Ken Woodward, et al: History behind Democrats losing some key faith ties that bind

It's for a deep, deep dive into my GetReligion folder of guilt, that cyber stash of items that I really planned to write about pronto, but then things (oh, like the post-election mainstream news media meltdown) got in the way.

I remembered this particular item because of my recent posts about NBC News and Politico coverage of challenges facing the Democratic Party, which has gone off a cliff in terms of its fortunes at the level of state legislatures (and governors' mansions) in the American heartland (and other places, too). Of course, Democrats are in trouble in Washington, D.C., as well -- but after some truly agonizing close losses.

To sum up those posts: Both NBC News and The Politico totally ignored the role of religious, moral and cultural issues in the current predicament facing the modern Democrats. That "pew gap"? Never heard of it.

But there are people who are thinking about that issue, such as Emma Green at The Atlantic. Scores of faithful readers let us know about the recent piece there that ran with this headline: "Democrats Have a Religion Problem." It's an interview with conservative evangelical Michael Wear, who served as former director of Barack Obama’s 2012 faith-outreach efforts.

For example: What does Wear think of the modern party's attempts to deal with pro-life Democrats, such as himself? Green states the question this way: "How would you characterize Democrats’ willingness to engage with the moral question of abortion, and why is it that way?"

Wear: There were a lot of things that were surprising about Hillary’s answer [to a question about abortion] in the third debate. She didn’t advance moral reservations she had in the past about abortion. She also made the exact kind of positive moral argument for abortion that women’s groups -- who have been calling on people to tell their abortion stories -- had been demanding.
The Democratic Party used to welcome people who didn’t support abortion into the party. We are now so far from that, it’s insane. This debate, for both sides, is not just about the abortion rate; it’s not just about the legality of it. It’s a symbolic debate. It’s symbolic on the pro-choice side about the autonomy of women and their freedom to do what they want with their bodies. On the pro-life side, they care not just about the regulations around abortion, but whether there’s a cultural affirmation of life.
Even the symbolic olive branches have become less acceptable.

Does this make political sense?

Wear: ... America is still a profoundly religious nation. There are reports that high-level Democratic leadership was not interested in reaching out to white Catholics. And they sure didn’t have a lot of interest in white evangelicals. That’s a huge portion of the electorate to throw out. So if the civic motivation doesn’t get you, let me make the practical argument: It doesn’t help you win elections if you’re openly disdainful toward the driving force in many Americans’ lives.
The Democratic Party is effectively broken up into three even thirds right now: religiously unaffiliated people, white Christians who are cultural Christians, and then people of color who are religious.

Now, some of you may be thinking: What does this have to do with journalism?

On one level, this is a story that many mainstream journalists simply cannot see or they are not willing to see it. On a more cynical level, it certainly appears that many, if not most, elite journalists think like progressive Democrats when it comes to moral and social issues (Hello Bill Keller). Twitter has made this even more obvious.

If you want to know more about this story inside the larger Democratic Party story, then check out the (nice title, methinks) new book "Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics From the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama" by religion-beat patriarch Kenneth Woodward, best known for his decades at Newsweek.

The Chicago Tribune recent ran a chunk of the book as an opinion essay with this headline: "The Democrats' destructive politics of righteousness." Lots of people let us know about this essay, as well.

 

Now, there is a former GetReligionista who literally wrote the book on this subject, or at the very least another major book on it -- as in "Why The Democrats Are Blue" by Mark Stricherz. I asked him what he thinks journalists need to learn from the Wear interview and Woodward's essay. In a private email, he responded by pointing toward an:

... event every political and religion-beat journalist should know about: social liberals' bloodless coup d' etat of the presidential wing of the Democratic Party in the late '60s and early '70s.  Evangelicals' migration to the Republican Party in the late '70s and early '80s is well known and equally important in helping explain the country's religious-political chasm. But that migration does not explain why one emerging constituency in the early '70s, abortion-rights feminists, allied with the Democratic rather than the Republican Party or why a "social change coalition," in the words of party strategist Fred Dutton, replaced the party's previous New Deal coalition. 
Antiwar liberals recognized if they wanted to end the Vietnam War specifically and the military-industrial complex in general, they would need to use seize control of the McGovern Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection (1969-72) and implement rules changes to the party's presidential nominating process that benefited their side. So they proposed and rammed through the commission a soft quota for female delegates, not because women said they had been discriminated against in 1968 but because research director Ken Bode knew women were more likely to oppose the war than men. That was in 1969. By 1972, the women most likely to be presidential delegates supported abortion rights and considered the issue even more important than stopping the war.
The Commission's quotas for delegates have not gone away. They have endured for decades in the Democratic Party's internal rules.

