How the Democrats Lost, Period

This is a follow up to the last post, which reviews how the Right took the foreign policy issue away from the Left after World War II, as well as the “Don’t Blame McGovern,” “Hey, Hey, LBJ,” and “Countercultural” posts from last week. I’m afraid this post is long even by my standards, but there are a lot of pieces to be pulled together. Even this post is barely just an outline.

I’m walking through this old stuff because I think it’s important to clarify how the Democratic Party was eclipsed by the Republican Party, to the point that it went from being the dominant party to being the triangulation party. Today the Democrats have a big, fat opportunity to regain political momentum if they can present a clear alternative to the floundering Republicans. But the Democratic Party has been stumbling along for years with no clear self-identity. Emptied of cohesion and purpose, at times the party has seemed little more than a catch-all receptacle for politicians who are not Republicans, exactly.

For years Conventional Wisdom has said that the Democratic Party crashed in the 1960s and 1970s because Democrats were opposed to the war in Vietnam. And ever since, says the CW, voters just haven’t trusted Dems to handle foreign policy. Now the Lamont Insurgency and other signs of uppitiness among the Dems has the punditocracy wagging its fingers and warning of the dire consequences of “McGovernism.”

I’ve already argued in the previously cited posts that the “McGovernism” charge is bogus. But I think that before the Dem Party can find itself again it needs to clearly understand what did strip the party of its soul. Then, perhaps, the Dems can reconnect to the best of the core principles that made the party strong in the past and reaffirm those principles in the present.

Essentially, what happened in the 1960s and 1970s was that the New Deal coalition came apart, and no new coalition stepped in to take its place. What was the New Deal coalition? From Wikipedia:

The 1932 election brought about a major realignment in political party affiliation, and is widely considered to be a realigning election, though some scholars point to the off-year election of 1934. Franklin Delano Roosevelt set up his New Deal and was able to forge a coalition of Big City machines, labor unions, liberals, ethnic and racial minorities (especially Catholics, Jews and African Americans), and Southern whites. These disparate voting blocs together formed a large minority of voters and handed the Democratic Party seven victories out of nine presidential elections, as well as control of both houses of Congress during much of this time.

A great many factors eroded the coalition, and Vietnam was one of those factors. Other factors included the decline of the city machines and the decreasing influence of labor unions. But I think if there was one factor that stood out from the rest, it was not Vietnam. It was race.

From the end of Reconstruction (ca. 1877) to the mid-twentieth century, southern whites were Democrats. Although Franklin Roosevelt pushed the Democratic Party overall in a more liberal direction, he compromised with southern white supremacists to get his programs passed in Congress.

1948 saw a prequel of party divisions to come: In January President Harry Truman integrated the military by executive order, and that summer at the Dems’ national convention Hubert Humphrey urged the Dems to add an anti-segregation plank to the party platform. Humphrey’s speech so inflamed some southern delegates that they walked out. After Truman’s endorsement of and the party’s adoption of the anti-segregation plan, some of the southern Dems split off and formed the Dixiecrat Party, which nominated Strom Thurmond for president. On election day the Dixiecrats won in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina.

On the other hand, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision got a tepid response from both parties. Racial issues played little part in the 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns of Adlai Stephenson and Dwight Eisenhower. The Dixiecrats returned to the Democratic fold, for a time. National politicians tried to ignore the Civil Rights movement, although in 1957 circumstances (i.e., Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus) forced Republican President Eisenhower to send the 101st Airborne Division to protect African American students attempting to attend a newly integrated high school in Little Rock. In the late 1950s Congress went through the motions of addressing racial issues by passing some toothless civil rights laws. The essential point, however, is that neither national party was closely associated with desegregation in most peoples’ minds in the 1950s.

But in 1960, when Martin Luther King was sentenced to a four-month prison term in Georgia, presidential candidate John Kennedy called Coretta Scott King to express sympathy. That may not seem extraordinary now, but in 1960 it was a major breakthrough. As president, Kennedy expressed support for the Freedom Marchers and introduced the bill that would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Again, Kennedy’s contributions to racial equality were small, but they encouraged Democrats outside the South to more openly support civil rights.

President Lyndon Johnson kicked Democratic Party support for racial equality to new levels. Overall, Johnson’s record as a champion of civil rights is, um, mixed. But IMO Johnson’s Great Society program was at least as big a watershed moment for the Democratic Party as Vietnam, if not bigger. The Great Society was wildly unpopular among white Americans. In their minds, it amounted to taking tax money from whites and giving it to blacks. (Remember, as I explained here, entitlement programs were fine with the white folks in earlier times, when it was understood whites were the principal beneficiaries.)

