By the early 1990s, it had become axiomatic among mainstream Democratic pundits and politicians that liberalism had collapsed as the result of the supposed excesses of the 1960s. A slew of influential pundits–among them Jim Sleeper, Stanley Greenberg, Fred Siegel and Thomas and Mary Edsall, along with others who found themselves in the orbit of Bill Clinton–looked back wistfully to the days when the Democrats held electoral majorities by fashioning a big-tent politics that included working-class Catholics and Jews, blacks, Southern whites and even establishment intellectuals. In their telling, so oft-repeated that it became conventional wisdom, the big tent’s ropes and stays began to give way in the mid-1960s. Democrats, the story goes, alienated their core voters–white working-class men–by pandering to race-conscious minorities, defending the out-of-control welfare state that enabled them and giving the reins of power to so-called “limousine liberals” who condescended to blue-collar whites and forced an agenda of acid, amnesty, abortion, gay rights and multiculturalism to the center of Democratic Party politics.
Like all jeremiads–calls for redemption in the form of narratives of decline–the story of the unraveling of liberalism contained within it the prescription for a Democratic revival. A new breed of Democratic operatives set their sights on a small band of the electorate–the so-called Reagan Democrats and their latter-day descendants, NASCAR dads. Winning back these defectors required a new manly, nationalistic liberalism, one that offered “tough love” toward the indigent, weaned the poor from welfare “dependency” and reinvigorated the Democratic Party’s commitment to the “traditional values” of hard work and self-discipline. Above all, it required the rejection of “identity politics” and its pernicious spawn–affirmative action, minority set-asides, bilingual education and multiculturalism. In this zero-sum approach to politics, any program that benefited minorities was inherently suspect: aid to cities alienated suburbanites; racial “quotas” took jobs and admissions slots from deserving whites and gave them to undeserving minorities; weak-kneed liberals squandered hard-earned tax dollars to subsidize illegitimate mothers, coddle criminals and engage in social engineering like “forced busing” to desegregate schools.
And like all jeremiads, the new Democratic orthodoxy evoked a wholly fictitious American past. The Democrats needed to turn the clock back to the antediluvian moment–that is, before 1968–and restore the economic opportunity, colorblindness, family values, law and order, and personal responsibility that supposedly reigned before hippies, rioters, anti-American activists and multiculturalists took over. In so doing they tapped an unacknowledged white-identity politics, one that celebrated such virtues as discipline and self-sufficiency while ignoring the fact that for most of the twentieth century, whites were the prime beneficiaries of government largesse–supposedly universalistic government programs like Social Security, the GI Bill and federal homeownership initiatives, which systematically excluded minorities for much of their history.
Over the past decade, a whole generation of historians and political scientists have systematically dismantled the myth of a liberal consensus. The notion that there was a Democratic “big tent” that included Southern whites, Northern urban ethnics and black workers has come apart in a slew of case studies of grassroots politics in the post-New Deal years. Political scientists like Rogers Smith, Philip Klinkner and Ira Katznelson, and historians (I count myself among them) such as Arnold Hirsch, Robert Self, David Freund and Kim Phillips-Fein have found that antiliberalism was deeply rooted, even among nominal Democrats in the supposed heyday of the New Deal order. Whites–both Northern and Southern–punished Democratic officials who were too “pro-Negro” well before the civil rights and black power struggles of the 1960s. White suburbanites long embraced the antitax politics that would be a defining issue for the right. And anticommunist politics drove many voters away from pink-tainted liberals toward the right.