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Varieties of Progressivism in America
By Peter Berkowitz
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
Old Democrats and the Shock of the New
WHO ARE THE Old Democrats? A better question is: Who were the Old Democrats? If we are to understand those labeled Old Democrats today (Ted Kennedy, Dick Gephardt) and the role they and their ideas have played in the evolution of the Democratic Party, we need to go back several decades to the era when Old Democrats worthy of the name still roamed the earth.
Old Democrats were New Deal Democrats. Their worldview was based on a combination of the Democratic Party's historic populist commitment to the average working American and their own experience in battling the Great Depression (and building their political coalition) through increased government spending and the regulation and promotion of labor unions. It was really a rather simple philosophy, even if its application was complex: Government should help the average person through government spending. Capitalism needs regulation to work properly. Labor unions are good. Putting money in the average person's pocket is more important than rarified worries about the quality of life. Traditional morality is to be respected not challenged. Racism and the like are bad, but not so bad that the party should depart from its main mission of material uplift for the average American.
The Old Democrat worldview, which had deep roots in an economy dominated by mass-production industries, was politically based among the workers, who were overwhelmingly white. Their dominance among these voters was, in turn, the key to their political success. To be sure, there were important divisions among these voters — by country of origin (German, Scandinavian, Eastern European, English, Irish, Italian, etc.), by religion (Protestants vs. Catholics), and by region (South vs. non-South) — that greatly complicated the politics of this group, but the Old Democrats mastered these complications and maintained a deep base among these voters.
Of course, the New Deal Coalition, as originally forged, included most blacks and was certainly cross-class, especially among groups like Jews and Southerners. But the prototypical member of the coalition was an ethnic white worker — commonly seen as those working in a unionized factory but also including those who weren't in unions or who toiled in other blue-collar settings (construction, transportation, etc.). It was these voters who provided the numbers for four Franklin Roosevelt election victories, as well as Harry Truman's narrow victory in 1948, and who provided political support for the emerging U.S. welfare state, with its implicit social contract and greatly expanded role for government.
Even in the 1950s, with Republican Dwight Eisenhower as president, the white working class continued to put Democrats in Congress and to support the expansion of the welfare state, as a roaring U.S. economy delivered the goods and government poured money into roads, science, schools, and whatever else seemed necessary to build up the country. This era, stretching back to the late 1940s and forward to the mid-1960s, was the era that created the first mass middle class in the world — a middle class that even factory workers could enter because they could earn relatively comfortable livings without high levels of education or professional skills. A middle class, in other words, that members of the white working class could reasonably aspire to and frequently attain.
So, Old Democrats depended on the white working class for political support and the white working class depended on the Democrats to run government and the economy in a way that kept the upward escalator to the middle class moving. Social and cultural issues were not particularly important to this mutually beneficial relationship; indeed, these issues had only a peripheral role in the uncomplicated progressivism that animated the Democratic Party of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. But that arrangement, and that uncomplicated progressivism, could not survive the decline of mass-production industries and the rise of postindustrial capitalism.
First, there was the transformation of the white working class itself. In 1948, about two-thirds of the workforce was white men, and the bulk of these white men worked at blue-collar manufacturing and construction jobs or at blue-collar service jobs, such as janitor or warehouseman. These men were also heavily unionized, especially in certain areas of the country: by the late 1940s, unions claimed around 60 percent or more of the Northern blue-collar workforce. But the past half century has changed all that. The white working class has become much more diverse — today, there are almost as many women workers as men — even as unionization has declined. Only a relatively small proportion (17 percent) of the white working class works in manufacturing (even among men, the proportion is still less than 25 percent). In fact, the entire goods-producing sector, which includes construction, mining, and agriculture, as well as manufacturing, only covers 30 percent of the white working class. This leaves the overwhelming majority — seven in ten — in the service sector, including government. There are almost as many members of the new white working class in trade alone (especially retail) as there are in all goods-producing jobs.
Second, as this great transformation was changing the character of the white working class, reducing the size and influence of the Democrats' traditional blue-collar constituencies, the evolution of postindustrial capitalism was creating new constituencies and movements with new demands. These new constituencies and movements wanted more out of the welfare state than steady economic growth, copious infrastructure spending, and the opportunity to raise a family in the traditional manner.
