McCain's success means Democratic distress

The GOP insurgent has been successful with the help of frustrated Democrats -- who are poised to dump their party.

Published March 6, 2000 12:01PM (EST)

No matter what happens in Tuesday's primaries, the unexpected success of John McCain has revealed deep and serious fissures in a major political party. That party has the potential to consolidate a national majority. But the split in the party -- a split that goes all the way to the base -- gives its rivals a chance to forestall a realignment in its favor.

The party is the Democratic Party. Forget everything the talking heads have told you. McCain's success in winning the votes of Democrats and independents in open primaries in New Hampshire, Michigan and elsewhere bodes ill for the Democratic Party. Even if Al Gore were to win the presidency, the prospects of a new Democratic majority look much weaker, thanks to McCain's campaign.

Here's why: American politics is tribal, and there are only a few big tribes. From the 18th century to the present, the two most important tribes have been Yankees (New England Protestants and their descendants in the northern tier of the United States, from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Northwest) and what I call Southrons (planters of the Deep South and their descendants and followers). There are a few other substantial tribes: Rednecks (Scots-Irish Highland Southerners), Ethnics (white European Catholics outside of the South, of whom Irish-American Catholics are the most important), Nordics (German- and Scandinavian-Americans, concentrated on the northern prairie), blacks (in the South and major cities nationwide), Jews and Latinos (a new group, concentrated in the Southwest). Putting combinations of these blocs together to make a national majority is like solving a word problem in high school math. You have to follow certain rules.

The first rule is that majorities of Yankees and Southerners can never be in the same party. They hate each other so much that they fought a civil war. From the administration of President Washington to the administration of President Clinton, the Yankees have been in the party that was the rival of the one that had most of the Southrons, and vice versa. If a Yankee comes into a room, the Southron will leave.

The second rule of American national politics is this: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. For most of American history, Southrons have been allied with Ethnics or white Catholics in the North and Midwest. Why? They have nothing in common, apart from their common enemies -- the Yankee Protestants, whom working-class Ethnics hated for their wealth and anti-Catholic bigotry, and whom the Southrons hated as rivals for control of Washington. Having common enemies is enough to sustain an alliance, though.

For the same reason, the Yankee Protestants have always been allied with Southern blacks and the black Southern diaspora throughout the United States. The enemies of blacks were the enemies of the Yankees -- Southern whites (whose social order was based on black subordination) and northern Catholic Ethnics (who competed with northern blacks for jobs and neighborhoods). The Yankees found white allies against the Southrons and Irish Catholics among Nordics-German and Scandinavian immigrants whose cultures were very similar to those of New England Protestants. The Rednecks of the Highland South have always been divided in their loyalties. During the Civil War, Lincoln, leader of the Northern Party, won the allegiance of the West Virginians and East Tennesseans (the fact that his Vice President Andrew Johnson was a Redneck helped). In 1992, Bill Clinton, the Redneck leader of the Northern Party, managed to win over a number of states in his native Highland South.

The two main parties in American history have been the Northern Party -- the Yankee-Nordic-black alliance -- and the Southern Party -- the Southron-Catholic alliance. The Northern Party has been called the Federalists (in the 1800s), the National Republicans (in the 1820s), the Whigs (1830s-1850s) and the Republicans (1850s-1960s). The Southern Party has been called the Republicans (1800s), the Democratic Republicans (1820s) and the Democrats (1830s-1960s). As late as the 1960s, the Democrats -- led by an Irish Catholic, John F. Kennedy, and a Texan, Lyndon Johnson -- were based on the old Southron-Ethnic alliance that dated back to the days of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. The Republican Party of John Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller was still the Yankee-Nordic-black Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln.

But the parties switched labels in the 1960s, thanks to the third rule of our word problem: Majorities of Southrons and blacks can never be in the same party. When Lyndon Johnson invited blacks into the Democratic Party by promoting desegregation, the Southrons left -- first to follow George Wallace, then to join the Republicans. By the 1990s, the Southrons -- formerly the base of the Andrew Jackson-to-Lyndon Johnson Democrats -- had become the core constituency of the Republicans.

Since the rules of the word problem are inflexible, the migration of blacks into the Democratic Party and of Southrons out of the Democratic Party rearranged the party system. Many Ethnics followed their traditional allies, the Southrons, into the Republican Party (in 1994, for the first time in U.S. history, more Catholics voted for Republican House candidates than for Democratic candidates). Meanwhile, old-fashioned liberal Yankee and Nordic Protestant Republicans, disgusted with the takeover of their party by their hereditary enemies, the Southrons and Ethnic Catholics, switched to the Democratic Party. As a result, the party labels changed -- but the historic alliances remained the same.

