Where Have All the Eric Hoffer Democrats Gone?

The surreal scene on the South Lawn of the White House featured a Lone Star-state school teacher toasting Frescas with a San Francisco stevedore. A scheduled five minutes turned into fifty-five. Dressed in work boots and a flannel coat despite eighty-degree heat, Eric Hoffer apologized for not accepting his conversation mate’s invitation to a state dinner. He did not attend because he did not own a tie. President Lyndon Johnson responded that Hoffer should just show up tie-less to the next one and promised that he would remove his in solidarity.

This used to be the Democratic Party. Oversized guys busting out of work clothes could comfortably converse with presidents. They didn’t always come from the same place. But they usually spoke each other’s language.

The party has retained its name but not its people.

“Preparations by Democratic operatives for the 2012 election make it clear for the first time that the party will explicitly abandon the white working class,” Thomas Edsall reports at the New York Times. “All pretense of trying to win a majority of the white working class has been effectively jettisoned in favor of cementing a center-left coalition” made up first of “professors, artists, designers, editors, human resources managers, lawyers, librarians, social workers, teachers and therapists—and a second, substantial constituency of lower-income voters who are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic.”

The feeling is mutual. A late November CNN poll found that half of white Democrats with no college education want their party to nominate for president someone other than the president.

What happened to the Eric Hoffer Democrats?

Hoffer, one of the “blue collar intellectuals” celebrated in my new book by that title, embodies the schism. On Wednesdays in the ’60s he held court at Berkeley, whose political science department had hired him to mentor, meet, and occasionally lecture students. Years earlier, “professor” Hoffer had ironically bused the dishes of Berkeley students at a Shattuck Avenue eatery. When he wasn’t holding office hours on the besieged campus, Hoffer moved cargo off and on ships on the docks. Instinctually more blue collar than intellectual, the author of The True Believer and subject of two late-’60s CBS specials increasingly felt ill at ease in the only political party he had ever known. 

Hoffer’s support for the Vietnam War, the president leading it, and most importantly, the nation waging it, set him apart from the intellectuals of the era. He quipped, “When I talk to American students and teachers about common Americans it is as if I was talking about mysterious people living on a mysterious continent.”

He warned about nascent affirmative action. “If you think that the Negro is your equal, you expect something from him,” he explained to Eric Sevareid. “If you think that the Negro is your inferior, that he is incapable of doing anything, then you want to treat him with extra special care, and you want to make him more equal than equal.”

Far from a moralist, the former train-yard tramp nevertheless lamented the drug naivety of the hippies and complained of not being able to discern the sex of passersby in his neighborhood.

The Democratic Party crack-up glared most obviously within the presidential commission on violence, which witnessed Hoffer and federal judge Leon Higginbotham clash explosively. The longshoreman, who had lived on skid row and picked crops, balked at the notion of poverty causing urban violence. The judge castigated Hoffer as being in “total error” and accused him of racism.

Both commission members, appointed by the same president, belonged to the same party. How could such a precarious coalition hold?

Obama-Democrats sticking with intellectuals and ditching blue collars is a conscious strategy that affirms decades of oblivious alienation. When Democrats rhetorically boast of being the party of the working man, it is nostalgia talking. The supposed rich man’s party, the Republicans, lost seven of the ten wealthiest counties in 2008.

More than four decades after Johnson and Hoffer’s surreal South Lawn scene, an equally bizarre made-for-the-media event took place off the West Wing. President Barack Obama and police officer James Crowley toasted beers rather than Frescas in the Rose Garden. The “beer summit” presented the president an opportunity to mend fences with the cop, and the constituency, he offended when he said Sergeant Crowley had “acted stupidly” in arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. But whereas school teacher Johnson and unschooled Hoffer hit it off, the law professor and the lawman appeared distant, rigid, strained, uncomfortable.

Opportunity missed.

It’s not just that they had been placed in an unnatural situation. One struggles to imagine them socializing effortlessly in any context.

The ease with which a past Democrat president mingled with a workingman, and the awkwardness with which today’s Democrat president does, serves as a metaphor for the party’s struggles to retain even a remnant of what was once its base.

A blue-collar Democrat was then almost redundant. It’s now almost a contradiction.