Politics & Policy

The Once and Future Democratic Party

Put this to a vote.

A Democratic victory in 2008 is not inevitable, Mark Stricherz argues.

In his new book, Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party, Stricherz maps the recent history of a party that has lost the allegiance of the working class and Catholic voters that once constituted its base. Stricherz talks to National Review Online Editor Kathryn Lopez about what went wrong and how they can fix it.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s “shortsighted” about democratic inevitability predictions for 2008?

Mark Stricherz: In almost every general election since 1972, the Democratic party’s association with abortion and homosexuality has damaged its nominee politically. George McGovern was tagged, famously, as the candidate of the three A’s — acid, amnesty, and abortion. Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1984 were seen as captives of the feminists. Michael Dukakis in 1988 got killed on the abortion issue, according to a little-noticed ABC poll at the time. Bill Clinton acknowledged that the party’s cultural liberalism hurt him in many states.

#ad#Sure, a Democratic nominee can win despite his or her secular liberalism. Three quarters to four fifths of Americans don’t vote on cultural issues. But of those who do, 75- to 80-percent vote against the more culturally liberal presidential candidate, the Democrat.

I advise those skeptical of my thesis to read or reread Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg’s 1970 classic The Real Majority. That book warned Democrats to finesse what they called the Social Issue, one component of which was values issues. I am not saying anything new here.

Lopez: Why are pro-abortion feminists so influential in the Democratic party?

Stricherz: Now I am saying something new. If the national parties in the late 1960s and early ‘70s had stayed the same, feminists likely would have aligned with the Republican party, which seemed to be their natural home. President Nixon in 1969 had signed an executive order allowing military hospitals overseas to perform abortions, while the Democratic party seemed to be run by male Catholic bosses.

But in 1969 the Democratic party was in the midst of an internal coup d’etat. Antiwar Democrats were enraged that at the 1968 convention not only had McCarthy been denied the party’s nomination, but also that the peace plank had been defeated. So a group of New Politics leaders used a reform commission, which was chaired by Senator George McGovern, to hijack the national party.

They had a major insight: to change the party’s support for the Vietnam War, you had to change the way delegates are selected. After all, delegates vote not only on the party’s presidential nominee, but also its platform. They also figured out that besides young people, the group most likely to oppose the war was women. So in 1969 this group succeeded in passing a proposal that required all 50 state Democratic parties to do the following: a “reasonable” percentage of your presidential delegates must be female. This mandate, as well as a few others, took the delegate selection process out of the hands of the bosses and into those of the New Politics activists.

In 1971, the National Women’s Political Caucus was founded. Its leaders found out about the McGovern Commission’s implied quotas, and they told their members to run as Democratic delegates. (By contrast, the GOP had no delegate quotas.) At the 1972 Democratic convention, 43 percent of all delegates in the hall were women, while in 1968 only 13 percent had been female. In 1978, the DNC, acting at the behest of feminists, required that 50 percent of each state party’s delegates must be female, which is the requirement that endures to this day.

Besides being antiwar, most of these female delegates supported abortion rights. And at the 1980 convention, they had sufficient numbers to approve a plank endorsing taxpayer funding abortions. The revolution in delegate selection had transformed its ideology, just as the handful of leaders on the McGovern Commission predicted.

Lopez: What’s a Caseycrat and how many are there?

Stricherz: Caseycrats are a subset of Reagan Democrats. They are culturally conservative and fiscally populist or liberal. They support the government’s role in helping the vulnerable, the poor, and the working classes. They favor extending legal protection to unborn children, few gun-control laws, making health care universal or more affordable, and improving the public schools and job training. Demographically, Caseycrats usually are Catholic or religious working-class whites.

The important point about Caseycrats is not so much the number of them as where they live. Caseycrats are a major constituency in Rust Belt states — Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. They were a key reason why in 2000 George W. Bush came out for steel tariffs, while Al Gore stopped talking about gun control.

Lopez: Even smart-politician Bill Clinton who would later end welfare as we know it would not let Casey speak. Casey, of course, is no longer with us. But, given the same or similar chance, would his wife let the pro-life Dem speak?