It was the Great Society that popularized the myth of the tax-and-spend liberals, IMO. The Right may have said the same thing about FDR and the New Deal, but the New Deal was popular. The Great Society wasn’t. In fact, Johnson was reluctant to raise taxes. But in 1967 Johnson’s economic advisers persuaded him that taxes had to be raised to pay for Vietnam, and he struggled for most of the rest of his administration to shove a short-term tax surcharge through Congress. Republican politicians successfully coupled the tax surcharge with welfare programs in white voters’ minds, forming the basis of the “tax-and-spend” charge embedded in the public mind for the past forty years.

I bump into people today who think the definition of liberal is “someone who wants to raise your taxes and increase government spending.” See also this Heritage Foundation commentary claiming our current Congress’s reckless spending means it is turning “left,” never mind that the money is being drizzled away on war and pork, not expanded social programs. Today spending alone is what defines “left,” not the purpose of the spending. The fact is that Republican Administrations over the past 25 years have run bigger deficits and spent more as a percentage of GDP than the Democratic Administration. Yet you still hear “pundits” claim that Democrats spend more.

Back to civil rights — in the 1960s, as the national Democratic Party became associated with civil rights and racial equality, the old Dixiecrats bolted the Democratic Party and became Republican. Thus it was that “solid south” went from being solid Democrat to solid Republican. There is more background on the significance of the Dixiecrat Revolt here. See also this Wikipedia article about Richard Nixon and the Southern Strategy.

But also in the 1960s the issue of race became subliminal. It was no longer socially acceptable (accept on a local level) for white politicians to openly advocate white supremacy. Even Strom Thurmond toned down his rhetoric. George Wallace may have been the last prominent politician to wage an openly racist campaign to run for national office. For this reason the impact of race on politics in the 1960s and 1970s might not be obvious today to someone studying the speeches and editorials of those years. For example, as I explained in the “McGovern” post, most of the first half of Richard Nixon’s 1972 nomination acceptance speech amounted to an appeal to white racist voters, even though Nixon didn’t use the words race (except in the context of arms race), racial, equality, integration, or other words directly associated with racial issues. Believe me, everyone listening at the time knew exactly what he meant.

What about the New Left? As explained in this essay (scroll down to the American History subhead; emphasis added):

Liberalism in the Truman era seemed to be simple self-interest to most families who benefited from the G.I. bill and veterans’ mortgages. Campaigning in 1948 on the slogan “All I ask you to do is vote for yourself, vote for your family,” Harry S. Truman not only defeated challenges from his left and right, but triumphed despite drawing only limited support from the top tiers as measured by wealth, education, or occupation.

New Deal liberalism’s final political victory came in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson once again defeated Hoover’s ghost in the form of the outspoken economic libertarian Barry Goldwater. Johnson went on, in effect, to complete much of the New Deal’s agenda by expanding its social and health benefits for the poor, the elderly, and African-Americans who had earlier been ignored. …

… By the middle of the decade, New Deal liberalism was in retreat, routed initially not so much by its conservative opponents as by new forms of liberalism, which had emerged in response to the cataclysms of those years. In the next quarter century, its reputation declined until in the 1988 presidential race “liberal” became the “L word,” an epithet.

New issues, such as racial justice and the misuse of a now powerful presidency to fight a morally untenable war in Vietnam, destroyed the New Deal political coalition. At the same time a renewed fear of government as a threat to individual moral autonomy, defined in terms not of property but of lifestyle, undermined the social and cultural assumptions of the New Deal’s mild collectivism and authoritative institutions. Both civil rights and lifestyle liberalism were moral critiques of meat-and-potatoes majoritarianism and both pursued their goals through the courts, the “undemocratic” branch of government the New Deal had, in large measure, defined itself against.

The legacy of the New Left was that liberalism in America splintered. “Identity politics” and single-issue advocacy groups have been the main focus of American liberalism since the 1970s. This may have been therapeutic, but it’s way ineffective. And as the Left came apart, the Right got its act together. During the 1970s a number of wealthy conservatives began to build the media and political infrastructures that dominate U.S. politics today. Kevin Baker’s “Stabbed in the Back!” article discussed in the last post explains how Nixon expanded his campaign against the antiwar movement and counterculture into permanent cultural war.

