Commentary Magazine

The Democrats' Dilemma

In most elections, it is said, people do not so much choose which candidates they are for as eliminate those they are against. On the face of it this notion seems adequately to explain both the 1972 Presidential election, when a healthy plurality decided to vote against George McGovern, and the mid-term election of November 1974, when large majorities voted against Richard Nixon even though his name did not appear on the ballot.

The reasons behind the voters' repudiation of Nixon are too obvious to need elaboration, and theoretically, at least, they do not appear to implicate Nixon's political party. Watergate has been seen as Nixon's problem, or America's, but not as a peculiarly “Republican” phenomenon for which the party should be held responsible. Qui s'excuse, s'accuse—an adage which may well insure that most books by Republican authors on this episode will be penned by convicted Water-gate felons. The voters' rejection of George McGovern, on the other hand, is obviously a matter of passionate concern to Democrats, not least because it is essential for them to understand the 1972 debacle if another Democratic defeat is to be avoided in 1976. The choice of a theory to explain 1972 will have much to do with the choice of a candidate for 1976, and the debate among political intellectuals on this matter is directly tied to the intra-party power struggles now under way, as was made dramatically clear at the mini-convention in Kansas City last December.

A conventional wisdom has by now emerged on the McGovern defeat of 1972, providing both an “organizational” and a “substantive” interpretation for the magnitude of his loss. McGovern is considered to have been an unattractive candidate whose campaign was so badly run he himself came to appear incompetent and untrustworthy; on substantive issues McGovern is thought to have appeared too far to the Left of the great majority of voters—even traditionally Democratic voters. Indeed, so the theory goes, it was the desertion of the increasingly conservative white working-class voters, the “white ethnics,” from the Democratic party that turned Nixon's victory margin into a landslide. The lesson for 1976, then, is clear: the Democratic nominee must be attractive, his campaign must be carefully run, and in addition he must keep strictly to the political center lest he offend working-class whites and once again drive away a key element of traditional Democratic support.

This conventional analysis is appealing, and not entirely incorrect. McGovern's $l,000-a-person welfare plan, and the precipitous withdrawal of his firmly announced “1,000 per-cent” support of his running mate, Senator Thomas Eagleton, are shining examples of campaign errors, and there is no doubt that McGovern's views, or apparent views, on many issues (national security policy, for one) were unpopular. The 1974 Congressional elections would appear to add additional weight to this interpretation of what happened in 1972: Gary Hart, formerly a McGovern campaign manager, won his Colorado Senate campaign by running as what one might call an “extreme moderate.” Ramsey Clark, on the other hand, lost to Jacob Javits in New York (despite Hugh Carey's overwhelming victory in the gubernatorial race), apparently because he was unable to shake the left-wing label he had acquired through such acts as his visit to Hanoi in 1972.

Still, the conventional analysis leaves much to be desired as a sufficient explanation of the McGovern debacle. For one thing, it credits McGovern and his aides with a shrewd and brilliantly managed drive for the nomination and then blames his defeat in the general election on the gross incompetence of the very same people—an unresolved contradiction. And on the question of substantive policy issues, the conventional analysis posits an electorate too conservative to accept a Democratic nominee when the fact is that Democratic majorities have been elected to Congress every term since 1954—including in 1972, in the face of McGovern's own landslide defeat. These and other logical deficiencies in the conventional view have prompted a number of authors to reconsider the 1972 election and what it signifies for the future of Democratic party politics.

The most comprehensive of the revised looks at 1972 is by Lanny J. Davis in The Emerging Democratic Majority.1 This book opens with a history of the “New Politics” forces, starting with the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam war movements in the 1960's, and continuing on, through the 1968 campaign of Eugene McCarthy, to the 1972 election. Davis then enters into an extremely detailed examination of Edmund Muskie's campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination, and concludes with a series of chapters analyzing the lessons Davis believes may be learned from the story he has told. Although the book seems, at occasional points, to be an apologia for Muskie, in whose campaign the author participated, Davis writes with considerable intelligence and his views are consistently well-argued.