Stricherz: Hillary Clinton told me that she would let a pro-life Democrat give a speech about abortion at the national convention. But don’t count on this happening. The secular and religious liberals in charge of the party machinery have a history of excluding pro-life Democrats from the national stage. Robert Casey was prevented from speaking at the 1992 and 1996 conventions. A group called Democrats for Life of America was barred from linking its website to that of the DNC. And pro-life Democratic Tim Roemer, a respected member of the 9/11 Commission and former representative, was defeated in his bid for the DNC chairmanship because of his opposition to most forms of abortion.

#ad#To be sure, congressional party leaders recruited Casey’s son to run for the Senate. But the leaders of the party’s presidential wing don’t have the same leeway. They can’t handpick candidates for individual districts or states.

Lopez: Is there a Catholic vote and does it belong to Republicans now?

Stricherz: Yes, there is a Catholic vote. Look at districts in the Rust Belt and Midwest. In congressional races, pro-life Democratic candidates win, while pro-choice Republican ones lose. But in presidential races, they vote for culturally conservative Republican candidates, not culturally liberal Democratic ones.

Also, consider the recent history of the white Catholic vote. Since the Catholic bosses were toppled after the 1968 election, white Catholic voters have cast a majority or plurality of their ballots for Democratic presidential candidates three times — once for Jimmy Carter and twice for Bill Clinton — and even then at levels not approaching those before 1972. This represents an important shift. From 1928 to 1968, Catholic voters gave a majority of their votes to every Democratic nominee, including twice to the divorced Adlai Stevenson.

Catholics represent about a quarter of the electorate. No, they don’t belong to the Republicans in the way that they did to the Democrats; even poor Hubert Humphrey in 1968 got almost three fifths of the Catholic vote. That said, the Catholic vote at the presidential level is marginally Republican.

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.

Look at the electoral map of the last two presidential races. Want to know why Democrats lost Northern and borders states they used to win — West Virginia, Ohio, Missouri, Kentucky? These voters were alienated by the national Democratic party’s commitment to the agenda of feminists, gays, and secular liberals. In fact, most of those voters were Nixon and Reagan Democrats, the blocs that defected in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Also, consider the field of Democratic presidential candidates. Want to know why there is no pro-life Democratic candidate, an ideological counterpart to Rudy Giuliani? The party has lost its conservatives, most of who were Catholics and white-working class voters. In the last Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, almost three-fifths of Democratic voters possessed a four-year college degree. (By contrast, only two-fifths of all voters in a general election have earned such credentials). Also, few Democratic primary voters are religiously observant.

Lopez: How was abortion feminists’ Vietnam? (Didn’t they live through Vietnam too? I thought I remembered Jane Fonda having something to say about it?)


Stricherz: On the eve of a key party-platform meeting in June 1972, Gloria Steinem told George McGovern that feminist leaders considered the legalization of abortion their number one issue. After all, she said, more women were dying from botched abortions back home than men were dying in Vietnam. Steinem’s remark illustrates the intensity that feminist leaders attached to the abortion issue. In their eyes, no other issue, not even day care or equal pay for equal work, was as critical.

#ad#The fact that the Democratic party became the “party of death” was damaging enough. Joseph Califano, a former aide to Lyndon Johnson, recounted that when the party debated planks over abortion and gay rights at the 1972 convention, he feared that the planks would infuriate and alienate millions of middle-class Democrats.

But feminists compounded the problem by seeking to marginalize pro-life Democrats. When a Democrat gave a pro-life speech at the ‘72 convention, Steinem told McGovern aide Gary Hart that they were “bastards” for letting the pro-lifer speak; when Jimmy Carter in 1977 signed the Hyde Amendment into law, feminists accused him of legislating his personal views. In other words, feminists wanted the Democratic Party to do more than embrace abortion rights. They wanted the party to muzzle those who disagreed with them.

Lopez: You write: “Should the news from Iraq improve, the economy stay strong, and the republicans nominate a cultural conservative, more voters will be likely to make their choices around issues like abortion and homosexuality.” How might that shake out if the Republicans have a pro-choice nominee?

