In this season of the Democratic primaries, everything is perceived in dichotomies of red and blue. We're reminded that the electorate is evenly divided, that ideology is rampant and that the voter sees the issues in negatives and positives.
Polls suggest that George W. Bush will get a large majority of the white male vote and John Kerry will get a majority of the female vote. Conservatives are supposed to appeal to the NASCAR dad, the hard-drinking, hard-living workingman in the stands at the Daytona 500. Democrats will get the vote of the softer, socially conscious liberal ladies. "Democrats trolling for votes among NASCAR dads," says one Republican analyst, "is like a Republican trolling for votes at a NOW convention."
The most cynical observation based on exit polls is not constructive but destructive, not substantive but anger-driven: Democrats will vote for anybody they think can beat George Bush.
Dichotomies galvanize the already committed, creating broad caricatures that defy the complexity of the individual voter, especially the independent voter who can swing an election. Dichotomies reflect the sloppiness and shapelessness of a presidential campaign in its earliest stages. What these observations do is grossly oversimplify what's really at issue here, the future of the United States as seen from the beginning of the 21st century.
The Democrats look back in anger at Florida, but what do they look forward to? Where's the moral vision? George Lakoff, a linguist who studies how political language frames the substantive debate, is hard on his fellow "progressives" for lacking an intellectual framework with a positive vision for the future.
Lakoff describes the two political parties as opposing models of an ideal family. In his scenario the Republicans look for leadership with a "strict father" who sees the world as a dangerous place and who will inspire discipline, self-reliance, a sense of right and wrong in his children so that they can persevere in a tough and fearful world.
Democrats, by contrast, are the "nurturing" party, where the father encourages empathy with others as the route toward responsibility; government grows as a caretaker for the weak. In this perspective, Bill Clinton was the ideal nurturing president, who could feel the pain of his voters and who was willing to move to the right when it suited him. He signed Welfare reform because it was time to change the incentives for getting Welfare recipients off the dole for their own good.
Lakoff is partial to the nurturing party, but he says the Democrats have failed to articulate the virtue of their values to appeal to a broader audience. "Unfortunately, much of the Democratic policymaking has been issue by issue and program-oriented, and thus doesn't show an overall picture with a moral vision," he writes in The American Prospect.
His advice to the Democrats is to "articulate your ideals, frame what you believe effectively, say what you believe and say it well, strongly and with moral fervor." There's a problem here for John Kerry. On all the big issues of war and peace, he has been an issue-by-issue legislator, especially vulnerable to the caprices of changing political winds.
When President Bush visited the Daytona 500 with 180,000 racing fans in the stands and 35 million others watching on television, he gave the traditional executive order: "Gentlemen, start your engines." He was talking about a lot more than race car engines. He was talking about getting out the vote for him.
The NASCAR dad may not be as predictable as certain pollsters paint him to be. He may, in fact, be the kind of complex man (and woman) who will determine this election. Jeff MacGregor, who spent a year on the NASCAR circuit, says the conventional stereotypers don't have a clue to the NASCAR dad.
"NASCAR dad wants a political process, a president, a government, that makes him feel the same galvanizing, heartbreaking pride he feels when he looks at his flag," he writes in the New York Times. "NASCAR dad wants to be moved, inspired, encouraged. NASCAR dad wants to be in touch with his better angels." He wants to know that "all his hard work, all his effortful virtue and his diligent vigilance . all his abiding love of country . is in service of something much greater than himself."
He is made of flesh, blood and fear and is not a metaphorical abstraction.
The "NASCAR dad," like the "NASCAR mom" - like most of us in this election year - want the candidates to appeal to our intelligence, pride and sense of security in being Americans. The candidate who can do that will make like Dale Earnhardt Jr. It's time to start those engines.