Its title notwithstanding, Davis's book is not really a response to Kevin Phillips's 1969 work, The Emerging Republican Majority—Richard M. Scammon and Ben Wattenberg delivered such a response in 1970 in The Real Majority—but is rather an attempt to answer two questions which perplexed Davis about the 1972 campaign. First, Edmund Muskie appeared to everyone to be a winning candidate, and everyone knew McGovern would be a terrible candidate; why, then, did McGovern win the nomination? And, second, if McGovern was smart enough to win the nomination, why wasn't he smart enough to avoid defeat in the election? (The second question is another way of challenging the view that McGovern lost badly simply because he campaigned poorly.)

Davis has an answer to both questions, one that should catch the attention of Democrats contemplating the 1976 primaries. “The fact is,” he argues, “most of the major problems of communication which McGovern faced during the campaign were the result) of; his doing what was necessary to win the purest elements of the New Politics constituency and to keep them satisfied during his campaign.” Davis notes that the personal approach of the Muskie campaign—“Trust Muskie”—“while well suited for a general-election campaign against Nixon, totally overlooked the political realities of winning the nomination in a multi-candidate primary.” Since primaries draw low turnouts, a small but devoted band of workers can often drum up enough voters to gain their candidate a plurality. Conversely, the kind of candidate who is acceptable to the great mass of voters but, precisely because of his centrist views, passionately supported by none, will lose primaries despite the fact that he would be the strongest man in a national election.

The phenomenon is of increasing importance in both parties. The Ripon Society's fine study of the 1972 election and Watergate, Jaws of Victory2 (one of the few Republican comments on 1972 and its aftermath), holds that recent changes have served “to open the [electoral] process up dramatically by placing the primary voter and the caucus attender at the center of the system. In many ways this is commendable, but what has happened is almost revolutionary. The managers have simply created a situation of great instability where it is almost impossible for anyone to exercise a predictable amount of influence over the nominating process.”

This is not entirely accurate so far as the Democrats are concerned, since, predictably, under the present party processes the influence of one group—the New Politics forces—is being maximized. It is no accident that the first great moves for Democratic party reforms came from a body known as the McGovern Commission; the authors of Jaws of Victory write of these reforms as “long-range attempts to manipulate the rules to the advantage of certain elements of the party.” What to do about the problem is another matter. Davis, however, does not shrink from the logic of his analysis; he calls for a “brokered” national convention. In 1972, he writes, “Such a result would have been in the interests not just of the Democratic party, which under the circumstances would probably have nominated someone who had the widest support among all segments of the party, but of the nation as well.”


Whatever one thinks of Davis's prescriptions, his diagnosis is cogently argued and his warnings well taken. At the moment, an exact repetition of 1972 in the Democratic party seems unlikely, but there is more to watch for than the nomination of an unpopular New Politics candidate. The activities of the McGovernites in 1972 not only culminated in the nomination of their candidate but also saw the victory of their views as to which national issues were worthy of emphasis by the Democratic party, and what positions Democrats should take on these issues. Furthermore, their activities, with the help of the media, were the source of the very special image of the “new” Democratic party which was then conveyed to voters. Even if the McGovern wing of the party cannot choose the nominee in 1976, it may well be powerful enough to control party policy.

Control over party policy is vital because voters are attentive not only to the programs a candidate advocates but also to the people or groups upon whom he seems to rely for advice or support. McGovern's own position on abortion, to take one simple example, was probably less important to the electorate than the vociferous support he received from pro-abortion women's groups at the Democratic convention. This brings us back to the question of whether McGovern appeared too left-wing for the white working-class voters who are essential to a Democratic victory. Davis takes issue with this notion, and he is seconded in his conclusions by John G. Stewart, a former McGovern campaign aide, in One Last Chance3 as well as by Andrew Levison in The Working Class Majority.4 Both these authors suggest that in the course of the 1960's and early 70's, working-class whites have become more rather than less liberal on many key issues.