During the 1960s, these new demands on the welfare state came to a head. Americans' concern about their quality of life overflowed from the two-car garage to clean air and water and safe automobiles, from higher wages to government-guaranteed health care in old age, and from job access to equal opportunities for men and women and blacks and whites. Out of these concerns came the environmental, consumer, civil rights, and feminist movements. As Americans abandoned the older ideal of self-denial and the taboos that accompanied it, they embraced a libertarian ethic of personal life. Women asserted their sexual independence through the use of birth control pills and through exercising the right to have an abortion. Adolescents experimented with sex and courtship. Homosexuals "came out" and openly congregated in bars and neighborhoods.
Of these changes, the one with the most far-reaching political effects was the civil rights movement and its demands for equality and economic progress for black America. Democrats, because of both their traditional, if usually downplayed, antiracist ideology and their political relationship to the black community, had no choice but to respond to those demands. The result was a great victory for social justice, but one that created huge political difficulties for the Democrats among their white working-class supporters. Kevin Phillips captured these developments:
The principal force which broke up the Democratic (New Deal) coalition is the Negro socioeconomic revolution and liberal Democratic ideological inability to cope with it. Democratic "Great Society" programs aligned that party with many Negro demands, but the party was unable to defuse the racial tension sundering the nation. The South, the West, and the Catholic sidewalks of New York were the focus points of conservative opposition to the welfare liberalism of the federal government; however, the general opposition ... came in large part from prospering Democrats who objected to Washington dissipating their tax dollars on programs which did them no good. The Democratic party fell victim to the ideological impetus of a liberalism which had carried it beyond programs taxing the few for the benefit of the many ... to programs taxing the many on behalf of the few.
However, if race was the chief vehicle by which the New Deal coalition was torn apart, it was by no means the only one. White working-class voters also reacted poorly to the extremes with which the rest of the new social movements became identified. Feminism became identified with bra-burners, lesbians, and hostility to the nuclear family; the antiwar movement, with appeasement of the Third World radicals and the Soviet Union; the environmental movement, with a Luddite opposition to economic growth; and the move toward more personal freedom, with a complete abdication of personal responsibility.
Thus, the Old Democrat mainstream that dominated the party was confronted with a challenge. The uncomplicated New Deal commitments to government spending, economic regulation, and labor unions that had defined Democratic progressivism for more than thirty years suddenly provided little guidance for dealing with an explosion of potential new constituencies for the party. The demands of the new constituencies for equality and for a better, as opposed to merely a richer, life were starting to redefine what progressivism meant, and the Democrats had to struggle to catch up.
New Old Democrats
Initially, Old Democrat politicians responded to these changes in the fashion of politicians since time immemorial: they sought to co-opt these new movements by absorbing many of their demands while holding onto the party's basic ideology and style of governing. Thus were born the New Old Democrats.
New Old Democrats didn't change their fundamental commitment to the New Deal welfare state; instead, they grafted onto it support for all the various new constituencies and their key demands. After Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the party moved, during the next eight years, to give the women's, antiwar, consumers', and environmental movements prominent places within the party. This move reflected both the politician's standard interest in capturing the votes of new constituencies and the ongoing expansion of the definition of what it meant to be a Democrat, particularly a progressive one.
There was no guarantee, of course, that gains among these new constituencies wouldn't be more than counterbalanced by losses among their old constituency — the white working class — who had precious little interest in this expansion of what it meant to be a progressive and a Democrat. Indeed, in 1972, that turned out to be the case with the nomination and disastrous defeat of George McGovern — an enthusiastic New Old Democrat. McGovern's commitment to the traditional Democratic welfare state was unmistakable, but so was his commitment to all the various social movements and constituencies that were reshaping the party, the demands of which were enshrined in his campaign platform. That made it easy for Richard Nixon's campaign to typecast McGovern as the candidate of "acid, amnesty, and abortion." The white working class reacted accordingly and gave Nixon overwhelming support at the polls, casting 70 percent of their votes for the Republican candidate.
Indeed, just how far the Democratic Party fell in the eyes of the white working class during that time can be seen by comparing the average white working-class vote for the Democrats in 1960–1964 (55 percent) with their average vote for the Democrats in 1968–1972 (35 percent). That's a drop of 20 points, from over half to just over one-third. The Democrats were the party of the white working class no longer.
With the sharp economic recession and Nixon scandals of 1973–1974, the Democrats were able to develop enough political momentum to retake the White House in 1976, with Jimmy Carter's narrow defeat of Gerald Ford. But their political revival did not last long. Not only did the Carter administration fail to do much to defuse white working class hostility to the new social movements, especially to the black liberation movement, but also economic events — the stagflation of the late 1970s — conspired to make that hostility even sharper. Though stagflation (inflation and unemployment combined with slow economic growth) first appeared during the 1973–1975 recession, it persisted during the Carter administration and was peaking on the eve of the 1980 election. As the economy slid once more into recession, the inflation rate in that year was 12.5 percent. Combined with an unemployment rate of 7.1 percent, it produced a "misery index" of nearly 20 percent.
