Ten days before Pat Robertson surprised almost everybody with his strong showing in the Iowa caucuses, I went to Grand Rapids for the Michigan Republican convention, to learn something about the "New People" Robertson has brought into American politics.
Twenty years ago I participated in this same Michigan process myself as a Democrat (elected as a precinct delegate by my own write-in vote, I was one of seven people out of 42,000 in Bloomfield Township entitled to choose between Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy in May 1968). So I have seen firsthand how the antiwar New People of another era -- bitterly opposed by the party regulars -- became the heart of their party, choosing its presidential candidates and dominating its ranks in Congress to this day. Will Robertson's New People have a similar lasting influence?
I found clues in the 8th Congressional District caucus, where Dr. William Koelsch, the 42-year-old, gray-haired chairman, was weathering one of many disputes that arose in Grand Rapids during that turbulent convention weekend. Koelsch is one of the New People. He has been in politics only three years; he is a veterinarian from the flat potato and dairy lands of Bay County who gives away half his income to his church and to help animals; he is running a hapless race against Democratic Rep. Bob Traxler, who won with 73 percent of the vote last time, and hopes to raise $100,000, far from enough for a serious campaign. He wants to be "a statesman, not a politician."
Party politics, by contrast, was the main concern of Michael Jordan, the 34-year-old, slightly balding, reddish-haired Saginaw County chairman, as he contended with Koelsch over the legitimacy of Robertson delegates at the convention. Jordan is a lawyer with Saginaw's largest law firm, and he was arguing to all who would listen that this conflict with the New People "is a debacle for the Republican Party for years to come." Jordan is like the community leaders, interested in a range of economic and foreign issues, who have led the Republicans for years; organizationally literate, in touch with every local elite, he is a natural leader. Koelsch, busy with his veterinary practice, committed to church and charity, is interested in ideas and moral codes.
So is Suellen Bartel, who was elected a national delegate by the rump convention held by Robertson supporters but who is not likely to be seated in New Orleans. Bartel has long blonde hair, an engaging smile and looks to be in her early 20s, though in fact she has children age 6 and 4 and is approaching "the big three oh." Her parents are Democrats. Two of her brothers work for the UAW, and "I was a Roman Catholic." Like so many of the New People, bused into the convention and faithfully following the lead of national Robertson operatives, she is genuinely, radiantly nice. She "home schools" her children, although she may put them in a local Lutheran school when they are 8 or 9. Home schooling is one of the pet causes of Michigan Robertson people, their version of the increased choices that magnet schools give families in some urban districts and that private schools give the well-placed affluent. Bartel's children were back home, but many of the New People were wheeling toddlers in strollers: the New People are mostly young (as were Robertson caucus-goers in Iowa) and seem almost entirely to be family people.
The Democrats' New People 20 years ago tended to be young too, but relatively few had children. They got into politics because, in an otherwise peaceful and prosperous country, they thought society was intruding on their lives -- by threatening to draft them or people they cared about and sending them into war or by putting a stigma on them if they avoided serving.
The Republicans' New People this year have gotten into politics, it seems to me, because they think society is intruding on their personal space -- that the dominant cultural tone threatens to undermine the discipline and moral principles that are at the center of their lives and, they hope, their children's. They cheer loudest for Robertson when he denounces abortion and calls for tax breaks for homemakers -- they are looking for validation for the tough decisions they have taken and the hard work they do every day of their lives. They do not want the values of Hollywood scriptwriters imposed on their children. They dislike the coarse innuendo that is part of even the best mass entertainment. They see the things they believe most deeply in -- their church, sexual restraint -- under attack or ridicule. They're in politics, as the New People 20 years ago were, to defend their personal space. They are doing this unnatural thing -- attending a state convention -- to protect their personal values against society's invasions.
Whether they will stay in politics after the Robertson candidacy founders is unclear. I'm sure most of them really believe he'll win; they are intelligent but ignorant about politics -- and about the attitudes of most of their fellow citizens. There is a kind of invisible shield between the New People, wheeling their strollers in from the buses to their caucuses, and the traditional Republicans; they're even less likely to speak to each other, to become personally acquainted and engaged, than the New People were with traditional Democrats 20 years ago. Robertson's New People live in the same precincts as other Americans -- they're scattered around more than you'd think -- but they attend different churches, watch different cable TV channels and see an America around them that's different from the one their neighbors see. The interesting question is whether they will get interested in politics and whether they and the traditional Republicans will pierce the invisible shield that keeps them apart now. The issues that animate them tend to be private and moral, not public like the issue of the Vietnam War, and so by themselves may not keep them in politics. But they are more intelligent and articulate than I had expected and more personally likable. They could become as organizationally literate as the New People of the 1960s.
Robertson hopes these people are the core constituency that will put him into the White House. My hope is that politics will help these New People and their neighbors to get to know each other better and to respect each other more, in a country where the traditional values they see under attack are becoming more and more appreciated.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.