This brings us, at last, to Woodward's thinking about all of this, focusing on both a religion angle and his theories on a kind of "righteousness" that replaced the old religion.

Hang on.

Whether out of anger or of angst, Bill Clinton spoke from the core of Democratic Party presumption when he told a Westchester County, N.Y., journalist recently that Donald Trump "doesn't know much" but does know "how to get angry white males to vote for him." ...
If Trump pursued the politics of resentment in courting white, working-class voters and their rural cousins, Democrats succumbed to what I call "the politics of righteousness" in overlooking their concerns and underestimating their power. By righteousness I mean the tendency of the Democratic Party to assume ownership of the moral high ground whenever cultural values and social norms are at issue in American politics -- and to presume that those who disagree are, as Hillary Clinton put it, "a basket of deplorables."
If Democrats want to recapture their old self-image as "the people's party," their political self-examination will have to go deeper than strategy and further back than millennials can remember. The party's alienation from the white working class began in the streets of Chicago outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. There, antiwar protesters and activists for a host of countercultural causes fought the police of Mayor Richard J. Daley while the nation watched on television. As President Bill Clinton later observed in the first volume of his memoirs, Vietnam was only one point of contention in what was really a wider clash between generations, social classes and moral cultures:
"The kids and their supporters saw the mayor and the cops as authoritarian, ignorant, violent bigots. The mayor and his largely blue-collar police force saw the kids as foul-mouthed, immoral, unpatriotic, soft, upper-class kids who were too spoiled to appreciate authority, too selfish to appreciate what it takes to hold a society together, too cowardly to serve in Vietnam …"
The 1968 convention marked the end of the New Deal coalition that had shouldered Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to the White House. It wasn't that white working-class Americans turned away from the party so much as that political reformers representing the young, the newly wealthy, the suburban and the higher educated deliberately cut party ties with them.

Wait, there are practical details in there that should have interested Hillary Clinton team leaders.

This is also political history that many, many young journalists need to know -- if they want to dig beneath the surface of many political debates (and also defeats).

Back into the mists of history:

McGovern naively took for granted the traditional party loyalty of union leaders and the white working class. But these pillars of the New Deal collation recognized that McGovern's creation of a new "coalition of conscience" built around opposition to the war, identity politics and a redistribution of wealth excluded some of their own conscientiously held moral convictions. McGovern went on to lose every state but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia -- and with them the party allegiance of blue-collar workers, union leaders and -- what often amounted to the same voters -- conservative Roman Catholics.
Jimmy Carter was not a member of McGovern's coalition of conscience: He had his own powerful sense of moral righteousness, one he derived from his Southern Baptist heritage of personal rectitude rather than McGovern's secularized Methodist heritage of moral uplift and social reconstruction. There was much in that mix that was admirably righteous, especially the instinct to protect racial and sexual minorities from social oppression. The problem is that pursuing righteousness by expanding individual rights at the expense of communal values often creates greater social conflict. As sociologist Robert Bellah argued in 1991, "rights language itself offers no way to evaluate competing claims." One side wins, the other loses.
The punitive side of political righteousness was on full display at the Democrats' 1992 convention. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo opened the proceedings by praising his fellow Democrats as the party of inclusion. But the "big tent" he boasted of was too small to include Gov. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. Casey was the most progressive governor in the country and far more successful in getting his agenda enacted than either Cuomo or presidential nominee Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Casey was a pro-life Catholic who had found legal ways to limit the sweep of Roe v. Wade that had made him anathema to Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America and other organizational pillars of the party's post-McGovern coalition of conscience.
The DNC not only refused to allow Casey to address the convention but sought to humiliate him by welcoming a pro-choice Republican opponent from Pennsylvania to the dais instead.

Read it all. And, journalists, think this over when planning your next stories about voters in the Rust and Bible belts.

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