This takes us to Ronald Reagan, who was still pandering to racism with his “welfare queen” remarks in 1980. Reagan was brilliant at playing the role of a strong, big-hearted representative of the common man while appealing to the meanest instincts and prejudices of voters. As explained in this Wikipedia article, by Reagan’s time white working-class voters no longer saw the Democrats as champions of middle-class issues and aspirations, as they had during the heyday of the New Deal coalition. (Note: I disagree with Wikipedia that these same voters saw “gains” during the Reagan Administration; I remember just the opposite. But that’s another post, maybe.) Working class whites came to believe Dems were working only to benefit other people, who happened (ah-HEM) to be black. See also this article by William Schneider in the July, 1992 Atlantic Monthly. Writing about the 1992 election campaigns, Schneider wrote,

Democrats have been talking about “the forgotten middle class,” and for good reason. For the past twenty-five years the Democrats have forgotten the middle class. And they have paid dearly.

One could debate whether the Dems actually forgot the middle class, or whether they were only perceived to have forgotten the middle class. But the damage was done. The Republican Party had become the party of both Big Money and the working class it exploits. The Democrats had become the party of … who, exactly?

OK, this post is already too long. If you’ve read this far … bless you. I’ll finish in another post.

28 thoughts on “How the Democrats Lost, Period

  1. Not only did I read your extraodinary post, I am in the middle of reading the Baker piece in Harper’s too. You leave no stone unturned.

    My immediate response is one of despair; however, I look forward to “another post” with hope!

  2. Great article and am waiting for more.
    Another thought.
    I am in the middle of John Dean’s book “Conservatives without Conscience”.It is important to understand what happened with the Democrats but I think that is only 1/2 the story. The pandering of Republicans of the radical christian right also hurt the Democrats.
    Their tunnel vision of abortion, and gay marriage has decreased the ability of candidates to talk about all the issues. It has also spilled over in the judiciary branch.
    Democrats are not used to dealing with the nastiness of the new Republicans. Corruption by republicans is incredible and their ability to deny and distort the reality of this war on terrorism is scary.

  3. Yeah, Maha…

    While it’s true that: “in 1948 Truman integrated the military”, that did NOT include that part of the American armed forces serving under Douglas MacArthur…

    MacArthur’s occupation forces in Japan (and it’s territories) continued sitting on their asses, segregated by race, until Truman fired the phony bastard…

    With the one glaring exception of the 1st Marine division shortly after thanksgiving of 1950…

  4. Re the radical Christian right — yeah, that was part of Reagan’s legacy. Although I think for all their noise they weren’t as big a factor in the emasculation of the Dems as race was, and for the most part the radical Christian right people are the same dear folks who had already walked away from the Democrats because of race. But Nixon didn’t speak their language (he was a Quaker) and didn’t reach out to them specifically. Reagan, however, very masterfully pulled them into his orbit. He persuaded them he was one of their own.

  5. Maha, I read every word – it wasn’t long at all (probably because I lived through much of it) – and I do feel blessed.

    I read somewhere that LBJ stated, that with the passage of the Great Society legislation, the south would be lost to the Democrats for a couple generations. And so the Democratic party elders knew the risks but went ahead anyway. I tend to think that this – racial equality – was an idea whose time had finally come, they could either try to vainly block it or simply ride the wave, plus they’d reap electoral gains as a result. I’d like to learn more about that particular calculus. It was probably inconceivable to the Dems that the opposition would use this plus other developing weaknesses in the left to so completely rout them in the decades to come.

    Interesting how the politics of race went undeground – that’s something I did not appreciate at the time and yet it was very real and a major key to the R’s success. I remember Nixon’s clever, pregnant phrase “the silent majority” which meant middle class white folks, as opposed to the noisy counterculture and minorities.

    I didn’t appreciate the centrality of race to the demise of the Dems/rise of the Rs, and while there were other factors, I think you hit the nail on the head.

  6. Is remains a cruel irony that the Republican Party is both the party of Abolition (Abraham Lincoln) and the party of “The Southern Strategy” (Richard Nixon).

    With respect to the “culture wars” or “wedge” issues, Ronald Reagan successfully built the platform that George W. Bush stands on; however, Bush is doing a “swan dive” from that platform right into the mess he has created in the Middle East.

  7. From the end of Reconstruction (ca. 1877) to the mid-nineteenth century, southern whites were Democrats.

    Shouldn’t that be Twentieth century?..