In One Last Chance, Stewart, a communications consultant on the McGovern staff, cites a series of polls showing that large majorities of Americans, and especially of McGovern and Wallace supporters, believe that “the big special interests in this country have too much power” and indicating that public officials are seen as distant figures who lack understanding of the problems of the average man. However, the same polls show equally large majorities opposed to “permissiveness” and believing that “minorities . . . are making unreasonable demands.” Stewart writes:

At first glance it might be assumed that a “cynicism of the Right” could be differentiated from a “cynicism of the Left.” That is, one segment of the electorate could be singled out that felt the system is stacked against the common man; another segment could be characterized by “hard-hat” toughness on the matters of race and permissiveness. . . . Many observers seem to have glossed over the fact that these seemingly inconsistent sentiments were perfectly compatible in the minds of the vast majority of the voters.

Stewart does not go very much farther than this in his analysis, which is “political” in the narrow sense. He concludes that the lesson to be learned is a tactical one, and he suggests various policies and approaches that might appeal to “leftist cynicism” without alienating “rightist cynicism” (such as a policy stressing employment security for all workers rather than one stressing special treatment for minorities). He does not attempt to fit these ideas into any larger framework.

Lanny Davis, more alive to the implications of the polls Stewart uses, writes of a 1972 poll in which “by a margin of 69 to 22 per cent, the public expressed its opposition to spending more money on welfare. But the same cross-section of people, by a margin of 62 to 31 per cent, supported increased spending to ‘help the poor.’ ” For Davis, the conclusion is obvious: “What this means is that while most people will not support a generalized philosophy of government spending, those same people will support liberal social programs aimed at solving specific problems.” In other words, “Liberal Democrats can follow their instincts and support programs which they perceive as dealing with problems of poverty and social inequities without necessarily risking public disfavor.” In any event, this was not why McGovern lost: “Those ‘cultural’ issues on which McGovern was especially vulnerable, such as amnesty or abortion, were (and are) essentially peripheral to the major domestic and foreign policy issues that have traditionally divided liberals and conservatives.” McGovern, Davis states, did not lose because he was “too liberal,” but because he “seemed to represent an elitist, moralistic constituency” whose “arrogant snobbery” was responsible for alienating white working-class and middle-class voters. The vote against McGovern, then, was based not so much on ideological, as on class, divisions.


Davis and Stewart, both of whom are interested essentially in election results, take at face value the polls showing working-class whites to be conservative on “cultural” issues but liberal on economic and social ones. Andrew Levison's approach in The Working Class Majority is different: while politics is a central concern, his subject is the condition of the American working class, and election results are useful to him largely for what they reveal about that condition.

“In 1972 blue-collar voters defected to Nixon,” Levison writes in his preface. “What will they do in 1976? That is the central issue in American politics.” Levison begins by noting the widely held view that the American working class has become conservative, and can be won over only if liberal ideals are compromised. He then states his theme: “The central thesis of this book is that this view is basically and profoundly wrong.” To prove his point, Levison uses a combination of hard data and purely impressionistic evidence like personal anecdotes and random interviews, apparently meant to convey the “feel” of working-class life. While the goal is laudable, and Levison's stories often quite interesting, such evidence is of course unreliable; fortunately, the hard facts he presents are quite persuasive, and do not need anecdotal support to be believed.

