These three prominent Democratic politicians have successfully navigated the racial minefield that has fractured the natural Democratic alliance in recent decades.
Democrats of all stripes are eager to shake Clinton’s hand in the hopes that his political skills will rub off on them. He accomplished what seemed utterly impossible. He was simultaneously known as the “first black president” and as “bubba,” with bubba defined as “a white working-class man of the southern United States, stereotypically regarded as uneducated and gregarious with his peers.” Also it is defined as “good old boy” and “redneck.” Clinton’s ability to connect with the white working class was on a basic, gut level. They simply saw him as being one of them and they identified with him accordingly. After the 1994 midterm election that saw a Republican landslide, Clinton embraced some of the GOP’s Contract With America, including supporting welfare reform that would seemingly have a disproportionately negative impact on African Americans. In 1996 Clinton came just a shade short of being the only Democratic presidential nominee to win a majority of the white vote since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Yet Clinton was also able to maintain strong allegiance and support from African Americans and other minority groups. They felt Clinton really could “feel their (your) pain” and identify with their aspirations. When the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in Clinton’s second term, the only group to steadfastly stand by Clinton in those crucial first few days was African Americans. A lot of other allies jumped ship. Clinton leaned heavily on folks like Vernon Jordan to see him through the impeachment crisis that almost destroyed his presidency.
Clinton’s ability to connect with the white working class and minorities was on a personal level, not a policy level. Because of this it can’t be relied upon by other Democrats or used as a formula for success.
Even today Nunn is one of the most popular political figures in Georgia among both white and black voters. Nunn was an expert on national security, defense and foreign policy, and he was socially conservative on many issues, giving him an appeal to many rural and white Georgians. He also could send out subliminal signals on race without sounding like a Lester Maddox or Herman Talmadge type of segregationist. He did this by pointing out that the late U.S. Senator Richard Russell was his mentor. It was said that Russell had all the qualities to be president except for his opposition to civil rights. Also Nunn’s great uncle was Carl Vinson, a staunch segregationist who served in Congress for over half a century and in 1956 signed the Southern Manifesto, a document that expresses hostility to racial integration in response to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. When he first ran for the U.S. Senate, Nunn flew to Alabama expressly to receive the endorsement of George Wallace. “I frankly admired Wallace, not because of his racial views, but because of his willingness to stand up and shake a fist at Washington occasionally,” Nunn said, according to usnews.com. But all these signals were sent out loud and clear, as Nunn made segregationists and racists feel comfortable with him even without making inflammatory remarks about black people.
African Americans viewed Nunn favorably because he seemed more reasonable on many issues than the other choices available to them. Nunn was not a race-baiter and he took a moderate stance on affirmative action, immigration reform, abortion and many other hot-button issues. At worst African Americans viewed Nunn as a “lesser of two evils,” and at best they liked him because they saw that he was a decent man who had character and class and would not actively try to harm them.
After the tragedy that claimed the life of President John F. Kennedy, his younger brother Robert moved into the spotlight. Bobby Kennedy could be greeted warmly in Harlem one day and get the same reception in an Appalachian community in West Virginia the next day. Although Kennedy seemed to have a genuine concern for the working class and the less privileged of all colors, his appeal really did stem from the residual goodwill shown him because of what happened to his brother. Had he not been a Kennedy and had November 22, 1963, not happened, it is doubtful he could have walked so easily in both worlds.
The Democratic Party’s problem
The Democrats have a major problem and they know it. It is a bigger ordeal for them than the so-called gender gap is for Republicans.
The sticky dilemma facing the Democratic Party is that the white working class has largely walked away from the old Roosevelt coalition that set the 20th century governing principles and was the governing majority in the U.S. for so long. Without this key segment of the alliance, it is very hard for Democrats to win statewide elections, and even when they do prevail, it is hard to formulate effective policies that will move the U.S. into the 21st century.
Swirling around everything is the issue of race. When race trumps economic issues, then the white working class ends up voting against its own financial well-being and we have the growing inequality we see today. The Affordable Care Act is a good example. There is almost an Archie Bunker Syndrome out there where Archie would reject a policy that benefits himself if he thinks it will also help George and Louise Jefferson, the black family that lives next door, or will aid the new Hispanic family that moved in down the block. It is sad to watch so many white workers ape the insurance company line by ripping into Obamacare, when the Affordable Care Act would actually benefit working people and bring the U.S. closer to world standards regarding universal health care coverage.
You can’t solve a problem before you identify it. Democrats have not won the majority of the white vote in a presidential election since 1964, a half-century ago. That year coincided with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, followed a year later by the Voting Rights Act. In came black voters and out went white working class voters. The Democrats will not be the governing party of 21st century America until they get the white working class back under the tent, and do so without losing the other elements necessary to forge a majority. Until then, the elections Democrats win will be by default when Republicans overreach or when the GOP nominates extreme, unelectable candidates. But these victories will be hollow because they don’t carry with them any mandate to implement policies.