On Race and Class, Liberals Need a History Lesson

“I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on,” [Hillary Clinton] said. As evidence, Clinton cited an
Associated Press article that she said “found how Sen. Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me.”
If she had made her statement 40 years ago, Hillary Clinton would have generated no controversy. As is, she has been accused of playing the race card, of driving “a racial wedge,” and of “unleashing the gates of hell.” Her view that the white working class — most of whom were Northern Catholics — represented the strength of the Democratic Party had been conventional liberal opinion.
Granted, there was broad recognition that the party needed to reach out to young people and blacks, two growing constituencies in the 1960s. But the liberal consensus was that the interest of those two groups should not outweigh those of Catholics and blue-collar workers. As Sen. Ted Kennedy told reformers in mid-1970, “We simply cannot allow a love affair with campus youth on the issue of the war to weaken or obscure the close tie the party has always had with the labor movement and the working man. The class gap is opening under us and threatens us far more seriously.”
There were liberal thinkers and activists who rejected the accepted wisdom. John Kenneth Galbraith wrote Who Needs the Democrats in 1970, and What It Takes to Be Needed, a short anti-war and pro-black nationalist book. Steven Schlesinger, son of the famed Harvard historian, Arthur, founded the New Democrat, a monthly aimed at the New Politics activists. Yet few Democratic strategists agreed with these secular liberals.
One who did was Fred Dutton, the campaign manager in 1968 for Bobby Kennedy — I wrote about him in my last column. Dutton believed that the party’s future lay in a coalition of “campus, ghetto, suburb” — in today’s parlance, he argued for a coalition of “eggheads and blacks.” As a result, he believed, the interests of college students, blacks, and affluent suburbanites should trump those of working-class whites and Catholics. His shifting of priorities would have consequences. If party leaders had to choose between stopping the war and supporting labor unions, they should stop the war. If there were a dispute between Gloria Steinem and Richard J. Daley, the party should favor Steinem.
Dutton was an apostle of the New Politics, an offshoot of the New Left. By contrast, his intellectual opponents were modern disciples of the Old Left. In 1970 and 1971, they wrote numerous books making their case. The four most influential of these books were:
· Michael Novak’s The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics: The New Political Force of the Seventies;
· Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg’s The Real Majority: An Extraordinary Examination of the American Electorate;
· Jack Newfield and Jeff Greenfield’s A Populist Manifesto: The Making of a New Majority; and
· Fred Harris’s Now is the Time: A New Populist Call to Action.
You may recognize some of the names, including that of Michael Novak, the co-founder of Crisis magazine. In 1969 Harris had been the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Newfield was a confidante of Bobby Kennedy’s, while Greenfield was a Kennedy speechwriter. Novak was gaining renown as a young Catholic intellectual. Scammon and Wattenberg had written one of the era’s most popular political books.
The political worldview of these Democratic strategists differed from Dutton’s in two main ways:
1) Dutton placed his political hopes in demographic trends. The four strategists placed theirs in the present: working-class whites already made up a majority of voters. As Scammon and Wattenberg pointed out, most voters were “unyoung, unpoor, and unblack.” Fred Harris agreed:
Though some of the best progressive voices in America are among the affluent and most educated, and their support and ideas, as well as the energy and idealism of young people, are irreplaceable components in the construction or reconstruction of a Democratic majority, there simply cannot be a mass movement without the masses. And for the Democrats, those masses necessarily include both lower- and middle-income whites and blacks and brown people and other minorities. Without them, there is no way to count up a majority . . . .
2) Like a young British intellectual after World War I, Dutton believed that the main dividing line in politics was between the young and old. Most of the strategists thought it was between the lower classes and upper classes. “The real division in this country,” Newfield and Greenfield wrote, “is not between generations or between races, but between the rich who have power and those blacks and whites who have neither power nor property.” By contrast, Novak argued that the dividing line fell between ethnic groups (Catholics, Jews, and blacks) and white Protestants. Novak called for “a turn toward the organic networks of communal life: family, ethnic group, and voluntary associations in primary groups . . . . Its criterion would be: what helps family and neighborhood is good; what injures them is bad.”
As a result of their differing political ideologies, Dutton and the four strategists viewed groups differently. Dutton believed that college students were “being treated viciously and indifferently” by society. The four strategists considered college students irresponsible and decadent. As Newfield and Greenfield argued, “those of us who have spent even a modest amount of time in the East Village, Taos, Berkeley, or Madison, Wisconsin, have seen a darker shade of greening: fifteen-year-old runaways strung out on dope; syphilis and gonorrhea becoming epidemic; heroin and methadrine addicts turning the countercommunities into jungles; minds destroyed by LSD; rock music and its artifacts controlled by conglomerate corporations and hucksters in wide ties and love beads; Abbie Hoffman ripping off his friends and companions out of book royalties . . . .”
Dutton thought Catholics and working class-whites were simple bigots, and hostile to the sexual revolution. In contrast, the strategists portrayed Catholics and blue-collar workers as frequent victims of crime, poor workplace conditions, and hostile cultural forces. Novak argued that those two groups shared the same basic values as those of blacks:
The real interests of blacks and ethnics — homes, neighborhoods, services, schools, jobs advancement, status — are virtually identical; whereas the political interests of intellectuals are mainly those of a consciousness that can easily and often, as blacks well recognize, be false.
Newfield and Greenfield agreed:
The Irish cop on the low end of the middle-income scale living in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge need not embrace the black family in Harlem or the Italian-American homeowner in Corona to know his kids are stuck with the same bad schools, dirty streets, and dangerous parks.
So how was it possible for the New Democratic Party to oust the Old Democratic Party? Elite Democratic opinion did not make it possible. As we have seen, most Democratic strategists believed that the party should continue its historic ties with Catholics and the white working class.
In my next column, I’ll continue the story.


  • Mark Stricherz

    Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...