Levison begins, appropriately, with definitions: most Americans—60 per cent—are still working class (service or white-collar workers like waiters and sales clerks, Levison reminds us, are no more middle-class than factory workers, and are often more poorly paid); today's working class is not sufficiently affluent to be considered a de facto middle class (according to Levison, the average workingman earned $9,500 in 1970, which was below the $10,760 the Bureau of Labor Statistics then held was necessary to maintain an “intermediate” budget); the working-class suburb does. not have much in common wih Shaker Heights or Scarsdale. Levison discusses factory working conditions, including safety problems, time pressures, and the sheer physical toll taken by working-class jobs. There is no need to belabor any of these points, or to catalogue the evidence Levison adduces to support each one. The picture emerges, largely convincing if overdrawn; of a working class which is far from affluent, far from the style of the middle class, and far indeed from the business-oriented conservatism of the Republican party.

“It becomes clear,” Levison says, “that, throughout the 60's, there was a rising discontent and militancy centered on the conditions of work and life in blue-collar America.” Yet this discontent has not resulted in racism or reaction on the part of workers. Poll after poll has demonstrated that working-class whites do not differ substantially from middle-class whites in their views on race. Racist responses appear dramatically only when working-class whites are pitted directly against blacks, and especially when, as with busing, working-class whites are asked to make sacrifices to help blacks while more affluent whites sit on the sidelines.

How, then, does Levison explain why, “throughout the 60's, it was George Wallace and other conservatives who benefited from blue-collar discontent, rather than liberal Democrats”? Like Stewart and Davis, he blames the liberal Democrats, who, he claims, deserted the working class by concentrating on issues like busing, amnesty, or abortion while ignoring the needs of the average American. Levison concludes:

The sources of the “drift to the Right” among blue-collar workers are not some mysterious social-psychological processes that cannot be reversed. If workers were “traditionally Democratic” it was because liberal Democrats “traditionally” stuck up for them. The rising militancy and a growing dissatisfaction that arose among workers was in large part over legitimate grievances. Yet they found liberals and progressives were not even aware that they had any discontent at all. In fact, the steady erosion of Democratic margins among workers since the mid-60's exactly parallels the indifference of middle-class liberals toward blue-collar workers in those years.


Levison's analysis, then, leads, to precisely the same explanation of McGovern's 1972 defeat, and to the same advice for 1976, as those offered by Stewart and Davis. Yet interestingly enough, his picture of growing working-class discontent is contradicted at every turn by Ben Wattenberg's new book, The Real America.5 Where Levison, and indeed Davis and Stewart, make use of statistics to support their views, Wattenberg overwhelms the reader with page after page of graphs, tables, and percentages. But his book is more than a collection of statistics; it is a serious, and on the whole successful, attempt to marshal the available evidence for an optimistic and enthusiastic view of America not often considered intellectually respectable in recent years. In view of the importance of Wattenberg's effort, it is particularly unfortunate that the book is not better written. Wattenberg's overly colloquial style, probably meant to lighten or enliven the effect of all those statistics, is eventually grating; and since the style is close to that of a campaign speech, it imparts a polemical and partisan tone to the book which may cause some readers to ignore the arguments.

To Wattenberg, the 60's were a time of tremendous progress:

After examining the data, the conclusion here is that the human condition in America—as measured by the data—has in fact improved rapidly in recent years. Indeed, it may well be that conditions have improved more rapidly than at any time in recent American history, in fact, improving to such a degree as to create a new human situation, a society whose massive majority is “middle-class.”

Since Levison and Wattenberg are referring to the same years and the same country, one is forced to wonder whether the data can support two such directly contrasting views. For the most part, they can.

First, Wattenberg makes plain he is talking of measurable improvement in living standards, and Levison presents no figures disputing Wattenberg's on this score. Notwithstanding our recent economic problems, it is a simple fact that great advances have been made since 1960 in areas such as average income levels, housing conditions, educational levels, the eradication of poverty, and the elimination of race and sex discrimination. Wattenberg emphasizes this progress, while Levison stresses how much remains to be done; accordingly, Levison's definition of middle-class status is a narrow one, while Wattenberg's middle class at times seems to embrace everyone not presently on welfare.

