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Coalitions of Convenience, Periods of Polarization

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Top left: Andrew Jackson; Bottom left: Thomas Jefferson; Top right: Bill Clinton; Bottom right: Barack Obama

An look at the history of the Democratic Party — and the Left — in three periods from Jackson and Jefferson to Clinton and Obama.

Coalitions of Convenience, Periods of Polarization is part two of “U.S. Politics: A Brief Guide for Organizers,” a three part series from historian and organizer Van Gosse for Organizing Upgrade.

The major political parties in the U.S. have usually been coalitions of convenience, united more by habit and ancestral regional and ethnocultural loyalties than coherent ideologies. Occasionally, however, forced by events, they do coalesce around a powerful shared set of beliefs, and when that happens, huge changes become possible. And these are the periods when what the left does – or doesn’t do – can make a difference.

We can see this pattern most clearly through examining the history of the Democratic Party. It is the only party that has gone the distance, from the founding through the present. The Democrats are the through-line in U.S. political history, which is the first reason we need to understand them. A second reason is that figuring out the left’s relationship to the Democratic Party is crucial for left strategy today.

The history of the Democrats can be broken up into three general periods. And to understand each period—and the factors that led to the transitions from one to the next—special attention has to be paid to the moments of political, racial and social polarization.

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  • 1790-1860, the First Republic
  • 1865-1932, the Stasis of Democracy
  • 1933-Present, the New Deal Order and Its Collapse

Democrats 1790-1860: The White Man’s Party 

There is still ingrained in popular memory and among the pundit class a stubborn attachment to two ideas: first, that the Democratic Party has always been “the party of the people”; and second, that Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were the original “democrats,” men who, despite their incidental connections to slaveholding, really did represent ordinary Americans against elites.

In this telling, back then slavery was part of the natural order which everyone accepted, and Jefferson simply could not see the contradiction between the Declaration of Independence’s asserting the equality of “all men” while he subjected hundreds of people to ceaseless labor. Jackson, another big slaveholder, should be accepted the way he saw himself, as a relentless foe of “capitalists” and “aristocrats.” The party these men built (which until recently held Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners all over the country) therefore represents a basic continuity of justice and egalitarianism, from Jefferson and Jackson through Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson to Barack Obama.

This is a dangerous myth disguised as history: at every point before and long after the Civil War, the “Democracy” promoted by Jefferson, Jackson, and their descendants was explicitly racial. It came to its fullest fruition in South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun’s famous declaration that “the two great divisions of society are not the rich and the poor, but white and black, and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.”

The historical reality of the Democratic Party is best expressed in a famous quotation from Martin Van Buren, who succeeded Jackson in the Presidency in 1837. From a Hudson River slaveholding background, he wrote the South’s most influential editor, Thomas Ritchie, in 1827. Van Buren proposed to re-establish their party on a new basis, backing the military hero Jackson via a coalition “between the planters of the South and the plain Republicans of the north.” The following year Jackson swept the presidency and the renamed Democratic Party emerged as the most powerful force in national politics.

Polarization over slavery and party realignment

The racial basis of the Democratic Party was no secret, nor was it uncontested. Plenty of Northern politicians, from John Jay, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to William Seward and Salmon P. Chase, founders of the Republican Party in the 1850s, called out the bad faith inherent in the Jacksonians’ newfangled notion of a herrenvolk [master race] democracy. Not only had slavery’s extraordinary expansion (from 700,000 to four million in seventy years) corrupted the republic, it had also corrupted democracy. At the Founding, free black men had voting rights in ten of the original thirteen states. Subsequently, Jeffersonians and then Democrats had attacked nonracial suffrage while expanding it for white men. By the 1850s, however, nonracial suffrage had been reclaimed in the most Republican sections of the North (all of New England except Connecticut, plus New York, and Ohio).

