Last time, I wrote about how the Democratic Party split into pieces starting in the 1960’s, first with the rift between prosperous, well-educated Ideas Democrats and working class Interest Democrats, and then the splintering of Interest Democrats into separate groups fighting for labour, women, African-Americans, Latinos, the environment, and more.
The result? No unified Democratic identity. That’s a big problem, because Identity trumps Ideas and Interests. Polls show that while most Americans support Democratic policies — the realm of Ideas and Interests — on the question of Identity, more call themselves conservatives than liberals.
How could that be? Because since the turmoil of the 1960’s the Republican Party has positioned itself as standing for “real Americans”. Meanwhile the Democratic Party has positioned itself as standing for — what? On the one hand, a collection of technocratic-sounding ideas for managing society better, and on the other, a tense agglomeration of interest groups.
It wasn’t always this way. Back in the Democratic heyday of the mid 20th Century, it was clear what Democrats stood for: the working man. Yes, the times being what they were, working man, and more specifically the white working man. Popular culture was full of heroic images of the working class, salt-of-the-earth “real American”, and it was assumed he was probably a Democrat.
It’s still a shock to many Democrats how successfully that image has since been appropriated by Republicans. But in hindsight it was inevitable. As Democrats split in the several ways I’ve described, they abandoned the white working man as the identity of their party. There were two main reasons. Thanks to the success of Democratic economic policies, many Democrats were no longer part of the working class. And Democratic social policies, especially following the 1964 Civil Rights Act, gave political voice to more and more people who were not white, or were not men, or who expanded the definition of “man”.
Republicans, meanwhile, had no trouble resisting progress. As William F. Buckley famously described the mission of The National Review, “It stands athwart history, yelling Stop…” Or as conservative icon Friedrich A. Hayek said in his inconvenient essay “Why I Am Not A Conservative”, “…conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind.”
So Republicans were ready and willing when they saw an opportunity to steal the Democratic base. They promised the white working man that America could stay as it was, if only we could beat back those America-hating Democrats who wanted to change it.
Thus, by exploiting identity, the party of the upper class was able to appear as the true friend of the working class. Here the extreme fringe of the 60’s left did the GOP plenty of favours, by setting off bombs, burning flags and spitting on soldiers. Racism gave the GOP another gift. It used to be the Democrats who had the unholy bargain with racists. But after 1964, the racists were looking for a new political home, and the GOP put out the welcome mat with its infamous Southern Strategy.
That strategy continues to this day, and it continues to work. In 2008, many Democrats, including me, naïvely saw the campaign and election of Barack Obama as a historic breaking-free from America’s original sin. We should not have been so shocked to see the accompanying blowup of racism, stoked shamelessly by (to name a few) Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and now Donald Trump. Trump has ridden racism, in the threadbare disguise of birtherism, to the top of the current Republican presidential polling.
But blaming Republicans, and even blaming racists, is a dead end for Democrats, at least those who are seeking a way forward. Too many Democrats got stuck on what’s wrong with white working men (i.e. that somehow isn’t also wrong with all other humans). Here’s the real problem they face: In abandoning the “white working man” identity, Democrats never came up with a new identity to replace it. You can reject racism, sexism, and classism, but you can’t make the need for some kind of identity go away. Identity is primal.
But after the 60’s upheaval, climaxing at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention, Democrats simply stumbled forward with no identity in particular. The void persists to this day. How often have you heard Democrats describe themselves as a “coalition”? How inspiring is that as an identity? I guess it’s a step up from serving on a committee. But not a very high step.
We’ve grown used to this sorry, fragmented state of affairs, but that’s no reason it has to continue.
First of all, those Democrats who still have the 60’s habit of sneering at white working men — calling them “rednecks”, “gun nuts”, etc. — need to break it. Just because some of those white working men are intolerant, doesn’t grant a licence for intolerance of a different flavour. Bigotry is bigotry.
More broadly, Democrats need to realise that their identity never was the white working man, or any other particular kind of person.
Here’s how Democrats can re-discover their identity, and how that will help them win in 2012.
Democrats are the party of America’s future; they embrace change with hope. Barack Obama got that right in 2008, and I think he’s right in 2011 to be talking about Winning The Future.
Democrats look to the future with hope, not because they reject American values, but because they believe in those values so strongly. They look at their white, black, brown, straight, gay neighbours and see that the very essence of being American is to be different and yet united: E Pluribus Unum. They see that Americans are united not by the birthplace we share, or by the genes we share, but by the values we share: freedom, equality and opportunity.
That is the true American identity, and that is the identity that Democrats should celebrate as their own.
It was the belief in, and longing for, that kind of identity, not any one idea or interest, that drove Obama’s campaign of 2008. That campaign’s real platform was his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention:
…there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.
Those who argue that Obama needs to move to the left, right or centre are missing what moved people from the left, right and centre to support him in 2008.
It was, and is, identity, the identity formed by America’s democratic values. That you can form such an identity is the historic miracle of this nation. Democrats need to talk about that identity. They need to tell stories about it — not in aridly conceptual terms like “diversity”, but in terms of people doing great things in the face of great challenges. They need to talk in terms of what they believe, in their hearts, makes a real American.