Politics & Policy

Ben Wattenberg and the Death of the Reasonable Democrat

Ben Wattenberg died this week at the age of 81.

He gave me my first job in Washington, as his research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. (I returned to AEI as a fellow a few years ago, my office just a few doors down from where Ben used to work.) 

Ben was one of the last star pundits of what might be called the Old Order, before cable news and the Internet transformed the landscape. When everyone was rushing to CNN to shout at each other on Crossfire, he launched a PBS show called “Think Tank” that aimed at high-minded conversation above the din. (I produced the show for several years.)

He had a remarkable career. A speechwriter for LBJ, Ben became a self-trained demographer. In 1970, he wrote The Real Majority with Richard Scammon, the former head of the Census Bureau. It was a data-driven analysis of the American electorate — the first to marry demographic data with public polling data. The impact of The Real Majority was enormous. The Washington Post said it was the “most influential study of the American electorate ever published.”

RELATED: Ben Wattenberg, RIP

The impact was huge, but not what Ben intended. The Democratic party was in the throes of McGovernism, an eggheady, quasi-isolationist, movement-oriented liberalism that many voters took for thinly veiled anti-Americanism.

Meanwhile, a savvy aide named Pat Buchanan gave the book to Richard Nixon, who was looking to build his own movement out of what he called “the silent majority.” Nixon loved it. “We should aim our strategy primarily at disaffected Democrats, at blue-collar workers, and at working-class ethnics,” Nixon said. “We should set out to capture the vote of the 47-year-old Dayton housewife.”

Contrary to the rhetoric of the Democrats and their intellectual supporters, the majority of Americans were in fact ‘unyoung, unpoor, and unblack.’

That housewife was a statistical fiction, a composite created by Wattenberg and Scammon. The typical American voter was “a 47-year-old housewife from the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio, whose husband is a machinist” and whose brother-in-law is a cop. (Take note: Even nearly a half-century ago, Ohio was still an electoral lynchpin.) Contrary to the rhetoric of the Democrats and their intellectual supporters, the majority of Americans were in fact “unyoung, unpoor, and unblack.” They were instead “middle-aged, middle-class, and middle-minded.”

“Will it sell to the Dayton housewife?” became the new “Will it play in Peoria?” for political consultants. TV host Dick Cavett even found an actual Dayton housewife to interview as if she were an oracle of the age.

RELATED: Weinstein and Wattenberg: Patriotism, Optimism, and Good-Natured Debate

The real majority, Wattenberg and Scammon argued, broke to the right on “social issues” — a now-ubiquitous term coined by the authors — which covered the waterfront of non-economic issues from law-and-order and drugs to student revolts and cultural malaise. They cited polls from 1969 showing that 94 percent of Americans wanted universities to come down harder on student protests, 84 percent were against the legalization of pot, and 84 percent were in favor of stricter obscenity laws. By nearly a 2–1 margin, Americans wanted the next Supreme Court vacancy filled by a conservative (49 percent to 27 percent).

Democrats ignored it all. They thought economic populism could hold the old Democratic coalition together, while cultural leftism would bring in ever more young and minority voters.

Nixon won reelection by a landslide, carrying 49 states, with 52 percent of voters under 30. Only Ronald Reagan, who followed a similar (though not identical) electoral strategy, matched Nixon’s success.

There are virtually no prominent Wattenbergian Democrats anymore. But that’s in large part because the world of the Dayton housewife is no more.

Jimmy Carter won in 1976 by running as a somewhat culturally conservative Democrat from the South (and aided enormously by the Watergate hangover). In 1992, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, a member of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (the heir to the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, co-founded by Wattenberg), ran as a “different kind of Democrat.” He was pro–welfare reform, pro–death penalty, and at least claimed to be hawkish on defense. Ben endorsed Clinton in 1992 but not in 1996.

Ben’s death is an end of an era for me personally, but it also marks the end of an era for the Democrats. There are virtually no prominent Wattenbergian Democrats anymore. But that’s in large part because the world of the Dayton housewife is no more. Bill Clinton’s wife isn’t running like Bill Clinton. She sees no advantage in trying to win the old silent majority or the swing voters who used to decide presidential elections. A changing culture, evolving technology, and Barack Obama’s elections seem to have convinced her that McGovern was simply ahead of his time. For Ben’s sake, and the country’s, I hope she’s wrong.

— Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. He can be reached by e-mail at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. (C) 2015 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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