The first instance of a coherent ideological party that we can view retrospectively as progressive was not within but against the Democrats. It was, of course, the emergence of a new Republican Party, whose radical wing was led by Seward and Chase, in the 1850s. That party was defined in two ways: first, it was explicitly Northern, not nationwide, owing no debts to the South and slavery (unlike the defunct Whig Party, from which most Republicans came, including Lincoln); second, it was emphatically antislavery, united around a common cause of using all constitutional means to restrict and eventually smother the “peculiar institution.” For twenty years, 1856-1876, that worked—slavery was destroyed, and the Democrats became the party of a reactionary minority. But in face of pressure from advocates of white supremacy North as well as South, Republicans acquiesced to the crushing of Reconstruction in the 1870s, ending the possibility that they would remain a progressive, biracial national organization.

The stasis of democracy, 1865-1932

During and after the Civil War, the Democratic Party made itself even more explicitly the Party of White Supremacy; in fact, that powerful slogan was invented by one of their publicists in New York City in 1863, and they campaigned on it for decades, attacking the Republicans at every turn as seeking to “put black over white.”

Despite this historical record, journalists and popular historians keep treating the pre-New Deal Democratic Party as essentially the same party that turned the whole country left in the 1930s, just as they assert that the Republicans have always been a conservative party of business. This is what historians call “presentism,” the fallacy of reading the present back into the past.

Between the Civil War and the New Deal, the Democratic Party was in no way progressive, populist, or class-based. It remained what it had been since the 1830s, an alliance of white southerners with disparate Northern groups, especially Catholics. Between their abandonment of Reconstruction in 1877 and the New Deal era, the Republicans were no more cohesive. They too included a range of classes and ethnicities, including the majority of Protestant workers and virtually all African Americans. Both parties shared the goal of promoting the development of US capitalism into a global empire, even if they fought bitterly over how and who should benefit. Support or opposition to tariffs was the major dividing line; otherwise, the overlap between the programs each party advanced to meet its goals was so great that radicals called them “Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” Here’s a handy way of getting at the parties’ similarity in ideological terms: the two great progressive presidents, who together built the modern American welfare state, shared a name and background (Roosevelt; upper-class) but belonged to opposing parties.

There were significant challenges to capital’s agenda during this period, but none led to a crisis comparable to the polarization over slavery or a large-scale party reconfiguration. Instead, the challengers were absorbed into the two-party system.  In 1896, the Democrats, led by a young Nebraska congressman, William Jennings Bryan, “fused” with the radical People’s Party representing farmers (which had briefly swept much of the West and was building interracial alliances in the South). The Democrats were decisively defeated by the Republicans led by William McKinley, who promised a “full dinner pail” for workers based on massive tariffs, and that victory made the Republicans the the dominant party until 1932.

The second challenge came in 1912, when Eugene V. Debs’ Socialist Party peaked in a four-way race, with Debs getting 6% of the popular vote. Debs competed with two self-styled “progressives” who absorbed parts of the Socialist program: the victorious Democrat Woodrow Wilson (who took 42% of the popular vote and forty states) and his chief rival, Theodore Roosevelt (27% and six states), leading a short-lived Progressive Party that split the Republicans.

To be clear: throughout this entire period, the Democrats’ base in national politics was the one-party Solid South, with remarkably small white electorates after the states of the former Confederacy disfranchised black voters between 1890 and 1908.  To further confuse today’s categories, Democrats appealed more to white rural Protestants than the Republicans. Strange as it may seem, the latter were the party identified with capitalist modernity and big-city ways, including social tolerance (most Jews were Republicans). There was never any doubt about which party the “Second” Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s would infiltrate – the Democrats! Klansmen took over the party in several states, notably Indiana and Oregon, and were powerful across the North because of their anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic politics; one notes that President Trump’s father was arrested at a violent Klan protest in Queens, New York, attacking the city’s “Catholic” police.

