Is the Democratic Party becoming the New England party? In 2004, the candidates who dominated the Democratic presidential primaries, beginning with the one in New Hampshire, were Howard Dean of Vermont and John Kerry of Massachusetts. In 2004, as in 1988, the Democrats nominated a liberal Massachusetts politician to run against a conservative member of the Bush family from Texas. And each time, the Texan won a majority of the popular vote as well as the electoral vote. This time, the senator from Massachusetts lost in part because the decision by the state's Supreme Judicial Court to legalize gay marriage galvanized socially conservative voters across the nation, who turned out to pass 11 state referenda against gay marriage.
Outside of selected cities, the core region of the Democratic Party is New England. The Democratic Party is also the minority party at all levels of government.
These two facts are not unrelated. Throughout American history, national parties too closely identified with New England have repeatedly been marginalized. This has been the fate of the Federalist Party, the Whig Party, and the old Republican Party at its nadir, between the 1930s and the 1960s. And it is the fate that threatens the Democratic Party today -- unless it takes conscious and aggressive steps to constitute itself once again as a regionally diverse coalition of interests that can become a majority party.
If you look at a linguistic atlas of the United States, you'll notice something striking. The “Upper North” dialect zone identified by students of American speech patterns is almost identical to the blue-state zone on the Electoral College map: New England, the Great Lakes states, and the Pacific Northwest. This is “Greater New England” -- the regions settled by New Englanders and their descendants from the 17th to the 19th centuries.
The culture of this vast expanse emanated from two areas of early settlement by English Puritans in the 17th century: the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Connecticut River Valley. From here, the “Yankees” spread to all of New England and upstate New York. In the 19th century, settlers from these areas colonized the Great Lakes region and the upper Midwest. In Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio, the Yankee settlers encountered southerners migrating northward; the resulting political diversity of those states has made several of them “swing” states for generations.
From the upper Midwest, some pioneers of Yankee stock migrated to the Pacific Northwest. New Englanders were so important in the fur trade in the Oregon Territory that the local Indians described all whites as “Bostons.” In the 1840s, Yankee settlers colonized the Willamette Valley in northwest Oregon. A variant of New England culture left its imprint on the politics, folkways, and dialects of northern California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. On the West Coast, as in parts of the Midwest, the Yankee settlers were joined by Scandinavian and German immigrants with similar values.
Today, the political culture of Greater New England, like that of other U.S. regions, is shared by many Americans who are not descendents of the Puritan settlers. The historian Wilbur Zelinsky has observed that “the activities of a few hundred, or even a few score, initial colonizers can mean much more for the cultural geography of a place than the contributions of tens of thousands of new immigrants a few generations later.” This is because newcomers, whether from abroad or other parts of the country, tend to assimilate the local regional culture. Geographic mobility reinforces political regionalism, as people move to communities with values like their own.
The constellation of values that has defined Greater New England political culture for centuries includes reformism, intellectual elitism, and anti-militarism.
Reformism. New England and its demographic colonies in the Midwest and on the West Coast have been the seedbeds for most of the reform movements of American history. The pessimistic Calvinism of the original Puritans was transmuted, by the 19th century, into optimistic “postmillennialism,” a version of Protestantism that held that human beings, by their own efforts, could produce the millennium of peace and harmony on earth that would precede the end of the world. Postmillennial Protestantism inspired the Social Gospel movement of the late-19th and early-20th centuries and was allied with the new discipline of American social science, many of whose founders were idealistic sons of northern Protestant pastors. By the 21st century, New England and the Pacific Northwest were the most secular parts of the country, but the reformist attitudes of the Social Gospel persisted.
In The Frontier in American History, Frederick Jackson Turner described how New Englanders brought their enthusiasm for reform with them when they migrated to other regions: “If we follow back the line of march of the Puritan farmer,” Turner wrote, “we shall see how responsive he has always been to isms … . He is the Prohibitionist of Iowa and Wisconsin, crying out against German customs as an invasion of his traditional ideals. He is the Granger of Wisconsin, passing restrictive railroad legislation. He is the Abolitionist, the Anti-mason, the Millerite, the Woman Suffragist, the Spiritualist, the Mormon, of Western New York.”
