Why the Democrats Are Blue – A Conversation with Mark Stricherz

Deal W. Hudson
October 25, 2007

How did the Democratic Party lose the support of the working-class and Catholic voters who were once its stronghold? In his book Why the Democrats Are Blue: How Secular Liberals Hijacked the People’s Party, Mark Stricherz argues that the change from the “people’s party” to a party of secular-elite values can be traced to a particular political moment – and one that few people would think. Deal W. Hudson sat down with Stricherz to talk about what he calls “the greatest untold story in American politics.”

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Deal W. Hudson: Mark, what led you to write this book?

Mark Stricherz: Well, it started when you asked me to write a story about pro-life Democrats in January 2002, and I took you up on the offer. In the course of my research, I discovered one of the main reasons why the Democratic Party changed from the New Deal Democratic era, when white Southern Protestants and Northern Catholics ran the party, to the party it is today.

DH: Tell me about your family background and its political allegiances.

MS: I grew up in the Bay area in the 1970s and 1980s, and saw the difference between the members of my own family – traditional Catholics trying to help the poor and vulnerable – and the values of the people in the San Francisco Bay area: upper-class, secular people who didn’t seem to share the same values. But those secular people seemed to be in charge of the public Democratic Party.

DH: You describe in your book the principal reasons why the Democratic Party changed from what you call the “people’s party” to what it is today. Is McGovern the man to blame primarily?

MS: No, although he does bear some responsibility for it. It was really the staff on his commission – Ken Bode, the research director; Eli Segal, the commission counsel; Fred Dutton, who was treasurer on the commission; and Anne Wexler – those are the four main people who decided they were going to take the commission in an entirely new direction, completely contrary to its original purpose to democratize the selection of the party’s presidential nominee.

DH: Explain what the McGovern Commission was.

MS: The McGovern Commission was set up at the 1968 Democratic National Convention to democratize the party’s nomination process. The 1968 Democratic primaries had been bogged down by charges that young voters were excluded from participating in state conventions. So in the convention that year, the delegates narrowly approved a measure to try to change that. They basically had to scrap the old party-boss nomination system, which gave the state and local leaders the power to choose the delegates.

DH: Was McGovern aware at the time of how his commission had been hijacked along lines that, I assume, he didn’t approve of?

MS: That’s a good question. I can’t really determine McGovern’s own private state; he did vote for one of the more damaging rule changes, which was to require implied delegate quotas for women and young people, which is completely contrary to the idea of democratizing the process. So he does bear that share of the blame; he should have stepped in.

DH: So the primary difference between what the commission was trying to do and what it actually did was set up the quota system, and you think the quota system – based upon groups defined by sex and so on – that’s really what opened the door to the ideological changes of the party?

MS: Yes, that was the principal change. The second shift would have been the introduction of the caucus system, which rewards ideological activists at the expense of regular voters.

But yes, the implied quotas for delegates were important, as the leaders of the McGovern Commission were aware. They knew they were going to get a result: All they wanted to do was get an anti-war nominee in 1972. The main issue of 1968 was the passing of the peace plank, which failed. And these leaders of the McGovern Commission, who were all anti-war, wanted to prevent what happened in 1968 from ever happening again. They wanted to ensure that the peace plank was passed in 1972 and that they’d get an anti-war nominee.

DH: So how did the quota system and the caucus system lead to the changes in the Democratic Party, particularly in relation to its position on life issues and the role of religion in politics?

MS: The short answer is that ideological activists controlled the nomination process: They, rather than big city and state leaders – who have a larger constituency – were choosing the nominee. It used to be, in the old boss system, that the bosses wanted to pick a nominee based on his ability to win.

The activists were looking for a nominee who could win, sure. But they also had ideological preferences. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the folks who were true believers tended to be feminists and anti-war types. It was a totally different constituency from the old Democratic Party of Catholics, blacks, union members, etc.

DH: Were the old party bosses that were replaced by these activists Catholic? Is this the ethnic Catholic group that was replaced?

MS: Yes, they were almost all Catholic. It’s shocking today to look back at some of the old newspapers of the time, but in 1968 the chairman of the DNC, John Bailey; the chairman of the platform committee, Hale Boggs from Louisiana; the chairman of the credentials committee, Richard Hughes from New Jersey; the kingmaker at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Richard Dailey, were all Roman Catholics. And that had been true since 1948 when Catholics took over the machinery. They were in charge; Southerners had played a large role in party affairs before 1948, but the party from 1948 to 1968 was controlled by white Catholics, especially Irish Catholics.

DH: When people talk about the changes in the Democratic Party on life issues and religion, they usually point to the 1992 convention that nominated Bill Clinton and the refusal to let Gov. Bob Casey speak there. That’s 20 years between 1972 and 1992. Weren’t there other important watershed events that led to the Casey moment?

MS: Yes. The key event was really the McGovern Commission in 1969, adding implied quotas for female delegates. The percentage of female delegates went from 13 percent in 1968 to 43 percent by 1972. The second big event happened in 1980 when feminists succeeded in getting a measure that required half of all delegates to be female. So if you were running as a delegate from your county or congressional district, one out of two of you had to be female. This was not done in the interests of equality; this was done because the feminists had an agenda. They wanted abortion on demand; they wanted to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed; they wanted to control the platform.

DH: So the women who came in were ideologically aligned and didn’t necessarily represent the women of the party, much less the women of the United States. After that, what were some of the other watershed events that manifested the changes inside the party?

