The Magazine

Living Politics

The downward spiral, from Lubell to Witcover.

Oct 23, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 06 • By MARK STRICHERZ
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White's prescience was soon borne out. Antiwar Democrats such as Fred Dutton and George McGovern, both of whom got their start working for Stevenson's presidential bids, used a reform commission created at the 1968 Democratic convention to loosen the party's historic ties with Catholics and working-class whites in exchange for voters from the emerging feminist and youth movements. To be fair, White later failed to link directly the revolt of the citizen-intellectual wing of the party with the breakup of the New Deal coalition. Nevertheless, his books on the 1972 and 1980 campaigns suggest as much. As he wrote in America In Search of Itself, "With women, blacks, and other minorities (Hispanics and Jews), the Democrats might, someday, build another coalition--but it would differ from the old Roosevelt alliance."

Although White always included a section in his campaign books on voters, he did so in an impressionistic style, by relying on government statistics and reports rather than interviews with voters. Accordingly, his portraits of the electorate lacked detail, nuance, even dynamism. But their deficiencies were more than those of style and method; they were also ones of content. One can see this by comparing his books with Samuel Lubell's The Future of American Politics (1952), which remains the best presidential campaign book ever. (Tom Wolfe, in his Jefferson Lecture last May, spoke of his reaction to Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?, the book that examined why Kansas didn't vote for Kerry in 2004: "Had Frank only looked back to Samuel Lubell, he would have known why.")

Born in 1911, Lubell had served not only as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Europe, but also as a government aide in World War II, most notably as assistant to Bernard Baruch, drawing up wartime reports and postwar planning. From this latter experience Lubell must have been tempted by the top-down view of democratic politics--government elites make policy and the masses respond. Instead, he embraced a fairly radical bottom-up version. In contrast to White, who wrote about politics mainly from the perspective of political elites, Lubell wrote about it mainly from the point of view of the masses. As he wrote in The Future of American Politics, "For every presidential election really is a self portrait of America, a self-portrait with each ballot serving as another brush stroke and through which all the emotions of the American people find expression."

The Future of American Politics is partly about why Harry Truman shocked Thomas Dewey in 1948. Lubell found that Truman owed his victory not to any of his administration's policies. Rather, Truman won because of unexpected support from German Americans who, after having voted against Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and 1944, returned to the Democratic fold: "Although there were exceptions, Truman's greatest gains generally came in the same German-American counties where Roosevelt suffered his heaviest losses in 1940," Lubell wrote. "Truman made no special appeal to these German-Americans (even after the swing took place, he did not know what happened). Still, German-Americans all over the country shifted together, as if in response to some subconscious instinct." (Truman carried three states with large German populations--Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio--that FDR lost four years earlier. Had Truman lost those states, the 1948 election would have been thrown into the House of Representatives.)

The fine brush-stroke quality of The Future of American Politics lies primarily in its countless face-to-face interviews Lubell conducted with voters in their neighborhoods. In the case of German Americans, he traveled to Stearns County, Minnesota, home of such famous isolationists as Charles Lindbergh and William Lemke, yielding such gems as the following: "When I asked John Arcenau whether he knew anyone who voted Democratic in 1948 and Republican in 1950, he guffawed. 'Me, I'm one!' and went on, 'I'll never vote Democratic again! Not even if they run a Catholic for President.' 'Why?' 'The war,' he boomed back. 'Demo crats always bring wars. If we hadn't gotten into the First World War we wouldn't be in the mess we are in today.'"