The outline is bad enough. The governor who had won his state in 1990 by an astounding 66 percent of the vote was forbidden by his own party leadership from addressing the convention because of his pro-life views.
The rebuke is infamous among Catholics. Bill Galston noticed as much while discussing religion and the Democratic Party: "I cannot manage to find a Catholic intellectual who will not in conversation refer to what happened to Bob Casey at the 1992 Democratic convention."
But the details of the Casey insult are agonizing to read.
Casey described the rejection letter the DNC sent in response to his request for floor time as "the kind of letter they might have sent Lyndon LaRouche, had he asked to address the convention." One of the guests on the convention platform was Kathy Taylor, a Republican pro-choice activist who had campaigned for Casey's opponent in the gubernatorial race.
The governor described his place at the convention:
And so from my seat in the outer reaches of the Garden, I watched a pro-choice Republican supporter of my pro-choice Republican opponent, whom I had defeated by a million votes to be re-elected as Democratic governor, proudly proclaiming her allegiance to the pro-choice forces.
In his latest book Mark Stricherz provides the exemplar of Casey's humiliation. "On the convention floor was Karen Ritter, a state Democratic legislator, selling large buttons with pictures of Casey dressed up as the Pope."
How did the Democrats, who were once denounced for being the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion," reach a point where an activist on the convention floor could confidently, if unconsciously, echo the propaganda of the Know-nothings and the Klan?
Stricherz answers the question well in his book Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party.
In Stricherz's telling, the old party bosses who dominated the party from the New Deal through the 1960s selected candidates with an eye towards practical success. A winning candidate on the national level could bring home the bacon for the bosses' working class constituents. Ideological concerns were minimal. Though the corruption of Daley and Curley is legendary, bosses could act quite justly. Pittsburgh's David Lawrence, for instance, helped push through civil rights reforms.
These bosses were overwhelmingly Catholic and patrons of blue-collar workers.
Though often democratic in outcome, the boss system was undemocratic in process. Realizing the need to create a more responsive party leadership, the ethnic bosses and other party leaders agreed to reform the party delegate system. In 1968.
That was a bad time to rewrite the rules for selecting delegates. Young anti-war activists, fearing for their lives, made sure their partisans were on the selection committee.
Enter the McGovern Commission. Though only racial discrimination was a problem in Democratic caucuses, the commission instituted quotas based on race, youth, and sex.(This explains the Democrats' continuing affinity for quotas)
Young female delegates were, with good reason, presumed to be more anti-war. The feminists, whose loyalty then could have swayed to the Republicans, were well-organized enough to exploit the quotas and install their delegates. (Stricherz explains the specifics here)
The only other demographic that was poised to benefit from the change was the secular college-educated liberal. Their numbers and goals significantly overlapped with the feminists. Their opponents easily tarred them as partisans of Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion. As their shared cultural liberalism became more prominent, the loyalty of more conventional Democratic voters waned.
One passage particularly shows the transition:
The differences between the leaders of the McGovern Commission and those in charge of the Chicago convention were stark. In 1968, the chairman o fthe DNC(John Bailey), the chairman of the Platform Committee(Rep. Hale Boggs), the chairman of the Credentials Committee(Gov Richard Hughes of New Jersey) and the kingmaker at the convention(Mayor Daley of Chicago) were all Roman Catholic; were professional politicians; were based either in the big cities or in state houses; and had a cross-racial, Catholic, and working-class constituency. In 1969, the chairman of the commission(McGovern), the general counsel to the commission(Segal), the chief of communication consultants(Wexler), the director of research(Bode), and the most active commissioner(Dutton) were all either mainline Protestants or non-Orthodox Jews; were predominantly activists or political aides; were based in the universities; and had a largely suburban, upper-class, white constiutency. The leadership of the party was about to change. ( p. 92)
What Catholics remained in the party leadership had sworn servility to the pro-choice party line, and contemporary rising stars must follow their lead. Even the token pro-lifers Bob Casey, Jr. and Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, have been easily domesticated and compromised by the Democratic establishment, who are even more cynical in their token appeals to social conservatism than the Republicans are. If one is willing to be compromised, staying Democrat still looks good to many Catholics. Such candidates even pick up the votes of nice old little ladies who think that because they go to Mass, they must be a pro-life Democrat.
