The Magazine

Greed, Oppression, Patriarchy

What unites the Democrats? A cartoonish view of Republicans.

Jan 20, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 18 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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FINALLY THE DEMOCRATS have found their hot issue: The Confederate heart of George Bush, and of Bill Frist, who by virtue of their membership in the Republican party have indicated their desire to live in a slaveholding past. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi--to name just three prominent Democrats--have delivered themselves of the judgment that Republicans and those who vote for them are all closet racists. The demise of Trent Lott was only a smokescreen to hide this dark secret. The liberal interest groups are piling on, and the liberal pundits are going on witch-hunts, energized as they haven't been since the Florida recount (and as they surely were not in the 2002 midterms). The difference between their elation on this, and their ennui and confusion about other issues says a great deal about the state of their party. Parties run sometimes on hope, and often on anger. The Democrats these days are running on fear.

Democrats will tell you, many with straight faces, that the cause of their fall from majority status was the stand that they took in the mid-1960s for the civil rights cause. Republicans will answer that the racist vote was never that big or that critical, that when Barry Goldwater ran in 1964 on a straight states' rights ticket, he carried all of six states, and that Lyndon Johnson, passing civil rights acts in the heat of the crisis, won in a landslide. Republicans will tell you, further, that they began to win only when the Democrats split over issues of war and disorder; winning small in 1968 when the country was wracked by murder and riots; and winning huge in the 1972 election, when George McGovern produced a negative landslide for Richard M. Nixon, who remained so unpopular that two years later he became the first president forced to resign. The most telling fact of that era, they will say, was not that the South was absorbed into the Republican orbit but that the Democrats in 1972 made their peace with an activist base that defined itself in opposition to the mores of the country, as being soft on defense, and suspicious of American power and motives.

Ever since, attaching this base to enough of the center to make a majority has been an enduring problem for the Democrats; in only three of the nine presidential elections since 1968 have they been able to seize hold of that office, each time with a southern governor who claimed to be "different" and never with more than half of the vote. Bill Clinton was supposed to have fixed all of this when he ran in 1992 as a "New Democrat," but he did not reconcile the splits in his party so much as paper over them. Since his departure, the old splits have reappeared.

The corporate issue, for instance, once a great unifier of Democrats, still splits the populist, anti-corporate base of the party from its moderate pro-business elected officials. The past two years saw a series of battles over taxes, globalization, and the best way to handle the corporate scandals, which Democrats were unable to capitalize on. In 2001 the Bush-Baucus tax cuts managed to peel off a dozen Senate Democrats, while enraging the liberal base. (In 2002 the need to protect these 12 senators mostly took the tax issue off the table in the elections.) The left saw the corporate scandals as the fruits of systemic corruption, and longed to lay waste to the culture of markets, a viewpoint that did not take hold. Last July, a poll taken by the liberal Democracy Corps found that by a 10-point margin respondents agreed that the crimes "were the result of illegal behavior by a handful of individuals, and should not reduce or decrease our confidence in the ability of markets and corporations to govern themselves." On September 29, the Washington Post reported that "the uproar over corporate accountability appears to have little political potency. . . . Among those who are pessimistic about the economy, only 13 percent blame Bush." After the election, the left blamed the party for dropping the ball on what it believed was a great winning issue. But if there was an "issue" there, it was not one the party could agree about.

More telling still is the issue of war and peace, the Democrats' long-standing bane. On August 5, 2001, the New York Times ran a story about Democratic unease over grandstanding by Hillary Clinton, Mario Cuomo, and other prominent liberals to stop Navy bombing exercises in Puerto Rico. "The liberals clearly did not expect that they would meet with such resistance, if not hostility. . . . Moderate and conservative Democrats nationwide are beginning to complain that the party, under pressure from its vocal liberal wing, has gone too far in trying to stop the training operations. Their biggest concern, they say, is that the party has left itself vulnerable to charges that it is antimilitary."

And this was in peacetime. The attacks on New York and Washington a month later only made matters worse. "Many members who oppose the president's strategyto confront Iraq are going to nonetheless support it because they fear a backlash from voters," reported the Washington Post last fall. And so they did, but none too convincingly. "Voters might not know this explicitly, but if there were a secret ballot . . . Democrats in the House and Senate would vote overwhelmingly to repeal the Bush-Baucus tax cuts and to stop the president from going to war with Iraq," reported ABC News's weblog The Note six days before the election. The "gap between what many of them really think and what many of them claim to support in public has clearly divided the party." This bow to the center, however reluctant, meant all hell to pay on the left: "Direct mail donations to the DNC took a nosedive in August and September," Thomas B. Edsall reported. "A major cause is discontent over the acquiescence of many Democratic leaders to Bush's preparation for war with Iraq." On the two biggest issues--the war and the economy--the party's base found itself on the wrong side of a 2- or 3-to-1 split in the country. It is the same problem that has plagued the party since McGovern's convention, and one that Bill Clinton did nothing to rectify.

