In one of those ironies to which history is no stranger, the George McGovern coalition has resurfaced in the electoral calculations of twenty-first-century conservative Democrats. In today’s Democratic Party, it is the right wing whose strategy pairs racial minorities with the affluent, educated middle class. This partnership’s previous appearance on political center stage, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira remind us in The Emerging Democratic Majority, was as the left-wing loser of the landslide presidential election of 1972.
A brief backward look sheds light on current alignments. The McGovern campaign grew out of years of antiwar and civil rights activism. Its origins lay in a political current called the New Politics, which shared some key premises with the better remembered New Left while diverging sharply from the New Left’s antidemocratic conclusions. Both presupposed that the working class had become conservative and was no longer the core of the movement for social change. Where the New Left called on the remaining progressives-students, oppressed races, and cultural minorities-to make a revolution, the New Politics was committed to electoral action and understood that these groups were too small by themselves to form a majority.
The New Politics thus made a broader appeal, modeled on civil rights victories of a few years earlier. It turned to a “constituency of conscience” committed to procedural reform, peace, racial justice, and social tolerance. Working-class voters lost to racial backlash-a shift accelerated by the movement’s moralistic focus on white racism-would be replaced by the growing affluent and educated middle class. College towns, upscale suburbs, and newly gentrifying urban neighborhoods were indeed becoming Democratic as blue-collar areas moved rightward.
There was more hope than vote-counting behind this strategy, and Kevin Phillips, Richard Scammon, and Ben Wattenberg produced devastating critiques based on polling and election returns. But such writings did little to dim its appeal; the theme of well-educated reformers against the organized “interests” had deep roots in American political culture. Some Vietnam War opponents uncannily resembled the 1880s feminists of Henry James’s The Bostonians, and the McGovern reformers’ unrelenting focus on procedural details of the presidential nominating process recalled the mugwumps’ fixation on civil service reform in the same decade. The will to believe was strong, and only the disaster of 1972 would discredit the New Politics strategy.
The years that followed saw shifting alliances among Democrats. The election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 pulled middle-class reformers toward the center, while what remained of the party’s intellectual left resumed its alliance with labor. With many of the neoconservatives who had opposed McGovern becoming Republicans, an intellectual vacuum opened up on the right side of the party.
Into this void in the mid-1980s stepped a group called the Democratic Leadership Council. Initially organized by elected officials, mostly from the South, and financed by business lobbyists, the DLC at first seemed to recapitulate the themes of McGovern’s critics. It urged support for a strong national defense and mainstream cultural values while avoiding divisive racial issues.
But there was a crucial difference. The DLC, like the more extreme of the New Politics theorists, saw labor as the real enemy. DLC founder Al From had even supported McGovern’s former campaign manager, Gary Hart, against labor-backed Walter Mondale in 1984. Where New Politics critics Scammon and Wattenberg had urged “progressivism on economic issues and toughness on the Social Issue,” New Democrats abhorred big government and tax-and-spend liberalism.
The New Democrats had studied the lessons of Democratic defeats and could convincingly guide candidates away from mistakes that had led to past losses. But how were elections to be won? At first, the DLC was much clearer about what to avoid than what to do. By embracing Bill Clinton, whose political genius included an uncanny ability to reconcile populism and centrism, they delayed hard choices and gained time to think. As the nineties passed, a distinctive electoral strategy crystallized.
In the mature New Democratic theory, the crucial swing voters are suburban soccer moms and their spouses, the office park dads. Forget working-class Reagan Democrats, who represent the old politics and are declining in numbers anyway. Seek votes in affluent, educated, and tolerant suburbs-where voters conveniently want the government to create “private-sector economic opportunity” that will enrich the New Democrats’ business backers-while reaping the benefits of demographic growth among blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. As pollster Mark Penn puts it, Democrats “must develop a message and policy agenda that consolidates earlier gains among suburban women and minority voters while capturing a much larger percentage of suburban men.”
What were this message and agenda to be? The DLC did not lack for policies; beginning in the late eighties it had developed carefully thought-out plans that addressed real problems while avoiding offense to corporate interests. Focusing on the use of market mechanisms in the delivery of government services, it endorsed charter schools, managed-competition in health care, and a raft of smaller reforms. A communitarian strand of thought led to support for national service for young people. The ideas were worthy, but they were thin gruel. As attractive as some of the individual proposals might be, they were no more attractive to the New Democrats’ target voters than to anyone else, and they were hardly the inspiration of a movement.
To draw votes from their upscale suburban constituency, New Democrats found themselves falling back on a more centrist version of the social issues of 1972. Reproductive choice was now a majority position, and they embraced the abortion issue. DLC theorists also favor gay rights, although candidates are often less enthusiastic. Reversing the Scammon and Wattenberg recipe, New Democrats proudly dub themselves fiscal conservatives and social progressives.
This is an ancient formula in American politics (which perhaps explains why its users are so overinsistent on their own newness). Election returns show that political alignments around social issues have shifted much less than DLC rhetoric would suggest. Democratic margins grow in older, inner suburbs where McGovern did relatively well. Expanding outer suburbs-where one finds the young married computer programmers whom New Democratic pollsters love to talk about-vote Republican.
