It’s no secret that both major American political parties have become substantially more extreme than they were 20 years ago. The media won’t let us forget that the Republicans have – they blast it on every horn. But often overlooked is how much the Democratic party has also shifted leftward. Some people I’ve discussed it with refuse even to see it. But the proof is in the political extinction of Blue Dog Democrats.
The term Blue Dog was always just a bit nebulous, as any coalition tends to be. The term itself comes from the Blue Dog Coalition, formed in 1994 as a response to the Republican Contract With America. But the coalition of voters that they represented goes back much further than that – and those voters haven’t gone away.
Voters who fit the “Blue Dog” profile tend to be, roughly:
- Fiscally conservative. They believe government shouldn’t spend money it doesn’t have.
- Pro union.
- In favor of trade protectionism.
- Moderately liberal on social issues. They’re definitely in favor of fair treatment, but their support for affirmative action or similar programs would generally be weak. Anything as extreme as reparations would be straight out.
- Ranged from mildly pro-choice to mildly pro-life, but in either case not a single issue voter on the topic. Perhaps best summed up by Bill Clinton’s line, “safe, legal and rare” – but these voters would probably put the emphasis on rare.
- Strong on national defense.
- Pro second amendment.
- Religious – specifically Christian – but not in your face about it
In a word, they’re basically center-left. Very center, mildly left. Any individual Blue Dog voter might miss one or two of these specific issues, but the coalition as a whole would look like that. These voters had a very strong tendency to vote Democrat – but for a very certain kind of “conservative” Democrat.
The Democratic Party under Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama has systematically purged these conservative Democrats. It began in the final years of the Bush Administration. If I had to pick a date, I’d say that the purge began with the primary challenge to the left that Joe Lieberman faced in 2006.
Moving forward from this point, the Democratic Party shifted on several issues in ways that alienated the voters who supported this ideal. The party stopped paying even lip service to fiscal responsibility. The party lost all interest in trade protectionism, adopting the Republican Party’s free trade stance. Pro-choice and gun control became litmus tests. And social issues went strong leftward. Whereas a Blue Dog would generally favor gay rights – including benefits and hiring – most would generally not favor gay marriage, or at best would be wishy-washy on it. Much of this shift came from the far left voter base pushing at the primary level, in the same general way that the Tea Party did for Republicans.
But simultaneously, the party engaged in purges at the top levels. Much of this came from President Obama himself, who throughout his term has appointed very few southerners to high positions. Southern voters were already leaving the Democratic party. But at this point, southern politicians began leaving it, too. And why shouldn’t they? The party wasn’t helping them.
In my own district, Congressman Bud Cramer – a founder of the Blue Dog Coalition – retired in 2009. Now, the man really was at a good retirement age. As my dad put it, he probably really did want to spend some time with his grandchildren. But given the voters in this area, he could have had that seat to this day if he’d wanted it. He was extremely popular locally. His seat was filled by his chosen successor, Democrat Parker Griffith. Before the year was out, Griffith switched parties. This story played out all over the south at about the same time.
The problem for these voters is that the Republican Party of today doesn’t really represent them, either. They’re not extreme pro-choice, but neither are they extreme pro-life. They’re still protectionist, and they still favor unions. The GOP isn’t exactly fiscally conservative these days, either – and all Republican voters are aware of it. And their simply more liberal than the GOP as a whole on race and other social issues. But today they’re nominally GOP voters or GOP-leaning “independents.”
Donald Trump has absolutely dominated with these voters, and no small part of it is because his politics actually represents them better than anyone else’s does. Build a wall? These guys are OK with that. Start a trade war with China? These guys are on board. Keep the unions strong? Good deal. Pro choice but not likely to shut down the government over it? They like it. Strongly pro second amendment? Nice!
Trump’s support stems from well outside this group, for sure. They’re not numerous enough to win him the Presidency on their own. But his absolute domination within it forms the solid core of his support.