For most of the twentieth century, the identities of the major political parties were clear: Republicans spoke for those who wanted to get ahead, and Democrats spoke for those who wanted a fair shake. Whatever the vagaries and hypocrisies of a given period or politician, these were the terms by which the parties understood and advertised themselves: the interests of business on one side, workers on the other. The lineup held as late as 1968, and it’s still evident in “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” Norman Mailer’s brilliant report on the party conventions of that lunatic year. Here’s Richard Nixon, back from the political dead, greeting Republican delegates in Miami Beach: “a parade of wives and children and men who owned hardware stores or were druggists, or first teller in the bank, proprietor of a haberdashery or principal of a small-town high school, local lawyer, retired doctor, a widow on a tidy income, her minister and fellow-delegate, minor executives from minor corporations, men who owned their farms . . . out to pay homage to their own true candidate, the representative of their conservative orderly heart.”
Mailer’s Democrats are personified in the brutal proletarian jowls of Mayor Richard Daley, and in the flesh and the smell of the Chicago stockyards. The country’s political parties were corrupt, they were élitist, yet they still represented distinct and organized interests (unions, chambers of commerce) through traditional hierarchies (the Daley machine, the Republican county apparatus). The Democratic Party, however, was about to tear itself apart over Vietnam.
In Chicago, the Party establishment voted down a peace plank and turned back the popular antiwar candidacies of Senators Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. The Convention’s nominee, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, had strong support from labor but hadn’t entered a single primary. This was what a rigged system looked like. The sham democracy and the chaos in Chicago led to the creation of the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which reformed the Democrats’ nominating process, weakening the Party bosses and strengthening women, minorities, young people, and single-issue activists. In Thomas Frank’s recent book, “Listen, Liberal,” he describes the result: “The McGovern Commission reforms seemed to be populist, but their effect was to replace one group of party insiders with another—in this case, to replace leaders of workers’ organizations with affluent professionals.”
This shift made a certain historical sense. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. was a sclerotic politburo, on the wrong side of the Vietnam War. The class rhetoric of the New Deal sounded out of date, and the problems it addressed appeared to have been solved by the wide prosperity of the postwar years. A different set of issues mattered to younger Democrats: the rights of disenfranchised groups, the environment, government corruption, militarism. In 1971, Fred Dutton, a member of the McGovern Commission, published a book called “Changing Sources of Power,” which hailed young college-educated idealists as the future of the Party. Pocketbook issues would give way to concerns about quality of life. Called the New Politics, this set of priorities emphasized personal morality over class interest. The activists who had been cheated by the Daley machine in Chicago in 1968 became the insiders at the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami Beach, which nominated McGovern. Many union members, feeling devalued by the Party, voted for Nixon, contributing to his landslide victory.
McGovern’s campaign manager was a young Yale-educated lawyer named Gary Hart, who had assigned the campaign’s Texas effort to a Yale law student named Bill Clinton. Clinton’s new girlfriend from Yale, Hillary Rodham, joined him that summer in San Antonio. Hart and Clinton embodied the transition that their party was undergoing. Education had lifted both men from working-class, small-town backgrounds: Hart labored on the Kansas railroads as a boy; Clinton came from a dirt-poor Arkansas watermelon patch called Hope. The McGovern rout left its young foot soldiers with two options: restore the Party’s working-class identity or move on to a future where educated professionals might compose a Democratic majority. Hart and Clinton followed the second path. Hart emerged as the leader of the tech-minded “Atari Democrats,” in the eighties; Clinton, the bright hope of Southern moderates, became the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a position that he used as a launchpad for the Presidency in 1992.
Hillary’s background was different. She had grown up outside Chicago, in a middle-class family. Her father, a staunch conservative just this side of the John Birch Society, owned a small drapery business. Her mother taught her the Methodist creed: “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.” Hillary changed from Goldwater Girl to liberal activist in the crucible of the sixties, but she remained true to her origins. Sara Ehrman, one of Hillary’s co-workers in Texas in the summer of 1972, described Clinton to her biographer Carl Bernstein as a “progressive Christian in that she believed in litigation to do good, and to correct injustices.” Clinton had “a kind of spiritual high-mindedness…a kind of fervor, and self-justification that God is on her side.” Hillary went town to town in South Texas, registering Hispanic voters, her Bible in hand. For her, politics had to conform to an idea of virtue. Bill, the natural, didn’t ask if he was on God’s side—politics was all about people.
Neither of them had a carefully worked-out ideology. Their political philosophy came down to two words: “public service.”
George Packer, “The Unconnected”, The New Yorker (31 October 2016), 51-52.