How the Dems Alienated Catholics and Working-Class Whites
Ramesh Ponnuru, writing at First Things, reviews Mark Stricherz' book Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party:
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.(emphasis added)
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.
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.”
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 nominating system had produced a candidate who could not be elected, and it would 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 repeat the pattern often. The social issues, Stricherz insists, are a major reason Democrats have lost six of the last nine presidential elections.