I was raised in what my mother regularly called “a Democratic kitchen” in the South, by parents who had been Roosevelt Democrats. My father cast his first vote as a 21 year-old for FDR’s second term. Four years after that, my mother cast her first for his third. They, unfailingly, voted Democratic until the day they died; in fact, my father would often proudly proclaim he would vote the Democratic candidate if the candidate turned out to be the Devil, himself.
In the Virginia Democratic primary of 1988, my father voted for Jesse Jackson. The following year, he voted for Douglass Wilder in the gubernatorial election. In 1992, he voted, again, for Jackson over Bill Clinton in the Presidential primary. My father was white and had been raised in the segregated South of Jim Crow. He didn’t care about race, he told me. He voted Democratic, because the Democratic Party was for what he called “the working man,” and Jesse Jackson, he reasoned, was more for the working man than Bill Clinton. Besides, he continued, Jesse had known poverty, the same sort of abject poverty my father had known as a child and a young man growing up in the rural South. At the end of the day, in November 1992, he voted for Clinton too.
That was the way I was raised: The Democrats were for the working class, and the Republicans were for the wealthy and the business class. My first Presidential election fell in 1972, when I was part of the newly-registered demographic of 18 year-olds. I voted for McGovern; so did my parents, but they held their noses. My father would have preferred Humphrey; my mother, Ed Muskie or Ted Kennedy. They stayed with the party, because they always believed that the Democrats would work for their interests.
Years later, after spending most of my married adult life in Britain (but never failing to vote in Presidential and Congressional elections in the US), I’m looking back at that era when I cast my first vote, and so I started to read Rick Perlstein’s book, Nixonland, which has not only taught me a great deal of things I was too young to notice, even in 1972, it’s filled me with a curious sense of deja vu, especially concerning today’s Democratic Party.
The Democrats, as we know them, the angst they’re encountering at the moment amongst their supporters and their elected officials, is the culmination of a seed subtly planted by Richard Nixon back in 1970. It’s a perfect storm about to implode, and the result of that implosion will be what Karl Rove has long sought to achieve: an unbroken hegemony of Republican rule in the United States.
I vaguely remember the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, when Hubert Humphrey won the nomination without ever having entered a primary. Lyndon Johnson, the current President, had gone from hero to zero in the two years from his 1964 election. He was primaried by Eugene McCarthy, who was advocating an anti-war platform. After two close showings in the early primaries, Johnson withdrew, announcing he would not seek re-election. Then Bobby Kennedy announced his candidacy, and many expected McCarthy to fall by the wayside, as most pundits thought him a stalking horse for Kennedy; but McCarthy stayed the course, and Kennedy was assassinated.
The Convention was more famous for what happened outside the venue than inside. The protest riots, led by Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman, are the stuff of legend; when anyone thinks of this particular convention, they think of the Chicago Seven.
In 1970, there was a revolution within the Democratic Party, whose base, heretofore had consisted of a solid core of working class people – the farmers of the Midwest and Western states, the industrial workers of the Rust Belt and the agrarian workers and labourers of the Southern states, who were fronted by the unions and cooperatives. Before 1970, the world of the Democrats was pretty much that of the Republicans, politically – smoke-filled rooms, men in suits, cigar smoke and deal-making. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Back this candidate, and I’ll see you get your bridge built. That sort of thing.
That all changed in 1970. A couple of young political strategists decided to mold the Democratic party from a blue-collared party of principle to a high-minded elite corps of coastal intellectuals. No more would their thinksters be the types embodied by Bob LaFollett or the CIO’s John Lewis. The mindsets of the party would be centred on the West Coast or the Northeast Coast of America. The party would promote an Affirmative Action agenda by means of ensuring that the state delegations to the 1972 Convention would reflect the racial and gender demographics of each state. Instead of principles the old working class understood, like minimum wage and price controls, this party would advocate ideals – basically, peace, love and understanding, in a nutshell.
The kids who were on the streets in 1968, would be at the centre of power in 1972. And above all, there would be no compromise on any of their ideals. None whatsoever. Their way, or the highway.
And Nixon smiled. Because he knew that such idealistic aspiration would prove divisive.
