The Democratic Party will return next Tuesday night to the place where, 40 years ago, its last governing coalition ingloriously died — in all likelihood, to proclaim its rebirth.
Barack Obama's presidential campaign has announced that it will hold its election night celebration (or, in the unlikely event that he loses, its stunned wake) in Chicago's Grant Park. It's a sensible venue, since a huge crowd is anticipated. But the choice of Grant Park is also historically — even poetically — resonant. For it was in Grant Park on a hot summer night during the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention that the New Deal era in American politics was dispatched to oblivion through the efforts of antiwar demonstrators and the Chicago police, whose conduct that evening a subsequent report termed "a police riot."
Four factors came together that year to blow the Democrats' governing coalition to smithereens. Great Society programs targeted at minority communities and the poor began to cost the party the support of working- and middle-class whites. Lyndon Johnson's civil rights legislation pushed the white South toward, and eventually into, the Republican Party. The war in Vietnam arrayed the party's antiwar legions against its Cold Warriors, a conflict that was to live on for the next couple of decades. And the rise of libertarian youth culture estranged the Democrats' more culturally traditional supporters.
In short, the New Deal coalition that had governed since 1933 was already falling apart, but the conflicts became explosive and irreconcilable at that convention. Speaking from the convention's podium, Connecticut Democratic Sen. Abe Ribicoff, referring to police violence earlier that night, accused Democratic Mayor Richard Daley's police force of employing "Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago."
Richard Nixon's strategists moved quickly to exploit the Democrats' implosion. The young Kevin Phillips argued for a "Southern strategy" whereby the GOP could win the allegiance of previously Democratic whites by stressing culturally traditionalist and militaristic themes. Indeed, since the ascent of Newt Gingrich to the House speakership in 1995, and reinforced by George W. Bush's election eight years ago, the Republicans have been — by virtue of their embrace of antigovernment, hawkish and culturally parochial perspectives — a predominantly Southern party.
Today, however, the Nixon-Reagan governing coalition is itself imploding. In part, this reflects demographics as the nation and the electorate grow steadily less white. In part, it reflects the de-Southernization of the South. Barack Obama is clearly going to win Virginia, and the odds are no worse than even that he will win Florida and North Carolina as well. These three states have experienced an influx of Northerners and a growth of urban populations while their rural populations have stagnated or shrunk. The factors that made the South Southern are weakening. In part, the GOP's decline is due to the Bush administration's penchant for headlong, unilateral military adventures. But fundamentally, the coming Republican calamity is a consequence of public anger at the economy that predominantly Republican perspectives and policies have shaped over the past four decades, in which the vast majority of Americans no longer share in the prosperity of good times and get clobbered when the economy turns bad.
Absent a governing New Deal coalition, the mixed economy the New Deal made, where unions balanced corporations and the government provided a safety net, has substantially eroded. Now, re-enter, stage center-left, the Democrats.
Barack Obama was 7 when his political party-to-be blew apart in the streets of Chicago. He had no role in its internecine wars. But he clearly understands, as the Nixonians of '68 understood, how to assemble a new coalition on the ashes of the old.
The primary goal of Obama's new-model Democrats is to implement a 21st-century version of Franklin Roosevelt's reforms. Obama aims to regulate a financial system whose excesses have dragged down the economy, to reknit a tattered safety net by greatly expanding access to health insurance, and to provide public investment at a time when private investment is lagging by jump-starting an alternative energy industry — which could make the nation more globally competitive and reduce its gargantuan carbon footprint. None of these priorities divides the Democrats, or the nation, along the regional or racial lines that proved so divisive in the '60s. Like Roosevelt's policies, they are universal in scope. And Obama's coalition, by virtue of its multiracial character — and leader — is more universalistic than FDR's ever was.
Should he win, Obama will proclaim the birth of this new era on the very ground that Roosevelt's coalition split apart. The symbolism is worthy of an epic poet. After 40 years in the desert, the Democrats will have come home.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of American Prospect and the L.A. Weekly.