Jeff Bloodworth is a Professor of History and Co-Director at the School of Public Service & Global Affairs at Gannon University.
Democrats are justifiably nervous about the 2020 election. A strong economy and stubbornly loyal Republican base render an otherwise vulnerable incumbent into a perilous opponent. A brawling counter-puncher, Donald Trump’s political spirit animal might very well be the wily and oddly vicious raccoon. When cornered raccoons attack their predator’s eyes. Once their prey is blinded, they penetrate the chest wall, collapse the lungs, and infiltrate the abdomen cavity. Septic peritonitis and massive organ failure ensue, followed by death. Politically trapped on infinite occasions, Trump has veritably raccooned our institutions, norms, and the body politic. Our national septic shock proves the adage of The Wire’s Omar Little, “[When] you come at the King, you best not miss.”
America simply cannot afford a second Trump term. Democrats, however, get one shot at nominating a candidate capable of assembling a coalition and driving turnout sufficient to defeat the president and drive a nail into the Trumpist coffin. Happily, a spate of polls reveal that Democratic primary voters prize electability more than issue agreement. Pragmatic and hungry to defeat Trump, Democrats should understand “electability” in its fullest historical sense. The preceding century of Democratic presidential politicking reveals that “electability” is not milquetoast, split the difference centrism. Historically, Democrats win when they adhere to a grand unifying theory (GUT). According to this principle, Democrats win when they nominate a political cipher and a cultural chameleon who possesses a preternatural charisma that can appeal to and energize a diverse set of voters.
The political party of the underdog and ethnic, racial, and social minorities has always lacked the cultural cohesion that the Republican’s possess. Consequently, successful Democratic nominees have been ideologically vague, comfortable in a variety of cultural settings, and exceptionally charismatic. In the first three quarters of the twentieth century, the party’s primary fault line lay between its rural, white Protestant and ethnically diverse urban wings. Unable to close that divide, rural America’s champion, William Jennings Bryan, lost three presidential races, 1896, 1900, & 1908. Poised for a fourth bite at the apple in 1912, party bosses intervened and accidentally discovered a template for the future in Woodrow Wilson.
A mere two years into the first political office of his entire life, Wilson entered the presidential fray. Previous to this, both parties had almost always tapped party elders or retired generals as their presidential nominee. Possessing neither, Wilson did enjoy the unique biography and blank slate necessary to unify a fractious party. Virginia-born, he was Southern and agrarian enough to satisfy rural voters. His stint as governor of New Jersey meant he was not a typical Solid South politico. Finally, his newfound Progressivism put him in accord with the educated middle class and erstwhile populists. A master political orator, Wilson’s charisma helped bind a diverse coalition to him. A political Rorschach test, rural and urban Democrats, Progressives, and old-time Populists saw what they wanted in Wilson. Facing a divided GOP in a fractured four-way race, Wilson took 435 out of 531 electoral votes in a landslide victory.
A generation hence, Wilson’s precarious coalition had come apart. In three consecutive presidential races, 1920-1928, Democrats had earned more than forty-percent of the vote just once. Convalescing from polio, Franklin Roosevelt had avoided the foul taint and culture wars of the Democrat’s wilderness years. A compromise candidate, Roosevelt’s rural, upstate New York background, and adopted Warms Springs, Georgia home made him palatable to Southerners and rural voters. Likewise, his Northern upbringing and Progressive leadership in New York rendered him acceptable to urban Democrats. Campaigning on an ill-defined New Deal platform, FDR avoided unnecessary offense to party constituencies and took White House in 1932. His uncanny charm and gift for building an intimate connection with voters via his radio Fireside Chats resulted in the New Deal coalition. Comprised of white Southerners, farmers, the urban North, African Americans, and liberal intellectuals, the coalition endured for half a century; the GUT, nevertheless, remained necessary to maintain this ungainly assemblage.
In the decades following FDR, Harry Truman and LBJ were the sole exemptions to the GUT. In these cases, the exceptions prove the rule. Assuming the presidency upon the deaths of FDR and JFK, Truman and Johnson each won election in their own right. Rural Democrats who lacked public charisma and saddled with long records on national issues, the duo earned the ire of pieces and parts of the coalition’s diverse constituencies. Their unpopularity caused both to refuse a run for a second full-term and the election of GOP successors.
The Truman & Johnson example reveal just how much postwar Democrats struggled to keep their diverse coalition together. Understanding this, party leaders looked to the 1960 election with concern. With LBJ too Southern, Hubert Humphrey too liberal, Adlai Stevenson too much the loser and all saddled with long records, Democrats searched for a political Goldilocks. Equipped with an ambiguous ideology, few legislative accomplishments, and charisma to burn, JFK fit the cipher (and GUT) bill. Sixteen years later, the social issues of race, crime, and the culture wars had split the party yet again. It was left to a Bob Dylan-quoting, Sunday School-teaching, nuclear-engineer-cum-peanut-farmer to bridge these divides. With feet, big toes, and a pinky in every nook and cranny of the Roosevelt coalition, the obscure one-term governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, would be the final Democrat to bring New York and Mississippi into the same column.
With the Roosevelt coalition undone, Democrats were left with the so-called McGovern coalition. A multiracial, multiethnic, cross-class assemblage of African Americans, Latinos, women, college students, professionals, and economically populist working-class whites, this assemblage of misfit toys presented familiar challenges. A product of the rural South and the Ivy League, Bill Clinton’s gubernatorial service helped him avoid the sticky wicket of controversial national issues. Whip smart, elite educated, and charismatic his wonky explications on policy, done in a Southern drawl, and moderate stance on social issues enabled him to speak to a multiplicity of audiences.
Like Clinton, Barack Obama also inhabited and felt at home in a variety of cultural worlds. The product of a Kansas-born mother and Kenyan father who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, he instinctively knew how to speak to diverse audiences. Moreover, his thin national resume meant he avoided the political crevasses that crisscross his party. Equipped with charm and electrifying rhetorical gifts, Obama literally embodies the GUT. Indeed, the GUT is the lone connecting thread that connects a white supremacist, Woodrow Wilson, to Barack Obama, and most every Democratic president of the twentieth century. As the GUT reveals “electability” lies not so much in centrist policy as it does in coalescing and energizing a diverse, majority coalition.
To be sure, successful Democratic nominees have proffered mainstream, center-left policy proposals. Maximalist policy proposals and ideological rigidity do not unite diverse coalitions. But a Democratic GUT-check reveals that “electability” is not simply a checklist of centrist policy proposals. For those searching for the most viable Democratic challenger, history shows that the candidate with a thin national resume, charisma, and an aptitude for navigating a variety of cultural contexts possesses the resume for victory.