An issue that exemplifies the strengths and weaknesses of the New Democratic approach is gun control. Passionately embraced by soccer moms, it has real political appeal to a target constituency. It is also backed by blacks, whose allegiance the New Democrats need to retain. It offers an answer to violent crime, an issue that brought past generations of left-wing Democrats to grief. Opposition comes from declining rural areas, whose votes New Democratic theorists propose to write off anyway. And, never to be forgotten, it affects only a narrow segment of big business and requires very little in the way of government expenditures.
But the politics of gun control contains hidden pitfalls. It can be argued plausibly that what offends control advocates is the gun owners as much as the guns. The movement is centered, after all, in affluent suburbs where armed criminals are rare. In the wealthy New York, Philadelphia, and Washington suburbs where voters are most exercised by the issue, insider trading is a more common felony than assault with a deadly weapon, and shutting down stockbrokers instead of gun dealers would yield a sharper reduction in the crime rate. What the fervor for gun control does is reinforce social distinctions between these neighborhoods and the more plebeian precincts where guns are common. It’s not hard to see why a deer hunter might think it has more to do with snobbery than public safety.
These overtones matter because the numbers still don’t add up for the new coalition. The recent Maryland gubernatorial election is a textbook example. Democratic candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, running in a state about as demographically congenial as one could hope, followed the DLC recipe to a T. Her campaign focused heavily on gun control while avoiding any hint of populism. Unable in a state election to run as a foreign policy hawk, she did the next best thing by choosing a Republican admiral as her running mate. The result? Townsend maintained heavy Democratic margins in highly educated inner Washington suburbs, inspired strong support from growing Hispanic and Asian communities, and got a good if not outstanding turnout from black precincts. Her opponent ran well among Baltimore’s white working class, ran away with rural areas and outer suburbs, and became Maryland’s first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew.
The Maryland election reveals another trap awaiting the New Democrats. Their strategy largely takes minorities for granted, relying on Republican racism and xenophobia to maintain high levels of Democratic support. But Republicans have read the demographic tea leaves, and they make no secret of their intention to cut into Democratic margins, especially among Asians and Hispanics. New Democrats are hard put to respond. Their economic conservatism precludes a pocketbook appeal to low-income voters; to maintain minority support they must fall back on explicitly racial issues. Thus, when Maryland Republicans signaled their openness to diversity by nominating an African American for lieutenant governor, Townsend could only counterattack by pointing to her opponent’s past voting record on civil rights. She wound up making racial preferences the sound bite of the campaign’s only debate. The New Democrats had come full circle to the domestic politics of George McGovern.
There are plenty of Democrats who can count better than the DLC and who understand that Democratic victory can’t be built from the votes of minorities and the affluent alone. Judis and Teixeira round out their emerging Democratic majority by adding a “respectable showing” among economically motivated white working-class voters. They suggest that candidates accomplish this by combining a New Democratic suburban appeal with the older populist theme of the many against the privileged few.
Judis and Teixeira are undoubtedly correct about where a Democratic majority must come from. Votes must be won simultaneously from upscale suburbs, minorities, and the white working class. But the numerical weakness of the New Democratic coalition cannot be overcome simply by grafting a traditional economic appeal onto the DLC strategy. An election platform is not an arithmetic problem, solved by adding one constituency’s issues to another’s. Political programs gain support from one group of voters by showing them how their interests and values differentiate them from another group. Issues such as gun control that win votes from one Democratic constituency by setting it against another can blow a coalition apart.
There is more than one appeal that Democrats could make to the growing suburban constituencies. Historically, elite reformers have had the most resonance when confronting genuine scandal. From Grover Cleveland’s creation of civil service to Archibald Cox’s investigation of Watergate, indignation spread far beyond the narrow social milieu of the reformers. Today, there is the organized corruption of campaign finance and the malfeasance of the Enrons and Worldcoms. These issues engage the moral indignation of the affluent and educated-in the case of stock market scandals, their pecuniary interests too. And a focus on such matters is no impediment, to say the least, to winning votes among the working class.
As potent as these themes may be, New Democrats have abstained from raising them. The DLC has hardly been heard from on campaign reform, and it actually urged candidates to avoid talking about Enron in last year’s election. This reflects the organization’s real constituency-not the minorities whose votes it takes for granted, nor even the soccer moms it lauds, but the business lobbies who pay the bills.
What makes New Democrats the new McGovernites is not their quest for the votes of the educated and affluent, but the means they use to that end. Barred by their big-business allegiances from a focus on the true scandals of the day, they bypass issues that could unite the “constituency of conscience” with constituencies worried about tomorrow’s paycheck. Unable to appeal to the common citizenship of all, they call on the seamier side of elite altruism, the sentiment of moral superiority over the benighted white working class. The motivation, to be sure, differs from that of 1972, but the difference is not to the New Democrats’ credit. Then, indignation at racism led to confrontations that incited white backlash. Today, fealty to corporate paymasters is the driving force. Whatever the inspiration, similar strategies yield the same result-a Democratic Party that makes itself a permanent minority.
Benjamin Ross is a community activist who writes frequently for Dissent.