Why the Democrats Face Defeat

In 1992 and Beyond

By Peter Brown

Regnery Gateway. 350 pp. $21.95

MINORITY PARTY is a maddening book, disingenuous and terrifically insightful, intellectually sloppy and politically acute. Peter Brown, the chief political writer for the Scripps-Howard News Service, insists that he intends "not to harm the {Democratic} party, but to help it." And, he says, "Think of me as a physician examining a patient and giving his professional opinion." But Brown's publisher has conservative leanings, and the GOP could only gain by air-dropping a few million copies of this book on middle America and the Sunbelt. If this is a "tough diagnosis" of what ails the Democrats, it's one by suicide-doctor Jack Kevorkian.

If Brown truly wants his Democratic patient to survive, presumably to compete with Republicans, where's his vision of a party that's distinguishable from the GOP? He tells us it's time the donkey followed the elephant. But why? Give voters a choice between a Republican and a Republican, warned Harry Truman, and they'll choose a Republican every time.

Without question, middle-class voters are disgusted with Democrats, who are mired in some of the country's deepest problems and handling them badly; Republicans help voters simplify and focus their resentments and thus feel better about themselves and America. But for how long, and with what consequences? Brown doesn't say. Still, his forecast of Democratic doom is utterly convincing, because electoral politics is not about solving problems but about shaping voters' perceptions.

And Brown revels in them. He tells us that voters think Republicans sincerely champion freedom from government, entrepreneurship, the sanctity of the family and a strong foreign policy. Democrats are hung up on blacks; on taxing wealth instead of creating it; on blacks; on cultural elitism; on blacks; on the evil of American power abroad; and on blacks. In case you haven't gotten the message, there's a chapter entitled, "Jesse Jackson Scares the Middle Class," plus five others on race.

It's the mixture of stark truth and snake oil that's so maddening here. Brown isn't wrong about the costs of race-based remedies for past injustice. Many voters -- including many Hispanics and Asians -- now believe very deeply that such measures corrupt rather than advance justice. And they're right, at least sometimes. Race norming in college admissions is destructive for blacks and everyone else. Economic entitlements need to be coupled to social obligations. Brown doesn't develop or refine these important arguments; he merely recites them and introduces us to fair-minded white working people like Louise Renaud, a dedicated teacher whose black welfare students in Detroit wore designer jeans while she scrimped to pay taxes and buy her family's clothes at K-Mart. Renaud's defection to suburban Macomb County and the GOP signals that Democrats have lost touch with America.

But Brown doesn't care whether Renaud is sometimes fearful and angry partly for reasons having nothing to do with government programs for blacks. Hey, he tells us, this is what middle America believes. Republicans win, he informs us, because they've learned how to tell the electorate what it wants to hear, not because they're principled: While Renaud is busy elsewhere, George Bush is perfectly willing to use the Democrats' race-based Voting Rights Act -- which elevates group rights over individual responsibilities -- to increase the number of lily-white, GOP-prone districts by gerrymandering minorities into "their own" districts in the name of black and Hispanic "empowerment." And Brown is perfectly willing to applaud him for it. Whatever is all right with Renaud is all right with Brown.

Like his analysis of race, his accounting of voters' middle-class (read: GOP) convictions shamelessly confuses aspirations with apprehensions. Brown's Renaud defects from turbulent, Democratic Detroit into a suburban idyll so flat, so static it strains credulity in these days of soaring divorce rates and rock concert violence.. Citing Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg's data on Renaud's prototypically white, working-class Macomb County, Brown tells us that most voters today reject the Democrats' redistributionist, tax-the-rich politics because, as new members of the upwardly mobile, entrepreneurial middle class, they identify more with the rich than with the poor. In the next breath, he says that these sturdy optimists are mortgage-poor and terrified of losing ground; they see spending on blacks as a threat to their security.

Brown acknowledges that spending on blacks is so tiny a part of public budgets that it can't explain Renaud's fiscal burdens. Indeed, he tells us that voters like her think that "government should do as much as it could for the largest number of people -- i.e., the middle class." How government can do that without taxing both the rich and the middle class is unclear, but Brown shuts down the discussion: The GOP is winning, he concludes, because it best voices Renaud's concerns. On to the next vignette.

How long can this go on? People do vote their aspirations, but when life on the ground diverges from those dreams, they face a choice. They can begin voting their fears, or -- as pollster Greenberg writes in the current American Prospect, rebutting Brown's interpretations of his work -- voters can begin searching for newer, more credible messages of hope. Republican race-blaming and flag-waving may work for a while, but at some point, the GOP will have to show Renaud it can serve her interests without polarizing the country. Or else it will have to start probing for some real perversity in her to play on.

In fact, Greenberg claims, voters resent big business and fat cats as much as they resent blacks; ex-Democrats who've been pulling the Republican lever keep looking back at the other column, hoping the party will come to its senses. Whenever it does, they jump: Brown is terribly dishonest to cite Macomb County as often as he does in this book without once mentioning David Bonior, its liberal Democratic congressman, whom voters like Renaud keep reelecting.

In the end, Brown is half right: White working people forsake the Democrats out of a deep and justified sense of betrayal. What he overlooks, though it's right there in his own vignettes, is that the hurt they express betokens a yearning the GOP has yet to prove it can satisfy. Ultimately, middle America's battle isn't one of whites against blacks, or of beer and pizza against wine and quiche, as Brown gleefully and repeatedly insists at Beltway Democrats' obvious expense. It is between the subtle constriction and decomposition of white working-class suburban life and some broader, more compelling vision of a decent society.

This clever book strokes Macomb County's residents, but because it doesn't credit them with a yearning for anything more than cocooning, it betrays them and the Democratic Party Brown claims to want to cure. Jim Sleeper is an editorial writer for New York Newsday and the author of "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York."