Class polarization and the real New Deal

Understanding the New Deal is key to overcoming the Left’s “American Exceptionalism,” and fetish of European models. Some academics and even some leftists continue to insist that it was fundamentally conservative, a capitalist trick imposed on the U.S. working class. This really misses the point: at its height in 1934-1938 the New Deal may not have been socialist, but it was a significant expansion of worker’s rights and economic strength driven by an upsurge in working-class militancy. The federal government guaranteed employment to anyone who wanted to work, through programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, and outside the South progressive New Dealers made sure that African Americans received their fair share. Between 1934 and 1942, one-third of American families survived because of those jobs. It established a nationwide system of social insurance where nothing at all had formerly existed—and that’s just a start.

None of this happened because Franklin Roosevelt possessed an innate sympathy with the underdog. It was a coherent policy response to a particular conjuncture when U.S. capitalism was utterly unable to deliver on its promises of greater consumption and national prosperity. In the early and mid-1930s, led by class-conscious Marxists, the working class intervened in national politics via massive “hunger marches” and a series of general strikes, pointing to the possibility of a direct attack on capital itself. This upsurge climaxed with the formation of Committee (later Congress) on Industrial Organization (CIO) in 1935, and the sit-in at the key General Motors plant in Flint on December 30, 1936. By that point, the nation was completely polarized—think of FDR’s speech on October 30, 1936, in which he denounced the “Government by organized money” and announced “I welcome their hatred.”

Despite this surge in working-class initiative, the radicals did not have the strength to overturn Jim Crow and break the power of the Southern segregationists within the New Deal coalition. The political vehicle for New Deal programs—the Democratic Party—continued to contain deep contradictions. The labor movement had barged its way into a major place at the table, but financial power and a large mass base was still held by Southern white supremacists, Northern city bosses, and the Roosevelt wing of U.S. capital. With the Republicans maintaining die-hard opposition to reform, the Democrats became simultaneously the only vehicle through which radicals could move, and an inherently unstable coalition bound to break apart. Buoyed by the enormous economic expansion that began in World War II and continued through the 1960s, that point turned out to be a long way off. The Democrats became the dominant majority for fifty years (1930-1980), leaving the Republicans as a minority party of small and big business people and farmers outside the South.

The Left: Absorbed again

Historians call the party system that emerged from the 1930s the “New Deal Order,” and if examined strictly in partisan terms it was remarkably long-lasting: nearly all of the time from 1930 to 1994 the Democratic Party controlled Congress. Only twice (in 1946-1948 and 1952-1954) did Republicans take over both Houses, otherwise it was all-Democrats all-the-time, until Reagan’s New Right seized the Senate (but not the House) in 1980-1986.

But maintenance of the New Deal party alignment did not mean continuation of the New Deal’s radical edge. To the contrary, via McCarthyism, Cold War anticommunism, and the post-World War II “consumers’ republic” focused on individual mobility, the Democrats became the party of the U.S. as a hegemonic imperial power. They remained the custodian of New Deal reforms, with a measure of influence for organized labor (which had purged its radicals), and the terrain where insurgencies against racism and war had some traction. The Democrats were functionally labor’s party at the national level, when almost four times as many workers belonged to unions, and the Republicans generally represented Wall Street, but their programs in office differed little.

Because of the ideological consensus uniting the parties, partisan divisions were less firm. Republicans still competed for black votes (easier when the Democratic Party contained white supremacists controlling much of Congress), and the Democrats were still competitive in the Mountain West. The most emphatically “left” major-party presidential candidate in the twentieth century, Democrat George McGovern in 1972, was a Senator from South Dakota.  Further, McCarthyism, meaning the organized suppression of the Marxist left, was emphatically bipartisan, even if McCarthy himself was a Republican who used charges of “treason” to attack the Truman Administration. For good reason, then, the eminent sociologist Daniel Bell captured the overwhelming cultural consensus of this era in his paradigmatic 1960 book, The End of Ideology, whose subtitle was “the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties.” Not for long!

A second reconstruction, but…

Both parties were shaken up and broken down in the 1960s and 70s. But whereas the Republicans began to cohere around a new and focused ideological mission, the Democrats’ various constituencies spread apart and away from each other, with no coherence other than institutional survival.

