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The John Lindsay Democrats

A Commentary By Michael Barone

One way to anticipate what may be ahead in politics is to gauge the balance of power in the nation's two political parties. The Republican Party has always been centered on people regarded by themselves and others as "typical" Americans but who do not by themselves comprise a majority. The Democratic Party has always been a coalition of out-groups, powerful when united but often at risk of division.

The Republican Party has typically centered on one dominant leader, and it is an interesting question today whether Republican voters will continue to see Donald Trump as the party-defining figure. But the more immediately interesting question is which constituency is dominating the Democratic Party, which holds the White House and (admittedly narrow) majorities in both houses of Congress.

That dominant group is clearly what I call the Lindsay Democrats.

That label may puzzle readers who don't remember that John Lindsay was a Republican congressman from the affluent and then-fashionable Upper East Side of Manhattan, who was elected mayor of New York City in 1965 and 1969. He became a national celebrity while winning against divided opposition with only 45% and 42% of the vote. In that second race, he won only 36% of the vote outside Manhattan.

Lindsay had an admirable record in many ways. He was more alert to violations of civil liberties than most politicians then or many liberals today. He was one of 22 Republicans who voted with the Kennedy administration to end bipartisan conservative control of the House Rules Committee.

In line with Lincoln Republican tradition, he was a strong and fervent supporter of equal rights for Black people. But at the same time, as I noted at the time, he was scornful of the vast white middle classes in between his fellow Protestant elite and the Black people and Puerto Ricans whose numbers in New York had skyrocketed in the postwar decades.

Unhappily, Lindsay's good intentions produced bad results. His generous welfare policies and police reforms resulted in a doubling of the welfare rolls and more than doubling of annual murders in the city. His tax increases were followed by a loss of 600,000 jobs.

Lindsay switched to the Democratic Party in 1971 and ran for president in 1972, winning 7% in the Florida primary. He never won another election. He died in 2000, but his spirit lives on in the affluent white liberals, whose numbers have swelled after generations of increasing college enrollments, and who increasingly dominate the Democratic Party's coalition.

Like Lindsay, today's liberal white college graduates are eager to defer to what they imagine are the desires of Black voters. Thus, when Rep. James Clyburn endorsed Joe Biden in the Black-majority South Carolina primary, exit polling shows that white college grads in state after state followed his lead.

When Black Lives Matter leaders called for mass demonstrations after the death of George Floyd, liberal white college graduates who had observed COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions with religious fervor suddenly argued that the risk of spreading the virus was less than the risk of not participating in what turned out to be not "mostly peaceful" events.

Affluent Lindsay Democrats tend to be insulated from the "unexpected" ill effects of their policies and predilections, but they are not totally unselfish. In the backrooms of Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders insisted on making restoration of deductions for state and local taxes the top-dollar item in their House-passed Build Back Better bill, although both liberals and conservatives pointed out that nearly all the benefits of this policy would go to rich people in high-tax states.

One identifying characteristic of Lindsay Democrats is the faith they place in credentialed experts, even when their expertise is falsified by events.

Hence their reliance on academic criminologists who insist that de-policing will not lead to more crime, even as murders spike in city after city. Hence the faith that electricity can reliably be provided by intermittent sources such as wind and solar power.

Hence the faith that masking nursery schoolers and locking down entire cities can stop the propagation of a virus that is easily communicable and asymptomatic in its early stages.

"One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that," George Orwell once wrote in a very different context. "No ordinary man could be such a fool."

As inflation, illegal immigration and violent crime spin out of control today, the proudly highly educated Lindsay Democrats' narrow hold on power looks to be as endangered as their namesake's political career was 50 years ago. Maybe other Democratic constituencies, with more skin in the game, need to step in and stage an intervention.

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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See Other Commentaries by Michael Barone.

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