Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party
By Mark Stricherz
(Encounter Books, 315 pages, $29.95)
Believe it or not, there was a time when it was possible to survive and even thrive within the Democratic Party as a principled opponent of abortion. In 1972, the same year the party acquired its “acid, amnesty, and abortion” label, two pro-lifers made it onto the Democrats’ national ticket.
Thomas Eagleton — the man Robert Novak credits with coining the Democrats’ triple-A sobriquet — was George McGovern’s first choice for a running mate. Eagleton was replaced on the ticket by fellow abortion opponent Sargent Shriver. And although he had to upset pro-life frontrunner Edmund Muskie to win the nomination, McGovern himself was more ambivalent about abortion than his countercultural supporters.
In chronicling the decline of the pro-life Democrat, however, political journalist Mark Stricherz assigns a considerable amount of the blame to McGovern and a commission bearing his name. His book Why the Democrats Are Blue traces the decline of the “people’s party” to the displacement of its socially conservative base among blue-collar Catholics and (to a much lesser extent) Southern Protestants by white-collar secular liberals.
When bills expanding access to birth control began wending their way through state legislatures, they often passed with the votes of Rockefeller Republicans over the objections of Catholic Democrats. The GOP, the party of Phyllis Schlafly, endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment in its platform years before the Democrats adopted such a plank. Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie were initially more vocal in their opposition to liberalizing abortion laws than Richard Nixon.
Consider the long (by no means exhaustive) list of high-profile Democratic politicians who began their careers as abortion opponents only to embrace a pro-choice position as their political fortunes advanced: Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Joe Biden, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, Richard Durbin, and Dennis Kucinich. Even Bill Clinton once wrote, in a 1986 letter to Arkansas Right to Life, that he was “opposed to abortion and government funding of abortions.” Democratic opposition researchers and attack ad-makers beware: Mitt Romney has had plenty of company in the abortion flip-flopping business over the years.
ALL THESE DEMOCRATIC pols changed because their party did. On the social and cultural questions of its time, the Democratic Party of the 1960s and early ’70s was a house divided. It was the party of both the Southern defenders of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement. It was also the political home of both moral traditionalists and ’60s radicals.
Although many Catholic Democratic leaders tried to keep the New Deal party together, combining economic liberalism and support for blacks’ civil rights with social conservatism, these divisions came to a head at the 1968 convention in Chicago. The clashes between the demonstrators in the streets and Mayor Richard Daley’s police convinced much of the “Silent Majority” that the Democrats were on the other side. And it convinced many of the young liberals who worked within the Democratic power structure but sympathized with the demonstrators that the party bosses and political machines needed to be supplanted.
Enter the McGovern Commission. Ostensibly aimed at making the Democratic Party more small-d democratic, it reduced the role of party officials and bigwigs in the nomination process while increasing the importance of caucuses and primaries in choosing delegates to the national convention. But the commission also mandated quotas to enhance the representation of women, minorities, and the youth movement.
Stricherz contends that the net result was to bias the process in favor of the party’s most liberal elements, shutting out working-class social conservatives. And as the Democratic Party tried to make itself look more like America, it began to have less in common with the American electorate. The 1972 election, with McGovern at the helm, was a debacle, with the disenfranchised Catholics and Southerners contributing to Nixon’s 49-state landslide.
Jimmy Carter briefly contained the damage. A Southerner and born-again Christian who absorbed the lessons of McGovern’s loss, he played the middle on social issues. Running against the moderate Republican Gerald Ford in 1976, he opposed both a constitutional amendment overturning Roe v. Wade (without being especially supportive of Roe itself) and taxpayer funding of abortion (he later signed the Hyde Amendment into law). That year, he carried both social liberals and social conservatives by a narrow margin, winning the presidency with pro-life and pro-choice votes alike.
THE FRAGILE COMPROMISE came apart in 1980, when Ronald Reagan invited social conservatives — many of them Reagan Democrats — into the new Republican majority coalition. Stricherz recounts the familiar stories and statistics about these voters helped the GOP win the 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004 elections, except for when Bill Clinton reprised the Carter model in 1992 and 1996.
Like, in their own ways, Ramesh Ponnuru in The Party of Death and David Carlin in Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?, Stricherz makes a powerful case that social liberalism has hurt the Democrats. He is much less persuasive about what to do next. He can’t argue for returning to the old undemocratic boss system and provides little evidence that the recommendations he does make — more open, less blue-state primaries and optimism about Hispanic social conservatism — will turn the tide.
The book also comes at a bad time. The Democratic Party has managed to win control of both houses of Congress while being only marginally more open to cultural conservatives. The two most frequently cited examples of this new openness are pro-life Democrats Harry Reid, whose record has become much less pro-life as he’s moved up in the leadership, and Bob Casey Jr., who voted to overturn the Mexico City policy against taxpayer funding of pro-abortion groups.
Even without taking Stricherz’s advice, the Democrats may be poised to increase their congressional majorities next year and are favored in the presidential race. The Republicans seem to be increasingly split between undermining their social-issues advantage by nominating Rudy Giuliani or mimicking the Democrats’ old fusion of social conservatism and economic liberalism by nominating Mike Huckabee.
Why the Democrats Are Blue is a welcome reminder of social conservatism’s continued relevance and the Democratic Party’s better angels. But sometimes, you can’t go home again.