Many actors and factors fractured the New Deal coalition, and Joan Walsh spares none of them. Not even herself. (More)

What’s the Matter with White People, Part II: Stayin’ Alive, Coming Apart

This week Morning Feature considers Joan Walsh’s new book What’s the Matter with White People? – Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was. Yesterday we looked at her childhood myths of a post-World War II working class golden age. Today we see how the 1960s and 70s splintered the New Deal coalition that had been the Democratic Party’s base. Tomorrow we’ll conclude with how that base began to reform during the George W. Bush era, and how Democrats can knit that still-fragile coalition more closely for the future.

Joan Walsh became Salon‘s first full-time news editor in 1998 and editor in chief in 2005. At the end of 2010 she became the site’s editor at large, to write full-time. Before joining Salon, she worked as a journalist, as a legislative staffer for the California Assembly, and as a policy consultant on education, community development, and urban poverty issues.

Interesting Times

In 1966, Sen. Bobby Kennedy spoke to the National Union of South African Students in Cape Town about liberty, apartheid, and the U.S. civil rights movement. He discussed how futility, expediency, and timidity are obstacles to truly equal opportunity. Then he turned to the fourth obstacle, comfort:

For the fortunate amongst us, the fourth danger is comfort; the temptation to follow the easy and familiar path of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of an education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. There is a Chinese curse which says “May he live in interesting times.” Like it or not, we live in interesting times.

There is no direct evidence that “May you live in interesting times” is a Chinese curse. Yet as Walsh relates, civil unrest was the curse of the 1960s, especially as seen through the eyes of working class whites. Buoyed by the G.I. Bill and the postwar economic boom, many saw “the system” as finally seeming to work for them. Neither desperate enough to believe they had nothing to lose nor wealthy enough to afford gated enclaves, many working class whites saw those who spoke of “tearing down the system” as a menace to what few comforts they had achieved.

Stagnation and the Blame Game

The Great Society programs were enacted during that postwar boom, and conceived as ways to better share an ever-growing economic pie. Yet they had hardly begun to take effect before the working class pie stopped growing:


There were many reasons. Repeated oil shocks drove inflation, and attempts to suppress inflation squeezed workers to benefit investors. Japanese and European factories, devastated during World War II, were turning out less expensive cars, appliances, and other products. South Korea, Taiwan, China, India, and other emerging industrial nations would claim a ever-growing share of world manufacturing, leaving fewer living wage jobs for U.S. workers without college degrees. Stagnant wages and rising prices slashed savings and forced more families to borrow, not just for homes or cars, but to eke by when layoffs or medical bills left too much month at the end of the money. As the FIRE economy expanded, the One Percenters scooped up ever-larger slices of a slower-growing pie.

Yet because that process began right after the Civil Rights Act began to open doors for those long been excluded from the American Dream, and right after Great Society programs began to offer more community support for those in need, Republicans could and did sell a different story: working class whites were being squeezed not by Big Business, but by Big Government giving their jobs, their kids’ college admissions, and their tax dollars to Those People.

Do-Gooders and Villagers

Many working class whites also saw relatives go to college and become “do-gooders,” as Walsh describes that period of her life. First as a legislative staffer for the California Assembly and later as a policy consultant, she remained committed to the ideal of government helping the needy. Yet some of those she tried to help seemed to resent that she and other college-educated, middle-class whites led both the local meetings and the national dialogue about poverty. In time, Walsh admits, she began to resent their resentment and loathe phrases like “white privilege.”

Married, divorced, and raising a young daughter, Walsh also struggled with a missing link in 60s-era feminism: when she was at work she missed her daughter, and when she was at home she missed her job. She recognized the flaws in a welfare system based on 50s-era notions of stay-at-home moms, yet she was not sure if the welfare reforms she worked on in California and later saw implemented nationwide would help. It seemed hypocritical to promise poor women “more choices,” when staying home with their children was “the one choice you can’t have.”

Walsh returned to journalism during the Clinton administration. She saw in President Clinton someone who might rebuild the Democratic Party, despite or perhaps because of the pro-business bent of the Democratic Leadership Council. Trying to avoid shopworn battles over how to divide the pie, President Clinton spoke of making the pie bigger. Yet “free trade” would not be free to working class whites who saw their jobs shipped overseas. And despite low unemployment and a tech-driven stock boom, she watched the attacks of both Republicans in Congress and a media that seemed more focused on their inside-the-Beltway status – blogger Digby called them “the Villagers” – than on explaining the real economic forces that were squeezing the working class.

The poster girl for the Villagers was Washington Post reporter Sally Quinn, who epitomized an Irish conservative movement that began in 1932 with the nomination of Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s Democratic primary opponent was Al Smith, who had set out the blueprint for the New Deal while Governor of New York. He later became one of FDR’s most vocal critics. Resentment that Democrats had slighted an Irish-American would pull the first wave of middle-class Irish into the Republican Party, including the parents of Pat Buchanan, who would help Richard Nixon implement the blame-the-poor strategy to fracture the Democratic base … and who would later be Walsh’s frequent sparring partner on MSNBC.

No one villain fractured the Democratic Party and enabled the Reagan Revolution that led to the Bush Recession. Ideological purists and anything-to-win DLCers, working class white men who saw toeholds eroding and women and minorities still struggling to find toeholds, demagogues and do-gooders, all contributed to the split.

Courageously, Walsh does not airbrush herself into heroic status. As we’ll see tomorrow, the Obama presidency would force her to confront her own illusions and unpack her own privilege. The very human lessons Walsh learned may hold the key to building a truly progressive and enduring Democratic Party.


Happy Friday!