Thursday, April 17, 2008

Jerry Bowyer: Pennsylvania Seriously Divided

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal:

Pennsylvania Divided
By Jerry Bowyer

As a Pennsylvania voter, I'm disheartened by the identity politics now playing out as both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama battle for votes among Democratic Party factions.
One in five supporters of Mrs. Clinton here say they won't vote for Mr. Obama should their candidate lose (and vice versa, according to pollster Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College). Only 12% of nonwhite Pennsylvania voters support Mrs. Clinton. Only 29% of white ones support Mr. Obama. Gender and age cohorts break along similarly sharp lines, with women and older voters going for Mrs. Clinton, men and young voters trending toward Mr. Obama.
As a student of political history, I see these poll results as something deeper than a passing nomination squabble. For at least 40 years, Democrats have been playing identity politics and empowering factional blocs within their party.

Though others might pick a different starting point, I'd trace the start of that process to 1968 Chicago, where antiwar protestors rioted outside of the party's national convention and party leaders inside responded by creating the McGovern-Fraser commission. That commission went on to write presidential nomination rules establishing delegate quotas based on age, race and gender. State parties followed suit by structuring caucuses to favor organized activist groups such as unions.

And so now Pennsylvania Democrats, like their brethren around the country, are splitting along race, age, gender and geographical lines as they are forced to choose between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama. But then, why shouldn't they? Democratic voters are just doing what they've been trained to do – thinking of themselves in group terms.

I find all of this disheartening because allowing the narrow interests of political factions to force decisions and policies onto the whole is something that James Madison warned us against. In a pro-Constitution editorial (which history has come to know as Federalist 9), he described in prescient terms precisely why political factions are dangerous.

When there is liberty, he argued, some men will create more wealth than others. Property and class factions are the result. Members of these different economic classes are tempted to pass laws which help themselves at the expense of the overall public good. Over time this excessive self-regard distorts the gift of reason and causes people to think and speak in ways that seem strange to the country at large.

If that sounds a little like the Democratic Party today, it may be because the party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison has come to be dominated by factions. In the Keystone State, those factions include African-Americans who dominate the inner-cities, upper-class white voters in the suburbs, working-class voters in the middle regions of the state, and Latinos, seniors and college students who are dispersed in geographic pockets. And of course, ubiquitous unions.

Voters head to the polls in Pennsylvania on April 22 in a process that is supposed to lead eventually to a Democratic presidential nominee. But in watching Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama traverse the state, it's hard to see how one candidate will emerge from the many Democratic factions slugging it out.

Mr. Obama is hoping to overcome Mrs. Clinton by energizing college students. And anecdotal evidence suggests that a surge of support among college-age voters may be helping him. Recent statewide polls show the race tightening. My mother, who is volunteering to help the Northampton County Department of Elections process new voter registrants, is watching the Obama surge first hand. Among the new registrants she sees, the vast majority are Democratic college students, most of whom, we can presume, will vote for Mr. Obama.

Mrs. Clinton is trying to turn out her own supporters, who include traditional working-class Democrats, middle-class suburbanites and, of course, women and seniors.

Last month, it appeared that Mr. Obama's campaign was to be split apart on the edge of growing fears among white Democrats over incendiary and, at times racially charged, comments his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, delivered from the pulpit over a 20-year period that Mr. Obama attended his church in Chicago. All the while, Mr. Obama hadn't raised an objection to Rev. Wright's sermons.

To save his campaign he showed up in Philadelphia – the city where Madison and the rest drew up the Constitution in 1787 – and gave what some called "The Speech" on race in America. In doing so, Mr. Obama likely saved his presidential campaign. And he did it, in part, drawing a line all the way back to "that group of men [who had] gathered" across the street in Constitutional Hall in 1787 to write one of the founding documents of the nation. In other words, by reaching beyond the factional politics of the Democratic Party.

Democrats might have once hoped that Pennsylvania would settle their nomination fight. Instead, it has shown how dangerous it is to put voters into factional blocs that can then be exploited along racial lines. To the extent that Democrats suffer this year for not learning that lesson earlier, well, to quote Mr. Obama's pastor (who himself was quoting Malcolm X): "the chickens have come home to roost."
Mr. Bowyer is chief economist of BenchMark Financial Network and a CNBC contributor.

Dear Pennsylvanians and others interested in Keystone State politics, please visit my blog focused on the state at: Occasionally, I'll cross post from this national blog to the PA one, but generally the columns there will be distinctive.

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