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The Great Trade-Off

By Frank Gruber

November 29, 2010 -- I’m in Pittsburgh writing this the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I’m here to spend the holidays with my wife’s family. On Friday I drove 120 miles west, to Akron, Ohio, to visit some Gruber relatives -- my father grew up in Akron, and we still have family there.

During the two-hour drive from the former steel capital of the world to the former rubber capital I did some thinking -- naturally about politics. Just a few weeks ago “my” Democratic Party sustained humbling losses, largely because of a turnabout in America’s old industrial heart. (Since the race between Robert Holbrook and Ted Winterer for a seat on the Santa Monica City Council is still undecided, I can postpone thinking about the local election for another week.)

The Democrats’ “shellacking” was on my mind, but if my drive was through the epicenter of the Democrats’ debacle, it sure looked pretty. On a clear, more than crisp fall day those hills that lead down from the Appalachians towards the great Midwestern plain, punctuated with barns and silos, can give any landscape in the world a run for the money.

The last three elections for Congress have been like bungee-jumping -- the Democrats took over in 2006, expanded their advantage in 2008, and then lost disastrously in the House and badly in the Senate this year. The Republicans claim a mandate, although oddly enough they never conceded mandates to the Democrats after 2006 and 2008.

It’s best to take a long view. The election is another ramification of the “Great Trade-Off.”

I was 16 in 1968 when I watched the Democratic Party begin its self-immolation in Chicago. For the 36 years prior to 1969, when Nixon took power, there had been only two years when the Democrats did not control either the White House or the Congress. In the 42 years since 1969, there have only been eight years when the Democrats have controlled both at the same time. While the Republicans rarely controlled both branches of government, at many times Republicans were able to make common cause with conservative Democrats to pass legislation.

Yet during this time when the Democrats rarely had power in Washington, the Left has made gains that from the perspective of the height of Democratic power would have been unimaginable. The gains, however, have been all social and cultural, starting with civil and voting rights for African-Americans, but moving on to include women’s rights, reform of family law, expansion of reproductive rights from contraception to abortion, gay rights, expansion of freedom of speech, more legal protections for criminal suspects, more open immigration laws, etc.

These changes have not only been instituted in laws, but also in the society itself. While the changes have always provoked fears and opposition at first, if given time to think about it, most Americans appreciate what’s fair and are ultimately agreeable to letting individuals do their thing. Current polling, for instance, shows that 75 percent of Americans want to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Because the Left is constantly moving the goal lines toward the horizon, and reacting in horror to the latest pushback from the Right, leftists rarely pause to realize (or enjoy) the extent of their victory in the culture wars. That victory has been overwhelming; consider that Sarah Palin’s views about the legal status of gay couples (civil unions are okay) are the same as Barney Frank’s were ten years ago.

There was, however, a price for victory. The constant agitation against existing mores and the association of expanded freedoms with chaos and vulgarity, along with real and lingering racial and ethnic prejudices and fears, a residual feeling after Vietnam that the Left was not patriotic, and annoyance at being “told to,” drove many white Democratic voters to the right. This started in the ’60s in the south over race, but accelerated in the ’70s over cultural issues and really picked up speed in the ’80s with the appeal of Ronald Reagan (viz., the “Reagan Democrats”).

As a result, the Right took control of government and that meant control of the economy. The Republican Big Business Party has run the economy for 40 years, and the results were predictable: a vast shifting of the nation’s wealth toward the wealthy, and ultimately a big crash as unregulated financial markets led to bubble piling on bubble.

If not for broad-based entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, all the gains from the decades of Democratic rule would have been lost, and even those programs were in danger when Republicans controlled both the White House and the Congress earlier this decade.

The distrust that so many middle and working class whites have towards the Democrats is so intense that even in the current context of the Bush recession Democrats have been unable to persuade these voters that they have better ideas about fixing the economy than Republicans do. It’s incredible, but because of social and cultural issues, southern and western populists and Midwestern workers, formerly the two bases of the New Deal coalition, have become foot soldiers for the plutocracy.

Some on the left say this is because the Democrats do not have a message that is radical enough. It is true that many of the Democrats who lost Nov. 2 were “Blue-Dogs” running in swing districts, but left-wing stalwarts like Russ Feingold lost, too, when they had to run in districts or states with few minority voters.

So where is this column going? I am a liberal who wants individual rights to continue to be expanded, but I wonder how this can continue if the price is economic disaster, and I wonder how it will continue if the Democrats can’t hold onto the presidency long enough to prevent a Republican from picking the replacement for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Telling leftists to stop pushing the cultural edge is like telling a dog not to chase a cat, but it’s worth restating that the social changes we have seen over the past 50 years would have been unimaginable at the height of Democratic power.

Back then, the Left was identified -- and identified itself -- nearly entirely with economic justice for workers and financial security for farmers, the elderly, and the poor. This doesn’t mean that there weren’t leftists who didn’t envision and agitate for racial justice, or for women’s rights, or for more sexual freedom, but those issues were peripheral to economic issues.

And it’s hard to recall it now, but then it was Democrats who spoke for a more robust and interventionist foreign policy, including a strong military. The isolationists were right-wingers. There was the “Truman Doctrine” and the “Marshall Plan.”

I don’t know how the Democratic Party might, or if it should, return itself to values of the ’30s and ’40s, but it must do something. Republicans cannot be relied upon to be as unpopular as George W. Bush was after Hurricane Katrina and the War in Iraq.

Leftists need to recognize that their problems with voters have not been caused by Fox News, nor by the money right-wing billionaires spend on elections, but are in fact a predictable product of the Left’s successes on the social and cultural front. (Lyndon Johnson knew what the result would be when he signed the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, but to his credit he got those laws passed.)

Change is frightening. Perhaps if leftists acknowledge that, they can create strategies that achieve change but in a way that embraces rather than alienates.

Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on

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