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The Frivolous Democrats

A Commentary By Michael Barone

White college graduates have emerged from the last two decades of elections as an increasingly large and cohesive political bloc -- and one that poses problems for both political parties.

Back in the pre-COVID-19 era, their numbers augmented by recent products of woke campuses, they seemed the dominant force in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

They flitted from one candidate to the next, tilting toward Sen. Kamala Harris after she whacked Joe Biden for opposing school busing in the 1970s, luxuriating in Sen. Elizabeth Warren's stentorian assurances that, on every issue, she had "a plan for that," swooning for the assured articulateness of former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

In retrospect, they seem to have been frivolous in their affections, especially when they acquiesced meekly in the elevation of Biden after his endorsement from Rep. Jim Clyburn and his 44-point margin over Sen. Bernie Sanders among black voters in South Carolina.

The Democratic Party, from its beginnings in the 1832 campaign to reelect Andrew Jackson (whose statue, at this writing, still stands in Lafayette Square across from the White House), has been a coalition of out-groups, sometimes at odds with one another, sometimes united to form a national majority.

Historically, each of its constituencies wanted something concrete out of politics. In midcentury America, blacks wanted desegregation; labor-union members wanted (in Samuel Gompers's word) "more"; ethnic groups wanted support of their confreres abroad.

But one group sought something more abstract: an opportunity to "participate" to advance "a conception of the public interest," as the young political scientist James Q. Wilson wrote in his 1962 book, "The Amateur Democrat."

Wilson's amateurs were well educated, relatively affluent and scarce on the ground in an era when most college grads voted Republican. They included Ed Koch, the future New York mayor running for Greenwich Village district leader; a single Chicago alderman (out of 50) representing the Hyde Park university district; and a few West Los Angeles lawyers active in California Democratic Council clubs.

They aspired to run the Democratic Party and sometimes snagged key staff positions. But demographically, they were just a sliver of the electorate, even in Democratic primaries.

Now their numbers are legion. White college graduates have been trending Democratic since the 1990s. The inrush of millennials marinated in political correctness and the emergence of the devil figure in Donald Trump have made them overwhelmingly Democratic -- and numerous enough to outnumber both blacks and blue-collar whites in party primaries.

They remain as abstract in their concerns -- as frivolous, one might say -- as Wilson's midcentury amateurs. A Pew Research Center poll showed 49% of white Democrats and 49% of college graduate Democrats saying it bothered them that "the likely Democratic nominee is a white man in his 70s." But only 28% and 30% of Black and Hispanic Democrats, respectively, were similarly bothered.

"The 'white left,'" writes Stanford political scientist Hakeem Jefferson, quoted by The New York Times' Thomas Edsall, "can sometimes look more 'progressive' than black folks because the white left has the luxury of approaching questions that bear on marginalized people's lives with a kind of reckless abandon" -- he might have said frivolousness -- "that many others don't have."

This reckless abandon is apparent in the posture of leading Democrats, draped with kente cloth, kneeling in atonement for the sins of Americans past. It's apparent in the convenient forgettery of those who scoffed at President Trump's accurate 2017 prediction that those tearing down Confederate statutes would target Washington and Jefferson next. Now they're under threat; a Jackson statue has been attacked; and in Wisconsin, "protesters" pulled down statues honoring an abolitionist and women suffragist.

The flakiness is apparent in politicians, not least Biden, who insist on enforcement of social distancing except for those engaged in mass protests and (what they try to avoid mentioning) violent rioting. There's not even a pretense here of avoiding a double standard.

It's also apparent in Biden's promise that his vice presidential nominee will be a woman. And in Sen. Amy Klobuchar's statement, published when she withdrew her name from consideration, that it must be a "woman of color." That leaves a very small field of choices for a position whose holder would have a good actuarial chance of succeeding to the presidency.

Democrats may argue that Republicans and Donald Trump engaged in frivolities of their own, and there's some basis for such charges. But it's not an excuse for their own frivolous conduct.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.


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