December 25, 2004


What’s the matter with Massachusetts? The Democrats are far too dependent on it. Go Midwest, young man. (Michael Lind, 01.04.05, American Prospect)

Is the Democratic Party becoming the New England party? In 2004, the candidates who dominated the Democratic presidential primaries, beginning with the one in New Hampshire, were Howard Dean of Vermont and John Kerry of Massachusetts. In 2004, as in 1988, the Democrats nominated a liberal Massachusetts politician to run against a conservative member of the Bush family from Texas. And each time, the Texan won a majority of the popular vote as well as the electoral vote. This time, the senator from Massachusetts lost in part because the decision by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court to legalize gay marriage galvanized socially conservative voters across the nation, who turned out to pass 11 state referenda against gay marriage.

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.

These two facts are not unrelated. Throughout American history, national parties too closely identified with New England have repeatedly been marginalized. This has been the fate of the Federalist Party, the Whig Party, and the old Republican Party at its nadir, between the 1930s and the 1960s. And it is the fate that threatens the Democratic Party today -- unless it takes conscious and aggressive steps to constitute itself once again as a regionally diverse coalition of interests that can become a majority party. [...]

Today, outside of big cities with large black and immigrant populations, the Democratic Party is slowly being confined to Greater New England. The political heirs of the Federalists, the Whigs, and the Progressives, today’s Democrats are in danger of following those parties into oblivion.

It would be a mistake for the Democrats to think that they can regain a national majority by changing their policies or their style to appeal to more red-state voters. A new majority cannot be built on bland compromises between blue-state liberalism and red-state conservatism. Nor can northeastern or West Coast politicians successfully reinvent themselves as heartland types.

What is necessary is to recast the Democrats as, in effect, a loose federation of regional parties. All successful majority parties have had regional wings. This is true even in today’s Republican Party, which, though heavily dominated by right-wing southerners, includes socially liberal governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and George Pataki of New York, pragmatic internationalists like Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, and moderate New England senators such as Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chaffee.

Today’s Democratic minority is defined in the public mind by identity-politics groups -- blacks, Latinos, feminists, gays and lesbians -- and economic-interest groups, like unions. A majority Democratic Party would be defined, in contrast, by its regional wings: northeastern Democrats, West Coast Democrats, Great Plains Democrats, midwestern Democrats, and even some southern Democrats. The regional factions would agree on a brief national platform that is chiefly economic. But they would be free to express their regional differences in the areas of values and foreign policy.

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 religious right cannot and should not be courted. But in the foreseeable future, the Democrats have no chance of regaining a majority without the votes of many moderate traditionalists. [...]

The model for a regionally diverse majority coalition of Democrats should be the Lincoln Republicans between the 1860s and the 1930s. Lincoln Republicans were able to build upon their core constituency in Greater New England to construct a national majority that lasted, with a few interruptions, from the end of Reconstruction to the New Deal. They did so by adding many Jacksonian populists in the border South and Midwest to their political base of former Whigs in the Northeast.

There is no equivalent in today’s American politics to the question of slavery in the territories, which united former Whigs and Jacksonian populists in the 1850s.

As so often with Mr. Lind, this is a terribly muddled piece. The GOP has, of course, always been the party of capitalism, which is why it dominated from the Civil War to the Great Depression, but had trouble recovering from that spectacular failure. Nearly twenty five years of uninterrupted growth since Ronald Reagan introduced supply-side economics has finally put the Democrats' New Deal advantage behind us and the nation has reverted to a rather free market philosophy, though enough of a Depression legacy endures that it has to be combined with a social safety net--thus George Bush's Ownership Society. Democrats, on the other hand, oppose both free enterprise and market-based welfare programs. Their message won't sell until the next econmomic collapse.

Meanwhile, though Mr. Lind despises religion, the panoply of conservative Christian issues--abortion, homosexuality, cloning, prayer in schools, etc.--is almost exactly equivalent to the question of slavery. They're moral issues around which you can rally a broad swath of the nation. At least Republicans can. As even Mr. Lind notes, there is no prospect of putting together a majority for the anti-Christian side on social issues.

Where does all that leave Democrats? Exactly where he started the essay--they're a regional party that appeals only to secular elites with a slathering of residual ethnic support thrown in. Even that latter seems unlikely to endure for too long, as blacks can't feel too comfortable in the party of abortion, sexual license, and separationism. The question isn't whether they can appeal beyond the East and West Coasts but how much longer they can hold on even there.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 25, 2004 3:16 PM

The GOP has a core idea, that smaller government is better government, that lots of things, like education and social issues, are better off left to the states, and that the Courts are not the place to make public policy. This pretty much unites Schwarzenegger with Bauer.

By contrast, the Democrats are little more than an assembly of competing special interests. Their primary season resembles an Easter egg hunt or even a scavenger hunt more than a debate. You stop at the NAACP and talk about X, then you meet with women's groups and talk about Y, whether or not it conflicts with X, then you go to Hollywood and talk about Z whether or not it conflicts with X and Y. There is zero coherence. A Democratic campaign is more themeless than modern Classical music. And then they wonder why they lose.

Posted by: Bart at December 26, 2004 11:48 AM