Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

Mark Stricherz account of how the Democrats shifted from being a relatively Blue Collar Catholic party to being mostly the party of the secular liberal elites would have been worthwhile at any time, but it is invaluable at the moment where commentators are trying to explain what is at issue between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. For in the contest between the two can be felt the lingering aftershocks of the tectonic shift that this book so ably chronicles.

Mr. Stricherz traces the revolution in Democratic Party affairs to the McGovern Commission, which sought, in the wake of Hubert Humphrey's 1968 loss to Richard Nixon, to alter the nomination process in order to guarantee that an anti-war nominee would be chosen in 1972. As party activists like Fred Dutton realized, this required shifting the balance of power within the party away from the urban political machines that had long exercised control:
In trying to wrest control of the party machinery from the big-city and state bosses, Fred Dutton had one overarching goal: He wanted to change the Democratic Party's coalition. His goal was nothing less than to destroy the New Deal coalition, which had united the party around a broad, working-class agenda. In its place, he sought to create what he called a Social Change coalition, which would unite the party around the social, economic, and foreign policy concerns of young baby-boomers. [...] [T]he agenda of the New Politics leaders was revolutionary. From 1932 to 1968, the Democratic Party had been united around the issue of economic inequality. The party had received the vast majority of its votes from two groups: Northern Catholics and Southern white Protestants. The party's presidential nomination process had been designed so that state party leaders would pick the nominee based on his ability to help the local ticket back home. Catholic bosses controlled the party's presidential wing and hence the party machinery. The party was a Catholic, Southern, and blue-collar party. [...] [Leaders of the New Politics] wanted Democrats to be united around opposition to the war, combating racism, creating economic opportunity, and generational issues. They wanted the party to receive votes mainly from young people, blacks, and college-educated suburbanites. They wanted activists and votrs to select the nominee based on ideological compatibility. They wanted to turn the Democratic Party--though they never used the exact terms--into an affluent, activist, and secular party.
The results of their "successful" revolution are known well enough--no Democratic presidential candidate has received 50% of the vote since and the only Democrats to be elected in that time have been conservative (rhetorically, at least), Evangelical, white Southern male governors. While the Party's official position on social issues is indeed secular--pro-abortion, pro-homosexuality, etc.--even Democrats refuse to nominate a secular candidate and the nominees who have come closest to espousing this ideology--George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry--have either been blow out or lost entirely winnable races, or both. As one would expect, a party oriented towards the concerns of the elites has had terrible difficulty appealing to the unwashed masses.

In fairness to the revolutionaries, Southern whites were always out of place in the party of the Left, their presence there a residue of the Civil War and dependent on the willingness of men like Woodrow Wilson and FDR to ignore, or even embrace, Jim Crow. Once the great civil rights wars had been won, in the 60s, nothing could have kept socially conservative Christians from gravitating towards the party of the Right, the GOP. And, in the longer term, observant Catholics were (and are), likewise destined to end up in the conservative party. But by making social innovations like abortion, affirmative action, gay rights and the like the centerpiece of Democratic Party politics, the advocates of the New Politics seem to have quite consciously alienated the former base of the party. With the perspective that Mr. Stricherz provides, this early phase of the Culture War takes on the quality of an ideological cleansing, with the new generation of well-educated boomers almost acting out a Freudian ritual whereby they killed off the party of their working class fathers and drove The Father out of the party.

Which brings us to 2008, where Hillary Clinton, like her husband before her, is something of a retrograde figure--a Southern white Christian who talks about lunch bucket issues--while Barack Obama is very much the candidate of the intellectuals and secular utopians, a candidate whose sole selling point seems to be that he affords you the opportunity to demonstrate that you're the kind of white person who would vote for a black person. Where Ms Clinton offers the middle class concrete proposals -- the wisdom, utility and comprehensiveness of which can be debated -- Mr. Obama's campaign is almost entirely content-free. Pretty much the only substantive promise he's made is to bring the troops home from Iraq -- pleasing enough to the boomers who think of the war as Vietnam-redux and protesting it a chance to recapture their youth -- but hardly a sufficient policy platform to base a presidential campaign on. Thus, while it is Ms Clinton who has been accused of injecting the matter of race into the campaign, it is really Mr. Obama who is running on little more than the fact of his own racial identity. This kind of identity politics is a built-in danger of the New Politics, where an overarching political philosophy has been replaced by an attempt to cobble together various self-interested cohorts. But his supporters like the idea that Mr. Obama is some kind of post-partisan, post-political, post-ideological candidate, even if it means that they are judging him by the color of his skin rather than the content of his character. Sad as that is in its own right, we've seen Ms Clinton in turn use the mere fact of her gender as a counterweapon. The political calculus is pretty straightforward, even if disheartening: there are more women voting in most Democratic primaries than blacks and liberal activists combined. Add in Latino voters--who can easily be pitted against blacks--and her path to the nomination is clear. Nevermind debating ideas, in the New Democratic Party if you can combine enough of the identity groups you win.

