History of the Democrats’ ongoing white male problem
Archilochus once said, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” David Paul Kuhn, a seasoned and compelling political writer, obviously knows many things.
One would like to sit with him and a tape recorder, capturing his recall of many conversations with politicians and his reflections on their times. But “The Neglected Voter” deals with one big thing: The tidal and ever-larger losses of white-male voters by the Democrats to the Republicans in presidential elections.
It is not just that these defections, really emigrations in their scale and duration, were fatal to Democratic candidates (except when Ross Perot siphoned away Republicans and independents from the Republican ticket); Democrats knew the danger of these migrations at the time, and had known about them ever since the Dixiecrat revolt of 1948.
Yet so confident were they of the white working man, and so intent were they on nailing down women, minorities and special interest groups, that the elephant in the room went ignored. New warning signs went up in the 1960s. When Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act he grumbled, “we have just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
Worse was to come. Mr. Kuhn details the factors that piled on top of LBJ’s concern and strengthened the swing of white-male voters to the Republican Party. Nixon’s “Southern strategy” was to emphasize his commitment to states’ rights, code for easing up on racial integration, and the strategy bore fruit. He emphasized his commitment to law and order on the heels of the riot in Chicago sparked by anti-Vietnam war young people at the time of the Democratic national convention in that city.
In the 1968 election Democrats won 36 percent of white-male voters, one-half their white-male support in 1964. 1968 made the Republicans look like the patriotic and law-and-order party, and it made the Democrats look like the leftist protest party. The Chicago tableau was reprised in New York in 1970, when construction workers in hard hats charged an anti-war protest group that had tried to take down American flags on the march route.
In 1972 McGovern and the Democrats were seen as anti-war and unpatriotic, even linked by some to Jane Fonda, the anti-war actress. This in spite of the fact that McGovern was an authentic World War II hero, a gritty and accomplished Air Force pilot who brought back his shot-up bomber and crew from a harrowing mission in Europe. Somehow neither McGovern nor his campaign was able to distance him from the peacenik image that Nixon sought to hang on him. Nixon won 58 percent of white labor union members and 76 percent of Southern white men.
As Mr. Kuhn points out, one might have thought that Jimmy Carter, a successful Southern governor, might have recovered a major piece of white-male support. However, his cession of the Panama Canal and his SALT II nuclear-arms agreement with the Soviet Union made him look weak. This was followed by the Iranis invading the U.S. embassy in Tehran and holding the embassy staff in prison for a year while various schemes to get them released were discussed. An air rescue mission failed disastrously. By then major defections of Democrats to Reagan had occurred, and shortly after his election the embassy prisoners were released.
By then the blue-collar, whitemale voter, as Mr. Kuhn analyzes it, had a litany of reasons for turning to the Republican Party. They were in favor of “family values,” gun ownership, strong national defense posture, abortion restrictions, and law and order. They also supported “the working man,” who had begun to see jobs shrink along with union membership numbers. Reagan’s campaign asked, “Are you better off now than you were?” and promised a new and positive approach to the problems of everyday life. As Mr. Kuhn writes, by then the DNA of the white-male voter had become largely Republican.
Bill Clinton was lucky. For him the candidacy of Ross Perot hid the white-voter problem and shifted enough votes from Bush 41 to open the door. But there was no such boon for Al Gore or John Kerry. Since then there has been growing voter dissatisfaction with the thoughtlessness of Bush 43’s preparation for the war in Iraq, as well as with the hollowness of the reasons for the invasion in 2003, but the leading Democratic candidates for 2008 have not, with a few exceptions, stated a determination to leave Iraq expeditiously.
It may be that by November 2008 the war issues may not be so sharp between the parties, and the old reasons for white-male migration to the Republican Party may still be in place.
Mr. Kuhn outlines measures the Democrats will need to support in order to strengthen their appeal to the white-male voter, drawing from his talks with Democratic leaders like Mark Warner, lately the governor of Virginia and at one time touted as a promising presidential candidate. A strong defense posture is one such measure, including rebuilding the Army and greatly improving hospital care for those with physical and mental wounds from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. Kuhn urges that the Democrats get tougher and smarter in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, commit to reducing U.S. dependency on OPEC, moderate their rhetoric on abortion, seek to restore the American work force and industrial base, and alter “free trade” so that it is fairer trade than at present. The reality (this is not Mr. Kuhn’s statement, but my own) is that China is conducting a form of economic aggression worldwide, with predatory pricing of its exports supported by virtually slavelabor rates.
That has to stop, even if it means we leave the World Trade Organization and protect our markets and labor force in ways that the dedicated free marketeers and free traders might oppose. The Democrats are well positioned by history to make the point that cost of labor is not merely a cost to be minimized, but the lifeblood of a significant portion of society.
For Democrats to make such positions credible, they cannot shrink from controversy, triangulate, compromise or play with the meaning of their words for the sake of deniability. They will have to take the risk of alienating sectors of opinion in their own party in order to gain back the white-male voter. If they don’t, 2008 is likely to be another Democratic loss.
The “dilemma” part of Mr. Kuhn’s title means that the Democrats will have to distance themselves partially from their commitment to some of the issues that do not sit well with white-male voters, or at least to put some of these issues on the back burner so that they do not dominate the political dialogue. For example, Mr. Kuhn quotes Mark Warner as questioning whether Democrats need to press such a hard commitment to “choice” in all its manifestations, and whether they are not paying a greater political price than they can afford for their position on gun ownership.
There are larger issues if the most serious problems of our country are to be turned around. Such a dilemma is not going to be resolved without a lot of internal controversy, because any traditional Democratic issue will have some uncompromising backers. Still, the Democrats will need to make some realistic choices and set realistic priorities if the white-male voter is to be brought back to the fold.
David C. Acheson is a retired foreign policy analyst in Washington, D.C.