Saturday, September 11, 2004

The Migrating Middle
Something that always surprises me is seeing modern right-wingers express admiration for Democratic stalwarts of the past like John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman or even Hubert Humphrey. Typically, they'll offer praise for these past public figures accompanied by a lament that "the Democrats don't have leaders of that caliber anymore" or something along those lines.

What I've never understood about this is that on the issues, all three of those guys were clearly more "liberal" than contemporary Democrats like Clinton, Gore or Kerry. While Truman and JFK pushed universal health coverage, very high marginal rates of taxation and a generally activist public sector, their successors offer incremental solutions (if any) to the growing healthcare crisis, try to portray themselves as tax cutters, and trip over themselves to praise the private sector while seeming almost apologetic for any expansion of public authority.

So why do so many right-wingers at least rhetorically and retroactively embrace the liberal lions of old? I don't think it has to do so much with their positions, or even their personalities, as how the world has changed since they dominated the stage.

In some respects, JFK, Truman and Humphrey were all admirably progressive on social issues, particularly race questions. And all but the most reactionary conservatives of today concede the moral justice of the civil rights movement. But none of them ever had much to say about homosexual rights, feminism, abortion, or any of the other hot-button social issues that play such a large role in our politics today. (It's also worth noting that all three of those past Dems were active during the time of the great post-war foreign policy consensus, when partisan differences meant little.) Without those issues on the table, Democrats arguably had it a lot easier. While the country probably has moved somewhat to the right on economics--the tax rates of the 1960s will never be seen again--we have also moved to the left on those social issues, with pluralities now saying that they can accept the notion of civil unions if not gay marriages.

This is a puzzle with a lot of moving pieces, one of which is the changing constituency of the Democratic Party. With the outmigration of southern and working-class whites and the surge in urban professionals, minorities and single women into the Democratic ranks, the issues most important to the rank and file changed. Add in the role of big-money donors, which blunted the Democrats' traditional economic populism, and the party faces an uphill climb in explaining their "elitist" social positions and stressing the increasingly small differences on pocketbook issues between themselves and the Republicans.

All this helps explain the basic forfeiture of "heartland" voters Thomas Frank describes in What's the Matter With Kansas?, but it also makes me wonder if there isn't room in our politics for a more economically liberal, socially moderate to conservative political force. Hard to imagine how such an entity would arise, however.

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