Editor's Note: At the end of 2007, a new book evaluating the hopes for a pro-life revival in the Democratic Party was published. The author, Mark Stricherz, graciously granted a telephone interview to 4marks.com to discuss his book, Why The Democrats Are Blue. The resulting review will be published in two parts. Part I below explores the historical process of how the party arrived where it's at today. Part II will examine the prospects and hopes for renewal. You can visit Mr. Stricherz's website to read more reviews and buy his book.
It was the day before St. Patrick’s Day last year, and I was in the great city of Boston, a town known not only for its Irish heritage and championship sports teams, but its Democratic politics. Sitting in a pub with Irish music and the NCAA Tournament as the backdrop, I listened to a former high-ranking state official whose career included a stint as majority whip in the state legislature and a run at the governorship hold forth on the state of his party today.
“The housing project (the name of which escapes this writer’s memory) over on…I put that through! Funds to clean up the Harbor I put that through!” The former pol continued on with a couple more items dear to Democratic hearts that he’d been at the forefront of, before reaching his conclusion. “And now they’re telling me that I’m not really a liberal just because I don’t think that boys should be with boys!”
The one-time pol was with several friends who’d been with him through the years, and freely identified themselves as conservative Democrats. The “conservative” part came not through economics or international affairs, but through the leftist tilt the party took on questions like abortion and homosexual marriage. One of the group openly wished he was in a position to speak out. But like so many other normal rank-and-file Democrats, his primary obligations were to be there for his wife and three boys, rather then spending time on intense political activism. I left that day wondering how many others out there felt like this group—loyal Democrats who wanted a change, but felt powerless to bring it about.
Mark Stricherz wondered the same thing and he was in a position to do something about it. The one-time Jesuit volunteer and newspaper reporter knew from the history told to him by his own parents that the Democratic Party wasn’t always this way—in fact, that its radical lurch to a secularist agenda was something quite recent. He went into the back rooms, so to speak, of the party’s recent history to find out how the change had been accomplished, what its consequences have been and what the hopes are for another change in a more positive direction. His book, Why The Democrats Are Blue, is the result.
Why The Democrats Are Blue is a well-balanced package of historical review and contemporary analysis and traces the shift of a party that until 1968 was very strongly influenced by working-class Catholic values, to a party that represents wealthy, secular leftists. Stricherz shows that it was changes in the party rules that made the revolution possible.
In the immediate postwar era, Catholic “bosses” were in charge of most major cities, particularly in the East & Midwest and they were key players in determining the Democratic presidential nominee and setting the agenda. Back then, the primary process in both parties was not nearly as open to voters as it is now. Stricherz does *not* advocate returning to such a closed process, but he does demonstrate that the bosses produced results that were acceptable by both moral and practical reasoning. They advocated for economic justice, and the policies advanced by the Democratic Party in both this era, as well through most of the century leading up to it were vital in creating a safety net for people on the financial edge, as well as affording opportunity to move into the middle class. And the bosses didn’t forget those who were left behind. Stricherz documents how men like the Catholic mayor of Pittsburgh, David Lawrence, worked to put their party in favor of extending legal protection to an unprotected class of human beings—African-Americans.
The process also worked by utilitarian standards. The Democrats generally produced winning candidates. The only time the bosses’ candidate was not able to win in November was when Adlai Stevenson was nominated in 1952 & 1956, although in this case he was overmatched by the star power of World War II general Dwight Eisenhower on the Republican side.
This changed with the advent of the McGovern Commission just prior to the 1972 presidential election. The nomination of George McGovern for the presidency that year is seen as a seminal point in the party’s turn. Stricherz demonstrates that it was a turn made possible when the commission began to rig the rules, requiring certain percentages of convention delegates to be women and other changes geared toward maximizing the influences of feminists and college students. “It’s amazing, the author said when I discussed his book with him. “The feminists went from having almost no influence in the party to having total control, in a very short period of time.” Stricherz recalled how the party’s feminists kept Jimmy Carter’s pro-life leanings at bay and from influencing the platform, and prevented pro-life Pennsylvania governor Robert Casey from addressing the 1992 convention, even though Bill Clinton was supportive of letting Casey speak. The leftist feminization of the Democrats effectively emasculated even their own presidents.
The rigging of the rules regarding convention delegates have made it all but impossible for a pro-life candidate to survive the primary process, even though there is considerable reason to believe that a candidate with a Democratic economic message coupled with social traditionalism would be a potent force in a general election. There’s a lesson to be learned in all this—while ideas matter, the rules of the game matter as well. It’s not as though they aren’t pro-life, pro-family Democrats out there, and it’s not as though they couldn’t win a general election. But they can’t get nominated under the current rules. The first part of Stricherz's book makes the point loud and clear that the change in the Democratic Party was not something pre-ordained by fate or the inevitable result of history. Asking pro-life Democrats to compete under these rules is the equivalent of asking small-market baseball teams to compete against the wealth and payroll of the New York Yankees. You might get some occassional wins here or there, but it will always be guerrilla warfare.
So what to do about it? In the current landscape, pro-lifers on opposite sides of the aisle often spend more time attacking each other then helping each other. Those sympathetic to the Democrats on other matters, and uncomfortable about their party's current posture, angrily try and make the misguided insistence that other issues matter just as much as the defense of innocent life. Catholic Republicans demand the votes of pro-life Democrats with equal venom, while being unwilling to offer any help to their brethren when it comes to making deeper long-term changes. Stricherz offers several constructive reforms that can get us off that path to nowhere and other thoughts regarding what it will take to get those voices heard. And it’s those ideas we will visit and discuss next month.