By any reckoning, Tom and Geri Suma should be Democrats. Both come from Democratic families. Like many of his and his wife’s forebears, Tom started out on the line for Chrysler. Geri voted for Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 primaries. And they still keep a bust of JFK in the living room.
The turning point for them came when Democratic politicians began to support busing programs that would have taken their son, Greg, miles away from the neighborhood school one-and-a-half blocks from their home in Warren, Michigan. They were not opposed to having blacks bused into their school. Rather, they were worried that they would not be able to reach Greg, an asthmatic, because he was too far away.
That was the first step. The liberal indifference to their problems led them to question other aspects of the Democratic agenda. In 1968 Geri voted for Nixon because of busing but felt guilty about it and kept quiet. By 1972, she says, she started to realize the Democrats weren’t going to come back. Jimmy Carter’s disastrous economics sealed it. They voted for Reagan enthusiastically twice, and today consider themselves solid Republicans.
In Minority Party, Scripps Howard newspaperman Peter Brown cites the Sumas to support his argument that the Democrats simply abandoned the middle class, the values as well as the people. Some of this, he argues, is because many of the old ethnics (Irish, Italians, Poles, etc.) acquired more Republican tastes as they bought into the American Dream: Some part, too, is a result of the foreign policy negatives of George McGovern and the overall positives of Ronald Reagan. But the main reason is that the Democrats began to question the whole American premise of opportunity, as important to those on the bottom as those in the middle and on top. “The people who are not middle class are trying to become middle class [and] those who are in the middle class are trying to do better,” says John Lewis, a black Democratic Congressman from Atlanta. “The Democratic message doesn’t appeal to their aspirations.”
Brown suggests that the big divide is race. By giving black Democratic leaders a veto power over party policy, the Democrats have been steadily alienating the white majority—without whom it is simply impossible to win a presidential election. This is not racist; it’s math. Nor, from the evidence he provides, are Democrats likely to recover, if only because the people who make such decisions are so different from the people they have to appeal to. “What the data show,” writes Brown, “is a Democratic primary electorate disproportionately made up of those either not competing in the economic marketplace or protected from it by unions or government service.”
To be sure, Brown is no Reagan Republican. He’s not even a Reagan Democrat. As he makes clear from the start, he is simply a Democrat from a long line of Democrats. But this only makes his claims all the more compelling—not to mention courageous. To write what he writes within the Democratic party today is to be tarred as a racist. Brown knows this, but he insists he is merely a physician giving an unpopular but nonetheless accurate diagnosis without which any recovery is impossible.
Ironically, although the book is ostensibly about minorities, specifically racial minorities, what Brown really is getting at has more to do with ideology than race. True enough, in the public mind the Democrats have become “the party of blacks.” But it’s truer still to characterize them as the party of those blacks who see the answer to everything in government. Whether this constitutes the majority of blacks or whether there are significant sectors of the black community that think otherwise is a question not pondered here. The fact is that, even though every other racial minority is at least split on the issue, as a party the Democrats and their black leaders have adopted an exclusively statist understanding of minority rights.
The result is that the black alliance within the Democratic party is not with other racial minorities but with ideologically based groupings—feminists, gays, unions—who are now divorced from the values of the party’s traditional base, not to mention those of the black public (Jesse Jackson, for example, flip-flopped on almost all these issues once he decided to run for the nomination). For the book’s purpose Brown limits himself largely to how the white majority, without whom reconquest of the White House is impossible, is reacting to these perceptions.
Mostly they are reacting to a palpable double standard. In the 1989 Senate contest between Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt, for example, a weakened North Carolina Senator faced united opposition from a black candidate who enjoyed the support of a national liberal alliance that pulled out all the stops to defeat him. Even when they lost, Democrats could not bring themselves to believe that it was due to anything but racism (though Gantt’s own pollster is cited to the contrary). The irony, of course, is that while Helms’ counterattack on the civil rights legislation left Democrats aghast, they saw nothing unseemly in their own efforts to paint him as Grand Kleagle of the US. Senate. Brown notes the absurdity of the Democratic National Chairman’s basic position that “there was no legitimate way for a candidate who opposed the civil rights bill to raise the quota issue.”