Wattenberg knows this is not the Land of Oz: America has been successful in that “we've been coping successfully with the problems that we face, even if we're still glum about those problems. Remember that those two concepts, progress and glumness, are not necessarily contradictory.” To take a simple example, the worker who moves from a rented apartment to a newly-purchased home will be in a tremendous financial bind, stretching himself to meet his newly-risen expenses, and, in Levison's terms, he may be greatly discontented with his income level, with his job, and with the tax structure. Nonetheless, he and his family are better off than they were, and everyone can be justly proud of an economy that enables more and more workers to own their own homes.

Second, Wattenberg presents a fascinating set of statistics showing that people do recognize that their own lives are better now than they used to be, although they do not think that the country's affairs in general are going better. He reports that “the notion that something is wrong with the country is perhaps just as strong as the view that things are going well personally.” To reach for a concrete example once again, the worker in his new house may recognize the improvement in his family's life, but express a negative view of national affairs because he is unhappy about school busing or income taxes or, for that matter, Watergate.

Wattenberg offers another explanation of why people are not as happy as they should be about recent progress: the “Failure and Guilt Complex,” a state of mind which considers America a terrible place, getting worse all the time. He tenders several pages of marvelous quotations which he has probably been collecting for years with malicious glee. Tom Wicker in 1971 talks of “the breakdown of American life,” and Norman Cousins in 1970 of “a comprehensive breakdown” of human society as a whole. John Gardner in 1969 writes that “the nation disintegrates. I use the phrase soberly: the nation disintegrates.” Senator Mondale in 1971, speaking of the race situation, observes that “this country is rapidly coming to resemble South Africa,” and Gary Hart in 1972 speaks of a “society teetering somewhere near the brink of moral bankruptcy and collapse.” It goes on and on. Cruelly, in the middle of these pages of quotations, Wattenberg places a remark by George Orwell: “You have to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”

As indicated by the professions of the men just quoted, the belief that no progress is being made is propagated in part by liberal politicians, and in part by the media. Wattenberg concludes that “A case can be made that a good part of our domestic malaise can be laid precisely at the feet of a media system that underreports progress. . . . Americans say their own lives are fine. And they say America is in trouble. There is another way of putting that: What people know of firsthand, they think well of. What people know of secondhand, information gathered through the transmission belt of our system of communications, they think ill of!” Wattenberg complains of the apparent rule that “Good news is no news,” and asks that “Americans be told of their successes with the same vigor and flair that they are told about their failures.”

The Real America is not just a celebration of the virtues of American life, though at times it sounds like one. Wattenberg is concerned with electoral politics, and his catalogue of social and economic advances has a political aim: today, he tells us:

Liberalism itself is under attack, and it cannot successfully be defended without reference to American success. The liberals have been in the saddle for two generations. If America has failed, or is failing—as liberals have been saying for half a decade and more—then it is liberalism that has failed. And if America is succeeding—then liberalism can claim a share of the credit and ask for an extension of its writ.

The purveyors of gloom, Wattenberg believes, have a political goal themselves: whether Nixonian conservatives or New Politics radicals, they must rout liberalism if they are to stand in its place. The attacks from the Right, on one party by the other, are easily recognized as partisan, but as Wattenberg makes clear, the attacks from the Left are no less partisan, no more disinterested or objective.


Obviously, criticisms of liberalism will vary according to the political position of the critic; perhaps more important for the future of the Democratic party, criticisms will also vary according to the critic's social and economic position. This is a simple enough point, but its implications are enormous: If the “McGovern wing” of the party actually represents (as is often claimed) an upper-middle-class constituency, its differences with the traditional, labor-oriented sectors of the party may not be transitory but may instead be fundamental and lasting.

Wattenberg and Levison both approach this question, but neither grapples with it directly. Wattenberg attacks the view that the 60's were “the last gasp of traditional liberalism” and that we need a new agenda:

A new agenda indeed! Tell it to the blacks—who for all the progress, are still low men on the economic totem pole. Tell it to the poor in America, still in slums and hollows and shacks. Tell it to the aged. Tell it to the sick. . . . Tell it to the factory worker in an unsafe factory. Tell them the old agenda is complete. . . .