MS: Well, they’re not changes so much as results of the 1969 and 1980 requirements. In 1984, for example, feminists demanded and got a woman on the national ticket, Geraldine Ferraro. In 1992, feminists were basically exercising a veto power over anyone trying to reach the national stage, in that case, Bob Casey. They exercised veto power over the platform; there was no dissent at all.

I’m not a Republican, but by contrast, pro-choicers in the Republican Party are treated quite well; they run for president in 1996 and 2008, and Giuliani has a shot at winning it (though I don’t think he will). There’s no counterpart in the Democratic Party where a social conservative is going to do that.

DH: What’s the inside story of why and how Casey was denied a speaking opportunity at the 1992 convention?

MS: Basically, feminists decided that they felt threatened by a popular governor from the state and decided to roll him. The key leaders were the heads of the abortion rights groups – NARAL, Kate Michelman, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and another group that’s not well-known, the National Women’s Political Caucus, which had been essential in giving feminists not only a political voice but helping shepherd them into the Democratic Party.

As a sign of this, on the very morning that Bob Casey was prevented from speaking, Bill Clinton gave a talk at the NWPC meeting and said that he thought it important that our next president is pro-choice. That shows the power that they have.

DH: When did the Democratic platform begin espousing the pro-abortion plank?

MS: The short answer is 1980 when they voted for taxpayer-funded abortions. Earlier, in 1976, the party had come out against a constitutional amendment on Roe. So basically the party had taken the pro-choice side, although coming out against a constitutional amendment on Roe leaves lots of wiggle room in the party, and there were lots of pro-lifers in the party in 1976. But 1980 is the big date.

DH: What role do you think Jimmy Carter played in this story?

MS: That requires a more nuanced answer. On the one hand, Carter opposed a constitutional amendment against Roe. If he had been a true pro-lifer, as he claims now that he always was, he would have come out for it; he would have fought as hard as he could to show that the Democratic Party was the party of the little guy. But he and his people didn’t do that. So on that score, he was not a true pro-lifer by any conventional definition.

On the other hand, Carter enacted a lot of pro-life measures, and he did fight the feminists to some extent. For example, feminists wanted taxpayer-funded abortions in 1976, and he was against that and put his foot down. And as president, Carter did more for the pro-life side than Gerald Ford had done, frankly. He eliminated the majority of Medicaid funding for abortion, which had begun in 1973; Ford didn’t do anything about it. Carter’s to be congratulated about that. He was playing both sides of the fence to some extent, but his goodness has probably not been acknowledged.

DH: What really surprised you that you discovered in the course of researching and writing this book?

MS: I think two things. One is the extent to which Catholics controlled the presidential wing of the party. You look at these old newspapers, and it’s all Catholics leading these committees, commissions, the party posts. You never hear about that.

The second thing is that the press has really missed the Catholic and feminist angle. The feminists never get called on the fact that they control the platform and have had nothing but poor results – not just morally, but politically.

DH: Does Hillary Clinton represent the legacy of that feminist wing?

MS: Yes, she’s the pragmatic side of that movement. In 1968, she was an outsider in the party. She worked for McCarthy, but she also interned for a Republican congressman. Yet, by 2008, she’ll probably be the next Democratic presidential nominee. One of her key tenets is abortion on demand. And, of course, she also supports the welfare state, and she’s a moderate – maybe even leaning conservative – on foreign policy, unlike many of the feminists. But she’s the champion of the feminist movement, whether she’s recognized as such or not.

DH: A few days ago, her religious outreach director sent out an e-mail to Catholics, urging them to sign up to be supporters for Hillary Clinton. How successful do you think that will be?

MS: I don’t think it’s going to be successful. The social issue has been killing Democrats since 1968; it’s going to hurt her. I think she will get, like her husband or Al Gore, maybe half the Catholic vote – best case scenario.

But she’s smart to have this religious outreach advisor talking to Catholics about certain issues that haven’t been approached in the past. It’s been a long time since the Democrats showed such an effort, even though it’s based on a lot of false premises and bad values.

DH: Do you think that if Hillary becomes the nominee, the Democratic Party is really going to open its arms to born-again Christians, pro-life Christians – people who think the social issues are the most important?

MS: The short answer is no; it’s all just rhetoric. Democratic politicians are getting their cues from party strategists who are telling them to concede the rhetoric – that abortion is bad, cloning is bad, gay marriage is bad – but when push comes to shove, the policy is never really going to change. It’s naive to think that it will after 35 years.

What has to happen is a new group in society will have to take power from them. The secular professionals who took over the party in the late 1960s and early 1970s were well aware that power is not handed to you; you take it from people. Now which group this will be, it’s hard to say. One candidate would probably be Hispanics or born-again Christians who become politically savvy – it’s hard to say. But the group who runs the party now is going to stay in charge as long as they can.

DH: Do you foresee a time in the near future when a truly pro-life Democrat will have a national role in the Democratic Party?

MS: It’s possible. It would take somebody with the stature of Tim Roemer, respected former member of Congress and member of the 9/11 Commission, to sacrifice his political career and run for the presidency. I don’t know how he would play it – whether he’d want to run as an explicit pro-lifer, as Casey wanted to do in 1996, or just downplay the issue.

But it will take somebody with bravery and guts, and the Democrats have been waiting since 1972 when Ed Muskie ran on a pro-life platform – 36 years, that’s a long time. I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

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