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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.

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