Ed Driscoll

Tacking Hard Left; Filling The Power Vacuum

Orrin Judd links to a New York Times magazine feature with this lead:

Ever since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the strength of American conservatism has largely confounded historians and intellectuals. Before then, a generation of influential scholars claimed that liberalism was the core of all American political thinking and suggested that it always would be. Well into the 1970’s, many observers wondered whether a Republican Party that allied itself with the conservative movement could long survive.

Parsing those two sentences reveals quite a gap that missing–two seminal events that both occurred in the early to mid-1970s. The first was the beginning of liberalism’s increasing shift to the hard left. As Jonah Goldberg wrote shortly after the presidential election last year:

The conventional wisdom is right: Democrats have a values problem. At the national level, they can’t talk about them convincingly. Even Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton staffer and now a Democratic congressman, explained to the New York Times, “people aren’t going to hear what we say until they know that we don’t approach them as Margaret Mead would an anthropological experiment.”

As my old boss – and lifelong Democrat Ben Wattenberg – noted in his book “Values Matter Most,” when the Democratic Party moved to the left, many moderate and conservative Democrats felt abandoned. In 1964 Barry Goldwater carried five states in the Democratic South. In 1968, the left kept LBJ from running and ruined the convention. In 1972 the leftists ruled the roost. A young militant with a huge afro, wearing a dashiki, was splashed across the airwaves because he helped get Chicago mayor Richard Daley dumped as a delegate to the Democratic Convention. That militant was Jesse Jackson.

Jackson both led and represented a change in the Democratic Party. For example, the ’72 Convention imposed a severe racial and gender quota system – which exists to this day – so that the party would be more “inclusive.”

Referring to such reforms, George McGovern, the presidential nominee in 1972, said he opened the doors to the Democratic Party “and 20 million people walked out.” McGovern lost the election in a historic landslide to Nixon. Only Massachusetts voted for McGovern, and even there it was surprisingly close.

Only two Democrats have won the oval office since LBJ. Both were Southerners who campaigned as moderates. Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian, lost his re-election bid in part because he seemed to break his promise to be a moderate (and partly because he was “history’s greatest monster” – if you are a devotee of the Simpsons). In 1992 Gov. Bill Clinton also ran as a moderate on abortion, crime, the death penalty and welfare. He even criticized the rapper Sista Souljah – which infuriated Jesse Jackson, now comfortably wearing suits, paid for with corporate shakedowns. When Clinton was elected, he governed from the left – Hillary Care, gays in the military, etc. – and the American public elected a Republican Congress to punish him.

And, because the one thing we know Bill Clinton likes more than interns is being president, he suddenly tacked back to the center and basically stayed there for the rest of his administration.

As to the second statement in that Times lead, which says:

Well into the 1970’s, many observers wondered whether a Republican Party that allied itself with the conservative movement could long survive.

The shifting of the Democrats’ power base to the hard left created a vacuum in the middle. And it’s worth reading Crag Shirley’s terrific Reagan’s Revolution to understand just how down-and-out Republicans were in 1976, the year that they made a historic choice: to align themselves with Rockefeller me-to liberalism, or Reagan/Goldwater-style conservatism. They made the wrong choice in ’76, but Ford’s failure set-up the Gipper’s run in 1980.

Last July, I wrote:

Because liberalism dominated culture–especially pop culture–for the majority of the 20th century, it’s interesting to note how key events have been forgotten by reporters, journalists and historians.

As those two example linked to above illustrate, David Frum was right: more so than the sixties, the seventies is the decade which has shaped modern life. But it’s very easy to forget so many of the events of that era–even if you’re the New York Times. (Or perhaps, especially if you’re the New York Times.)