Here's an excerpt from an article of mine that was just posted on The Gadflyer, an excellent new webzine, on whose Board of Advisors I'm proud to sit. (And you can read the whole article here.)
Once upon a time, Old Democrats – which is to say New Deal Democrats – roamed the earth. They were rooted in an economy dominated by mass production industries and politically based among the workers, overwhelmingly white, in those industries. Their Democratic Party was the party of the white working class and the Party's dominance among these voters was the key to its political success. But that relationship could not and did not survive the decline of mass production industries and the rise of postindustrial capitalism.
First, there was the transformation of the white working class itself. In 1948, about two-thirds of the workforce was white men, and the bulk of these white men worked at blue-collar manufacturing and construction jobs or at blue collar service jobs like janitor or warehouseman. But the last half century has changed all that. The white working class has become much more diverse – today, there are almost as many women workers as men – even as unionization has declined. And only a relatively small proportion (17 percent) of the white working class works in manufacturing (even among men, the proportion is still less than one-quarter).
Second, as this great transformation was changing the character of the white working class, reducing the size and influence of the Democrats' traditional blue-collar constituencies, the evolution of postindustrial capitalism was creating new constituencies and movements with new demands. These new constituencies and movements – civil rights, feminist, environmentalist, student, gay rights – wanted more out of the welfare state than steady economic growth, copious infrastructure spending and the opportunity to raise a family in the traditional manner.
Of these movements, the one with most far-reaching political effects was the civil rights movement and its demands for equality and economic progress for black America. Democrats, both because of ideology and their political relationship to the black community, had no choice but to respond to those demands. The result was a great victory for social justice, but one that created huge political difficulties for the Democrats among their white working class supporters. Kevin Phillips captured these developments well in his book, The Emerging Republican Majority:
"The principal force which broke up the Democratic (New Deal) coalition is the Negro socioeconomic revolution and liberal Democratic ideological inability to cope with it. Democratic "Great Society" programs aligned that party with many Negro demands, but the party was unable to defuse the racial tension sundering the nation. The South, the West, and the Catholic sidewalks of New York were the focus points of conservative opposition to the welfare liberalism of the federal government; however, the general opposition…came in large part from prospering Democrats who objected to Washington dissipating their tax dollars on programs which did them no good. The Democratic Party fell victim to the ideological impetus of a liberalism which had carried it beyond programs taxing the few for the benefit of the many…to programs taxing the many on behalf of the few."
But if race was the chief vehicle by which the New Deal coalition was torn apart, it was by no means the only one. White working class voters also reacted poorly to the extremes with which the rest of the new social movements became identified. Feminism became identified with bra-burners, lesbians and hostility to the nuclear family; the antiwar movement with appeasement of the Third World radicals and the Soviet Union; the environmental movement with a Luddite opposition to economic growth and the move toward more personal freedom with a complete abdication of personal responsibility.
The result was a catastrophic desertion of white working class voters from the Democratic Party. The average white working class vote for the Democrats in 1960-64 was 55 percent; in the Nixon elections of 1968-72 and in the Reagan elections of 1980-84 it was 35 percent, a staggering 20 point drop in support from their key constituency.
But as the white working class was changing and moving away from the Democrats, other pro-Democratic constituencies were emerging:
The secret to Bill Clinton's electoral success in the 1990's was activating these new constituencies, even as he drew back some of the Democrats' lost support among the white working class. Al Gore's problem in 2000 was that he didn't do as well among the Democrats' emerging constituencies and he lost back most of Clinton's gains among the white working class. The key to 2004 clearly lies in improving Democratic performance in both areas.
That's where Newer Democrats come in. New Democrats like to maintain, of course, that all of Clinton's successes were attributable to following the moderate policies they have advocated since 1985 to correct the party's "liberal fundamentalism" which, as William Galston and Elaine Kamarck argued in The Politics of Evasion:
"the public has come to associate with tax and spending policies that contradict the interests of average families; with welfare policies that foster dependence rather than self-reliance; with softness toward the perpetrators of crime and indifference toward its victims; with ambivalence toward the assertion of American values and interests abroad; and with an adversarial stance toward mainstream moral and cultural values."
Conversely, Gore's failure in 2000 was attributable to the reverse: not following the DLC's great advice, especially his inexplicable emphasis on populist themes after the 2000 Democratic convention. The populist-liberal wing of the party – the descendants of the Old Democrats – strenuously dispute the New Democrats' self-aggrandizing analysis, pointing to the many populist elements of Clinton's successful campaigns, as well as Gore's surge in the polls in 2000 after he adopted his populist stance.
Newer Democrats view this argument between New and Old Democrats as old hat and fundamentally unproductive. Their pragmatic concern is to toughen up the party to beat George Bush and take back Congress; any tool from the Democratic toolbox that works, be it New, Old or in between should be employed toward that end.