In many TV sit-coms and comedy movies from the 1960s through the early 1980s, you’ll see the cliché of the wealthy country club Republican, ala Nelson Rockefeller. Jim Backus’ blue double-breasted blazer-wearing Thurston Howell III character was an example of this; David Ogden Stiers’ Major Charles Emerson Winchester on M*A*S*H (ironically, Winchester was a Boston Brahmin, like Senator Kerry) was another.
George H.W. Bush’s image was very much in that mold. But he interrupted a flip-over that began with President Reagan’s self-made aw-shucks folksy style and continued with George W. Bush’s cowboy boots-wearing, BBQ-loving manner and the Texas twang of his voice.
It highlights an interesting trend in politics over the last 25 years:
The shift of the Republican party as now being associated with “the little guy”, the average man–who might be a blue collar guy, or he might be a self-employed high tech entrepreneur. But either case, he’s working hard to get by and better himself. In contrast, the Democrats are now very much the party of the elite: ambulance chasing trial lawyers (including John Edwards himself), often big business, foreign interests, the media, academia, and most dramatically, Hollywood.
Writing in the L.A. Times, Thomas Frank, himself a self-professed liberal, bemoans the Democrats’ close association with Hollywood and fears (quite rightly so) that it’s hurting the Democrats’ image.
In a way, it’s irresistible: most people wouldn’t resist a chance to meet a larger-than-life celebrity, particularly when he’s gushing about your political party. But the attendees at Democrats’ convention last week also dropped by “lavish soirees thrown by regional telecom giants, consumed the free lunch proffered by other regional telecom giants and gotten word of ’60s heroes feted by weapons manufacturers”. This is an image far removed indeed from the FDR through LBJ-era Democrats, who tried to project an image of being the scrappy party of the underdog.
Of course, it also highlights the elites’ love of stasis: if you’re on top of the world, who wants radical change? Why bother reforming the Middle East? Why clean up Social Security or education?
The changeover is curious because the old titles of liberal and conservative are still very much in use. But “conservative” Republicans, beginning with the Gipper in 1980, and continuing with George W. Bush became the party of dynamic change and reform, and “liberal” Democrats the keepers of the old order. And it will be interesting to watch to see if this trend continues.