The only group that has actually switched from one of the permanent parties is the American Jewish community. During the New Deal era, most Jews were Democrats, that is, allies of the Southrons and Catholics. Since then, they have remained Democrats, which means that they have really changed parties, since today's Democrats --Yankees, Nordics and blacks -- are actually the Republicans of the pre-1960s era in disguise. Why didn't Jews leave the Democrats for the Republicans with their former coalition partners, the Southrons and Ethnics? Two reasons: class and ideology. Jews were once heavily working-class allies of northern Ethnics in the labor movement; today they tend to be affluent allies of Yankees and Nordics. Meanwhile, from the 1930s until the present, the socialist ideology that influenced so many Eastern European Jewish immigrants has steadily declined. The grandchildren of Trotskyists and Stalinists and Mensheviks tend to be centrist liberals with values not much different from those of Yankee Methodists or Nordic Lutherans, their partners in today's Democratic Party.

What does all of this have to do with John McCain?

McCain has revealed a potentially fatal weakness in the Democratic Party, today's Northern Party. That weakness is the division between Northern white Democrats and black Democrats. The Northern white Democrats and independents whom McCain attracts represent a large number of voters who in other circumstances might have been the core of the Democratic Party, but are instead its fringe.

The black Democrats whom Al Gore and Bill Bradley have been courting constitute around 40 percent of the Democratic primary electorate. This makes black preachers like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson kingmakers in the Democratic Party. Now this is really, really weird, because in almost every respect blacks are the outliers in today's Democratic Party. Think of the Democrats as having two voting blocs: the YNJ bloc (Yankees, Nordics and Jews) and blacks. The members of the YNJ bloc are the most academically successful groups in the country and are disproportionately affected by college admissions quotas. Blacks are among the least successful in school and favor college admissions quotas to challenge what they see as historical inequity. The YNJ voters are successful in the private sector. Blacks have a comparatively high poverty rate and high representation in public employment. In religion, YNJ voters are moderate to secular. Blacks are overwhelmingly evangelical Protestants with right-wing views on issues like abortion and gay rights.

To compound the irony, blacks are Southerners. Most black Americans outside of the South are the descendants of poor rural migrants who left the South during the great migration of the 1920s and 1930s. If blacks in the North are counted as members of a Southern diaspora, then all four of the demagogic political preachers whom McCain denounced last week in Virginia Beach, Va. -- Farrakhan, Sharpton, Robertson and Falwell -- can be described as Southern preachers.

Bizarre, isn't it? Southern or Southern diaspora preachers (white and black) are now the kingmakers in both the Northern Party (the Democrats) and the Southern Party (the Republicans) even though most Americans are neither Southerners nor the descendants of Southerners.

McCain, then, is not leading a revolt of Northern white Republicans against white Southerners in the Republican Party. The mainstream Northern white Republicans (many of them Catholic Ethnics, like Pataki) prefer Bush. The McCain insurgency proves that most Republicans like their party, but a lot of Democrats really don't like theirs.

The McCain voters, who might have become the solid core of the Democratic Party in its new northern heartland in the 1980s and 1990s, are instead floating between the parties. John Anderson, Ross Perot, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain have all done well among YNJ Democrats. The fact that these voters are willing to consider voting for independents and Republicans -- including a conservative Republican like McCain! -- cries out for explanation. The best explanation is that they are alienated from a Democratic Party dominated at the activist level by black politicians and preachers. Such issues of black Democrats as police racism, affirmative action, welfare and public sector unionism are not major concerns of mainstream white liberal and centrist voters. These voters must wonder whether any Democrats want them, when they see Democratic candidates like Al Gore, Bill Bradley and Hillary Clinton stiffly trying to sing Southern gospel hymns in black churches every Sunday.

All of this is potentially good news for the Republicans. The GOP is not going to win over many black Democrats. But the Republicans have a chance to split the YNJ Democrats. If they attract a number of white Democrats in the North and Pacific Coast, while adding many or most Latinos to their Southern base by affirming their conservative social values and reaffirming the Southern-Catholic alliance (which the Bob Jones controversy has shaken), then Republicans will have an impressive governing majority. In effect, this would be a re-creation of FDR's New Deal majority. FDR, while maintaining the old Southern-Catholic alliance in the Democratic Party, won the votes of many progressive Republicans in the North. McCain cannot create that new Republican majority, because he has alienated his party's Southern base. (If you climb out on a limb, you shouldn't saw it off.) But Bush, or, if Bush loses in 2000, another candidate in 2004, could reach out to the McCain Democrats without alienating the Bush Republicans.

What can the Democrats do? Trying to add Latinos to their black base by promising quotas and welfare programs for immigrants will backfire, by driving away even greater numbers of YNJ Democrats who don't support such government assistance. The only hope for the Democrats is to replace the now-dominant black left with the white YNJ center as the core constituency of the Democratic Party, to make the Anderson/Perot/McCain Democrats the new base, allied with, but not subordinate to, the black Democratic preachers and politicians. Bill Clinton, who ran against Sister Souljah, understood this. Al Gore, Bill Bradley and Hillary Clinton do not.

By Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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