His­tory of the Democrats’ on­go­ing white male prob­lem

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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