In the 1960s, the Republican Party began to win over a crucial demographic: white male voters. Presidential politics was transformed for a generation.
David Paul Kuhn explains this fundamental fact behind the rise of the Republicans and the decline of the Democrats, and reminds the political left that midterm victories (1986, 2006) do not always equal sustainable success. In revealing, lucid prose, Kuhn explains how America's conservative party came to win a majority of workingmen and the White House. Grounded in practical politics, The Neglected Voter presciently reconfigures the American political landscape. Equipped with unprecedented research data, reporting, and exclusive interviews with such figures as Jimmy Carter, Norman Mailer, Mark Warner, and Pat Robertson, Kuhn examines the role of gender and racial identity in presidential politics through the social changes that have defined the last half century.
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About the Author
David Paul Kuhn covered the 2004 presidential campaign as Chief Political Writer for CBS.com, and is currently a Senior Political Writer and news analyst for The Politico. He has also written for The Washington Post Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Salon.com, and the Tokyo-based Yomiuri Shimbun. He lives in New York City.
David Paul Kuhn is a Senior Political Writer and news analyst for The Politico. He covered the 2004 election for CBSNews.com and has also written for The Washington Post Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Salon.com, and the Tokyo-based Yomiuri Shimbun. He is the author of The Neglected Voter. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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The Neglected Voter
White Men and the Democratic Dilemma
By David Paul Kuhn
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2007 David Paul Kuhn
All rights reserved.
UP FROM THE ASHES The New Conservatism and the White Everyman
"I don't happen to be a rich man," Richard Nixon told America. He spoke of the "modest circumstances" of his boyhood and working at his father's store. He recalled his service in World War II. "I guess, I'm entitled to a couple of battle stars. I got a couple of letters of commendation. But I was just there when the bombs were falling." Dwight Eisenhower was the hero. Nixon was the grunt, like most of the other men of America. Three out of four infantrymen never fired their weapons during the war, but they were there when the bombs fell. These were the white men Nixon sought for a new Republican majority.
Nixon spoke to the nation in 1952. It was the lowest point of his career at that point, as he defended an $18,000 secret political fund made public by press reports. Eisenhower was considering dropping Nixon from the ticket. Thomas Dewey urged Nixon to resign the vice presidential nomination. But Nixon was intent on one last effort to save it. He sat, resting his elbows on the desk, clasping his hands, his long sagging face overpowering his small shoulders, as all three television networks broadcast his speech.
Nixon said he owned a 1950 Oldsmobile, had mortgages, and owed $3,500 to his parents on which he paid interest. "Pat and I have the satisfaction that every dime that we've got is honestly ours," he said, famously adding, "I should say this, that Pat doesn't have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat, and I always tell her she'd look good in anything." Nixon added that there was one gift he did take for personal use—his dog Checkers. "The kids, like all kids, love the dog" and "we're gonna keep it." Nixon pointed out that the chairman of the Democratic National Committee said, "If a man couldn't afford to be in the United States Senate, he shouldn't run for the Senate.... I don't agree with [Chairman] Mitchell when he says that only a rich man should serve his government." Nixon, pushing the point, said that he was not like Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson, "who inherited a fortune from his father."
After Nixon established his everyman bona fides, he said that the very same columnists who were criticizing him also criticized his prosecution of communist spy Alger Hiss. "But I continued to fight because I knew I was right." It was an early effort to invalidate media reports as liberally biased, to portray the Republican fight as the fight against communism, and the conservative party as the party of the common man.
Nixon concluded with a quotation from Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president. "God must have loved the common people—he made so many of them." Finally, Nixon said that he was going to keep on fighting and so would his wife, Pat. "After all, her name was Patricia Ryan and she was born on St. Patrick's Day, and you know the Irish never quit." And neither would Nixon, like all those working-class descendants of Irish immigrants who Republicans were intent on winning.
Republicans dearly desired a victory in 1952. Democrats had won five presidential elections in a row. A 1949 Wall Street Journal editorial described the common American perception of conservatives: "If a man is described as a 'conservative' in politics," it read, "he is likely to be suspected of wanting to cheat widows and orphans and generally to be a bad fellow." Conservatives' two central ideas had become suspect. The belief in absolute laissez-faire economics ended with its failure during the Great Depression. Isolationism became untenable with America's new role following the Second World War. By the summer of 1951, a Gallup poll asked, "What does the Republican Party stand for today?" More respondents chose "for privileged few, moneyed interests, big companies" over any other options.
The same year of the Wall Street Journal editorial, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, contributing to the reemerging American skepticism of big government. Two years later William F. Buckley published God and Man at Yale, in which he castigated Yale as antagonistic to both Christianity and capitalism. And in 1953, Russell Kirk's monumental book The Conservative Mind became the intellectual bulwark of the right. Kirk believed that a religiously based morality was the mortar of society. True conservatism, in his view, treasured the best of traditional customs and institutions while reconciling itself with the times. The past was to inform the future; conservatism was to be the defense of the permanent things in life.
