I never understood just what the problem was between the liberals who control the Democratic party and John Edwards and his populist message. Why was he not their ideal candidate?
Michael Brendan Dougherty offers his take on what went wrong with the Edwards candidacy in "Progressively Irrelevant" (The American Conservative, 2/11/08). He tells of dead coalitions that cannot be revived and of an altered social and political world. "The problem for Edwards was that progressives and only progressives embraced him," writes Dougherty.
In 2004, when Edwards first ran for the presidential nomination, he won the South Carolina primary. He got half the white vote and over a third of the black vote. But this time around, in South Carolina, he won only 2% of the black vote and did not do well among the working whites who earn under $30,000, a major target of his campaign. Edwards' populist appeal failed spectacularly, claims Dougherty, because "the Democratic coalition he sought to capture has changed dramatically from the time of the New Deal and cannot be reconstituted."
That liberal alliance, which once consisted of rural whites, trade unionists, European immigrants, and recently enfranchised blacks, no longer exists. Dougherty explains: "Today, where the party is white, it is less working class. Where it is working class, it is less organized and more divided into competing racial categories. Where it is unionized, it is not private-sector and is thus less insecure about its economic future."
It's been obvious for some time that it's a new day in the story of unions and organized labor. In 1960, 37% of private-sector workers were unionized, but by 2003, this figure had dropped to just over 8%. Dougherty reports that public-sector unions now make up half of organized labor. These people are teachers, policemen, firemen, and government bureaucrats, who have guaranteed pensions and other perks. "Whereas the old power of organized labor appealed to an American sense of fairness in sharing wealth, the new public-sector dominated unions seek only to expand their benefits and insulate themselves from private competition."
Not to be overlooked is the decline in Democratic allegiance among white men, a pattern that has been going on since the days of John F. Kennedy. In 2004, only 36% of this demographic voted for John Kerry. Dougherty observes: "As Thomas Edsall has pointed out, since 1960, the Democratic share of voters employed in the professions 'has doubled from 18% to 35%, whereas the share of the Democratic vote made up of lower-income skilled and non-skilled workers has dropped from 50% to 35%.'"
And then there are those "values" voters, who don't easily fit into economic categories. These are liberals who are committed to particular social ideals and a host of beliefs and behaviors that are the result of the sexual revolution. Dougherty suggests that Edwards lost out among this group, because he demonstrated reticence about such issues as gay rights, which "makes him an oddity in elite Democratic circles."
Without the old alliances and coalitions to help him, "Edwards found out the hard way that the past is useless to a Democratic nominee." Both political parties have been transformed by what Dougherty calls "the long re-alignment of the South and the Northeast and the migration of the working class to the GOP." Describing Edwards' campaign as "funereal," Dougherty writes, "His defeat in the primaries signals the end of a long-held progressive hope: that the social and racial politics that began tearing apart the FDR coalition could be overcome and a left-liberal majority could again be built out of the white working class, together with blacks, immigrants, and women."
Ancient allegiances have faded away, along with formerly durable political bonds and, as the country's demographics continue to change, there is no chance that old alliances will ever again be reinvigorated. John Edwards and his supporters either could not recognize or could not accept the evidence that an era has come to an end.