progressive taxation, move toward universal health care, rescue social security, fund alternative energy research, strengthen unions and otherwise implement policies that benefit working people of all races and classes.
Utopian, maybe, but how long has it been since lefties dared to even hope for these things? Even if The Great Divide is less playbook than source of inspiration, it still serves a crucial purpose.
Should Kerry’s new toughness fail to stick and the campaign founder, it provides hope for the midterm elections and the presidential election after that—something that among Democrats has been in all-too-short supply.
Or, as Sperling says, “Hang in there. Better days are coming.”