Washington was without an organized conservative movement in the early 1950s. Magazines such as the Nation and New Republic were the brain candy of the New Deal coalition. They had no equivalent conservative counterweight until the young and intellectually irrepressible Buckley came along to create the foundational publication of a new coalition. Buckley was of the manor born, and with his enunciated inflection and his father's $100,000 of seed money he founded the National Review in 1955. In the premiere issue Buckley declared that the magazine "stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so." Buckley provided the forum to fuse social conservatives, libertarians, and national security hawks.
"What's happened in the last 50 years is the intellectualization of the conservative movement," Buckley recalls in an interview. "So it no longer could be simply dismissed as an anti–labor union and a prodiscrimination movement, which essentially it was associated as up until the late '50s."
JOCK POLITICS: ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM AND THE DOUGHFACE DEMOCRAT
That Dwight Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson in 1952 didn't irk Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter. Both political parties had attempted to recruit the Allied supreme commander, as they had the century before with "Old Rough and Ready" Zachary Taylor. What stunned Hofstadter was that despite being "conventional in mind" and "relatively inarticulate," Ike won a "decisive" 55 percent of the vote by turning Stevenson's "uncommon mind" into a personal weakness. Time wrote that Stevenson's defeat "discloses an alarming fact long suspected: there is a wide and unhealthy gap between the American intellectuals and the people."
If the rise of the Republican Party was due to its intellectualization, as Buckley contends, it was a decidedly anti-intellectual ascendancy. In this first televised campaign, Stevenson was the quick-witted and erudite Illinois governor. Eisenhower had a broad smile, a calm disposition, and was intent on appearing folksy. He hid his taste for classical music and confessed to his secretary that he was "deathly afraid of being considered highbrow." Ike discreetly governed his administration. To Americans, he was the good-natured paternal general, and that's how Ike wanted it.
In comparison, Stevenson had been a civilian in World War II. After a 1952 New York Herald Tribune columnist branded Stevenson as the "egghead," the term stuck. Stevenson was ruthlessly attacked thereafter. This was the "thinking man's candidate," hence no man at all in many American minds. Stevenson did not laugh, he "giggled." The New York Daily News described Stevenson's "fruity" and "trilled voice." His Democratic supporters were described as "Harvard lace-cuff liberals" and "lace-panty diplomats," in contrast to Nixon's "manly explanation of his financial affairs" in his Checkers' speech.
Eisenhower was the jock and Stevenson was the nerd, in pop-culture terms. And in America, the jocks were the men in charge. Only by shedding his glasses can the nerd find his inner superhero—Clark Kent becomes Superman; Peter Parker becomes Spiderman. The American man was supposed to be the strong, silent type. John Wayne in The Quiet Man (1952) played a self-made boxer who came from nothing, a man who said what he meant, meant what he said, and who backed up his silence with a punch.
Conservative populism appealed to the commonly held view that the intellectual was wimpy at best. But at worst, he was said to be amoral, sympathetic to the wrong, and skeptical of the good. He was weak in character and weak in body. He lived in books instead of reality. He was a thinker and not a doer. He was paralyzed by alternatives, socially awkward, and godless. Puritan Reverend John Cotton warned in 1642 that, "The more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan you bee."
In the American mind, it was not good to be dumb but it was better to be good, a theme reinforced from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1851) to the film Forest Gump (1994). When Andrew Jackson ran against the intellectual son of an intellectual president, John Quincy Adams, in 1824 and 1828, the race was described as the people's practical warrior versus the patrician thinker. Jackson's supporters declared that "natural sense" prevailed with his victory in 1828. From Jackson on, "the people's candidate" was continuously portrayed as not simply having the best interests of voters in mind but being one of the people.
By 1901, Americans had a president who charged up San Juan Hill, would box in the White House, and later establish himself as a big game hunter. Although Theodore Roosevelt had a photographic memory and was a Phi Beta Kappa Harvard graduate, the physical was emphasized over the mental. "An educated man must not go into politics as such," Roosevelt wrote in 1894. "If an educated man is not heartily American in instinct and feeling and taste and sympathy, he will amount to nothing in our public life." After Woodrow Wilson hesitated to enter the Great War, Roosevelt raged that he had "Done more to emasculate American manhood ... than anyone." To Roosevelt, Wilson's intellectualism was embodied in his aptitude for thinking and his failure to act.
"No party whose appeal was primarily intellectual could command [the American man's] support," Henry Steele Commager wrote in The American Mind. Democrats from Adlai Stevenson to John Kerry learned this fact the hard way. "No people was more avid of college degrees," as Commager described Americans, "yet nowhere else were intellectuals held in such contempt or relegated to so inferior a position."
Even the intellectuals in the United States are critical of intellectuals. In Woody Allen's 1979 film, Manhattan, Allen stands in a circle at a black-tie benefit, chatting away with a group of upper-crust New Yorkers—
Allen: Has anybody read that Nazis are gonna march in New Jersey? You know—We should go there, get some guys together. Get some bricks and baseball bats and explain things to 'em.
Man: There was this devastating satirical piece on that in the Times.
Allen: Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks get right to the point.
Woman: But biting satire is better than physical force.
Allen: No, physical force is better with Nazis.