Today's liberal crusades against fast food and tobacco echo the temperance crusade that animated generations of Greater New England idealists. Some of the isms dear to Greater New Englanders have been indispensable -- abolitionism, the civil-rights movement, and the campaigns for women's rights and gay rights. But Yankee crusaders have thrown themselves with equal zeal into campaigns for prohibition, nativism, and eugenics. From the 1840s to the 1920s, Greater New England was the heartland of anti-Catholic nativism. And Margaret Sanger, the patron saint of Planned Parenthood, explained that she and her allies “sought first to stop the multiplication of the unfit. This appeared the most important and greatest step toward race betterment.” New England and its regional colonies have also provided the strongest support for independent parties, from the abolitionists of the pre–Civil War era to the Progressives of Theodore Roosevelt and the Green Party of Ralph Nader. The independent candidacies of Roosevelt in 1912 and Nader in 2000 produced the defeat of the major party most sympathetic to their views.
Intellectual elitism. Another legacy of Puritan political culture is intellectual elitism. The historian David Hackett Fischer describes the New England puritan ideal as “ordered freedom,” which contrasts with the “hegemonic freedom” of the aristocratic Deep South and the “natural freedom” of the Scots-Irish of the southern upcountry. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded as a theocracy run by learned clerics. Surviving the secularization of Greater New England, the idea of government by an educated, public-spirited elite endures.
It is this ideal that explains the attraction of generations of Greater New England reformers to “good government” campaigns. The state constitutions of New England and its offshoots allow for far fewer elected officials and far more appointed officials than the populist constitutions of the South and West. Greater New England progressives championed replacing the political-spoils system of patronage appointments with a merit-based civil service predicated on entrance exams. In the 1900s, progressives in the Yankee tradition from New England to California sought to minimize the power of legislatures by creating strong governors or city managers. They hoped that the device of initiative and referendum would permit corrupt legislatures to be bypassed in lawmaking.
The dark side of Greater New England elitism was displayed by the enthusiasm of progressives for the disfranchisement of immigrants in the North and blacks and poor whites in the South. Most of the arcane rules that make voting difficult in the United States date from the Progressive Era, when progressives and conservatives teamed up to discourage the less educated and less affluent from going to the polls. The rate of popular participation in elections plummeted in the Progressive Era and has never recovered.
As Greater New Englanders increasingly dominated the Democratic Party after the 1960s, liberalism began to reflect this preference for meritocratic elitism over the messiness of democracy. Whether they were campaigning to equalize school funding or to promote gay rights, liberal activists often preferred to engage in litigation to persuade federal and state judges to enact the reforms they sought, rather than engage in the frustrating and arduous process of converting first voters and then legislatures to their views and values. The enlightened, nonpartisan federal administrator (the ideal of early-20th-century progressives) was replaced by the enlightened, nonpartisan federal judge (the ideal of late-20th-century liberals).
Anti-militarism. The Puritans rejected the military ethic, which they associated with aristocracy and royalism. New Englanders have always been underrepresented in the U.S. military, which has usually been dominated by southerners.
In every foreign war in American history, from the War of 1812 to the Iraq War, opposition has been concentrated in the states of Greater New England. The refusal of one of the most famous citizens of Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau, to pay federal taxes because he opposed the Mexican War landed him in jail and inspired him to write On Civil Disobedience. The most consistent opponents of U.S. intervention in World War I and World War II were isolationists from states like Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Oregon. Contrary to popular mythology, many of the isolationists were progressives. Today's blue states correspond pretty closely to the historic American anti-interventionist belt.
This helps to explain why the Democratic Party became increasingly dovish after the 1960s. In the 1950s, when the Republican Party was still the party of New England, the Midwest, and the West Coast, Republicans like Robert A. Taft were more dovish than Democrats like Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. As hawkish white southerners and anti-communist Catholics moved out of the Democratic Party, the doves of New England, the upper Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest moved in. Many of these voters had been progressive Republicans, and they brought their regional culture's antipathy to all things military with them.
