Punditry: Mittel America
Beinart, Peter. "Punditry: Mittel America." New Republic Online, 13 August 2001.
Imagine that Ted Kennedy was Senate Majority Leader and Marty
Meehan led the Democrats in the House. Or that it was Joe Lieberman
in the Senate and Barney Frank in the House. Or Robert Torricelli
and Rosa DeLauro. Or Daniel Inouye and Robert Matsui.
See where I'm going? The press would note the coincidence that
the Democratic Party's leaders in both houses of Congress were of
the same ethnicity. And they'd speculate--at least now and then--about
how being Irish-American, or Jewish-American, or Italian-American,
shaped their politics. And it might help us understand them better.
So how come nobody notices that both Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt
are German-American? It's largely because Germans are America's
invisible ethnic group. Germans have had more time to assimilate
than other immigrant communities--having arrived in the U.S. in
the mid- to late-nineteenth century, at least a generation earlier
than most Italians and Jews. And they've also wanted to assimilate
more--in the wake of World War I, many Germans changed their names
and abandoned their language in a frantic bid to stave off charges
of disloyalty. As Kurt Vonnegut put it in his autobiographical book
Palm Sunday, "my paretns volunteered to make me ignorant and
rootless as proof of their patriotism."
So the press isn't accustomed to thinking about German-American
politics. If anything, Gephardt and Daschle are classified regionally--as
Midwesterners--and journalists who profile them rely heavily on
clichés about Middle Americans: earnest, straight-laced,
disciplined, bland. (Ironically, if journalists were to acknowledge
that those stereotypes of Midwesterners are related to stereotypes
of Germans--since most German-Americans live in the Midwest--they
couldn't deploy them so breezily).
But Daschle and Gephardt's ethnicity is at least as important
as their geography. For one thing, the two men represent heavily
German-American constituencies. South Dakota, Daschle's state, has
the second-highest percentage of Americans of German ancestry in
the country (after Wisconsin). And St. Louis, which is included
in Gephardt's district, is America's second most German big city
(after Milwaukee). That matters because German-American politics
is not the same as Midwestern politics more generally. The six Midwestern
states with the highest percentage of Germans (according to the
1990 census) send ten Democrats and two Republicans to the US Senate.
The seven Midwestern states with the lowest percentage of Germans
send five Democrats and nine Republicans.
The caveats are obvious: German-Americans are a vast group, divided
by religion, date of immigration, and class. And like Vonnegut,
many have only a hazy ethnic identity. But voters, like politicians,
are often products of political traditions they do not fully comprehend.
And those political traditions often have their origins in an America
more ethnically segmented than it is today.
Consider Gephardt's and Daschle's views on the culture war: They're
not interested in it. Historically, German-Americans have never
been very attracted to the politics of religious traditionalism.
In its early-twentieth-century incarnation, the Christian Right
advocated prohibition, which many Germans saw as a nativist attack
on their culture. In recent decades, historically German churches
like the Lutherans have eschewed the militant conservatism of the
Christian Coalition in favor of more moderate views on gender, sexuality,
and textual interpretation. In fact, the Midwestern states where
the Christian Right is strongest--Kansas and Oklahoma--are also
among the ones with the lowest percentage of Germans.
But German-American politics is also far removed from the cultural
liberalism of the East and West Coasts (and, not coincidentally,
from the cultural liberalism of many American Jews). And so are
Gephardt and Daschle. Gephardt quietly opposed abortion early in
his career, then switched to quietly supporting it. When Senate
Republicans wanted a strict ban on partial birth abortion in 1997,
Daschle proposed a compromise prohibiting most third trimester abortions,
which satisfied neither Jesse Helms nor Barbara Boxer.
Rather than cultural issues, German-American politics has traditionally
been defined by a certain notion of government: as active, rational,
honest, and prudent. The two large waves of nineteenth-century German
migration to the US both followed purges of German liberals--first
after the failed democratic revolution of 1848, and then again after
Bismarck's anti-Socialist law in 1878. These liberal political exiles
helped shape the emerging German-American intelligentsia. And partly
as a result, the heavily German states of the upper Midwest never
developed the libertarianism of the South and interior West. To
the contrary, for more than a century, their politics have been
defined by government planning and government reform.
The tradition is most evident in the nation's most German state,
Wisconsin. In the early twentieth century, famed Governor Robert
LaFollette employed social scientists at the University of Wisconsin
to restructure the state's workmen's compensation and tax systems
in accordance with "scientific" principles. As Michael
Barone and Richard E. Cohen put it in the 2002 The Almanac of American
Politics, "these programs were an attempt to bring bureaucratic
rationality--Germanic systematization--to the seemingly disordered
America." Under LaFollette,
Wisconsin also became the first state to directly elect its senators.
And the state's tradition of political reform continues today with
campaign finance crusader Russ Feingold. But while never anti-government,
Wisconsin has also championed fiscal prudence. Former Senator William
Proxmire made his name as a militant opponent of government waste.
And Republican congressman Mark Neumann--arguably the class of 1994's
most passionate deficit hawk--came within a few points of taking
Feingold's Senate seat in 1998.
Broadly speaking, that view of government defines Daschle and
Gephardt as well. While less goo-goo than Feingold, both men have
pushed surprisingly hard for campaign-finance reform, despite mounting
grumbles from Democratic partisans and labor officials that banning
soft money will ultimately help the GOP. Daschle, although he abandoned
his support for a balanced budget amendment when he became the Democratic
leader in the Senate, still sounds quite fiscally conservative when
attacking Bush's tax cut, repeatedly calling it reckless and irresponsible.
Gephardt has veered more drastically--as he has looked for ideological
openings for potential presidential runs--but his roots are in the
fiscal conservatism of the Democratic Leadership Council, which
he helped found, and in the high-minded, anti-waste, tax reform
bill that he co-sponsored with Bill Bradley in 1986. For these reasons,
and for stylistic ones as well, Daschle and Gephardt are hard to
caricature as pork-barreling big spenders.
Why does this matter? Because for most of the last century, this
German-American political ethos was associated with the Republican
Party. In fact, Wisconsin was one of the two states that gave birth
to the GOP in 1854. Historically, having two German-Americans leading
the Congressional Democrats is as significant as having two Southerners--Newt
Gingrich and Trent Lott--leading the Congressional GOP in the 1990s.
And just as Lott and Gingrich's ascendance signified a political
problem for Democrats--their collapse in the states of the former
confederacy--Gephardt and Daschle embody an emerging problem for
the GOP. Given its weakness in the Northeast and the Pacific West,
the GOP cannot be the nation's majority party without maintaining
its historical dominance in the Midwest. But Republicans are gradually
losing the heavily German states of the upper Midwest: Wisconsin,
Minnesota, and the Dakotas don't have a Republican Senator between
them. And they are losing them because the GOP is no longer the
party of cultural moderation, government reform and fiscal prudence.
That mantle has been claimed by the Democrats, and it probably took
two German-Americans--Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt--to do it.