During the 1980 presidential race, Jimmy Carter's campaign advertised that "the life of every human being on Earth can depend on the experience and judgment and vigilance of the person in the Oval Office." Carter anticipated that he could win reelection by appearing the smarter man, asserting that "The president must be able to grasp the issue." But Reagan was viewed as more "heartily American" and so the Republican won.
By the turn of the century, George W. Bush touted that he did not read newspapers. Throughout the election, the Texas governor was ridiculed for his "Bushisms," a term first applied to his father's gaffes. But the younger Bush's garbled syntax ("Is our children learning," or his pledge that, if he lowers "the terriers and bariffs," the economy will grow) humanized the son of privilege. Bush fumbled with his words like one of the guys. But men knew what he meant, and they trusted that he really meant it, in contrast to the professorial Al Gore. Bush's ignorance and misstatements also reeled political opponents into "miss-underestimating" him, to use Bush's wording. Many forgot that Bush scored in the top 10 percent of the country on his SATs, the same as Gore.
The year Bush assumed office, he gave the commencement address at Yale, his alma mater. "To those of you who received honors, awards, and distinctions, I say, well done. And to the C students—I say, you, too, can be president of the United States," Bush joked. "I did take English here," he later said, adding, "I want to give credit where credit is due. I want the entire world to know this—everything I know about the spoken word, I learned right here at Yale." Portions of the address were carried by the national news, and it was always the self-deprecating quips that made the two-minute segment.
In the presidential election of 2004, when voters were asked which attribute mattered most in deciding on their candidates, the characteristics of "strong leader" and "has clear stands on the issues" were selected at three times the rate as "intelligent." This emphasis on character was even more potent among white men. As long as Democrats campaigned as the intellectual, they were practicing a losing strategy.
"There is nothing wrong with being articulate and intellectual, but I don't think tort lawyers, professors, and the superrich, or the ones who seem that way, are the ones who are going to win," says social psychologist William Pollack, who has held psychological sessions with hundreds of white men. "The Democratic Party has to find leadership from within that has strength, that has its roots in white, male, working-class experience, but cares about the rest of that Democratic tent of people of color."
At mid-twentieth century, the Northeast held the elite universities and prep schools, banking, fashion, Wall Street, and the media. The rising left's intellectualism was, if not sympathetic to socialism, unwilling to castigate communism as morally wrong. Socialist Henry Wallace's liberals were not suspicious of communism: They were suspicious of the nascent American superpower. To conservatives, it was no coincidence that Wallace won half of his 1948 support in New York. His success spawned men like Joseph McCarthy, who swooped down and sought working-class white men with his demagogic crusade against communism.
As early as 1947, leading FDR liberals pushed back. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, as well as Eleanor Roosevelt, joined a hundred others at Washington's Willard Hotel to formalize the liberal anticommunist group Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). By 1949, Schlesinger detailed in The Vital Center his concern that Democrats not follow the "doughface progressive" who has:
A weakness for impotence, because progressivism believes that history will make up for human error; a weakness for rhetoric, because it believes that man can be reformed by argument; a weakness for economic fetishism, because it believes that the good in man will be liberated by a change in economic institutions; a weakness for political myth, because Doughface optimism requires somewhere an act of faith in order to survive the contradictions of history.
Later Schlesinger, directly criticizing the absolutism of leftist ideologues, wrote that the doughface's comfort in fighting the "lost cause" allows him to relegate Democrats to becoming a "permanent minority" due to their unwillingness to compromise. Politics, which requires realism to recognize what is possible, is not a means to action for the doughface, but the means to express one's "private grievances and frustrations." In contrast, classical liberalism requires the engagement of an imperfect world with imperfect actions in order to reach better ends.
But by the late 1960s, the doughface liberals won. The new wave of liberals were soon to drive out the white workingman and park the Democrats in permanent minority status.
Excerpted from The Neglected Voter by David Paul Kuhn. Copyright © 2007 David Paul Kuhn. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Table of Contents
Up From the Ashes, the New Conservatism, and the White Everyman * The Apex of Liberalism to the Dawn of the New Conservatism (1962-1972) * Southern Man * Blue Collar Backlash: Nixon and the Men he Understood * The Disjointing of the FDR Coalition and the False Dawn of Carter (1972-1979) * The Measure of the Man: The Politics of Personal Manhood * God, Manhood, and Moral Values * The Strategic Rise of Reagan and the White Male Gap (1980) * Millett versus Mailer: Vietnam, Feminism, and White Manhood as Vice * The Peculiar American Conservatism, Patriotism, and the Classic Male * Echo Chamber Journalism and Living with the Likeminded * The Value of Grit * Against God and Country: The Perception of the Effete Liberal Elitist * "Those Who Work Hard and Play by the Rules" (1992) * The Angry White Male: Kicked Out and Charged with Abandonment * The Hard Way and Soccer Moms: The Race of 1996 * Politics of the Common man and Gun Culture * The "Feminine Party" in Wartime: Bush, Kerry, and Bravado * The Political Culture of White Manhood: Taxed, Downsized, Emasculated, Dreaming, Believing, and Antagonized * Conclusion