March 1, 2008


The Myths of McGovern: Thirty-five years later, what the 1972 campaign can—and can’t—teach liberals today: a review of Why the Democrats Are Blue: How Secular Liberals Hijacked the People's Party By Mark Stricherz and The Liberals' Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party By Bruce Miroff (Rick Perlstein, Democracy)

Why the Democrats Are Blue: How Secular Liberals Hijacked the People’s Party, by conservative journalist Mark Stricherz, tells a familiar story that in its broad outlines is, if incomplete, not false: The forces that brought George McGovern the nomination did so by wresting the Democratic presidential nominating process from the de facto control of Catholic urban machine bosses. But Stricherz claims McGovernism somehow disenfranchised "the Catholic wing of the party" with malice aforethought, and in doing so sabotaged Democratic electoral fortunes to this day.

Stricherz, who has embraced Ramesh Ponnuru’s "Party of Death" designation for supporters of abortion rights, wraps his reductionism inside a set piece: interviews with Catholic residents of Westmoreland County, a formerly Democratic redoubt in western Pennsylvania, devotees of the late Robert P. Casey Sr., the culturally conservative Democratic Pennsylvania governor (strangely enough, his account of a party in secular liberalism’s death grip never mentions the name of Robert P. Casey Jr., the governor’s equally pro-life son, now a Democratic senator). They love their unions but hate sexual iniquity (though Stricherz can’t spare a single word of opprobrium for the Republicans’ role in devastating those same unions). Stricherz claims them as emblems of a reality that we are to believe makes him disconsolate. "Support for a once-great national party has dwindled to ‘blue’ states on the coasts and Great Lakes region"–a solecism on which Governors Schweitzer, Blanco, Sibelius, Beebe, Ritter, Napolitano, Culver, Easley, Richardson, Henry, Bredesen, Kaine, Manchin, and Freudenthal might have more to say than I.

Stricherz’s historical account begins with, as it were, the first Caseycrat: David Lawrence, the Pittsburgh political boss who fought for a civil rights plank at the 1948 convention. Stricherz wants Lawrence to stand in for his cohort as a whole: "The post-war Catholic bosses [who] produced good and equitable Democratic results, which reflected the values of the party’s working-class and Judeo-Christian constituents." He labels their ideology "Christian humanism." That’s a bit fantastic. Among other "Christian humanists," Stricherz singles out Frank Hague of Jersey City, who also brought his delegation into line for the plank. Hague reportedly died with $10 million in the bank, though his mayoral salary never exceeded $8,000, and you can still see his old desk at City Hall, with its specially designed reverse-drawer that he would push forth to demand a bribe.

The transformation dates to 1968. Mayor Richard Daley–whom Stricherz singles out as one of the bosses "more ethical and less sectarian than their predecessors," and I dare him to read that howler aloud in my hometown of Chicago–presided over the police riot in the streets outside the Democratic National Convention, as well as the machine riot inside the hall, from which people questioning procedural irregularities by the Humphrey and pro-war forces were dragged by helmeted cops. One result of the convention was the appointment of a party commission to reform the nominating structure. You didn’t have to be an antiwar activist to reasonably fear that a party that settled ineluctable divisions via fisticuffs and billy clubs might go the way of the Whigs. But it is crucial to the structure of Stricherz’s argument to show the reform contingent as mere usurpers.

The reformers were hardly flawless. They presumed that voter rejection of a war started and sustained by Democrats, the rise of the youth insurgency, the crisis of black misery and militancy, and the sociological shifts in the modal Democratic voter (from blue-collar urbanite to educated suburbanite) must also entail a stem-to-stern revision in how the party did business, casting out babies with bath water rather recklessly. Their maximalist assumptions were surely flawed. And any account of this cohort must take account of a certain elite arrogance to which they could succumb. My favorite example is the Harvard antiwar leader who said, after Nixon’s famous "silent majority" speech unveiling his "Vietnamization" plan, "What Nixon has tried to show is that there is a silent majority behind him. We know better." Actually, after that speech, Nixon’s approval rating shot up to 68 percent.

But any account must consider the political exhaustion of the old Democratic order–that the bosses’ cities provided 21 percent of votes in 1960, but only 14 percent in 1968; that union members voted 66 percent for John F. Kennedy, but only 51 percent for Humphrey; that in those same years the number of students in college almost doubled.

Contra Friend Perlstein, abortion is hardly the focus, though it is an important piece of why the Left has come to find itself unable to fathom "Kansas".

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 1, 2008 6:38 AM
Comments for this post are closed.