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Friday, September 23, 2005

The party's over, continued  

As I consider the coming collapse of the Democratic party (which may well, like the dark night of fascism, continually loom in America but always occur elsewhere) it's good to occasionally look up from the immediacy of the roadsigns on the way downhill to see the larger picture. Such as harkening back to the beginning of the end, the breakdown of the New Deal majority forty years ago next election cycle.

A brief refresher. The New Deal coalition had three main components: liberals, progressives, and populists. It fractured temporarily in 1948, the first election after FDR, and almost elected Thomas Dewey, but held together for another 20 years. It broke down completely in 1968 under the combined blows of the Wallace insurgency, the pitched liberal/progressive battles at the Chicago convention, and Nixon's Southern Strategy. Southern populists came home in 1976 to vote for Jimmy Carter -- the last time a Democrat got 50% in a national election -- one time, but left for good in 1980.

Meanwhile, the liberals (25% of the voting population, per my SWAG estimate) and progressives (18-20%, also SWAG) have fought over who controls the remaining party structure. (The ongoing struggle between what Mickey Kaus recently called "policy" vs "constituency" liberals.) Progressives compensate for their smaller numbers by controlling the rules committees and being more active in the primaries and large-donor financing. Add the two groups' numbers, and the party's predicament becomes obvious: absent a major GOP scandal, a strong third-party candidate, and/or a persuasive appeal to independents or non-voters, the Democratic party can't win a national election any more.

Perhaps only coincidentally, this has corresponded with a de-emphasis on democratic process and a preference for government by judicial ruling, consent decree, executive order, administrative finding, and bureaucratic regulation. (Which is chicken, which is egg; does it really matter, at this point?)

Institutional inertia has maintained the party's disproportionate influence in the legislative and judicial branches for decades, but even that is gradually coming to a close, despite ongoing attempts to derail judicial nominations by the current majority. The party has largely stayed alive through infusions of cash from post-Watergate campaign finance reforms -- which makes it doubly ironic and only fitting that McCain-Feingold may finally drive the stake through its heart.

For more background, see this post, from last August.

In the August/September First Things, James Nuechterlein reviews Nick Kotz's Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws That Changed America with appreciation and insight, from a perspective firmly within the liberal consensus Kotz is addressing. His title and topic: How Race Wrecked Liberalism, which he regards as a specifically American tragedy.

But there is still more to learn here -- more than Kotz intends, and more, almost certainly, than he would agree with. It is commonly (if often only tacitly) conceded that liberalism went wrong in the 1960s, as measured by the fact that liberals, who once gloried in the label, have been reluctant to speak its name ever since. There are a number of reasons for modern liberalism's decline, but major among them was loss of confidence in the assumption that had powered it from its origins in Populism through the New Deal and beyond: faith in the power of the federal government to solve the problems of American society.

After the perceived failure of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society -- an extraordinarily ambitious program of reform that was at least as confident in the affirmative power of government as was the New Deal -- that faith has never fully been restored. And the failure of civil-rights legislation to deliver on its promise of solving the problem of racial conflict in America lies very near the heart of the Great Society's undoing.

My current interest lies more in the contemporaneous undoing of the Democratic majority. As Nuechterlein says,
In the common telling of the story, the civil-rights bills of 1964 and 1965 -- the first ending segregation in public accommodations, the second guaranteeing voting rights for blacks -- cost Johnson and the Democrats their control of the South and quite likely, over the long run, their national majority as well. That part of the story is more complicated than is normally supposed, but the conventional wisdom cannot simply be dismissed. ... snip ...

The issue of race both began and ended the Democratic ascendancy in the South. The South lost the Civil War, but it did not thereby lose its dedication to white supremacy. The era of Reconstruction taught whites that their only hope of maintaining that supremacy was maintaining racial unity in support of the Democratic Party. To vote Republican was to divide and so betray the white South.

Over time, the tribal allegiance to the Democrats gave to southern politics an increasingly unnatural air. The South was always the most culturally conservative region in the nation, and, especially with the rise of the New Deal, that made its monolithic Democratic attachment among whites a jarring anomaly. Thus emerged the so-called "unholy alliance" in Congress between northern Republicans and conservative southern Democrats in opposition to New Deal initiatives on a wide variety of issues, an alliance that continued into the 1960s. The 1964 Civil Rights Act -- which substantial majorities of Republicans in the House and Senate supported (though the party’s presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, did not) -- ended the era of white supremacy in the South and the rationale for the region’s unity in the Democratic Party.

The South was thereby liberated, against its will, from the iron bond of race and freed, for the first time since the Civil War, to develop something like a normal politics, a politics where it was no longer unthinkable for whites to change party allegiance. Racial issues, of course, continued to be part of that politics, but they did not, as before, overwhelm it. The move into the Republican Party was made possible by racial politics, but, once begun, it had many other sources to perpetuate it.