By the 1970s, the southernization of the Republicans and the northernization of the Democrats had reversed the approach of the parties to foreign affairs. In the 1970s and 1980s, attitudes toward militarism, as well as votes on military appropriations and new weapons systems, reflected regional cultures, not political ideologies. Three out of four voters in Massachusetts supported the “nuclear freeze” movement in the 1980s, and the map of towns that declared themselves “nuclear-free zones” paralleled the 19th-century Yankee migration from New England to Oregon. A majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives voted against both the Gulf War and the Iraq War.
It was on these shoals that the first of the three parties that suffered from too heavy a reliance on New England crashed. The New England Federalists overwhelmingly opposed the War of 1812, which was launched by southern “war hawks.” In December 1815, Federalists upset with the war met in Hartford, Connecticut. While some members flirted with the idea of the secession of New England from the United States, the Hartford Convention settled on proposals for constitutional amendments intended to check the power of the southerners who controlled Washington. Unfortunately for them, the war ended shortly thereafter, and the taint of treason destroyed the Federalist Party by 1820.
Following the collapse of the Federalists, two-party politics was replaced by the rivalry of factions in the dominant Republican Party, whose northern faction became known as the “National Republicans” while the southern faction was called the “Democratic Republicans.”
In 1824, the House of Representatives installed John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, a National Republican, as president, even though he lost the popular vote to Andrew Jackson. When President Adams proposed federal funding for observatories, Jacksonian political strategists ridiculed him, implying that this Yankee egghead took the phrase “lighthouses of the skies” literally. The voters ejected the intellectual from Massachusetts in favor of the popular southern general in 1828; Jackson was re-elected in 1832.
Opponents of Jackson organized the Whig Party in 1834. Although the Whigs included the Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, their base was in New England, home to Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. The Whigs won the presidency only when they overcame their northeastern associations by nominating two Virginia-born generals: William Henry Harrison, a hero of the War of 1812, which most New England Federalists had opposed, and Zachary Taylor, a hero of the Mexican War, which most New England Whigs had opposed. Even so, the historical pattern in which New England opposition to a foreign war helps doom the party associated with New England was followed once again. In the 1850s, divided by the question of slavery extension that arose in the aftermath of the Mexican War, the Whigs collapsed.
The ex-Whigs realized that they needed to win over Jacksonian populists in order to build a national majority. The nativist American Party, led by former Whigs like New York's Millard Filmore, sought to lure populists opposed to Catholic immigration. The Republican Party, led by Abraham Lincoln and William Seward among others, appealed to white populists who wanted to reserve the western territories for white farmers by confining the slave plantation system to the South. The first purely regional Northern Party, the Republicans emerged from the chaotic election of 1860 with control of the White House. But they were able to wage the war to restore the Union only with the aid of northern Democrats. Lincoln, a midwestern moderate born in the South, was frequently denounced by radical New Englanders, whom Lincoln's aide and fellow Illinoisan John Hay derided in private as “the Jacobins.” Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon, wrote of Lincoln: “Abstractly, and from the standpoint of conscience, he abhorred slavery. But born in Kentucky … it is not strange, I repeat, that he should fail to estimate properly the righteous indignation and unrestrained zeal of a Yankee Abolitionist.”
Following the Civil War, the Republicans faced the prospect of becoming a minority party as soon as southern votes were added again to the Democratic votes of the North. The attempt to enlist southern blacks and some poor whites in the South as electoral allies was defeated by southern violence and northern indifference during Reconstruction. However, the Republicans were able to artificially inflate their power in the Senate and the Electoral College by rapidly admitting underpopulated states in the West (that's why there are two Dakotas instead of one). In addition, the Republicans were careful to avoid being too closely identified with their New England wing. Throughout the period of Republican dominance, from Abraham Lincoln to Herbert Hoover, they tended to nominate candidates from the Midwest rather than New England.
Between Reconstruction and World War I, the irrepressible New England strain of moralism manifested itself in a series of Nader-like revolts by idealists against the mainstream Republican Party: the Liberal Republicans, the Mugwumps, and the Republican Progressives. By running for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican vote and awarded the presidency to Woodrow Wilson, the former New Jersey governor who was the southern-bred leader of a party dominated by southerners.
