Franke: Not Your Grandfather’s Party

December 10, 2019

by Mark Franke

A recent column in the Washington Examiner magazine focused on a congressional candidate in Michigan running as a conservative Republican in a Republican district. No big news there except for the fact that the candidate comes from a low income, Latino, union family.

This is Michael J. Fox and “Family Ties” in real life.

It’s not supposed to work like this, is it? The young are supposed to be more liberal than their parents, not more conservative. Conventional wisdom says Shane Hernandez in Michigan has to be an outlier on the political scene.

Maybe not. This same phenomenon can be observed here in my corner of Indiana. There was a time not so long ago when the rural townships of Allen County and several other counties were heavily Democrat. They were settled mainly by German immigrant farmers, the population not as mobile as sons took over farms from their fathers and stayed put. Non-farmers were nearly all blue collar skilled and unskilled factory workers. These were the demographics that consistently voted Democrat from the days of the New Deal.

Then something changed. Farms consolidated, large factories closed and some out-migration began to occur in part due to first-generation college students. Even so, the basic make-up of the residents was mostly unchanged. But their politics were shifting demonstrably.

Perhaps it was the Reagan revolution. Recall that his election mystified the Beltway pundits by attracting young voters and blue collar workers in inexplicable numbers. Reagan’s charisma aside, something else was going on as these solidly blue townships became more and more red.

I won’t presume to extrapolate my observations over the entire nation or even Indiana. All I know is that the Democrats win precious few local offices in my corner of the state. Even though northeastern Indiana voted consistently for the Republican presidential candidate, with only Harry Truman in 1948 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964 polling Democrat pluralities, this didn’t necessarily bleed over to local elections. Post-World War II election results show many Democrat winners and aggressively contested elections. Compare this to 2018 when all 12 county commissioner races in northeast Indiana were won by Republicans, nine without a Democrat opponent.

We haven’t changed; the party platforms (and rhetoric) have.

Allow me to recount a conversation that happened in my own family. To state my bona fides, I grew up in a blue-collar Democratic household with farming ancestors going up several genealogical lines. Yet, three of four siblings, all college educated, are now conservatives who vote Republican.

My father gave me some insight into what happened one night in 1988. We were all together and the topic became the presidential election between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. Dad sermonized on what he believed. When he was finished, I asked if he was going to vote Republican for the first time in his life. I told him that he had essentially recited the Republican platform.

He was offended. He planned to vote for Dukakis the Democrat because the Democrats were for the “little man.” It was an exercise in futility to explain that the governmental policies he favored to help the little man were what the Republicans were promising. No matter; he still thought of the New Deal Democrats he remembered from growing up during the Depression.

A friend of like age has a similar anecdote about one of his elderly family members. She told him how much she liked the 1968 Democratic nominee’s convention speech. The problem was she had listened to George Wallace not George McGovern. My friend had no better luck explaining this disconnect to his aunt than I did with my father.

My friend’s aunt and my Dad hadn’t changed. Their political party had. A sharp leftward turn left many of the party’s generational voters in the dust. They liked what Ronald Reagan said and did while becoming worried if not frightened of what the Democrats were saying.

My Dad and others of his generation just hadn’t realized this yet. I can’t imagine the cognitive dissonance he would be suffering today if he were still alive and watching the Democrat presidential debates.

Being described as “a basket of deplorables” only interested “in our guns and our religion” doesn’t meet the How to Win Friends and Influence People test among my relatives and neighbors, blue- or white-collar ones. It certainly does explain why we vote the way we do, irrespective of how our grandparents voted.

Moderate Democrats no longer have any incentive to run for local office here. The same probably can be said for any kind of Republican in most large metro areas. As we devolve into two entirely separate, one-party nations, our republic sadly continues to weaken. But that is a topic for another day.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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