Thursday, March 13, 2008

"blue" states (pun intended)

Ramesh Ponnuru (of the National Review) in First Things with a review of Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party by Mark Stricherz...

It would have required a lot of prescience to predict in 1965 that American politics, for so many decades based on economic divisions, would soon split over social issues and, especially, abortion. But not even a very prescient observer could have correctly predicted which party would take which side in the coming battles. On abortion, in particular, it looked obvious which way it would break: The Democrats were the party of Catholic Northerners and Southern whites, the party that believed in using the power of government to protect the weak; the Republicans were the party with historical ties to Planned Parenthood.

Somewhere along the line, the parties switched places, with consequences—including the Democrats’ loss of their durable majority—that are plain to see. But how it happened still seems a puzzle, and, in his new book, Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party, Mark Stricherz has provided a crucial piece for solving that puzzle.

Actually, George McKenna has a great article in Human Life Review which seems to solve this "puzzle". But Stricherz provides more detail in pursuing a different angle:

The key, he argues in greater detail than it has been argued before, was the procedural changes wrought by the McGovern Commission. The Democrats’ old presidential-nomination system was run, in essence, by the political bosses from the big-city machines. Stricherz thinks the bosses, who were often Catholics from working-class backgrounds, have gotten a bad rap. They were better on civil rights than we remember them. They were in touch with the values of the country’s Democratic majority, which is why they had a pretty good track record of nominating winners.

Still, Stricherz recognizes that, even if the outcomes of their decisions were democratic, their procedures weren’t—and the boss system could not withstand demands for reform. Enter the secularist activists. They wanted to overthrow the bosses and, initially, to create a more democratic system. The unit rule, whereby every vote in a state’s delegation went to the candidate who got a majority, was an early target. But more representative procedures were not the reformers’ only goal: Many of them wanted new rules that would benefit candidates running against the Vietnam War. Many of them were also sympathetic with the broader agenda often described, at the time, as the New Politics.

On Stricherz’s telling, a Democratic-party activist named Fred Dutton emerged as the reformers’ chief theoretician. Dutton thought that the New Deal coalition was breaking apart. Mass affluence was making the old economic issues less pressing. A rising youth and feminist vote held promise for the party’s future, but working-class white voters were, too often, hostile to “the forces of change.” What Dutton sought, writes Stricherz, was “a Social Change coalition, which would be composed of college-educated suburbanites, blacks, and liberated women, in addition to young ­people.”

Dutton and his allies got the Democrats to adopt quotas for young people and women in picking delegates to the 1972 convention. Of course, these quotas violated the reformers’ democratic mandate. But they made it far easier for George McGovern to get nominated.

The reformers had, in effect, become the new bosses. Feminists, who had not been sure whether to start their own party or side with one of the established ones, saw the opportunity that the quotas presented them, and they quickly took power within the Democratic party. Although there was talk of undoing some of the reforms after the Nixon landslide of 1972, the new bosses were able to continue as a dominant influence in the party.

Secular liberals, including feminists, pulled the party sharply left on social issues. Over McGovern’s objections, they tried to make the Democratic platform of 1972 support legal abortion; they later succeeded. In 1980, over Jimmy Carter’s objections, they succeeded in making the platform support taxpayer-funded abortion too. (Carter had signed the Hyde Amendment, which restricted funding.) Since then, every Democratic presidential nominee has favored both Roe and taxpayer funding of abortion....

The party as a whole has suffered as a result. The new, secularized party alienated working-class white voters and Catholics. McGovern himself saw the weakness of the new coalition. “Our main problem is the blue-collar Catholic worker,” he told Theodore White in the early fall of 1972. The new nominating system had produced a candidate who could not be elected, and it would repeat the pattern often. The social issues, Stricherz insists, are a major reason Democrats have lost six of the last nine presidential elections.

There are still people who dispute that contention but not as many as there used to be—so few, in fact, that Stricherz does not feel compelled to go through all the copious evidence for it. Liberal positions on abortion and same-sex marriage have repelled more voters than they have attracted. Perhaps even more damaging, such positions have made religious traditionalists, even those without strong views on those particular issues, feel unwelcome in the Democratic party.

In the aftermath of the 2004 election, Michael Lind wrote that social liberals could be a minority within a majority party or a majority within a minority party. What they could not be is a majority within a majority party, because there are not enough of them to go around....

Good stuff! Along with McKenna's article, a helpful effort to assist in understanding a strange political shift on abortion...

Finally, a key paragraph for contemporary political analysis: The Democrats will not have an incentive to consider such a shift unless they are beaten in this Presidential election-- one they "should" win. Even if they lose this election, they're likely to blame it on the contentious primary affair between Clinton and Obama. I can't picture the Dems truly wrestling with this issue until after the 2012 election....

At the moment, the Democrats are uninterested in any such reform. They think their party is doing quite well. It has retaken control of Congress and is favored to take the White House this fall. There are a lot more affluent social liberals than there were in 1972. (Perhaps Dutton was right but just a little too early.) Still, Stricherz believes the Democrats are deluding themselves. They have had a run of good luck, notably with the course of the first four years of the Iraq War. If their luck changes, their social liberalism could continue to act as an anchor on their fortunes.


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