Levison for his part notes disapprovingly that discussions of the political role of workers often “will end with a caution that liberals ought not to expect too much,” since workers are concerned with matters like wages, rather than more “progressive” issues like ecology. “The dismissal of working-class grievances and discontents as somehow less thoughtful or profound than those of other groups, in fact, smacks of condescension,” he writes.

Neither Wattenberg nor Levison goes further than this. Yet on reflection it seems clear that for upper-middle or upper-class New Politics types—those who believe we need a new agenda, or that workers have no grasp of the “real” issues—the old agenda is complete, and the old bread-and-butter issues are no longer of interest. For the wealthy suburbanite of 1968 with McCarthy daisies on his sports car, or the college student of 1972 sacrificing his vacation in Europe to work for McGovern, issues like unemployment, wages, health insurance, pensions, and job safety are simply not vital. Indeed, on some issues a direct clash of interest has arisen between constituencies within the Democratic party; ecology offers a good example, where the workers' need for an expanding economy is often directly at odds with the environmentalists' desire to check pollution.

The gap between the white working-class voter and the upper-middle-class and upper-class “new liberals” is hardly unbridgeable, as Democratic candidates proved all around the country in the 1974 elections. However, the Presidential elections of 1968 and 1972 should make one point clear: without support from, the New Politics forces, Democrats will find victory more difficult; without support from working-class whites, they will find victory impossible. This proposition is likely to gain, not lose, in cogency as the national economy continues to worsen.


Yet there is already substantial evidence that the Democrats have not learned the lesson. The most remarkable thing about the mini-convention held in December is not that, in the end, compromises were reached on such issues as quotas. What is truly remarkable is that, only two years after their candidate and their view of party politics were overwhelmingly rejected by the voters, the McGovernites retain control over so much of the party machinery that it is necessary to change party policy to satisfy them. McGovern himself has apparently learned nothing: in his one major speech to the convention he attacked party moderates as “the voice of timidity” and warned the party that “we will be in the center but a dead center.”

Why anyone should pay heed to such counsels is unclear, since the New Politics forces evidently have very little appeal to the electorate. Indeed, what seems to be forgotten during the Democrats' internecine struggles is that if they are to win elections, they must satisfy the voters. If it is already clear from the 1974 election results that the emerging Republican majority never quite emerged, Davis's idea of an emerging Democratic majority now seems equally dubious. Each party has certain bases of support, and seeks to enlarge upon them by attracting independents and voters from the other party. As the Ripon Society's analysis goes in Jaws of Victory, “Voters are becoming more fluid, but not realigned. Their party loyalties remain largely unchanged, but they are less important.” If each party can hold on to its own base, the 1976 election will be close—like 1960 or 1968, for example. If either loses a substantial fraction of its base (which is easier to do now that party loyalties are of reduced importance), there will be a landslide—as in 1964 or 1972. The notion of a permanent majority for one party over the other in Presidential elections is unrealistic, unless one is willing to assume uncommon stupidity on the part of leaders of either party.

George McGovern and his supporters committed what, in a two-party system, are capital crimes: they did not compromise, they took hard ideological positions, they alienated a large portion of their party's traditional supporters, and they lost—very, very badly. Whether the Democrats can correct all this in time remains to be seen; it now seems increasingly possible, however, that the dynamics of the multi-candidate primary and the power of the New Politics forces within the party (largely due to the “reforms” they themselves instituted) will lead in 1976 to another dismally unsuccessful Democratic campaign.



1 Stein & Day, 288 pp., $8.95.

2 The Ripon Society and Clifford W. Brown, Jr., Little, Brown, 394 pp., $10.95.

3 Praeger, 208 pp., $8.00.

4 Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 319 pp., $8.95.

5 Doubleday, 367 pp., $10.00.


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