Theodore Roosevelt's cousin Franklin managed to add many Greater New England progressives from liberal Republican backgrounds to the old Democratic coalition of southern and western conservatives and populists and northern working-class Catholics. Only the Depression made such an unlikely alliance possible. In 1948, the Democratic Party split three ways, with southern segregationists voting for Strom Thurmond of the States Rights Party and the radical left voting for Henry Wallace of the Progressive Party, leaving Harry Truman to narrowly win election in a four-way race that included the Republican candidate Tom Dewey, who won most of the New England states that are Democratic bastions today.
Patched together again after 1948, the New Deal coalition finally disintegrated in 1968. George Wallace, a populist southern Democrat, appealed to white southerners and northern Catholics alienated by the Democratic Party's left wing. Wallace siphoned votes from Hubert Humphrey, giving the presidency to Richard Nixon. By welding the Wallace Democrats to the Republican base, Nixon won re-election in a landslide in 1972 and established a mostly enduring Republican presidential majority. The only two Democrats to be elected after 1968 were Jimmy Carter, who would not have won but for Watergate, and Clinton, who, because of Ross Perot's presence on the ballot, was able to win with 43 percent of the vote in 1992. Later, Clinton won re-election chiefly by “triangulating” between the dominant liberal left in his own party and the Republicans.
The post-'60s Democrats, increasingly based in Greater New England, converted opposition to the Vietnam War into a generalized opposition to the Cold War and the military. Pro-military Democrats tended to be southerners, like Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, and over time they were replaced by Republicans.
The old pattern in which New England's opposition to a controversial and far from popular war leads to problems for the New England party repeated itself. In spite of the debacle in Indochina, the voters rewarded the more hawkish party with the presidency for most of the remainder of the Cold War. When security moved back to the center following September 11, the Republicans benefited again. George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 in spite of the disaster in Iraq, just as Richard Nixon had been re-elected in 1972 in spite of the disaster in Vietnam.
A case might be made that the Iraq War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Vietnam War were all unnecessary. But in each instance, the New England–dominated party paid a heavy electoral penalty for its opposition to a war that was bungled or lost.
From John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams to Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, Massachusetts politicians associated with the Greater New England traditions of reformism, intellectual elitism, and anti-militarism have been defeated by rivals who embody the southern synthesis of social conservatism, populism, and martial patriotism.
Consider the 2004 election. Reformism? True to the state tradition of being in the vanguard of reform, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts, thereby contributing to the defeat of the Massachusetts presidential candidate, notwithstanding his declared opposition to gay marriage.
George W. Bush, the Yale-educated son of a president and grandson of a Connecticut senator, is more of an aristocrat than John Kerry. But like the Roosevelts and Kennedy, and unlike his own father, Bush has the common touch. In 2004, Democrats did not.
The anti-militarism of the New England tradition haunted the 2004 election as well. Even without the well-funded smear campaign against him organized by the Swift Boat Vets and pows for Truth, Kerry's attempt to run as a Vietnam War hero would have been made very difficult by his anti–Vietnam War activities as a veteran in the 1970s, when he told the U.S. Senate that American soldiers “razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan.” Kerry was preceded as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts by Charles Sumner (1811–74), who in his first public speech as a young politician in Boston called the U.S. Military Academy at West Point a “seminary of idleness and vice” and described soldiers as “wild beasts.” The occasion was a Fourth of July oration. Politicians who compare American soldiers to Genghis Khan and wild beasts have never been successful outside of New England.
Today, outside of big cities with large black and immigrant populations, the Democratic Party is slowly being confined to Greater New England. The political heirs of the Federalists, the Whigs, and the Progressives, today's Democrats are in danger of following those parties into oblivion.
It would be a mistake for the Democrats to think that they can regain a national majority by changing their policies or their style to appeal to more red-state voters. A new majority cannot be built on bland compromises between blue-state liberalism and red-state conservatism. Nor can northeastern or West Coast politicians successfully reinvent themselves as heartland types.
What is necessary is to recast the Democrats as, in effect, a loose federation of regional parties. All successful majority parties have had regional wings. This is true even in today's Republican Party, which, though heavily dominated by right-wing southerners, includes socially liberal governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and George Pataki of New York, pragmatic internationalists like Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, and moderate New England senators such as Maine's Olympia Snowe and Rhode Island's Lincoln Chaffee.
