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 [...]