Appealing to the base.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Democrats Are the Real Conservatives of 2016

Sam Tanenhaus, the author of “The Death of Conservatism” and “Whittaker Chambers,” is working on a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. He was editor of the New York Times Book Review from 2004 to 2013.
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As the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders moves into its next phase -- primaries in South Carolina and other Southern states -- the question of who is the more “progressive” candidate still seems to preoccupy many Democrats.

On the issues, it’s beside the point. Clinton and Sanders broadly agree on most things, and when they differ, one or the other may end up further to the left: Sanders in his attacks on Wall Street and call for free college tuition, Clinton in her advocacy of stricter gun laws and pleas for more generous treatment of immigrants.

But these mappings have lately obscured the more important, if sometimes oversimplified, distinction between the two candidates: their contrasting relation to the politics of the 1960s, in particular the Democrats’ tumultuous nomination battle of 1968 that ended with riots on the streets of Chicago.

The analogy seemed especially suggestive in the first stages of the 2016 election, when Sanders’s surprising connection with young voters recalled the anti-establishment campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy, while Clinton was cast as the heir to Hubert Humphrey, the longtime liberal, with a sterling record in areas like health and education, but who sounded like the tired voice of the establishment.

But there was another legacy of 1968, and it is the one that matters now.

Coiled within the political drama that year was the collapse of the New Deal coalition that for more than 30 years held together the different factions of the Democratic Party.

That coalition had begun to fray in the mid-1960s, when many working- and middle-class white Democrats began to fear the party’s leadership was deserting them. Not at first: Those voters generally agreed with new laws, enacted under Lyndon Johnson, that ended legal segregation and voter discrimination in the South. The change came when Johnson introduced policies that redressed inequities in employment and housing that existed throughout American society.

The 1968 election was the first referendum on these changes. White voters left the party in droves. Some were attracted to Richard Nixon’s appeal to the “silent majority,” others to the populist, racially inflected campaign of the Alabama politician George Wallace.

Humphrey’s loss to Nixon began a new phase in which the Republican Party seized the political center. Meanwhile, the Democrats developed a new identity: The party of the New Deal became the party of the Great Society. Over time, its base grew to consist of African-Americans, who became the most dependable and also influential Democratic bloc. They were instrumental in giving Democrats victories in the 1990s (Bill Clinton) and then again in 2008. Today those voters appear to favor Hillary Clinton by substantial margins in the Southern states, an edge that could decide who will win the nomination.

Why the attraction to Clinton? To begin with, she remains true to the ideals and vision of the Great Society. This was clear in her speech after her victory in the Nevada caucus last Saturday. Her assertion that America is not a “single-issue country” sent the message social and cultural values matter as much as economic ones. And her vow to “build ladders of opportunity” echoed Johnson’s promise in 1965 that African-Americans would receive “the same chance as every other American to learn and grow, to work and share in society.” 

Today that language sounds old-fashioned -- its aspirational outlook is steeped in “images from the nineties," as the New Yorker writer Benjamin Wallace-Wells has written. But those same images may be reassuring to Great Society Democrats, who today represent their party’s conservative base -- conservative in its caution and in its preference for tried-and-tested approaches to policy and governing.

In other words, Great Society Democrats, like the New Deal Democrats they replaced, are keen to hold on their gains and advances -- which include twice electing Barack Obama. They also distrust novelty.

This has been the case for some years now. And there is more involved than race. At the outset of 2008 election, African-American voters favored Clinton over the upstart Obama by as much as 25 percent. The shift toward Obama came only after he proved his viability and showed Great Society Democrats he really was one of them.

As we might expect of conservative voters, these Democrats turn out in high numbers in presidential election years. A bigger percentage of African-Americans than whites voted in the 2012 election. They are also expected to vote at a higher rate than either Latinos or Asians in 2016.

All this leaves Bernie Sanders in a paradoxical position. His bold agenda of economic “revolution” seems geared to this Democratic base. Yet it seems skeptical of him. This frustrates many of his supporters, including some influential African-American activists and intellectuals.

“You can go down Sanders’s platform issue by issue and ask, ‘so how is this not a black issue?’” the political scientist Adolph Reed, a prominent socialist, told an interviewer in January. “How is a $15 minimum wage not a black issue? How is massive public works employment not a black issue? How is free public college higher education not a black issue?” Cornel West, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Spike Lee have said much the same thing.

They have a point. In theory, Sanders’s program should resonate with African-Americans since they as a group were hit especially hard by the Great Recession and have not reaped many benefits from the recovery. The obstacle is their conservatism. They are “values voters,” many of them churchgoers, and may feel a stronger bond with Clinton, their fellow Great Society Democrat, who talks often of her Methodist upbringing and faith.

Ideology is important too. Sanders, the avowed “democratic socialist” connects easily on campuses, with their history of “grassroots” activism and “participatory democracy” that took root in universities like Michigan and Berkeley in the 1960s. But “the children of turbulence,” as the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called them, also look like children of privilege. 

This was certainly the case in 1968. In New York State, for instance, Gene McCarthy’s strength was “concentrated not in poor precincts but in the most fashionable neighborhoods (Manhattan’s East Side) and suburbs (Great Neck),” Kevin Phillips wrote in his classic election book, "The Emerging Republican Majority." 

It happened again with the prairie populist Senator George McGovern in 1972. Though he had a strong pro-labor record, his campaign resonated most powerfully on campuses and among intellectuals.

And so again with Bernie Sanders. Even as his support surpassed expectations, its limits began to show. He performed well in overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire, which have two of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.

But in the South, economic and social conditions are very different. Sanders has been bitingly critical of Walmart, which in South Carolina employs some 30,000 people, many of them black. Nationwide, blacks make up almost 20 percent of Walmart’s 1.3 million workers. To the person who holds such a job, Clinton’s plea that “the middle class needs a raise” sounds more practical and also more respectful than Sanders’s observation, in the last debate, that “no one thinks that working in the factory is the greatest job in the world.” And Sanders’s martial attacks on “the 1 percent” in some cases include those who own or finance factories and businesses that employ many working-class people.

This is not to disparage Sanders’s arguments or to underrate his authenticity. He proudly points to his history as a civil rights activist and his support of Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988.

But as a presidential candidate, Sanders’s appeal is rooted in the activist liberalism of Gene McCarthy. That style of politics has a parallel in the Obama years, but not within the Democratic Party. It flourishes elsewhere, in the “Occupy” movement, with its slogan, “we are the 99 percent,” and in organizations like Black Lives Matter and United We Dream that speak mainly to the young.

They are today’s children of turbulence. Some may well constitute the next great wave in Democratic and progressive politics. Others, like their forebears in the 1960s, may eventually join the mainstream of the two parties.

But for now, in South Carolina and other political battlegrounds in the South, the geography is what matters. In many of the next primaries, Great Society Democrats are either in the majority or form the largest bloc of votes. And it is they who will choose the nominee.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Sam Tanenhaus at tanenhaus.lit@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net