There’s a specter haunting the presidential horse race, the specter of Ron Paul. With his barrage of attacks on social services and the Occupy movement as “people scared to death they won’t get their handouts,” it is surprising that Paul garners more support from so-called progressives than in his own party.
For an astute observer of “Nixonland” (Rick Perlstein’s name for our post-1970s political climate), however, it shouldn’t be – and the reasons why go way back to the 1970s. Simply put, the Democratic Party of 2011 is a radically different organization than the same party that nominated Hubert Humphrey for President in 1968. Whereas the Democrats that met in Chicago to nominate Humphrey were a working class party of organized labor, the Democrats that met in Denver three years ago to nominate Barack Obama can hardly be described in the same terms. The broad-based, mass party of the New Deal shrank to a shell of its former self by 2008 into little more than a coalition of upper middle class professionals, identity politics and single issue groups and the very poor. Herein lies Paul’s appeal among the Democrats of 2008 – the non-material issues that he emphasizes (his outspoken opposition to the War in Afghanistan or the War on Drugs) are right up the alley of the upper middle class professionals that form the bulk of the new Democratic Party.
In another time, those voters would have been “Rockefeller Republicans,” fiscally conservative but socially concerned Republicans that included President Dwight Eisenhower and their namesake, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. While a dying breed among Republicans, Nixonland’s political climate has given them an entire party to themselves thanks to the reorientation of our politics around the non-material, social issues they concern themselves with that arose in the 1970s. Ron Paul doesn’t exactly fit the bill (he’s closer to the isolationist, anti-war conservative Sen. Bob Taft), but he can win these votes owing to his emphasis of the non-material issues these voters are concerned with. The birth of Nixonland cuts both ways, too; we’ve all heard of the “Reagan Democrats” who helped put the most anti-labor administration in our history in office because they saw the Democrats of the 1970s as not the heirs of Franklin Roosevelt, but the heirs of George McGovern.
There is something very, very wrong about Nixonland. The fact that our politics have become defined by whether or not a candidate is in favor of abortion rights or affirmative action is simply stunning when we have an 8.6% unemployment rate and no one seems to be offering any solutions. That is not to say that we should not concerned be with the effect of social policy in these areas – but it is to say that at the end of the day, bread and butter issues take priority when it comes to making public policy. Just as one would be hard pressed to articulate a vision of conservatism that does not represent the class interests of the very wealthy, it should be equally hard for someone to articulate a vision of liberalism that ignores the class interests of America’s working class majority.
Ron Paul’s support of a national “right-to-work” law (something that he devotes an entire section to on his website, for what it’s worth) should immediately disqualify him in the hearts and minds of Democrats, however unhappy they might be with the Obama administration – the fact that for many it does not should throw up a red flag. In an age of unparalleled right-wing assault on the working class, Democrats must find their voice to advocate on behalf of the working class once again – before it’s too late.