OCTOBER 30, 2006
Thomas B. Edsall is onto something when he writes that “the Democratic Party has become the political arm of the subdominant, while the GOP is home to the dominant groups in American life” (“Party Hardy,” September 25). This, however, is not new; it’s the basic story of U.S. politics since the Civil War. Until the Depression, the Democrats were (roughly) the party of the South in coalition with the urban North, while the Republicans were (also roughly) the natural governing party of “the nation” as a whole. Franklin Roosevelt and his followers brilliantly capitalized on the Depression—which occurred at the apex of the urban moment in American politics—to build a party of dependent interest and constituency groups. (His administration didn’t do much to solve the slump, but it did put the middle-class urban intelligentsia front and center as the administrators of American public life, to the gratitude of historians, journalists, artists, and others of the class ever since.) The Democratic Party’s coalition began to break up after World War II. With the exception of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 (in the emotional aftermath of the Kennedy assassination), no Democratic candidate for president has received the 51 percent of the popular vote that George W. Bush garnered in 2004 since Roosevelt did it in 1944—not Harry Truman, not John Kennedy, not Jimmy Carter, not Bill Clinton. (Not even Al Gore.) Democratic Congressional majorities persisted in the decades after World War II, thanks in part to gerrymandering (the party got 59 percent of the seats in the House as late as 1992 on only about 50 percent of the popular vote) and the willingness of Southern Democratic politicians to stay in the party of the Confederacy until their retirement. The great run the Democrats had, from the 1930s until 1994, depended heavily on the artifice of padded congressional majorities and the complicity of the old segregationist South, hard as it might be for today’s blue-state liberals to accept. Significantly, the economy was strengthening in 1994, when the realignment that the Democrats had long been able to skillfully avoid finally occurred. The Democrats are now basically back to being the party they were before the Depression: a coalition of disparate “minority” groups without much in common except their “outsider” status in the context of middle- class American life. They will win elections when the Republicans foul up or get lazy, but the slow climb back to power by the GOP in the absence of one mighty, aberrant event like the stock market crash or the Great Depression seems to illustrate that the Republicans represent “core American values” more authentically (if not more eloquently) than do the Democrats.
John B. Judis’s overly cheerful midterm-election report disproved his argument that the country is becoming “indigo” (“Mood Indigo,” September 25). How can the Democrats’ “perfect candidate” for Ohio governor be a National Rifle Association (NRA) supporter? How do Democratic candidates who are “moderate, or even conservative, on social issues” demonstrate anything other than the strength of the religious right, even if they win?
Ann Arbor, Michigan
JOHN B. JUDIS RESPONDS: U.S. political parties are not like old-style European parties with platforms that every candidate must adhere to. They are heterogeneous affairs, and what marks a majority party is the degree to which it can tolerate heterogeneity within its ranks while retaining its overall commitment to certain central principles of economics and foreign policy. In many states outside the northeast and far west, the Democrats are going to have to field candidates who, while adhering to the party’s views on taxes, the minimum wage, civil rights, and the war in Iraq, nonetheless support the NRA and want to impose restrictions on abortion. If not, Democrats can forget about states like West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, and Missouri. This isn’t a concession to the religious right, which, after all, is an organized faction tied to the Republican Party. It reflects the fact that many people in the United States who have a variety of views on economics and foreign policy still oppose abortion and restrictions on gun ownership. It also doesn’t weaken the cause of abortion rights, which will fare better under a Democratic majority—even if the Democratic majority includes someone like pro-life Democratic Senate candidate Bob Casey of Pennsylvania—than under a Republican majority that is defined by the views of someone like Senator Rick Santorum.
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS
In “White Lie” (October 16), Nicholas Minucci’s crime took place in Howard Beach, New York, not Bensonhurst, New York. We regret the error.
These letters originally ran in the October 30, 2006 issue of the magazine.