Jim Webb's Nostalgia For a Pre-Diversity Democratic Party

Jim Webb wants to know: can Democrats be the party of white guys again?

OK, so that's not entirely fair. But it isn't that far off. Here's the message Webb is giving as he begins his presidential maybe-candidacy:

Former senator and potential presidential candidate Jim Webb told an audience in Richmond on Tuesday that the Democratic Party has lost white working-class voters by becoming "a party of interest groups."

"The Democratic Party has lost the message that made it such a great party for so many years, and that message was: Take care of working people, take care of the people who have no voice in the corridors of power, no matter their race, ethnicity or any other reason," Webb said. "The Democratic Party has basically turned into a party of interest groups."

This isn't a new critique, and there's a lot of truth there, as long as you define "interest groups" as groups of people. The evolution that Webb is lamenting here is essentially what has happened to the Democratic party since the 1960s. The best articulation of this history I've seen comes from a 2007 paper by James Stimson and Christopher Ellis (which I've cited before); they talk about how the "clientele of liberalism" during the New Deal was the common man, while in the 1960s the clientele changed—now it was blacks and the poor. Then later women, Latinos, and gay people got added to the client list.

These things shift around over time, of course, but the high-profile battles of a particular moment help define in the public's mind exactly whom the parties are representing. The clientele of conservatism looks to voters like anyone who isn't in the groups making up the Democratic coalition, which is basically white people, and white men in particular. And despite the fact that Republicans represent a lot of actual interest groups (the oil industry, Wall Street, etc.) for some mysterious reason, middle-aged white men are just, well, Americans, while women or blacks or Hispanics are an "interest group."

Webb's argument is echoed in Chuck Schumer's recent speech in which he argued that the Democrats should have put off passing the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010 because its most significant beneficiaries were the poor and uninsured, who don't vote in sufficient numbers. Instead, he said, Democrats should have found something (he doesn't say much about what) to help the broad middle class. Similarly, Webb wants the party to "Take care of working people, take care of the people who have no voice in the corridors of power, no matter their race, ethnicity or any other reason." He's essentially arguing for a return to the party's New Deal image.

But there's a big problem. Democrats weren't viewed as the representative of groups like women, blacks, gays, and so on in the 1930s because those people had no representation at all, and those in power in both parties had little interest in offering them any. If Democrats wanted today to just be seen as the representatives of the common man and no one else, that would require abandoning the issues that define Democrats by their collection of "interest groups." How is that going to work? Are Democrats not going to fight for civil rights anymore? Stop advocating marriage equality? Join the Republicans in a nativist approach to immigration? Forget about gender discrimination?

I'm guessing Webb would say, "Oh sure, we'd still stand for those things." And I would hope so, because they are the policy expressions of liberal values like equality and fairness. But if you look at the statement announcing Webb's proto-candidacy, you won't find a single policy position that Hillary Clinton or any other prominent Democrat is likely to disagree with. So what exactly is Webb proposing? Other than nominating a white guy like him, what does he think is the thing the Democratic Party should do to convince voters it's a place where white guys are welcome, too?

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