Two U.S. News columnists have recently sounded similar themes. Managing Editor Mortimer Zuckerman sees conditions that favor old-style Democrats.
Why aren't the Democrats way ahead? After all, the vast bulk of middle- and working-class Americans are being financially squeezed between slowly rising wages and escalating costs for oil, healthcare, and education, and the war on terrorism is seen through the prism of TV news on Iraq, which focuses on horrific pictures of terrorist violence.Advantage, Donks? Nope. Ronald Reagan's quip about the Democratic Party leaving him captured a phenomenon writ large.
The Democratic Party should be riding a wave here. It has always cast itself as the party of the little guy, fighting against the GOP, the party of the wealthy. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the Democrats began to focus less on economics than on social conditions. At a time of declining real wages, Democrats were seen to be more concerned with liberal social programs to promote the particular interests of blacks, gays, women, and other groups. This pushed a lot of traditional Democrats into the Republican column--construction and blue-collar workers, homemakers, military veterans, cops, evangelicals, rural residents, and many ethnics. When Jimmy Carter lost control of the American economy, producing some three years of double-digit inflation, Reagan's antitax, small-government message became appealing. The Reagan Democrats emerged, consolidating the wide disaffection of white working-class workers brought about by the Vietnam War and conflicts around race in the 1960s.Meanwhile, the Democratic Party's base changed, Mr. Zuckerman argues. By their fruits shall ye know them.
Weary of the unraveling of the orderly, coherent, moral community they once relied on, Americans rejected the hedonism of Woodstock, in which individual choice and uninhibited, personal expression trumped all. Hollywood came to epitomize for them this narcissism and repudiation of conventional values. They were tired of the new counterculture of radical change, seeing in the New Left a contempt for middle America and its values, reflected in fathers abandoning their families, the delegitimization of the sanctity of marriage, raising children without clear moral guideposts--all of which, in their minds, led to increased criminality, drug abuse, people being recast as society's victims rather than accepting responsibility for their own actions. They yearned to restore the authority of public institutions and to remove some of the violence and sexuality in TV programs, records, and computer games, whose content they ascribed to the liberals who write the screenplays for TV and movies.Mr Zuckerman has captured something that Mr Frank missed.
All of which goes a long way toward explaining the Republican use of cultural opulism to mobilize voters, exploiting explosive social issues like abortion--especially "partial-birth" abortions--gay marriage, school prayer, and guns. Recent polls by both Time and MSNBC/Knight Ridder indicate that the number of voters who are responding primarily on moral and family-value issues like gay marriage and abortion has increased to between 15 and 18 percent; in the most recent Time poll, George Bush is winning over the culturally driven voters by 70 to 18 percent, a margin that shifts the overall poll findings by as much as 7 or 8 percentage points toward Bush. This is true, as well, in the battleground states, where the GOP margin on social issues is critical. MSNBC's polling firm indicated some 12 percent in Pennsylvania and 16 percent in Missouri would pick moral and family-values issues as the most important in determining their presidential vote this year, and Bush's lead over Kerry among these voters ranges from almost 8 to 1 in Oregon to more than 10 to 1 in Ohio and more than 12 to 1 in Missouri.That Democratic economic policies are based on canards and good intentions and not often effective also serves to rebut Mr Frank's thesis that people are voting against their best economic interests.
John Leo raises a point that Mr Frank also missed, namely the effect of Democratic tolerance of pacifist crazies on their old base.
The anti-Iraq-war demonstrations were a grab bag of contradictory constituencies, many of which had nothing to do with war and peace. But they held out the promise that the hard and soft left, by refusing to criticize each other, could form a powerful alliance. So ordinary Democrats raised almost no objection to the many hate-America themes at these marches. (Few liberals and almost no reporters mentioned that the rallies were organized by unreconstructed Communist-front groups and Maoist fans of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.) Some of the dumber themes--Bush=Hitler and no blood for oil--moved into the mainstream left. Many stars in the Democratic firmament praised Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which carries some of these themes, including the belief that an evil alliance between the Saudis and the Bush family explains the war in Iraq.The Superintendent's advice to Democrats: you cannot beat something with nothing, or hold out your hopes for a fracture between the libertarian and traditionalist parts of the Republican coalition. There are some interesting developments in local Democratic races, but that's got to wait for another day, as it's getting late.