Equally important, though less noted, was the transition of urban ethnics into Reagan Democrats, which first took electoral form with Nixon's law and order campaign in 1968.
Moderate whites who supported civil-rights legislation thought that in doing so they were doing the right thing. They also thought they were helping to secure social peace. They paid due attention to the activist slogan, "no justice, no peace," and assumed that the civil-rights bills of 1964 and 1965 would be taken as the justice that assured peace. ... snip ...

Infinitely more troubling to political moderates were the violent racial protests in the North that began in 1964 and continued, in escalating severity, every summer for several years. Within two weeks of passage of the civil-rights legislation of 1964 a major riot broke out in Harlem, followed quickly by outbreaks in other northeastern cities. Just five days after passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 came the conflagration in Watts, one of the deadliest race riots in the nation's history.

It would be difficult to overestimate the damage that those and subsequent riots did to the cause of civil rights. White guilt dissipated; white outrage flourished. Moderates had assumed that in supporting civil-rights legislation they were both doing the right thing and purchasing social order. When that implicit bargain broke down, they felt betrayed, and they became increasingly dubious about arguments that only further legislation would make possible a break in an endless series of "long, hot summers."

When "no justice, no peace" turns into "more justice yields less peace" you can't really blame your less-committed supporters for not wanting to stay the course.

The riots damaged far more than the cause of racial equality. The outrage that Nuechterlein mentions was, I think, informed more than a little by personal fear. Before the 1960's, race riots consisted of white mobs rampaging through black neighborhoods. Now, for the first time, the mobs were black. And while they stayed confined to black neighborhoods, the sudden implication was that they might not. White flight had less to do with racism and concerns about falling property values than fear of violence, justified or not. (I'm not familiar with any meaningful long-term data on the small percentage of violence that is interracial, but my suspicion is that black-on-white violence has risen slowly but markedly since the 60's, while white-on-black has fallen or remained the same.) And the damage this has done to cities, their traffic patterns, their commercial centers, their tax bases, and especially their public schools has been immense. I'm not sure it's reparable.

I don't share Kotz and Nuechterlein's implicit presumption that liberalism ever constituted a national consensus, rather than being the largest single component of a (quite legitimate and long-lived) majority coalition. The confusion may arise from the fact that it was and continues to be the home of the majority of journalists, academics, and opinion leaders, and shares with Progressivism an overwhelming desire to proclaim itself the national moral norm.

Lurking in this presumption is the prescription to keep trying, to question tactics but never fundamental goals:

Right and Left agreed that the Great Society had failed, though they disagreed fundamentally as to the sources of its failure. Where conservatives saw excessive confidence in what government had it in its power to accomplish, radicals -- and radicalized liberals -- saw insufficient willingness to question existing structures and assumptions of the social order. As things turned out, the critique from the Left dissipated rather quickly. Most liberals, instructed by the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, gave up their flirtation with radicalism and regained a measure of political sobriety. The McGovern debacle four years later persuaded the holdouts.
(Obviously, Nuechterlein and I aren't looking at the same party dynamics, or the same political history since 1972.)
What remained in the political atmosphere was a skepticism about activist government so pervasive that, almost forty years later, it is still ideologically dominant. And what most fueled that skepticism was the perceived failure in the interrelated areas of civil rights and poverty. Race did not wreck Lyndon Johnson's presidency -- the hopeless mess in Vietnam did that -- but race, more than anything else, wrecked his dreams of reconstituting New Deal liberalism as the animating center of American politics.
The skepticism about activism that I'm familiar with is less about what government can do than what it should do, heavily seasoned with the hard-won knowledge that sometimes the unintended consequences of a policy can become the most lasting ones. The notion that "reconstituting New Deal liberalism as the animating center of American politics" outside the context of a Fordist economic system or the worldwide Depression that midwifed its birth might actually be a bad idea simply doesn't occur. (See European social democratic welfare states, sustainability of.) Race issues may have screwed things up the last time, but all liberalism needs is another chance at bat to finish its noble, interrupted, transformative work. Don't step back and rethink; just try harder, or smarter.

Now consider the extended quote about Southern whites above, and substitute black for white. A perfect fit, especially here:

The era of Civil Rights taught blacks that their only hope ... was maintaining racial unity in support of the Democratic Party. To vote Republican was to divide and so betray the cause. Over time, the tribal allegiance to the Democrats gave to black politics an increasingly unnatural air.
Unlike some, I have little hope this will change easily or any time soon. It took a hundred years for Southern whites to desert the Democratic party, despite decreasing payoffs for their loyalty -- and that happened "against [their] will." The emergence of a "normal" black politics may take something similarly catastrophic ... like maybe a party split into two warring minority factions, neither of whom can deliver enough to be worth joining forces with.

Myself, I can't wait to see what the bargaining stage looks like.

posted by Kelly | 8:00 PM link