Cold War liberalism, based on tax-and-spend policies rather than social democratic guarantees of universal employment, healthcare, and education, peaked with LBJ’s Great Society of 1964-1965: the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Medicare and Medicaid, and more. The center could not hold, however—ideology had to creep its way back in, and the New Right led the way. The take-over of the Republican Party by dogmatic reactionaries, from the 1961-1964 Goldwater insurgency to the Tea Party, was the most successful intervention in conventional party politics by ideological activists in U.S. history. Truly this was “the other Sixties,” and we need to start there to understand where we are today. This campaign had three roots: the bitterness of Old Right conservatives at Republican accommodation to the New Deal; the intense anti-communism of new converts like Reagan, disgusted by the notion of “containing” rather than crushing the Soviet Union; the alienation of racist Southern Democrats, who had been looking for a new party home since 1948, when the national Democratic Party slowly began to adopt civil rights.

Simultaneously, the Democratic Party was fissuring. The black freedom movement (best understood as a Second Reconstruction) and the massive anti-Vietnam War movement capsized the party, producing sheer chaos. From the late 1960s into the 1970s, Democratic presidential campaigns were free-for-alls, with ex-segregationists like George C. Wallace, hardcore Cold Warriors like Henry Jackson, and “radical liberals” like George McGovern (and Shirley Chisholm) competing to represent what was still the majority party. This competition did not produce any meaningful clarity; instead, figures like Jimmy Carter filled in the center-right.

What really tore the Democrats apart was the movement of sectors of the New Left into the party in the 1970s just as the Southerners began their exodus to the Republicans. Antiwar veterans, Black Power advocates, and feminists took seats in the House, including Representative Ronald Dellums of Berkeley, the Reverend Robert Drinan (a Jesuit priest) of Boston, Patricia Schroeder of Denver, and many more. Most important was the massive increase in black representation, and the formation of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1970, which served as the voice of the Democrats’ social democratic left until the 2000s. McGovern’s successful campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1972, as the tribune of the antiwar movement, represented this new party, but the results were shocking: the AFL-CIO refused to endorse the national ticket, much of the party’s Establishment followed suit, Republicans pilloried McGovern as the candidate of “acid, abortion, and amnesty” (for the sixty thousand draft resisters in Canada, then a white-hot issue) and he lost forty-nine states to the incumbent Nixon, who took 61% of the popular vote. In a sense, the Democratic Party has been dealing with the consequences of that loss ever since.

From Carter to the Clintons: A Democratic morass

From the 1970s to the 2000s the party was gripped by backward-looking angst and an electoral politics based on cautious calculation. In presidential years, it tried to hold onto a non-existent “center” by angling for Southern white votes while taking everyone else for granted. In the eight elections between McGovern’s defeat in 1972 and Obama’s triumph in 2008, the Democrats’ only won when they nominated New South white men with center-right stances and a modest commitment to maintaining the New Deal and Great Society, like Carter in 1976 and Clinton in 1992 and 1996.

The GOP had its own tensions in these years, but its direction was steadily right-ward, towards clarity and unity. Although after Reagan they nominated candidates with Establishment roots, like George H.W. Bush and Robert Dole in 1988, 1992, and 1996, the “movement conservatives” kept picking off moderates and pushing an agenda of absolute laissez-faire and imperial white nationalism. The younger Bush was the great unifier, bridging Sunbelt Reaganism with the evangelicals to whom he spoke a private language of faith and, finally, the New England Republican elite into which he had been born. If Karl Rove’s vision of a brown-white party incorporating Latinx voters had been realized, and they had avoided the grandiose delusions of the Iraq War, the Republicans might have finally become the majority. But such a course was highly unlikely given the GOP’s addiction to racism and militarism. And following the financial crisis of 2008 and an election that not only repudiated the Republican establishment but brought the first African American to the U.S. presidency, the one-time party of Lincoln was ripe for capture by a white nationalist demagogue named Donald Trump.

Next Up: “Where Do We Go From Here?  Is there an opportunity for radical realignment in or around the Democratic Party, or will the establishment forces who simply want to return to the status quo pre-Trump continue to rule the roost?


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