“The Changing of the Guard:” the prescient 1980 book that foretold neoliberalism

August 13, 2017
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 – by New Deal democrat

About a month ago I read the synopsis of an interview in which Thomas Frank described the near evisceration of the Democratic Party.  Here’s his simple version:

“[T]he Democrats have, what happened is that some years ago they decided they didn’t want to be the party of the people anymore. They didn’t want to be the sort of traditional Democratic Party that I grew up with, the party of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson. That’s not what they wanted to be. 

“They wanted to be something different. This involved … It was an enormous transition in the Democratic Party all through the seventies, all through the eighties, all through the nineties until they are what we see them as today. They are a party that represents a group of very affluent white collar professionals. That’s who leads the party. That’s who they speak for. That’s whose issues they care about. That’s really who they are…. 

“[T]he Democrats, as they moved away from their old working class base and they treated them very poorly and they did the same with other essential elements of their constituent groups, minorities for example … [W]hen they did things like got NAFTA passed which was really hard on working class people, when they did those things they used to have a saying. They’d say, ‘Well you know we don’t have to worry about that. Those people have nowhere else to go.’ Nowhere else to go. This was a Democratic saying in the 1990s.  

“Trump gave those people somewhere else to go.”

This critique rang a bell, not because I have read similar requiems before, but because I read it as a foretelling nearly 40 years ago, in the late David Broder’s “Changing of the Guard.”  Broder described the worldviews of a bunch of technocratic Democrats — and some Republicans — then in their 30s and 40s, people like Gary Hart, Jerry Brown, and a guy named Bill Clinton, who … well, let me turn the mike over to the right-wing  Commentary Magazine, which said in its review at the time:  

“For anyone still perplexed by the Democratic party’s recent [in the early 1980s] misfortunes, a careful look at these interviews … suggests that the much-heralded collapse of liberal ideology is a more serious problem than even the election debacle would indicate. The conventional analysis is that liberalism’s dilemma stems from a failure to advance beyond the policies and attitudes embodied in the career of Hubert Humphrey: a reliance on economic growth as the principal means of curbing poverty, a generous and ever-expanding system of social-welfare benefits, and a foreign policy stressing containment of the Soviet Union and aid to the developing world. But it is important to keep in mind that many new-generation liberals have consciously rejected the Humphrey tradition. “We are not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys,” Gary Hart declared upon winning election to the Senate in 1974 …. 

“They speak with pride of having promoted more open and efficient government, of being more accessible to the public, of maintaining their “independence” from the established party organizations, and of their opposition to the spoils system.”

That was exactly my recollection of the then-young Democrats described in the book. They eschewed New Deal style economic programs, and the unions and big city machines that delivered the electoral victories that made  those programs possible, in favor of social equity, and an economically “efficient” streamlined government, that would produce a  meritocracy which would be accepted as fair by all.
As it happens, I still have my copy of “Changing of the Guard,” so I went back and re-read parts of it, especially the interviews with people like then-Governor Bill Clinton who went on to more prominence.  (Obama was a teenager in high school in Hawaii at the time, so no interview with him!) Keep in mind that all of the quotations you read below are from almost 40 years ago. 

Broder begins with a telling overture to economic complacency and political restlessness (pp. 43-44):

“The oncoming generation of political leaders is the product of a period of rising independence in our politics …. 

“A [ ] basic reason has been the mass movement from the cities to the suburbs …. The old fashioned political machine was a product of the big city …. That kind of machine is disappearing …. 

“A[nother] basic change is that as the country emerged from the Depression and World War II into a period of sustained postwar prosperity, the sharp economic and class lines that marked the New Deal period began to erode …. 

“Organized labor found itself falling out of comfortable collaboration with other elements of the New Deal coalition [over social justice issues].”

Younger readers may not know this, but one of the chief sources of that falling out was that nepotism was rampant in trade unions. An older member getting a spot for his son or perhaps a nephew or two was not uncommon. Affirmative action or racial quotas meant that some of those family members were rejected in favor of African American applicants. Older union members bristled, to say the least.

To be sure, the young Republicans interviewed were repulsed by what they deemed “over-regulation” by the federal government (pp. 99-100): 

“[T]he young Republicans’ aversion for federal policy making was more than just a rhetorical bow to [conservatism]…. Both of the men who served as Jerry Ford’s White House chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney, said they had become more conservative in their outlook as a result of what they had seen in Washington. 

“… Cheney said … ‘I saw how difficult it is to have government programs well designed to achieve any significant results ….  There are all too often unanticipated consequences …. 

“Rumsfeld echoed the same skepticism….”

“[GOP Delaware Governor Pete] DuPont [had] an argument with then Secretary of Energy James R. Schlesinger, who had demanded to know what had happened to the ‘moderate, thoughtful Congressman’ he had known …. 

