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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

What “Killed” the Democrats?

Over at TAPPED yesterday, my man Matt Yglesias took the occasion of Gary Hart’s op-ed on Iraq in the Washington Post to dismiss the idea that the McGovern campaign (which Hart ran), and its antiwar message, was the pivotal moment in the demise of the New Deal Coalition. No, sez Matt:

The truth, which lots of left-of-center people of various stripes seem to have a hard time dealing with, is that the old, dominant Democratic Party was dependent on white supremacist voters for its majority. Take a look at the 1960 electoral map and ask yourself how far John Kennedy would have gotten without this bloc. Nowadays, naturally, the Democrats can’t just bring that coalition back, and the party’s troubles in the South are rather different, but it was Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of civil rights, not the McGovern campaign, that killed the Democratic Party.

Well, that’s maybe half-right. Matt forgets that (1) McGovern managed to lose 38 of 39 states outside the Old Confederacy, including many where the 1968 Wallace vote was negligible; and (2) Jimmy Carter won in 1976 on a pro-Civil Rights platform with near-universal African-American support, along with most of the old Wallace voters, who must have been motivated by something other than racism to return to the Democratic Party. Sure, Watergate, and in the case of the South, regional pride enormously helped Carter. But let’s don’t forget that Carter, despite his quasi-pacifist image today, also ran a campaign that emphasized his tough-on-defense views and background as an Annapolis grad and nuclear sub officer. Carter supported Scoop Jackson in 1972, and never really came out against the Vietnam War. That legacy, along with his open religiosity, helped him among many Democrats who defected in 1972, and actually hurt him in some upscale WASPy areas where he ran behind McGovern. No–repeat, no–I am not arguing for the point of view that anti-Vietnam War views generally, or George McGovern specifically, “killed” the old Democratic majority. But nor was it simply the Civil Rights Act, either. What happened in the 1960s and 1970s was the acceleration of long trend beginning in the New Deal of the realignment of the two major parties as ideological rather than regional and ethnic-group coalitions. This involved a wide range of issues, international and domestic, and it happened in fits and starts, not really culminating in rigorously left-of-center and right-of-center parties until 1980 at the earliest, and 1994 at the latest.Ideological realignment helped and hurt both parties with particular constituencies. The Democratic civil rights commitment obviously alienated many white southerners and quite a few ethnic white Catholics elsewhere, but also created a remarkably durable bond with minority voters, along with a significant share of previously Republican white liberals. Similarly, the late-Cold War realignment of “hawks” towards the GOP and “doves” towards Democrats drove voters in both directions, too. But overall, realignment benefitted Republicans more, due to the enduring numerical advantage of conservatives over liberals. In our party, we are all still arguing over how to deal with ideological polarization, but as Matt suggests, it’s important to understand how it actually developed.

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