Stricherz: As everyone knows, Republicans would lose votes from religious traditionalists. Yet Republicans would also lose ground with working-class voters, though of course many of these people are also religious traditionalists.

Working-class voters tend to be culturally traditional. According to Voter News Service data from the 2000 election, 52 percent of whites with a high school diploma or less believed that most abortions should be illegal. (By contrast, only 37 percent of whites with a college and postgraduate degrees said they wanted the same). Losing ground among this group of voters could be disastrous. Almost three-fifths of voters in the past two general elections had not earned a four-year college degree.

Lopez: Does that mean that abortion and gay marriage are good issues for Republicans? That social conservatives aren’t all bad news electorally?

Stricherz: In a general election, abortion and gay marriage are very good issues for Republicans. Just look at recent history. Abortion and homosexuality became voting issues in 1972. In that time, Republicans have nominated a culturally conservative candidate eight of nine times; the exception was Gerald Ford in 1976. Six of those eight nominees won. By contrast, consider the era from 1932 to 1968 when cultural issues weren’t in play. Republican presidential nominees lost seven of those ten elections. In what field besides politics is a .750 winning percentage considered worse than a .300 one?

Lopez: Why should the Democratic party be revolutionalized?

Stricherz: Oh, let me count the ways. First, the presidential wing of the party has not been in the majority since the McGovern Commission. Its nominees have lost six of the last nine presidential elections; not since 1896 to 1928 has the party had a worst stretch. Also, only one Democratic nominee has received more than half of the popular vote. By contrast, three different Republican nominees (Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43) have reached the 50-percent plateau.

Second, the national party has done little for its constituents. It’s true that Democrats have prevented Republicans from de-federalizing many social programs and have decreased the likelihood of U.S. troops fighting overseas. But that’s about all that can be said of its Social Change coalition. By contrast, the party in its New Deal coalition phase helped create a mass middle-class, aided the poor and vulnerable, extended legal protection to black Americans, and defeated the Nazis.

Third, national party leaders have suspect motives and competence. No matter the cost, they fight hardest to prevent unborn infants from having legal protection. After the 2000 election, Stanley Greenberg wrote a post-election analysis in which he partly attributed Al Gore’s defeat to his unlimited support for abortion rights. So what was the first major event for the party’s candidates in 2004? It was a dinner celebrated by NARAL honoring the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade. After the 2004 election, Greenberg wrote another post-election analysis in which he largely attributed John Kerry’s defeat to his unlimited support for abortion rights and backing of civil unions. So have the party’s top nominees run away from gay rights groups and the abortion industry? No, they attended events hosted by Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign.

Lopez: How should it be?

Stricherz: The party’s nominating system needs to be democratized. The goal should be for more participation, not less; for ordinary people to control the process, not activists. To that end, the party should enact three major steps. Repeal the 50-50 male-female quotas for delegates. Allow independents to vote in all Democratic primaries. And abolish all caucuses, which make it difficult for ordinary voters, such as young mothers and third-shift workers, to participate.

Lopez: Is this realistic?

Stricherz: Yes. No leadership class stays in power indefinitely. In 1948, the Catholic bosses replaced white Southerners as the party’s leaders. After 1968, secular and religious liberals toppled the Catholic bosses. The reckoning will come; it’s just a matter of time.

Lopez: Who can remake the Democratic party?

Stricherz: The obvious candidate is Hispanic Catholics. They are religious and have fairly high birth rates. Unfortunately, neither is sufficient to transform the party. They also need to develop a leadership class, a political elite of lawyers and businessmen; as Samuel Lubell pointed out in his 1951 classic The Future of American Politics, such a rising middle class would provide the necessary leadership and financial support.

Lopez: Why should a pro-life Republican care?

Stricherz: Imagine if both parties could nominate pro-life presidential candidates. The debate in this country would no longer be whether unborn infants deserve legal protection. It would be which protections should be enacted and whether government should spend money to help save unborn children and their mothers.

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