Franke: The Political Changes of a Lifetime

February 2, 2022

by Mark Franke

My 70 years on this mortal coil have seen changes unimaginable, to be sure. Cell phones, self-driving cars, video conferencing, countless TV channels, etc. This was the stuff of the Jetsons cartoons. Even the robotic maid Rosey is no longer futuristic.

Yet I have nothing on my maternal grandmother, who was born in 1890 and lived to be 105. The technological changes she experienced were even more fundamental to everyday life. Imagine her childhood: no automobiles, no telephones, no central heating, no indoor plumbing. My great-grandfather’s farm still required a functioning outhouse during my adult life.

But it’s not technology I see as the seismic shift in my lifetime. It is the realignment of the political parties.

I was born during the Truman administration but my first recollection of a president was Ike. We didn’t have a television until late in the 1950’s but there were plenty of pictures of his grandfatherly image. It was an idyllic time, at least so far as my rose-colored glasses can see.

I didn’t understand it at the time but there was a disconnect between how my parents voted and how they spoke of political leaders. I come from German farmer stock, along with most of the early settlers in northeast Indiana. These blue-collar voters were stalwart Democrats. If a Republican was elected to an office in the rural townships, it was due to his family connections or personal reputation.

Democrat though he was, Dad never spoke of Eisenhower in other than respectful tones. Certainly the Fourth Commandment’s exhortation to honor our leaders played a part. It may have been that Ike led the invasion of Normandy in 1944, an invasion which Dad saw up close and personal. Or perhaps it was just a more congenial time.

Fast-forwarding to today, those Democrat townships now vote almost straight-ticket Republican. Why did they change?

I submit that they didn’t. The parties changed on them.

Allow me an anecdotal piece of evidence. In 1988 during the Bush-Dukakis presidential campaign, my siblings had all come back to Fort Wayne for a shared visit. One night the topic became the election. Our dad, never one to miss an opportunity to hold forth, recited his catechism of political beliefs. It was the Bush campaign platform. I asked Dad if he planned to vote Republican for the first time. Absolutely not, he declaimed. It was the Democrat Party which was for the “little man.”  My pointing out that, according to his ideology, it was now the Republicans who best represented the “little man” was to no avail.

That was 1988 but it presaged what now is obvious to everyone. The factory workers, farmers and other blue-collar families vote mostly Republican while the elites and wealthy are Democrats.

Two further vignettes from my life serve to illustrate this shift. I used to split my ticket, voting Democrat at the local level while casting every presidential ballot for the Republican candidate. I was actually a Democrat precinct committeeman in my early 20s. While I was quite conservative intellectually, I couldn’t easily abandon generations of political loyalty.

In college I was a member of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a student group which attracted social conservatives and free-market classical liberals and libertarians under a big tent. I nominated Democrat Sen. Henry Jackson for president at the 1972 national YAF convention to a lot of cheers. It was obvious to me that he had the strongest national defense policy of any national figure. Ronald Reagan agreed, appointing many of Jackson’s aides to key Pentagon and State Department positions in 1981.

But that was then, when the classification “cold war liberal” described a lot of Democrats. What happened?  The Vietnam War played its role in the leftward shift of the Democrat party but there was more to it than that. Going through college in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I should have been more aware of the seductive allure of Marcuse, Alinsky and Nietzsche for so many young radicals.

Again, what we have now is a total flip-flop of the two parties in terms of the economic class of voters each attracts. The country-club set is hardly Republican anymore, or at least not willing to admit it publicly. Their big money goes to the Democrats now as studies of campaign contributions have shown.

And blue-collar workers shifted the other direction. Hilary Clinton’s description of these erstwhile Democrats as a “basket of deplorables” says it all. So does Barack Obama’s characterization of these same people as “clinging to guns and religion.”  Condescension is no way to win votes.

Meanwhile, our self-designated betters have their Hollywood and Manhattan parties to raise millions for favored progressive candidates while we hoi polloi here in flyover country keep voting Republican, confounding the media pundits. And what fun that is.

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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