Today's Democratic minority is defined in the public mind by identity-politics groups -- blacks, Latinos, feminists, gays and lesbians -- and economic-interest groups, like unions. A majority Democratic Party would be defined, in contrast, by its regional wings: northeastern Democrats, West Coast Democrats, Great Plains Democrats, midwestern Democrats, and even some southern Democrats. The regional factions would agree on a brief national platform that is chiefly economic. But they would be free to express their regional differences in the areas of values and foreign policy.
At present, the Democratic Party is a socially liberal party that welcomes both economic conservatives and economic liberals. But in a country with a center-right majority on social issues and a center-left majority on economic issues of interest to the broad middle class and working class, this is exactly backward: Defining liberalism in terms of social liberalism is a formula for minority status. According to various polls, the number of self-described liberals in the United States is no more than 18 percent or 20 percent. Public attitudes on race, gay rights, and other subjects have been getting more liberal with each generation, but widespread opposition to unqualified abortion rights and gay marriage shows the limits to this trend. The religious right cannot and should not be courted. But in the foreseeable future, the Democrats have no chance of regaining a majority without the votes of many moderate traditionalists.
The Democrats should retain their bedrock commitment to fighting laws that discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation. On other issues, which might include affirmative action, abortion rights, and gay marriage, the Democratic Party as a whole should take no stand. The litmus tests should be economic, not social: Do their candidates support policies that improve the lives of working Americans? Do they support a more progressive system of taxation and spending? If so, they should be welcome, even if they oppose abortion or gay marriage (indeed, the new Democratic Senate minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, opposes abortion rights). Conversely, economic conservatives with liberal social attitudes should be invited to leave the Democratic Party and join the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. If this means that the Democrats lose some wealthy coastal donors who are motivated by social liberalism, so be it.
The model for a regionally diverse majority coalition of Democrats should be the Lincoln Republicans between the 1860s and the 1930s. Lincoln Republicans were able to build upon their core constituency in Greater New England to construct a national majority that lasted, with a few interruptions, from the end of Reconstruction to the New Deal. They did so by adding many Jacksonian populists in the border South and Midwest to their political base of former Whigs in the Northeast.
There is no equivalent in today's American politics to the question of slavery in the territories, which united former Whigs and Jacksonian populists in the 1850s. But contemporary parallels can be found for western homestead legislation. Northeastern elites had long opposed the populist idea of free land in the West for settlers. Lincoln and his allies, however, made what became the Homestead Act of 1865 part of the Republican platform, beginning the often-stormy marriage of midwestern agrarians with northeastern industrial and financial elites that endured until the 1930s. The equivalent of the Homestead Act today might be legislation designed to help the suburban working class in the red states to own the contemporary equivalent of productive farms -- investment capital. “Universal capitalism” is a populist goal that conservatives have cleverly exploited in the name of the “ownership society,” at the same time that the right has manipulated the populist suspicion of income-redistribution programs for the poor. The Democratic Party should make the populist idea of universal capitalism its own.
The Democratic Party should also try to emulate the Lincoln Republicans by drawing on midwesterners as their presidential candidates. The successes of Carter and Clinton were possible only because the South was still in transition from the Democrats to the Republicans. But Al Gore was no more capable of carrying his home state of Tennessee in 2000 than John Edwards was of carrying North Carolina in 2004.
For Democrats today, the Midwest is the key to the White House, for the same reason it was crucial a century ago: Its location at the confluence of the major cultural regions of the United States means that its politicians must appeal to more than one tradition. During the era when it was the party supported by Greater New England, from 1868 to 1932, the Republican Party sent only two New England presidents to the White House: Chester A. Arthur and Calvin Coolidge, both from Vermont. Of the 11 Republican presidents during this era, seven -- Ulysses Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, William Henry Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, and Warren Harding -- were from Ohio. Democratic talent scouts should be eyeing midwestern governors.
Greater New England will be the regional core of the Democratic Party for a long time to come. But the next Democratic majority, if there is one, will be one in which the New England political tradition is merely one of several. The Democrats may remain the party of New England. But the Democrats must not be the New England party.
Michael Lind, the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics.
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