The Democratic Party, liberals and white racism (2 of 2)
The specter of the Willie Horton ad haunted Democrats in 1992
In my Part 1 post under this title, I talked about the advice many Democrats prior to the 1992 elections were giving their Party to distance themselves from anything that smacked of racial or "social issue" liberalism. It was at best a dubious idea then, and it's wildly out-of-touch now. But it has more than a lingering appeal, as witnessed by the addition of an anti-abortion provision to the Affordable Care Act of 2010 at the insistence of Democratic Blue Dogs.
The 20th anniversary issue of The American Prospect (June 2010) contains several articles providing retrospectives to the discussions over the future of liberalism and the Democratic Party that were current when the magazine debuted in 1992. It had become conventional wisdom after the 1988 Presidential campaign, in which Old Man Bush used the infamous Willie Horton ad and the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag to tar Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis as un-American, soft on crime and blacks, and generally weak and unreliable. Some campaign consultants and Democratic officials, particularly those associated with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), advocated that the Party take a more conservative stance. Different advocates of that course favored varying degrees of conservatism on the Party's part. The fact that Dukakis prior to the general election campaign seemed to be a model of a pragmatic, non-ideological Governor and yet the Republicans still tarred him as a wild leftist didn't seem to make a great impression on the hardline DLCers.
The Prospect brought a distinct viewpoint to that debate, one in which lines were clearly defined: The most notable alternative came from the Democratic Leadership Council. These moderate-to-conservative "New Democrats" had launched the Progressive Policy Institute in 1989 with a long essay called "The Politics of Evasion," by William Galston and Elaine Kamarck. They argued that the party had not come to terms with the electorate's deep conservatism, especially with worries about crime and welfare, and that neither "liberal fundamentalism" nor more effective mobilization of minorities and low-income voters would overcome that reality.
As I mentioned in Part 1, the Presidential electoral arithmetic prior to 1992 gave surface plausibility to such DLC argument: California, the most populous state with the most electoral votes, was considered to be a safe Republican state in Presidential elections and therefore the Democrats had to win some Southern states to gain an Electoral College majority.
Regardless of how much sense or how little it made circa 1990, those arguments still echo in the chronic defensiveness of the Democrats in Congress and in the Obama White House that we've seen the last year and a half. For many base voters and surely for many swing voters, it often looks inexplicable. But many Democrats are haunted still by the specter of Willie Horton.
Kathleen M. Sullivan, writing in the Prospect in 1998, summarized Nancy Rosenblum's book, Membership and Morals: "Rather than socializing members for democracy, groups are likely to be exclusionary, snobbish, and competitive vis-a-vis others. The internal cooperation they foster in no way guarantees that they will be ... civic, virtuous, or deliberative in relation to the larger polity." In 2004, Michael Lind argued in these pages that, in order to regain the majority, the Democratic Party should attempt to dissociate itself from "identity-politics groups -- blacks, Latinos, feminists, gays, and lesbians -- and economic-interest groups, like unions" -- and instead organize itself by geography.
I don't find a link to Sullivan's article, but the Lind article is Mapquest.Dem 12/20/2004.
Lind's position in 2004 in particular was a real throwback to that conventional wisdom of the early 1990s, and an especially blunt statement of it. Part of the flaw of his argument in that 2004 article is that he was trying hard to make a regional argument that fit nearly two centuries of American history, and it doesn't work very well. It also shows a pessimism that, especially in retrospect, looks panicky and despairing:
Outside of selected cities, the core region of the Democratic Party is New England. The Democratic Party is also the minority party at all levels of government.
At present, the Democratic Party is a socially liberal party that welcomes both economic conservatives and economic liberals. But in a country with a center-right majority on social issues and a center-left majority on economic issues of interest to the broad middle class and working class, this is exactly backward: Defining liberalism in terms of social liberalism is a formula for minority status. According to various polls, the number of self-described liberals in the United States is no more than 18 percent or 20 percent. Public attitudes on race, gay rights, and other subjects have been getting more liberal with each generation, but widespread opposition to unqualified abortion rights and gay marriage shows the limits to this trend. ...
The Democrats should retain their bedrock commitment to fighting laws that discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation. On other issues, which might include affirmative action, abortion rights, and gay marriage, the Democratic Party as a whole should take no stand.
Or, in other words, keep the Party's principles in rhetoric but on practical issues and specific legislation, throw African-Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians, and those annoying women with their, you know, female issues under the bus. Or at least send them permanently to the back of the bus. Because the Democratic Party has become "the minority party at all levels of government" and "is slowly being confined to Greater New England." He sounds as panicky there as a Republican who's just heard the word "mosque." Judge for yourself whether the last six years in American politics give credence to his analysis.
For more thoughtful reflections on "identity politics," see the remainder of Friedman's article and Wendy Kaminer's Politics of IdentityThe American Prospect 09/23/2001.
What scares me is less the effect that anti-black or anti-Latino racism may have on Democratic prospects and more the danger that Democrats will revert to their reflective defensive crouch, which is heavily informed by the flawed ideas of the DLC circa 1990.