“I said, ‘I’ll tell you what’s happened to me,’ Du Pont said, ‘I’ve had to go back to Delaware and live under this federal bureaucracy, and I think it has made me very much more hardheaded, considerably more conservative and very antagonistic to what the federal government is constantly forcing me to do. My schools are being run by a federal judge. My prisons are being run by a federal judge. Construction for a new hospital … has been delayed a year and a half because of federal judges’ fiddling around with various lawsuits…. I mean the red tape and the morass and the harassment from Washington is endless ….”

But if GOP aversion to intervention by the federal government was perhaps only to be expected, they weren’t alone in what Broder described as “public dissatisfaction with the performance and the cost of government” (p. 46):

“But the people pressing for change were not only Republicans. Many of the younger Democrats were as impatient with the formulas of the New Deal-Great Society era as any GOP critics…. [lambasting the older generation of Democratic politicians] for not confronting … the need for improved government efficiency  and relief from the ‘overregulation’ of society.”   

Epitomizing that impatience was Gary Hart:

“Hart was cold-blooded in rejecting the New Deal policies of the past… in what turned out to be an accurate preview of the economic and social-policy revisionism of many of the young Democrats elected to Congress in [1974].  They have been far less sympathetic to organized labor, and far more concerned about middle-income taxpayers.”

Surprisingly, neither Al Gore nor John Kerry get any significant mention at all in the book, but a discussion of the then-described “New South” dwells at length on a young Governor named Bill Clinton, including a mention that (p. 381):

“He is married to an ardent feminist who has kept her maiden name, Hillary Rodham, and her own law practice in Little Rock.”

Of Bill Clinton,  Broder writes:

“[T]oday’s Southern politicians have moved beyond the race issues that have been dominant in the past …. They are young…. They are well-educated. Most of them have graduate degrees in law or other studies. They bear out Terry Sanford’s contention that the commitment to education which began in his generation of Southern leaders will be accelerated in this new generation …. 

“Clinton [was] elected as governor[ ] in 1978 on [a] platform[ ] stressing … measures to improve the laggard education systems in their states. 

“Southern politicians see conservative fiscal policies and sound management as a precondition for gaining public support for the social-welfare programs they espouse.”

Clinton said: 

“‘In Arkansas […] there’s probably a hard-core thirty percent that is always going to vote for the more conservative of the two candidates.  But the election can still be won by a more progressive candidate if you can persuade people you’ve got a center core* they can understand and relate to and trust’ …. [E]conomic conservatism is more important than social conservatism, he said.

[*In hindsight, it might be said that if you can fake that ‘center core,’ you can get elected President!]
Of the then-young Democratic and GOP leaders in the South, Broder says (p. 382):

“The new politicians of the South are [not] birds of a feather…. Rather, they are competitors for control of a region whose political future is, more than almost any other part of the nation, up for grabs in the Eighties and Nineties.” 

“On the surface, the populist Democrats like Clinton seem at the opposite pole from the conservative Republicans like … [Trent] Lott …, who stress their criticism of the expanding role of the federal government…. But in reality, the voters … seem equally receptive to either appeal….  What is important is simply that the candidate place himself on the voters’ side against some of the big, unresponsive bureaucracies….”

At least some of the older generation of Democrats were aware of the change. Here’s former Governor Pat Brown, Jerry’s father (p. 17): 

“[T]he real change is that after the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the War on Poverty and the Great Society, the whole Democratic Party has retreated into conservatism.”

Alas, Pat Brown also thought that the conservatisim of Proposition 13 in California would be a passing fad. And former democratic Governor of North Carolina Terry Sanford and young democrat-turned-republican Mississippi Senator Trent Lott both swore that the issue of race in the South was over.

In contrast, one young State Representative in Massachusetts,  Barney Frank, described his still very relevant signature issue (p. 457):

“the corrosive effect of interstate competition for industry. … [T]he economy has become more national, but the political system hasn’t, so business can play the states off one against the other.”

But portentiously, Frank described himself as one of the few remaining leftist liberals.

In his conclusion, Broder accurately forecast the large-scale dismantling of populist  government intervention in the economy (p. 473): 

“The products of the ‘baby boom’* [*actually, since most of the politicians interviewed were born before 1946, they were not Boomers] … are all rebels against … [bureaucratic] mass culture and huge institution…. The bipartisan drive for deregulation of the economy and decentralization of the government decision making is a secular force that seems almost certain to gain momentum as this generation gains power.

Even now, two generations later, as we have seen that when you take economic equity for granted it goes away, Chuck Schumer in 2016 and Mark Penn this year have continued to laud a strategy grasping for suburban Republicans and eschewing the traditional Democratic urban working class.  As it turned out, bill Clinton had the priorities of voters fundamentally wrong: social conservatism was categorically more important to a critical mass of (especially white Southern) voters  than economic conservatism.

But the ideology that Bill Black spoke of in June was already flowering 40 years ago — the turning away from traditional Democratic power centers, and from broad government programs anchored in economic populism, in favor of social issues and a commitment to lower taxation and more efficient fiscal prudence — espoused by a group that grew up in the post-war middle class suburbs and sought to appeal to those suburbanites first and foremost, taking for granted that the broad prosperity that those programs forstered would continue.

How much the country has suffered from how wrong they were.

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