Why the Democrats are Blue can teach one a lot about politics. The tale of the McGovern Commission is a perfect example of how the pragmatic, broad aims of an establishment prove vulnerable to the concerted efforts of a well-organized ideological faction. As Stricherz says,
...socially conservative Democrats had failed to mount an effective effort. Nellie Gray, a delegate for pro-life Democratic presidential candidate Eileen McCormack, suggested that her side suffered from a dearth of lobbyists: “In those days, all of us in the pro-life movement were active in three or four things at the same time.”
Further, Stricherz's study finally explains why blue-collar concerns have taken a back-seat along with the Catholics: the unions themselves were the Catholic vote, and the marginalization of Catholics was, in effect, the marginalizing of labor leaders.
Stricherz suggests that since the Democrats have lost their elections since shunning the Catholics from leadership, simply reversing that trend would help the Democrats win elections and restore pro-life concerns to the party.
Maddeningly, he never expands this argument in necessary detail. Stricherz, I think, needs to attack the specific claims of Fred Dutton, who worked on a 1968 Democrat commission examining the party structure. Dutton justified changes in the system by claiming the old demographics were shifting. He wrote:
But the traditional blue-collar base, while still very substantial politically, is disappearing over the long run by losing most of its children to a different political and social group with rising educational levels, affluence, and the greater cultural sophistication taking hold.(p. 124)
To a significant extent this evaluation seems to have borne out. Irish-Americans are now among one of the wealthiest ethnic groups in the country. Many Catholics now mouth anti-union sentiment that would have mortified their grandfathers. The collapse and sabotage of Catholic education has reduced Catholic identity and practice and has left even mass-going Catholics more indifferent to moral standards and their application to politics.
Further, it's not clear that the party's rejection of the pro-life Catholic vote has as much impact on the presidential race as Stricherz suggests. As one can tell even from the map that adorns the book's cover, most of the significantly Catholic states are still reliably Democrat. Only Ohio and perhaps Florida are, I believe, key states where the Catholic vote can swing elections.
It seems more clear that the loss of the South to the Republicans has doomed Democratic presidential campaigns. Southern governors Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have been the only Democratic candidates to have won the presidency in the post-McGovern era.
Stricherz offers several proposals for reforming the Democrats away from their pro-choice absolutism and, by implication, towards decades of dominance in presidential elections. He proposes abolishing the state party caucuses, allowing independents to vote in primaries, eliminating delegate quotas and party-appointed "super-delegates," and moving the first primary elections to the swing states.
I think the last idea is brilliant. But I think the Democrats are too committed to quotas in other areas to remove them from their own system, especially if the present leadership has benefited from such quotas.
However, I worry about Stricherz's arguments for the abolition of the state party caucus. Stricherz says that
The main problem with caucus elections is the amount of time and effort they require of voters. Those who attend caucuses have to do more than show up and vote; they have to spend at least an hour and often several hours sitting through a meeting before declaring themselves for a candidate.
Oh, the agony of political participation! Hours of boredom, once every two years!
I admit being under the influence of John Wren, a tireless advocate of the caucus system. To abolish the caucuses would be to abolish one of the last remnants of localist neighborhood politics.
Another of Stricherz's arguments against the caucus system is that caucus meetings are disproportionately attended by activists. But if the caucuses favor organized partisans, why can't one better organize one's own partisans instead of directing energy into changing the whole system?
Stricherz's other objections are that caucuses are held only at night, are sparsely-attended by working-class voters, and lack elections by secret ballot. Again, these seem to be problems best addressed by methods other than abolition.
These several criticisms are offered only because I think the book is quite good. Why the Democrats are Blue effectively describes how Catholics used to be a power in Democratic leadership. The book captures the limbo of the Catholic who is now exiled from the Democratic party. Stricherz tells a well-researched story of how structural party changes made by seemingly minor figures can hijack a party.
Now to hijack it back.