Still, the Democratic party has enormous residual strength, and has been able to capture the White House, when the stars are properly aligned. Jimmy Carter won in 1976 in reaction to Watergate; in 1992 and 1996 Bill Clinton was able to beat poor campaigners. But the winning Democratic presidential coalitions have been vulnerable ones. (Which is why the party suffered wipeouts in 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988.) When the party plays to its interest groups, it puts itself at odds with the rest of the country, but without them, it cannot survive. One way to gauge this is to realize that in the 2002 elections, the Democrats had no figures of national stature who could campaign everywhere in the country: The people the left loves are seen elsewhere as demagogues, and when used, they did more harm than good. Shortly after the election, Michael Barone and former Democratic strategist Ted Van Dyke both wrote pieces comparing the policies that earned John Kennedy a 64 percent approval rating in 1962 with those that earned similar ratings for George W. Bush 40 years later. They found a remarkable resemblance: a tough, nuanced response to foreign aggression, a wish to cut taxes to help the economy, and a colorblind civil rights policy. The basic elements of a winning national strategy have remained consistent and--for the Democrats--usually out of reach, thanks to the base of their party.

The Democrats' failure to develop any other unifying message leads to their reliance on gender and race. In their lean years, of which they have many, they tend to rely almost exclusively on two groups of voters--unmarried women and blacks. Democrats will tell you that these groups are reacting sensibly to the sexist and racist ideas of Republicans. But a different way of putting this is that Democrats have a hard time selling themselves to people who don't feel victimized and afraid: afraid of rejection or bias by others; afraid of having to raise their children single-handed; afraid of material need. Without their lopsided leads among these two groups--a 2-to-1 lead among single women; an astonishing 9-to-1 lead among blacks--Democrats might cease to function at all in some parts of the country. For the past twenty years, from Reagan's first win in 1980, when the Republicans seemed to be building a new coalition, Democrats have consistently fielded just one major message: Non-whites and women should fear the Republicans. A Republican party that doesn't seem threatening is the great primal fear of the Democrats. Thus the need to portray them as sons of Bull Connor (a Democrat) with the old hoods and the hoses conveniently stored out of sight.

THE DEPICTION of the Republicans as Closet Confederates is based on some dubious claims: That nothing has changed since 1964 in the Republican party; that nothing has changed since 1964 in the South; and that everything has changed in the definition of racism, the content of which expands daily. The Goldwater campaign in 1964 was the first time that the Republicans cracked the once-solid South, winning five southern states on a platform that promised resistance to the civil rights measures then being pushed through Congress. This was truly a segregationist exodus, and had the Democrats' profile stayed as it was, the claims of today's liberals that their courage on the civil rights issue consigned them to minority status might be more credible. But four years later, the party started its crackup, and by 1972 the South and its issues were all but drowned out in the thundering din of other ex-Democrats fleeing their party for other reasons. Union members and blue-collar voters departed over cultural issues (summarized by Hunter S. Thompson as "acid, amnesty, and abortion"). Scoop Jackson Democrats left over defense. By 1980, the Republican party had become a grand coalition much as the Democrats had been in mid-century--a party with racists in it, but their presence was swamped by others who were indifferent to race-tinged issues, or wholly opposed. The party reformed itself around race-neutral issues: a strong defense, an assertive approach to world leadership, entrepreneurship, and devotion to the ideal of a common culture transcending race. If modern Republicans are not eager to recall what occurred in 1964 (or the Nixon years, for that matter), Democrats seem unable to recall what came after, or to admit that it mattered. It did.

The idea of a Republican party anxious to make racist appeals supposes an audience eager to hear them, a market that may not exist. It is now 40 years since Bull Connor turned his hoses and dogs on civil rights marchers. Most voters--most Republicans--are too young to imagine a world before integration and have no longing to see one. The Clintons and friends may pretend the backroads are teeming with bigots, but rational people know better. "The decisive voters of the future are not nostalgic, Dixie-whistling former Democrats," noted David Von Drehle and Dan Balz in the Washington Post. "They are generic, migratory moderates." In a similar vein, the Los Angeles Times's Ronald Brownstein observed that the "ties that bind Republicans to most whites in the region are conservative views on taxes, national defense and social issues such as guns and abortion, not nostalgia for Jim Crow." There are still white racists in the South and outside it who will vote for Republicans, as there are black anti-Semites who will vote for the Democrats, but these are fringe elements in what is becoming a post-ethnic country, in which Colin Powell and Joe Lieberman are both seen as possible presidents. The Republicans and the South have come a long way since the mid-1960s. Only the left is still living in the past.

Insisting the present is just like the past is one way to attack Republicans. Another is defining racism down. Among the evidence recently adduced to prove the racism of Republicans has been the fact that Bill Frist made political hay in the early 1990s mocking the ties of his Democratic opponent to the famously corrupt ex-mayor of Washington, D.C., Marion Barry, who had recently been caught by undercover cops lighting a crack pipe. Should Barry rather have been off limits from criticism because of the color of his skin? Similarly put forth as an occasion of Republican sin was Jeb Bush's reference to the big guns deployed last fall in the Democrats' fruitless effort to defeat his reelection as governor of Florida. "Bill Clinton is in the state. Al Gore is in the state. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are in the state," said Jeb. Again, it is hard to see anything resembling racism here (unless it is the implication of Bush's critics that one should not lump Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton together with Clinton and Gore). And when all else fails, there is always the charge that one is "insensitive," a charge whose beauty is that it is utterly indefinable and can be deployed at will.

The need for such inventive tactics becomes all the more pressing as the Republicans move further away from the past. The more the party changes, and is seen to be changing, the greater the need to insist that these changes are an elaborate and diabolical charade. But after a time, as the disguise tends to outweigh the supposed bad intentions, common sense suggests that the "disguises" may be the reality--and that Republicans may really mean what they say.

"With one stupid and thoughtless attempt at humor, Lott stripped away the carefully constructed façade the Bush team erected at the GOP convention . . . and revealed the party's true colors," said Eleanor Clift. "When Lott stepped out of the polite way of speakingabout racehe exposed the GOP's double game: the lip service the party gives to reaching out to blacks and the winks and nods to whites assuring them that nothing fundamental will change." That nothing will change? The nation's foreign policy is in the capable hands of two black members of the president's cabinet. You could call that a change. Much is made by the left of Bush's trip in 2000 to Bob Jones University, which at the time still had a ban on cross-racial dating. Much less is made of the fact that several icons of the modern conservative movement are in cross-racial marriages to the apparent discomfort of no one. Everyone knew at the time that the Republicans' diversity display at their 2000 convention did not reflect the party as it was at that moment. It was a sign, as a disgruntled Pat Buchanan noted, of where the party intended to go. What George W. Bush has in mind is a party of compassionate conservatives like himself. They can be argued with but not labeled or libeled or demonized. And as such, they scare Democrats sick.

So look for the left to keep whistling Dixie, insisting that people are not what they look and act like, but are really like people who 40 and 60 and 140 years ago said and did terrible things. As Elizabeth Dole and Lindsey Graham replace Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond as the face of the South in the Senate, they have to insist the white South still is regressive and menacing. The more Bush transforms his party, the more desperately they have to insist that it's all a charade, that Bush is Trent Lott. But of course he is different, as sane people know. "Lott and Bush symbolize the two wings of the southern GOP," write Balz and Von Drehle, "the first emerging from the segregationist past, the second the son of a Yankee migrant who moved to the Sunbelt to make his fortune, and stayed to build a Republican party." As Earl Black, who with his brother Merle is the country's premier historian of southern electoral politics, told U.S. News & World Report, "President Bush is leading a Republican party that does not have any stake in the racial politics of the '60s and '70s....He may get Republicans a second look among middle-class and conservative blacks." This is exactly what frightens the Democrats. Knock just 10 points off their staggering 9-to-1 lead among blacks, and they are a party in very deep trouble. Knock another five points off that, and they may cease to function on a national level. And so they must crank up the fear.

And so we see things like Bill and Hillary Clinton coming out with the theory that modern Republicans surround themselves now and then with black people, only to hide their dark hearts. "I think what they are really upset about is that he [Lott] made public their strategy," said our most former ex-president. "They try to suppress black voting, they ran on the Confederate flag, . . . and from top to bottom the Republicans supported it. . . . He just embarrassed them by saying in Washington what they do on the back roads everyday." This is really hot stuff on that part of the left that still believes Bush is a moron who stole the election. "Now that Lott has bathed them in their own filth, the rage of the non-southern right-wingers is boundless," raved Harold Meyerson in the Los Angeles Times. And what a conspiracy! For a generation, thousands of conservative pundits, essayists, activists, and elected officials, not to mention 49 million Republican voters, have toiled day and night to hide from the rest of the country and from each other the fact that under a glossy veneer they are all really a collection of church-bombing bigots. How very exhausting, and utterly pointless. If they are all like this and so are the voters, then why bother dissembling at all?

Actually the Trent Lott affair blew up at just the right moment to save the left from a serious case of the blues. For the first time in years, it had no great causes to get its juices flowing, no terrible wrongs to avenge. In 1998 there had been the impeachment embarrassment, and the need to defend our first "black president" from being lynched by the vast right-wing menace. Then came the Florida recount, with its own set of villains: Jeb Bush, Katherine Harris, the five conservative members of the United States Supreme Court. But impeachment had ended in sort of a draw, and the Florida mess in a belated Republican victory: Jeb Bush is safe for another four years, Katherine Harris is now in Congress, and no one, it turns out, was mad. So the same pundits and people who were beating the drums in 1998 and 2000 are now defending the country from Jefferson Davis. Here are the Nation, the American Prospect, the New York Times, and most of their columnists. Here is Sean Wilentz, veteran of a thousand public letters, calling Strom Thurmond the "father of the modern Republican party," and weaving together Thurmond, Barry Goldwater, George Wallace (a Democrat!), Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush (for opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act), and George W. Bush (a neo-Confederate by virtue of having campaigned at Bob Jones University) in a giant cabal to uphold Confederate values, at the center of which is Trent Lott.

Memo to Wilentz: (1) Albert Gore Sr. voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. (2) In 1967, George H.W. Bush put his House seat at risk by voting for fair housing measures. (3) The father of the modern Republican party is not Strom Thurmond but Ronald Reagan, who when Thurmond ran for president was a union leader and liberal activist. He decidedly did not think Thurmond should have been elected in 1948.

Democrats could get by without this hysteria if they were able to draw more white voters, something Lyndon Johnson had no trouble doing in the last presidential election before his party took leave of its senses. Democrats then stood for an assertive defense and a great pride in the nation. Nixon's narrative was that he wasn't a Democrat, and was not George McGovern; Jimmy Carter's was that he was not Richard Nixon; Ronald Reagan restored the grand themes to his party, and carried it through three landslides, until the victory in the Cold War robbed the elder Bush of his raison d'être. In this themeless world, Clinton was able to win on charm and small issues. But September 11 gave George W. Bush his chance to frame his own narrative around a national mission that the Democrats were too splintered to share in completely.

So almost four decades after the mid-'60s disruptions, the Republicans have done better at exorcising their demons than the Democrats have done with theirs. The last vestiges of racism are leaching out of the South and of the Republican party. But the nihilism that seeped into the Democrats is still hanging in there, the small rock-hard core at the heart of the party that time has not softened. Yes, there is a reason the Democrats keep losing elections, but it isn't "code words" or Jim Crow. Democrats delude themselves if they believe the Confederate flag played a key role in the 2002 defeat of Roy Barnes and Max Cleland in Georgia, by turning out a huge white vote in exurban areas. The trouble with this theory is that the voting patterns in Georgia tracked exactly the patterns elsewhere in the country, where massive white turnout fueled the Senate wins of Norm Coleman in Minnesota, Jim Talent in Missouri, and Wayne Allard in Colorado, along with Bob Ehrlich's big win of the statehouse in Maryland. Does nostalgia for the days of Jefferson Davis run high in those states, too?

There was one big wedge issue that did work in Georgia, and perhaps in some other states. In late September, three Democratic House members (including Jim McDermott and outgoing whip David Bonior) took a trip to Iraq, where they criticized Bush and blamed the United States for killing small children. It was then that the numbers for Roy Barnes and Max Cleland started tanking in Georgia. For weeks, the Baghdad Democrats were all over the airwaves. No chagrined fellow Democrats stood up to say "this isn't our party," as Bush and some others did about Lott. The nostalgia for segregation of politicians like Lott may have been the reason the South first moved into the Republican column, but the bitter leftism of Democrats like McDermott and Bonior is high on the list of reasons it stays there. It is the reason many Democrats are running a seemingly permanent deficit among non-minority voters, a deficit that makes race-baiting essential, even as they run out of racists to criticize. They have seen the enemy, and it is Stonewall Jackson. Too bad he's still dead.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.