Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party
by Mark Stricherz
Encounter, 315 pages, $29.95
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.
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.
Stricherz does not underscore this point, but I will: The Democrats who ran for president in 2004 and who are running in 2008 have almost all voted to keep even partial-birth abortion legal. Most of them have said that they would make sure that any justice they appoint to the Supreme Court supports Roe. Most of them have voted to treat assaults on pregnant women as crimes with one victim rather than two. In January, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama sparred over legislation to protect children who survive abortions, with Clinton accusing Obama of opposing it too timidly. Every significant Democratic candidate has been forced to accommodate the party's new orthodoxies in order to get ahead.
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. Stricherz, one gathers, would be comfortable in a Democratic party that returned to its working-class roots and its economic focus but that made a place for social conservatives. Given the unlikeliness of ideological conversion by the Democrats, Stricherz proposes various reforms to return the party to the people. He would abolish quotas, let independents vote in primaries, and eliminate caucuses, which magnify the influence of dedicated activists over regular voters.
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.
This analysis points toward an agonizing choice for pro-life Democrats, who have already had to make more than their fair share of such choices. After the 2004 election, some leading Democrats—even John Kerry—said they were willing to rethink, if not their fealty to the abortion lobby, at least the slavishness with which it was expressed. In 2006, they downplayed social issues and even ran some socially conservative candidates. But victory seems to have dampened any interest in continuing to move to the center on social issues. For pro-life Democrats to gain any more influence, their party may have to lose some more elections.
Why the Democrats Are Blue inspires speculation about the past as well as the future. I wonder if Stricherz starts his narrative just a few years too late. Perhaps the 1964 election contained within it the seeds of the new Democratic party. Upscale liberal professionals in the North had been Republicans until then, out of distaste for the Democrats' Southern segregationists and Northern machines. The civil-rights revolution, the fading of the bosses, and the Goldwaterite takeover of the Republican party moved many of them into the Democratic camp, where, over time, they were bound to push some of the party's old constituencies out.
The process fed on itself. As the Democratic party became more liberal, more conservatives joined the Republican party—and more liberals left the GOP for the Democrats. This “great sorting out,” as Democratic political theorists William Galston and Elaine Kamarck have phrased it, might have happened even if the party's rules had not changed.
It may be that it was conservative activists, not liberal ones, who were the prime movers in the realignment of our politics, and that they remade America—if not always in the ways they had intended.
Ramesh Ponnuru is senior editor of National Review.