There is though one obvious problem with this sort of race-baiting campaign. Not only do the Democrats risk alienating the losing identity group, but, just as the secular liberal revolution drove away Southern white Protestants and Northern white Catholics, the Party's continuing secular captivity must, over the longer term, cost it black Christians and the socially conservative Latino vote as well. George W. and Jeb Bush have already demonstrated how easily the GOP can make inroads among Hispanics--who are better suited ideologically to the conservative Christian party--and you have to assume that black voters will eventually forgive the GOP for LBJ, rather than a Republican, being the president when civil rights reforms were enacted. As these changes occur, a party that has cast itself as the liberal secular party in opposition to the conservative Christian party can not expect to fare very well in a country where religious belief is thriving and where the demographic divide between seculars and religious is gaping. The decline that Mr. Stricherz writes about is only likely to get more precipitous. To comprehend the realignment of modern politics in favor of the Republican Party you have to understand the process by which Democrats made themselves Blue--essentially made themselves a post-Christian, European-style party--and this book will go a long way towards helping you understand how that happened.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Mark Stricherz Links:

    -AUTHOR BLOG: In Front of Your Nose (Mark Stricherz)
    -BOOK SITE: Why the Democrats are Blue (Encounter Books)
    -ARCHIVES: Mark Stricherz (National Review)
    -ESSAY: Primary colors: How a little-known task force helped create Red State/Blue State America (Mark Stricherz, 11/23/2003, Boston Globe)
    -ESSAY: Why I am a Catholic Democrat (Mark Stricherz, 9/12/07, Inside Democrat)
    -ESSAY: Abortion Appeal: Roe has never been popular. (Mark Stricherz, 1/22/08, National Review)
    -ESSAY: Enough to Make a Dem Blue: Bad news for Democrats in Iowa. (Mark Stricherz, 1/03/08, National Review)
    -ESSAY: A Moral Majority: Soccer moms are more anti-abortion than you think (Mark Stricherz, 08/04/2003, Weekly Standard)
    -ESSAY: Bonding with baby: Why Ultrasound is turning women against abortion (Mark Stricherz, 12/02/02, Crisis)
    -ESSAY: Goodbye, Catholics: How One Man Reshaped the Democratic Party (Mark Stricherz , Commonweal)
    -ESSAY: Roberts´s Wife Off-Limits (Mark Stricherz, 9/11/05, National Catholic Register)
    -ESSAY: Marriage at the Polls: Will gay-marriage initiatives give Bush a boost on November 2? (Mark Stricherz 08/30/2004, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW: Of Can a Catholic Be a Democrat? How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion by David Carlin (Mark Stricherz, Crisis)
    -REVIEW: of Party of Death by Ramesh Ponnuru (Mark Stricherz, NY Sun)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview: how the Democratic Party was hijacked: In an exclusive interview, author Mark Stricherz recounts how the Democratic Party, once supported by Catholics, has been secularized over the last 40 years. (CNA, January 28, 2008, Daily Estimate)
    -INTERVIEW: The Once and Future Democratic Party: A Democratic victory in 2008 is not inevitable, Mark Stricherz argues. (National Review)
Lopez: What was the McGovern Commission and why is it important for the average American and registered Democrats, especially — to know anything about it?

Stricherz: The commission was supposed to democratize the Democratic party's presidential nominating system. Instead of bosses in smoke-filled rooms picking the nominee, voters in ballot booths would do so.

When the commission was approved, at the 1968 convention in Chicago, Democrats recognized that the party had to change. Southern whites, a staple of the New Deal coalition, were leaving the party. But what new coalition would the Democratic Party adopt? Bobby Kennedy offered one answer: a "have-not" or "black-blue" coalition — an electoral alliance that added two new constituencies, young people and blacks, but did not downgrade the interests of two old clients, Catholics and blue-collar workers. Eugene McCarthy offered a different one: alliance that added not only young people and blacks, but also college-educated suburbanites, and marginalized the interests of Catholics and blue-collar workers.

The question wasn't answered by Kennedy or McCarthy. Rather, it was answered by a handful of people on or associated with the 1969-72 McGovern Commission — Fred Dutton, Ken Bode, Eli Segal, Anne Wexler, George McGovern. They sided ultimately with Gene McCarthy, that the party should be formed into what Dutton called a Social Change coalition.

The consequences from the McGovern Commission have been profound. The Democratic Party grew more in harmony with the interests of the New Left rather than the Old Left; college-educated students rather than blue-collar workers; ideological activists rather than ordinary voters.

    -ARCHIVES: "mark stricherz" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party by Mark Stricherz (W. James Antle III, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Why the Democrats are Blue (Rick Perlstein, Democracy)

Book-related and General Links: