The Magazine

WILL THE FEMINISTS JUMP SHIP?

Feb 9, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 21 • By MICHAEL BARONE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts



AT STAKE IN THE MONICA LEWINSKY affair is no less than the balance of forces in American politics. If the alleged events are conclusively proven -- even if the scandal results merely in the airing of more and more unpalatable facts about Bill Clinton -- there is a strong possibility that the whole business could dissipate the strength of the Feminist Left, which has been the greatest source of energy, enthusiasm, and elan in the Democratic party in the 1990s. (Its counterpart in the Republican party is the Religious Right. ) The many millions of Feminist Left voters and their favorite politicians seem to be sticking with Clinton for now. But the unfolding events could ultimately leave them as demoralized and politically weakened as Richard Nixon's disgrace left his core constituency, the small town.


It's hard to remember now, but in the 35 years before Watergate, the Small Town Right was one of the dominant forces in American politics. Its champions were small-town lawyers and businessmen, with a cheerful service-club conviviality and conventional religious beliefs, opposed to New Deal nationalized control of their local economies. The Small Town Right controlled Congress almost continuously from the 1938 off-year elections until the Watergate hearings of 1973 and 1974, and it controlled most state legislatures. Richard Nixon was its defender, and as the Watergate scandal unfolded, he counted on the support of the Small Town Right -- Republicans from the Midwest and the back reaches of the Northeast plus Democrats from the South -- to fight his impeachment. And so most of them did, often vigorously, until the evidence piled up and they were forced to conclude that he had betrayed the causes he and they had stood for.


Almost as soon as Nixon's helicopter took off from the White House lawn, the Small Town Right, already declining demographically, disappeared as a force in American politics. Control of Congress passed in 1974 to liberal Democrats, who maintained it with few exceptions for 20 years. Control of the Republican party in Congress eventually passed from the Small Town Right, personified by Bob Michel, to a new Right based in the metropolitan fringes of the Deep South, personified by Newt Gingrich. Control of large-state legislatures -- New York, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois -- passed to liberal Democrats.


In the 1990s, the Feminist Left has been a moving force in politics. Energized by the fight against the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, the Feminist Left chalked up "year of the woman" victories for Democratic senators in 1992 and pressed the case against Sen. Bob Packwood. The one group that Bill Clinton addressed outside the hall at the 1992 Democratic National Convention was the feminist caucus; inside the hall, Clinton forces denied the podium to Bob Casey, the anti-abortion governor of Pennsylvania. Sen. Barbara Boxer proclaimed that Clinton and Gore would be the last all-male Democratic ticket.


But now, with its champion under attack, the Feminist Left faces signs that its demographic base may be declining, as that of the Small Town Right was 20 years ago. Opinion on abortion has shifted. As the partial-birthabortion debate has developed, a triumphal determination to maintain "choice" has given way to a disapproving toleration of some abortions and an increasing desire to cabin in abortion with legal restrictions. The feminist project of encouraging mothers of young children to work outside the home is turning sour as the deficiencies of day care become clearer; there are signs that younger women may be more inclined to raise their children at home. And now comes Monica Lewinsky, and perhaps others, with testimony that the Feminist Left's own Bill Clinton has betrayed its cause.


The first reaction of the Feminist Left has been denial. But if the charges are finally shown to be true, there arises for the Democrats the danger that the next reaction will be withdrawal. In 1974, my grandmother said to me, " You were right about Nixon, and I don't want to talk about it anymore." I wonder whether she ever voted again. In any case, Republican turnout sagged in 1974 and 1976, as Nixon's Small Town Right lost its vitality. If this scandal similarly drains away the energy, enthusiasm, and elan of the Feminist Left, the balance of political forces in the next decade will be markedly different.




Michael Barone, a senior staff editor at Reader's Digest, is co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.