The stagflation fed resentments about race — about high taxes for welfare (which were assumed to go primarily to minorities) and about affirmative action. It also sowed doubts about Democrats' ability to manage the economy and made Republican and business explanations of stagflation — blaming it on government regulation, high taxes, and spending — more plausible. In 1978, the white backlash and doubts about Democratic economic policies helped fuel a nationwide tax revolt. In 1980, these factors reproduced the massive exodus of white working-class voters from the Democratic tickets first seen in 1968 and 1972. In the 1980 and 1984 elections, Reagan averaged 61 percent support among the white working class, compared with an average of 35 percent support for his Democratic opponents, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.
New Old Democrats appeared powerless to stop this juggernaut, saddled as they were with a double-barreled progressivism that increasingly seemed like a dual liability. On the one hand, they were committed to a model of the welfare state economy that no longer worked, and on the other, they were tied to a set of constituency groups whose priorities seemed alien to middle America. When their preferred candidate, Walter Mondale, got blown away in the 1984 election, losing every state but Minnesota and the District of Columbia, some Democrats decided enough was enough and organized a group to shed these electoral liabilities and reform the party.
The group was the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), founded in 1985, and it directly counterposed its "New Democrat" approach to that of Mondale and the New Old Democrats who dominated the party. In a memo to prospective DLC members, Al Fromm, cofounder of the group along with Will Marshall, expressed his concern about the Democrats' decline, which he blamed on the "consistent pursuit of wrongheaded, losing strategies." Fromm was particularly critical of Mondale's strategy of "making blatant appeals to liberal and minority interest groups in the hopes of building a winning coalition where a majority, under normal circumstances, simply does not exist." Fromm also worried that with union membership declining, the Democrats "are more and more viewed as the party of 'big labor,'" and that with liberalism in disrepute, Democrats are "increasingly viewed as the 'liberal' party." Fromm was most at home with Southern Democrats like Sam Nunn, Chuck Robb, and Russell Long. Although he supported social security and other basic New Deal reforms, was concerned about poverty, and was committed to civil rights, he parted company with New Old Democrats by being strongly sympathetic to business's view of its own problems, hostile or indifferent to labor unions, and opposed to any ambitious new government social programs.
After Michael Dukakis's defeat in 1988, Fromm, Marshall, and the DLC decided to develop a philosophy and a platform for the Democratic Party that would redefine what it meant to be a progressive. With money raised primarily by Wall Street Democrats, the DLC set up the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), with Marshall at the helm, and hired policy experts to draft papers and proposals. The most important of these was a 1989 paper entitled "The Politics of Evasion," written by William Galston, Mondale's former issues director, and PPI fellow Elaine Kamarck, who would later become Gore's policy adviser in the first Clinton administration. Galston and Kamarck argued that in the late 1960s, the liberalism of the New Deal had degenerated into a "liberal fundamentalism," which
the public has come to associate with tax and spending policies that contradict the interests of average families; with welfare policies that foster dependence rather than self-reliance; with softness toward the perpetrators of crime and indifference toward its victims; with ambivalence toward the assertion of American values and interests abroad; and with an adversarial stance toward mainstream moral and cultural values.
Galston, Kamarck, and the DLC advocated fiscal conservatism, welfare reform, increased spending on crime through the development of a police corps, tougher mandatory sentences, support for capital punishment, and policies that encouraged traditional families. Another PPI fellow, David Osborne, developed a strategy for "reinventing government" by contracting out services while retaining control over how they were performed. In Osborne's formulation, government should "steer, not row."
Excerpted from Varieties of Progressivism in America by Peter Berkowitz. Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction Peter Berkowitz,
PART I: OLD DEMOCRATS,
1. Old Democrats and the Shock of the New Ruy Teixeira,
2. The Old and New Democratic Parties Thomas Byrne Edsall,
PART II: NEW DEMOCRATS,
3. Incomplete Victory: The Rise of the New Democrats William A. Galston,
4. Center Forward? The Fate of the New Democrats Franklin Foer,
PART III: THE FUTURE OF PROGRESSIVISM,
5. What's a Progressive to Do? Strategies for Social Reform in a Hostile Political Climate David Cole,
6. The Poverty of Progressivism and the Tragedy of Civil Society Jeffrey C. Isaac,