  8. Interesting synchronicity, this post, with this diary, at DKos. Excerpt:

    “In the last few days we’ve seen the GOP and its supporters basically come out of the closet. The party that built itself on the Dixiecrat rejects of a progressive Democratic party, rejects who were the basis for the Republicans’ “solid south” strategy, is finally going public.

    They have discarded Reagan’s racist code-words.

    They’re the White Power Party, proud and public.

    Are they doing this because they have to, or because they see an opportunity? Why are the Republicans suddenly pulling the sheet off of themselves?

    As I began collecting information for this piece, I found that I’m not the only one who’s come to the same conclusion….”

  9. Great piece. Race drives so MUCH in American politics. I had always seen it as part of the explanation for why European countries were so much more advanced in social welfare. The Swedes wouldn’t pay taxes so cheerfully to pay for illegitimate Greek or Portuguese children. But your observation that “entitlement” programs went from popular to unpopular when blacks began to be more obvious beneficiaries is a new connection to me, and a salient one.

  10. Democrats have been talking about “the forgotten middle class,” and for good reason. For the past twenty-five years the Democrats have forgotten the middle class. And they have paid dearly.

    I’ve been arguing with party-line Dems about this issue ever since I read Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas. They like to forget that only half of his thesis is that the Rethugs con the middle-class voter with faux-“family values” rhetoric while simultaneously screwing them economically. The other half of Frank’s argument is that the only reason this works is because voters recognize that the Dems, particularly after NAFTA and the establishment of the WTO, abandoned middle-class economic interests to start chasing after corporate campaign dollars instead, leaving the so-called “values” issues as the only perceivable difference to vote on.

    I don’t recall whether Frank addressed the race card, but it seems to me of a piece. The Dems were already weakened by their failure to counter the Rethug’s race-bating propaganda against them, so when they officially abandoned America’s middle class in the early 90’s it was a small step for the “values voter” to simply add that to the list of grievances and cross the line. Given the choice between a caricature Dem whose values were “spotted owls, femi-nazi’s, niggers, and rich white men” and a Rethug whose values were Jeebus and rich white men, it’s no surprise how the numbers fell out. Indeed, the only surprise is how surprised the Democratic Party is by the whole mess.

  11. I think what changed in the early 1990’s (maeaning the advent of Clinton)…Was that the Dmocratc party tried to play catch-up with the Republicans in the use of media…

    Don’t forget…Nixon was finally elected to the presidency by the efforts of a team recruited from the L.A. shop of the J. Walter Thompson ad agency…(Read “The Selling of the President”)

    The Dems chased after that corporate cash to pay for the high-priced consultants and media-savvy insiders in D.C.

    That’s what the DLC was (and is) all about…

    It’s ALL smoke & mirrors these days…

  12. I think there’s one additional factor that’s often overlooked that both helped splinter the Democrats and helped focus the conservative movement, and that was the ’70s changes in campaign financing rules. They were intended to make the process more democratic, but had the effect of empowering business PACs (who worked both parties, but whose anti-union and anti-regulatory agenda was more in tune with conservative Republicans) and single-issue groups (again, working both sides, but encouraging situations where elections could be decided by demagoging on one or two hot-button issues, wich favored the side intent on using such issues to gain ground (again, the Republicans)).

  13. Well done! We thought that if we could get people to stop talking about race, racism would decrease in salience. It hasn’t. But we have lost the ability to talk about how it harms our society.

  14. Great post!

    One often hears (about middle-class repub supporters) “why are they voting against their self-interest?”, usually followed by stuff in the democratic platform that would help them.

    I think that often we underestimate how idealistic most Americans are in their politics. The repugs sell their reverse-robin-hood programs with “sure, this may not be so great for YOU, but it’s good for the COUNTRY”, and the heartland voters just lap it up.

    A more accurate way to approach these voters is “you ARE America. If you want to know what is good for most of the country, look at what is good for YOU.”

  15. Great post, but the Dems’ problems can be summarized quite succinctly:

    1. The Dixiecrats became Republicans (as you said).

    2. By 1980, as far as the average American was concerned, the New Deal/Great Society’s job was done. Blacks were free enough, the elderly were secure enough, women were liberated enough, the poor were taken care of well enough. All guilt was assuaged.

    3. Most people are untroubled by deep thoughts, and thus are suckers for the emotionally-based propaganda of the Right.

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