Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The Bridge: Fred Dutton and the Realignment of the Democratic Party

By Neil Monahan, Medium


For much of its long history the Democratic Party has been regarded as the party of the people. It was the party of the workingman, the party of the unions, the party of the New Deal. The Republicans were thought to represent the country club set, Wall Street and Main Street. These simplistic notions of party identity have broken down and blurred in recent years, something which was confirmed by the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump produced his shock win with the support of an enormous 67% of the white working class. Once the base of the Democrats, the white working class has been quietly marching into the other camp since the 1970s. In the last twelve elections a majority of non-college educated whites voted for a Democrat only once — Bill Clinton in 1996. Why did this once reliable group, a majority of whom voted Democrat in 1968, bolt? What happened after 1968? There is no doubt that multiple forces, political, economic and sociological have factored in this transformation of the party coalitions, but this thesis will explore one particular figure’s influence in that process. He was involved in the pivotal but disastrous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago and its aftermath. His is a minor yet important role that has been overlooked in much of the writing on this subject.

That person is Fred Dutton and he will be the subject of this thesis. This introductory chapter will provide essential context to his life, to the intellectual climate of the time, to the growing class divides of the decade, and to the tumultuous events of the Democrats’ Chicago convention in 1968. This turbulent year would be a turning point in politics. Later chapters will provide more detail on Dutton’s life, political philosophy and role within the party. At the end of this chapter the argument of the thesis will be laid out, followed by how the thesis is structured, the methodology used, and what is new and original here.

Fred Dutton was a background character to a surprising number of key political happenings from the 1950s until his passing in 2005. An intriguing Rosencrantz or Guildenstern character, Dutton drifted around the edges of major events. Here he will take centre-stage for once. As a seasoned political operative he moved in the highest of Democratic circles, holding senior positions in every presidential campaign between ’56 and ’72. He also worked in both the Kennedy and Johnson White Houses. A trusted lieutenant to a generation of Democrats, Dutton was valued for his ideas and trend spotting. The legendary chronicler of presidential races, Theodore White, referred to him as “one of the party’s leading political theorists.” Hunter S. Thompson alluded to Dutton as “a widely respected political wizard.” His close friend Bobby Kennedy said he was “one of the best political brains in America.” As party insider and member of the brain trust he held a privileged position to influence the direction of the party. Using his role on the McGovern Commission, Dutton helped realign the party coalition which was fracturing along class lines. The blue-collar base would lose its dominance in the Democratic Party that it had enjoyed since the New Deal.


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