There’s still time for you to save the Democratic Party.
May 7, 2008
Dear Gov. Dean,
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are not tied. You know this. There is little chance of a gracious settlement offer from the Clinton camp. The slim margin in Indiana gives her just enough rationale to stay in it.
Given that she will not voluntarily withdraw, Mr. Dean, I am asking you to take a hard look at the Democratic Party and consider whether you want that party to have a future. If so, now is the time for leadership.
The broad and powerful Democratic coalition of the New Deal no longer exists. By and large, southern whites have joined with Republicans. White ethnic Catholics exit in greater numbers each election. Labor union households are still Democrats, but their numbers and influence are declining. Although the 1990s saw a two-term Democratic president, he had such short coattails that the party lost its 40-year majority in the House within 24 months of his inauguration. In short, the party is in trouble. If it is to have a future, Democrats must forge new coalitions.
The party must shore up its strengths. African-Americans are the most consistently loyal Democratic partisans in national and local elections. But the tie between blacks and the Democratic Party does not bind as fiercely as it once did. There has been a notable decline among blacks who call themselves Strong Democrats and a substantial increase in African-Americans who identify as Independents. Also, far fewer black Americans now believe that there are clear differences between the parties. If you don’t believe me, just ask my Republican colleague Jeff Grynaviski, from the University of Chicago. He and I researched these trends together and he has no horse in this race. He will tell you that these are the same patterns that occurred among white southeners and Catholics before they started shopping for a new party.
Mr. Dean, if you allow Senator Clinton to take the party’s nomination after ruthlessly deploying race in this primary campaign, you will obliterate your base. Despite all the media chatter about white, working class voters, the candidate with a demographic problem is Hillary Clinton, not Barack Obama. Obama has developed a national, multiracial coalition, and his vote share among white voters has remained largely consistent throughout the campaign. Just look how well he did last night in Indiana. Hillary Clinton has gone from the favored candidate among black voters in early opinion polls to a candidate who has been repudiated by 92 percent of those voters, a fact proven last night in North Carolina.
Let’s be clear. When black folks switch parties, we do it decisively. After nearly a century of unwavering commitment to the party of Lincoln, it was Republican Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid in 1964, designed to appeal to entrenched American racism, which led to an increase in black Democratic Party identifiers from 59 percent to 86 percent in a single election. Despite Obama’s call for unity in his North Carolina victory speech last night, black Americans will not stand behind a candidate who deploys a Goldwater strategy within our own party. Our opposition to the war will not allow us to vote for McCain, but we can choose to exit the coalition, withhold our votes, to protest a Clinton candidacy. This is not a threat. It is an observation based on historical evidence.
Democrats need a new coalition, and they must build that coalition on the foundation of African-American voters. But that is not enough. Last night, Barack Obama won North Carolina with the same coalition that elected John Edwards to the U.S. Senate in 1998: African-Americans, laboring whites, progressive intellectuals and enthusiastic new voters. This is sustainable Democratic politics. Obama’s wins in Iowa, Wisconsin, Washington, South Carolina, Mississippi and Virginia portend a new future.
That future is dependent on a new generation of voters. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is indelibly tied to a generation that came of age in Jim Crow, cut their teeth on Vietnam, and have governed the country with bitter partisan division. Obama’s core supporters, like their candidate, represent a generation prepared to seek new solutions, new allies, and new trajectories for the country. Obama is the candidate of youth, but youth in this election does not mean just kids. Obama’s supporters are taxpaying, military-serving, home-owning grown-ups. Youth, in this campaign, is the same youth that Bobby Kennedy spoke of at the University of Capetown in South Africa in 1966. Bobby Kennedy told us:
“Our answer is the world’s hope; it is to rely on youth. The cruelties and the obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present, which is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger, which comes with even the most peaceful progress. This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.”
Clinton’s camp will argue that she is the candidate of the party’s blue-collar base. This is an unsupportable argument. The demographics that Clinton attracts in the primaries are demographics dominated by GOP voters in the general election. She will not be the choice of the working class, white men, and senior voters. John McCain will be.
Mr. Dean, the Democratic coalition isn’t the only one that is fragile right now. There are important segments of the Republican coalition who are uncomfortable with the social conservatism and war mongering of the recent Bush administration. They are ripe for realignment; but they are deeply suspicious of the Clintons. They need a reason to jump ship. Obama offers them one.
Mr. Dean, now is the time for courage. Your party has chosen a nominee, and he is a capable of creating and shoring up a new and lasting Democratic majority built on a national, multiracial, intergenerational coalition of men and women. Last night Senator Obama said, “I love this country too much to see it divided and distracted at this moment in our history.”
Mr. Dean, how much do you love your party? It is time to start making the call, publicly and privately, for Hillary Clinton to exit the race. Your party needs you. Are you prepared to lead?
Melissa Harris -Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American studies at Princeton University.