For all the book’s concern with politics, however, the heart of Minority Party is a moral proposition: the legitimacy of success in America and the validity of opportunity. In modern America, the Democratic leaders have promiscuously embraced the values (or lack thereof) of the counterculture. They
see virtue in poverty and think that it should be rewarded. The middle class thinks differently. It puts in an eight-hour workday and, in many cases, two more hours commuting. Middle-class people figure they get what their hard work deserves. They are the ones who build the wealth and pay the taxes that support American society. In their view, those who don’t work or who don’t work productively fail to keep their end of the social compact.
This is the message that comes through from the many average Democrats (typically former Democrats) who became disaffected with their party when it drifted off into the fever swamps of the left. At times Brown seems to suggest that this disaffection is traceable to the suburbanization of the working class, which he believes contributed to a loss of interest in good old-fashioned Democratic class warfare. Undoubtedly affluence did breed new attitudes. But in fact the party changed much more than its people.
This is because (as Brown’s own summation of their feelings shows) there is no evidence that working or middle-class Democrats who moved out to the suburbs after working hard for the privilege changed their moral standards when they moved. More likely they moved out of the city when the cities became inhospitable to their moral beliefs. It wasn’t too long ago, for example, that areas of American cities where angels now fear to tread were wonderful places to live. Indeed, cities became inhospitable to the middle class about the same time the Democrats shifted their own attitude toward that class.
When Democrats attacked the rich in the old days, they did not attack either wealth itself or success. In the old days unions were formed precisely so that members could share in the wealth and riches they helped create. Not only has the definition of “rich” been ratcheted down dramatically—not least among the reasons for voter rejection of the Democratic message is that they know that “soak the rich” will shortly translate into taking more from the middle class—the idea of making it, once so crucial, has been delegitimated. The Democratic message today is that “those who have prospered in American society have somehow done so at the expense of those who have not, regardless of whether or not the successful person acted wrongly.”
The lower and middle-class hostility toward Democrats stems from this moral divide. Brown is closer to the truth of things when he cites Louise, a self-professed liberal who turned on the party after seeing welfare children coming to school in designer jeans while she was sewing her own clothes to make ends meet. Brown calls the kind of system that tolerates this “an insult to her parents’ work ethic. “It’s hard to imagine an FDR, a Truman, a Kennedy thinking any differently.
Even today’s vehement opposition to affirmative action is a result of the way Democrats have defined and defended it. Most Americans accepted the argument that past discrimination had disadvantaged black Americans and that special help was required to get them back on their feet. At the time of the civil rights struggle, moreover, black leaders argued for integration and opportunity rather than quotas and set asides; one wonders whether the Rev. Martin Luther King’s speeches would be acceptable in the Democratic Party of the 1990s. The public beef with affirmative action is not over the original inspiration but the reality that ensued: a manifest failure—and, to explain that failure, the increasing resort to victimology.
If I have a quarrel with the book (apart from its tendency to exaggerate the role of suburbia in changing values instead of understanding it as a refuge), it is that Brown’s acute understanding of Democratic weaknesses at times makes him prone to attribute more to Republican planning and acumen than the Grand Old Party deserves. Reagan was an exception, to be sure, and his consequent popularity among traditionally Democratic voters was obvious. But Minority Party makes it clear that Reagan hastened a process that would have happened if Republicans had done nothing at all.
In the end, the key Democratic mistake is that they continue to peddle exclusively government answers even to questions that are social, economic, and spiritual in nature. This in turn has bred an attitude that the solution to every conceivable social ill is but a million dollars (or a million condoms) away. As former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt puts it, “We became the party of permissiveness, not tolerance.” Whatever disagreements Americans may have about where the line is to be drawn, they will continue to be reluctant to bestow the presidency on anyone who doesn’t understand the distinction.
William McGurn, Washington bureau chief of National Review, is author most recently of Perfidious Albion: The Abandonment of Hong Kong 1997.