The “San Francisco Democrats” meme

These days, there are innumerable books and articles which will tell you that at the 1984 Republican Convention, “San Francisco Democrats” were denounced, and that the term was understood by everyone as an attack on homosexuals. This is at most only a partial truth.

Suppose that in 2012, after the Republican Convention, a Democrat denounced the Republican Convention as consisting of “Sarah Palin Republicans.” The denunciation would bring to mind a wide variety of issues and themes. Now suppose that in 2040, a historian told you that the denunciation of “Sarah Palin Republicans” was understood by everyone as a criticism of the hunting of wolves. For some animal rights activists, Governor Palin’s greatest sin is allowing aerial wolf hunting. These activists, when they heard the phrase “Sarah Palin Republicans,” might immediately think of wolf hunting. But most people–including the audience of anti-Palin swing voters to whom the 2012 speaker was appealing–would not think first of wolves. Even if wolf hunting might happen to be among the dozens of things they loathed about Sarah Palin.

Similarly, in 1984, the term “San Francisco Democrats” raised numerous issues which were far more important to swing voters than were gay rights; this was especially so for the target audience–the voters who would become known as Reagan Democrats.

Beginning in the late 1960s, there had been an intense struggle within the Democratic party. On the one side were the heirs of Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. They strongly believed in a powerful and affirmative federal government, and they were hawkish and staunchly anti-communist. This was the traditional party of Big Labor, the big city mayors, and the Democratic machine. Challenging them, as insurgents, were dovish anti-war activists, women’s rights advocates, and others on the cultural left. The overwhelming issue in the divide was the Vietnam War. The challengers fell short in 1968, when Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey defeated the Minnesota poet and Senator Eugene McCarthy.  Humphrey narrowly lost to former Vice Preisdent Richard Nixon in the general election.

1n 1972, George McGovern out-organized everyone else, and ran a brilliant insurgent campaign which captured the nomination. He defeated candidates from the traditional wing of the party, such as Humphrey and the very hawkish Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. McGovern’s insurgency became the textbook model of how to beat the party establishment, and was closely studied by Jimmy Carter. But in the general election, McGovern lost to incumbent Richard Nixon 61-38, carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

The Democratic party swiftly retreated from what it saw as the unappealing (to swing voters) excesses of McGovernism. McGovern’s party chair, Jean Westwood (the first female to lead the Democratic National Committee) was removed at the first opportunity. In 1976, the party nominated a southern governor, Jimmy Carter of Georgia, who at the time had the impressive skill of convincing liberals that he was a liberal, moderates that he was moderate, and conservatives that he was conservative.

Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980, and then in 1984, his Vice President, Walter Mondale, won the Democratic nomination, at a convention held in San Francisco. Mondale had a long and solid track record with the entire Democratic base. Organized labor and the big-city mayors loved him; the civil rights groups knew him as a long-time champion. Women’s groups had by then become a core part of the Democratic establishment, and were strongly behind Mondale. By voting record, he had been the most liberal United States Senator, and so he was a broadly acceptable choice to the San Francisco Democratic Convention, including to the delegates who had supported his main challengers, Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson. The Democratic divisions over Vietnam were over; since the 1960s, the party’s center of gravity on foreign policy had moved substantially to the left, and so had Mondale. 

The Democrats were quite conscious of avoiding the appearance of McGovernism, so when Mondale delivered his acceptance speech, the hall and the delegates were bedecked in red, white, and blue–a change from previous conventions, in which there had not been such attention to patriotic appearance.

 Among the purposes of the Republican Convention was to divide the Democratic base. And so for the keynote address, the Republicans chose Jeanne Kirkpatrick. Formerly a Georgetown professor, she had worked closely with Hubert Humphrey and Scoop Jackson. She described herself as an “an AFL-CIO Democrat.” As an increasingly influential public intellectual in the 1970s, she criticized not only what she saw as President Jimmy Carter’s soft and naive stance on communism, but also the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger “detente” policy of accomodating to the Soviets as a rising power.

Ronald Reagan brought Kirkpatrick into his campaign, as he did with with many Democratic hawks who were dismayed with Carter’s foreign policy and the dovish position of mainstream Democrats. (Reagan almost won the endorsement of Dem. Senator Scoop Jackson, although Jackson ultimately demurred because he could not accept Reagan’s hard line on states’ rights.) In 1981, Kirkpatrick, remaining a Democrat, became Reagan’s Ambassador to the United Nations.

And so for the first time since 1952, the 1984 Republican National Convention chose a keynote speaker who was not a Republican. Kirkpatrick delivered a blistering speech, dealing exclusively with foreign policy. She ran through a litany of recent foreign policy contoversies: Grenada, Lebanon, the Soviet walk-out from arms negotiations, and Central America. On every topic, said Kirkpatrick, the Democrats “always blame America first.” For example: “When Marxist dictators shoot their way into power in Central America, the San Francisco Democrats don’t blame the guerrillas and their Soviet allies. They blame United States policies of one hundred years ago. But then they always blame America first.”

As Kirkpatrick made clear, it was not all Democrats she was criticizing; she reminded the audience that she was still a Democrat. Rather, her point was that the 1984 Mondale Democrats were not Hubert Humphrey Democrats, or Scoop Jackson Democrats. San Francisco Democrats were McGovern Democrats.

The 1984 Republican keynote was a speech entirely about foreign policy, delivered by a speaker who was known to the public exclusively for foreign policy, and whose obvious appeal was to national security Democrats.

Was the “San Francisco Democrats” line a dog whistle to people concerned about culture wars? One could make the argument, and perhaps there’s no way to be sure. But even if it were a dog whistle, it was, by definition, something recognized only by a subset of already-committed Republican activists who were especially keen on the culture war. Jeanne Kirkpatrick was not picked to deliver the keynote in order to rev up hardcore religious conservatives; they were not her people, and the religious conservatives had already been addressed by several other speakers at the convention. Kirkpatrick’s people were AFL-CIO Democrats who were terrified that if the American President did not understand the mortal danger of the Soviet threat, then nothing else mattered. Many of those voters had deserted McGovern in 1972, voted for Carter in 1976 (when Carter ran, in some respects, as more anti-communist than Gerald Ford), and abandoned Carter in 1980. The Kirkpatrick speech aimed to keep those Democratic voters on Reagan’s side in 1984–however much they might disagree with him on economic or cultural issues.

To describe the “San Francisco Democrats” line as mainly about gay rights or culture wars is akin to claiming that the central issue in King Lear is tax policy–as if “I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness,” were a complaint about unkind taxes, and the King’s central concern were just taxation. In 1984, there were some people who worried that homosexuals were the greatest threat to America, but there were many tens of millions more who worried the aggressive totalitarian Soviet slave empire was the greatest threat. It was to these voters, including Democrats and independents, that the Republican keynote appealed, and this was the appeal that helped Ronald Reagan win re-election with 49 states and 59% of the popular vote–a Democratic defeat exceeded only by George McGovern in 1972.

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