Magazine article Insight on the News

Reagan Democrats Key to GOP Electoral Future

Magazine article Insight on the News

Reagan Democrats Key to GOP Electoral Future

Article excerpt

Both major parties are seeking the support of "Reagan Democrats." Bob Dole needs their votes to win. Bill Clinton may have gotten to them first -- but that doesn't mean they have abandoned the GOP.

In 1994, for the first time, a majority of Catholics voted Republican in an off-year election. For many in the GOP this seemed the culmination of an electoral quest that began with the social turmoil of the sixties when Richard Nixon sought to draw many blue-collar traditionalists outraged by the excesses of the era into his "New Majority."

Nixon's new coalition ran aground on the shoals of Watergate, but in 1980 Ronald Reagan drew many hereditary Democrats to his banner. In fact, the mass media dubbed them "Reagan Democrats" -- blue-collar workers and their children, often union members, many of them ethnic Catholics, who were attracted to the Great Communicator's unabashed patriotism, strong foreign policy and social conservatism on issues such as abortion and crime.

In 1988, George Bush entered the White House after successfully tarring opponent Michael Dukakis as an unrepentant liberal. But four years later "Bush lost because he lost the Reagan Democrats," says political scientist Arnold Beichman of the Hoover Institution. And, in this presidential season, part of the GOP angst seems to come from the party's failure to solidify its support among this group. "What Clinton has done is realize that the object of the game is to get the Tory worker on his side," Beichman tells Insight, "and he's done it."

The president "is a genius politician," says historian Ronald Radosh, author of Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996. "Obviously, he co-opted all of the Republican themes and made them his own." Clinton is "a master because he knows the left wing of his party, the liberals, are going to support him anyway, figuring that he's really one of them -- so they're all holding their tongues and not saying anything."

But who are these Reagan Democrats of whom the Clinton campaign so obviously is enamored? Beichman regards Reagan Democrats as the domestic version of the "Tory worker" -- a phenomenon in British politics since the days of Benjamin Disraeli, the dominant Conservative in Britain during the mid-19th century. Workers, both unionized and independent, who vote for conservative parties are "an international phenomenon to be found in most industrial democracies." he says. "How can [German Chancellor Helmut] Kohl manage to stay on in a country with such a powerful labor movement? It has tremendous power, at least numerically and legislatively, and yet Kohl keeps getting elected. How could Reagan have gotten elected if union members and workers had been against him? He couldn't."

In this country, the phenomenon attracted media attention in the wake of the sixties and seventies -- turbulent years both for the country and the Democratic Party. In the recently published book The Inheritance, former New York Times reporter Samuel Freedman has elegantly chronicled the political journey of three New York Catholic families who made their way over the course of four decades from the Democratic Party of the New Deal to the Republican Party of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and New York Gov. George Pataki. Freedman, a professor at Columbia University's journalism school, tells Insight that during the turmoil of the sixties a "class-based conservatism" among working-and lower-middle-class voters was forming.

One of the moving passages in The Inheritance describes how Tim Carey, from a working-class Irish-Catholic family, found as he guarded the Pentagon from antiwar demonstrators as a member of the military police that he was hated by people his own age who had used college deferments to avoid the draft. "The patriotism issue and that alienation from the counterculture is completely interwoven with his sense that it was the rich kids who were out there ridiculing him and trying to overrun his position," explains Freedman. …

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