Almost from the very beginning, it was. At the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami Beach, many states showed up with two delegations, each claiming to be the duly elected one. Illinois fielded two delegations, one of which contained Mayor Richard Daley, the other of which, didn’t. The two delegations clashed over which one was the legal one. They couldn’t reach agreement and were arguing vociferously, when Daley and Jesse Jackson drew aside and, between the two of them, worked out an arrangement where half of the Daley delegation and half of the reform delegation would serve. When Jackson revealed the resolution, he was shouted down as a traitor for compromising, and the Daley delegation left.
Immediately he was on the campaign trail, when McGovern, who had previously stated that upon his Inauguration, he would order an immediate cease-fire in Viet Nam, walked back the statement with a need for maintaining troops in nearby Singapore, the “no compromisers” (now calling themselves, “Progressives”), again shouted him down for his betrayal. When the governor of a Northeastern state asked to see McGovern during the campaign, with a view to endorsing him, McGovern was publically castigated by his backroom staff for daring to enter into what appeared to be private negotiations with the governor.
“No backroom deals!” They shouted.
And so it went on. Nixon had welcomed the refomation of the Democratic party. He could see the factions forming within and could see the in-fighting that would occur. He’d already started infiltrating the staffs of various Democratic contenders with college-aged operatives of his own, the celebrated ratfuckers of Donald Segretti, amongst whom was a young Karl Rove, with a view to causing dissension and general mischief in an attempt to upend Democratic candidates. The object of the 1972 election, as far as the GOP and Nixon were concerned, was to ensure that the Democrats fielded the weakest candidate possible, and McGovern fit the bill.
The campaign was a shambles from the very beginning. Nixon’s operatives, Roger Ailes and Pat Buchanan, managed to feed the press exaggerated stories of McGovern’s supposed liberal ideals. He became the triple-A candidate, allegedly endorsing amnesty (for Viet Nam draft dodgers), abortion and acid (de-criminalisation of pot). He suddenly found himself going on the defensive in swings through the Prairie States, having, painstakingly, to explain his real policies to disbelieving farmers in Nebraska, whereas previously, McGovern, from South Dakota, had found this tranche of voter an easy touch.
He even had trouble finding a Vice Presidential candidate. Kennedy turned him down. And Humphrey. And Abraham Ribicoff. Finally, he landed Thomas Eagleton, a freshman senator from Missouri, who, it was rumoured, had a drinking problem. Almost immediately Eagleton had accepted, the press “suddenly” found evidence that he’d been hospitalised for depression and had received electric shock treatments. Eagleton was the Sarah Palin of his day, but with the grace to resign, as unqualified, before the campaign got underway. Sargent Shriver was tapped as a suitable replacement and a quasi-Kennedy.
The rest is history. McGovern went on to a landslide defeat. Only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia declared for him. He got 17 electoral votes. He couldn’t even carry his own state of South Dakota, a state which, heretofore, had been solidly blue. The old Democratic base – the farmers, the industrial workers – stayed home. For the first time in its history, the AFL-CIO refused to endorse a Democratic candidate, its leader, George Meany, pointedly saying that George McGovern did not speak for the majority of his Democrats. Some of those from the old base furtively voted for Richard Nixon – hence, the myth of the Southern Strategy.
McGovern, himself, was so confused and disillusioned with what had appeared to happen in the Democratic Party, that – instead of voting for Jimmy Carter in 1976 – he voted for Gerald Ford.
During the decade after the McGovern election, Republican operatives strengthened their presence amongst the farmers and working classes of the Midwest, the Rust Belt and the South. They used local people who spoke like the people they targeted, who understood the values and concerns of this demographic. In short, the GOP used people “just like” the people the targeted. “People like us.” And even though they blipped and saw these people support Jimmy Carter’s successful 1976 run, they were acclimatised enough to Republican values (which didn’t seem so different to the ones they held) that by the time Carter was visciously primaried by Ted Kennedy (primarying a sitting President again), the old Democratic base were ready to be recognised fully as “Reagan Democrats.” For the next 12 years. Many of these Reagan Democrats are now Republicans, most probably voting against their own interests.
In 1996, in preparation for a 2000 Presidential run, Republican strategist Matthew Dowd and the infamous turd blossom, Karl Rove, devised a new Republican strategy: play to the base. Forget the independents. Independents were well-educated fiscal conservatives with social consciences. They always voted the issue, never the party. Concentrate on elevating the base to centre-stage importance. If they were religious, give them a hefty dose of Christianity. If they liked their Second Amendment rights, show them your pistol, if not your pistolino. Work your base and they will work for you. And the Republican base did.
