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Right and Left in Democratic Politics: The Long View | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Right and Left in Democratic Politics: The Long View


It was only after the ascension of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that the Democratic party began to be regarded as fundamentally liberal (AP Photo.)

Here’s a pet peeve of mine. It’s when people refer to the “democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” Or who say of a Democrat who makes consistent moves to the right, “Why doesn’t he just join the Republicans?” It’s not the underlying sentiment; I want Democrats to stop doing right-wing stuff as badly as anyone. The problem is descriptive—and, ultimately, strategic. The fact is that the Democratic Party in modern times has always had a conservative wing, one frequently as strong or stronger than its liberal wing, and as such, when progressives speak of the party as a vehicle that naturally belongs to them, as if by right—until conservatives stole it from them—they weaken progressivism. The fact is, the history of the Democratic Party has always been one of ideological civil war. And if you don’t realize you’re in a war, how can you win it?

Let’s review the game tape. Take it all the way back to 1924—when both parties had both left- and right-wing factions (before that year, the great progressive reformer Robert “Fighting Bob” Lafollette of Wisconsin was a Republican), when there was no reason to believe the Democrats would be the ones to become the nation’s established left-of-center party, and when at the presidential nominating convention the civil war came down to 103 ballots (and gubernatorial fistfights on the convention floor) over issues like Prohibition and whether the party should be for the Ku Klux Klan or against it.

It was of course with the ascension of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and after that the idea of the Democrats as an institutionally liberal party became credible, though many delegates who voted for him at the convention didn’t necessary think or know they were voting for a liberal. Many voters didn’t think so, either, but just marked the ballot for him because he had a “D” beside his name: They were Southerners, and saw the Democrats as the only political bulwark against the racial mongrelization of America. The progress of the New Deal, we now understand, rested on a fragile and complicated coalition joining visionary progressives and the most fearful reactionaries—and when an overconfident Roosevelt overreached to try to put the reactionaries in their place, in 1938, he almost lost control of the whole thing.

With the coming of the civil rights era, the war played out against that precise template: Northern progressives asserting themselves, Southern reactionaries threatening to pack up their votes and go elsewhere—a melodrama that began with a bang in 1948 when Strom Thurmond led Dixiecrats out of the convention and into his own segregationist presidential run, and reached its apotheosis in 1964 when five Southern states went for Goldwater. That, of course, truly began the slow steady transition to ideological realignment, with more and more Southern Democrats voting Republican in each election.

But, wouldn’t you know it, a new issue immediately arose to muddy anew what it meant to be a Democrat. In 1968 the floor of the convention once more split right down the middle, fistfights included, this time over the question over whether the Vietnam War was a good thing or a bad thing. But the end of the war didn’t bring ideological unity, either. In fact, the fist post-Vietnam election, post-Watergate, in 1974, inaugurated today’s order of battle between the right- and left-leaning wings of the party. Democrats gained forty-nine seats in the House and three in the Senate, giving the party of Jefferson and Jackson an approximate two-to-one advantage over the Republicans. People assumed a liberal deluge was in the offing, Congressional Quarterly noted predictions that the 94th Congress would become “a labor-orchestrated puppet show.” Ronald Reagan said, “The small fires that at first threatened free enterprise are growing daily into full-scale four-alarm blazes,” predicting, “We’re going to see a flood of expensive, spectacular, and ill-conceived legislation which can’t be derailed or even tempered by the voices of moderation.”

In fact, something like the opposite happened—as could have been predicted by the language of the “Watergate Babies” on the campaign trail.

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Thirty-six-year-old Gary Hart was more or less the ideologist of the bunch. His memoir of the McGovern presidential campaign, which he had managed two years earlier, called liberalism “near bankruptcy.”Time called him a “liberal.” “Traditional ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ slogans,” he wrote back in an angry letter to the editor, “are simply not adequate to cope.” He said the best way out of the energy crisis was “to work together. There will be a lot more cooperative ventures between the environmentalists and the energy developers.” His stock speech, “The End of the New Deal,” argued that his party was hamstrung by the very ideology that was supposed to be its glory—that “if there is a problem, create an agency and throw money at the problem.” It included lines that could have come from Commentary, the neoconservative magazine Jerry Brown, who was friends with Hart, liked to read and quote. Like: “The ballyhooed War on Poverty succeeded only in raising the expectations, but not the living conditions, of the poor.” (That was false: the poverty rate was 17.3 percent when LBJ’s Economic Opportunity Act was enacted in 1964 and 11.2 percent as Gary Hart spoke.) He called those who “clung to the Roosevelt model long after it had ceased to relate to reality,” who still thought the workers, farmers and blacks of the New Deal coalition were where the votes were, “Eleanor Roosevelt Democrats.” He held them in open contempt. His outmaneuvered opponent, a once-popular two-term conservative incumbent, said Hart seemed to be “trying to get to the right of Attila the Hun.” A 32-year-old congressman-elect from Michigan, James Blanchard, said “I’m not entirely sure what my political philosophy is.”

There was a political reason for this. These new Democrats, seeds for Bill Clinton’s capital-n New Democrats, were replacing Republicans in predominantly suburban districts. They spoke to the desires of a white-collar constituency—and not that of the fading urban proleteriat (“We’re not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys,” Hart famously said). And though many of them, including Hart, frequently did yeoman’s work to reimagine progressivism for a new generation (for instance, in the field of environmentalism), some of them, and their immediate successors, also did yeoman’s work selling off great chunks of the old Democratic agenda to corporate bidders—like Tony Coelho, the California congressman elected in 1978 who became head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1980. Exulted a Dallas venture capitalist about this new/old breed of Democrat in a 1986 profile of Coelho, “I’m one of the biggest contributors to the Governor of Texas, but can I get him on the telephone? Hell, no. Sometimes it takes a week. I call Tony any hour fo the day or night and he gets back to me immediately. Some days he just calls to ask how I’m doing. That pleases me tremendously.”

This battle goes way back. It’s written into the Democratic Party’s DNA. Acknowledge the other side, study them—take them seriously. Don’t let them play the underdog; that just advantages them, too. We’re in a fight here—always have been. They think they are the party—just as confidently as we believe we’re the party. The only way to make our vision of this party a reality is to work for it—and not to act surprised when their side works for it, too.

Educate yourself about the contracts you sign, or you could easily fall victim to small print, Rick Perlstein writes.

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