While the Democratic base is just one of shifting sand.
One of the biggest frustrations my father had with the Democratic Party was the fact that they could win the battle but not the war. As soon as they’d attained a notable victory, the various factions within started in-fighting. Today, we seem hell-bent on an Armageddon amongst the Democrats between the Progressive ueber-Left and the rest of the party, whom they would like to see expelled for reasons of reality, compromise and pragmatism. The kids who took over the show in 1970 and demanded no compromise, no discussion, who engaged in shout-downs have now come back bigger and stronger – maybe not in numbers, as poll after poll always shows Americans identifying themselves as Liberal/Progressive numbering around 20% of the electorate. But they’re aided and abetted by the 24/7 cable media and various internet aggregates, who repeatedly obsess, cherry-pick, second-guess, surmise and assume soundbitten titbits presented as fact, heavily coated with opinion.
Almost from the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, they’ve nit-picked, parsed and second-guessed this man like no other President before him. At first, it was under the guise of constructive criticism, then it just became gratuitous, now it’s become downright mean and nasty. When members of so-called Progressive Left begin to refer to the President as the Affirmative Action President or, as one particularly vile commentator on Huffington Post did recently, a “house nigger,” then I’d say the Democratic Party was seriously in danger of imminent implosion. Remarks like that make it all too obvious that racism is alive and well and surreptitiously gnawing at the fibre of so-called progressivism, just below the surface, so that it doesn’t necessarily show, unless one of the more unrestrained and immature elements loses control. The fact that Arianna Huffington’s crack team of moderators let that remark stand speaks volumes for her ethics as well.
With all that in mind, it’s no wonder John Boehner’s got by in the past two years, retiring to the nearest bar to imbibe as soon as 5PM showed on the clock. Apart from just opposing everything on the President’s agenda, all the GOP had to do was sit back and watch the Democrats destroy each other. They giggled at the Progressive sections open desires to rid the party of Blue Dogs. They watched the base perform erratically, to the extent that a media personality is an icon one week for saying the right thing, and a felon the next for disagreeing with the accepted opinion de jour. Our way or the highway.
I was raised to believe that as a liberal or a Liberal, we of the Left were tolerant, open-minded and inclusive. These days, I’m finding none of that in what purports to be the Democratic party. Instead, I’m finding intolerance, obdurance, close-mindedness, a strong authoritarian bend and a whiff of racism. And hatred. Lots and lots of hatred. Hatred for the Republicans, I can easily understand; but hatred of people within their own party, hatred of other types of Democrats on an equal proportion of that of the opposition, is unfathomable to me. The Blue Dogs are to be hated and defiled, the Obamabots, even the President, himself, and Southerners – there’s a special hatred for Southerners. Why, we’re all toothless, illiterate, shitkicking inbreds, who are all unreconstructed Confederates, who should have been left to secede. (Never mind the fact that most of these so-called intellectual effetes have trouble discerning “secede” from “succeed” and often end up inadvertantly wishing that we so-called “unreconstructed Confederates” had actually won the Civil War.)
It’s more than an oxymoron that these same people deride the Republican party for marching lockstep, yet almost demand the same subservience within the Democratic party, whilst at the same time crowing about how diverse and individual our viewpoints are and how proud we were of that fact. Go figure, because I can’t.
And I won’t. Not anymore.
I’m done with the Democrats, done with politics and done with America. The Democrats have fucked themselves and played right into Karl Rove’s game plan of GOP dominance. The so-called liberal media feed the lie to their viewing/listening public that the President is a poor communicator, when, in actual fact, the only way he has to communicate his program is via the media, who choose not to emphasize his successes, but dwell overlong on what they perceive to be his failures. They’re part of strategy too. A Republican president would give them scores of angst-ridden material. Imagine Keith Olbermann counting the days until a President Palin would be up for re-election.
I’ll vote in one more election. I’ll vote for Obama in 2012, or whoever the Democratic candidate will be – which means, if there’s a primary or he’s forced into not running again, my vote will be as wasted a vote as my father cast for McGovern in 1972. And that reminds me of something else my father believed: That if you move too far to the Left, you find yourself on the Right.
After all, neocons are lapsed liberals. Ask Arianna Huffington. She should know.
Good-bye. It’s been real.