December 15, 2006
Michael Kazin is the author, most recently, of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, named one of the best books of 2006 by The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune. He teaches history at Georgetown University.
The members of the new Democratic majority that takes control of Congress next month do not support every progressive ideal and policy. Dozens of House members, especially from the South and Mountain West, oppose abortion rights, gun control, and same-sex marriage. Other lawmakers still believe the U.S. can emerge victorious in Iraq; they criticize the way the Bush administration has managed the war, not the decision to invade and occupy the country in the first place.
Some liberal journalists and bloggers warn us to beware of such red-hearted wolves in blue garments. They warn Democratic leaders to prevent the conservatives in their midst from gaining influence, lest they stall the revival of a solidly progressive party.
Although the argument may sound logical, it is a prescription for failure. Over the past century, the Democrats, as their very name implies, have nearly always been a broad yet fragmented party—and they were seldom able to reform America unless they could keep those fragments from flying apart.
The party that lifted Woodrow Wilson into the White House in 1913 and strengthened its hold on Congress was a crazy quilt of ideological and regional diversity. Agrarian populists from the West and Dixie caucused both with Southern conservatives who still revered Robert E. Lee and with wily, often corrupt pols from Tammany Hall and similar urban machines. But all Democrats agreed on the need to rein in the corporate rich and give aid to struggling workers and small businesses. So Congress managed to pass the income tax amendment, an eight-hour day for railroad workers, and forged an alliance with organized labor. Only after World War I, when Prohibition became law and the Senate rejected Wilson’s vision of a new global order, did the Democrats devolve into warring factions.
Fifteen years later, Franklin Roosevelt roared into power during the pit of the Great Depression. Backed by huge Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, he signed measures that remain benchmarks of liberal statecraft—the Social Security Act, public works programs, laws that protected the right to organize, established a minimum wage, banned child labor, and placed a floor under farm prices. But none of these policies would have been enacted if FDR had read conservatives out of the party.
As during Wilson’s day, the Democrats’ strongest base was in the South. Roosevelt won over 80 percent of the vote there in 1932 and 1936; a GOP congressman from the region was then as rare as an ice hockey team. The Solid South required FDR’s economic reforms to pass through committees chaired, for the most part, by men who cared as much about keeping black people down as they did about helping the downtrodden white majority.
For African-Americans, the price was high. Some were able, for the first time, to find government jobs, especially in the North. But Roosevelt declined to support a federal anti-lynching bill, the civil rights movement’s highest priority, and it fell victim to a six-week-long filibuster in 1938. FDR explained his painful decision to Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP: “I did not choose the tools with which I must work. Had I been permitted to choose them I would have selected quite different ones. But I’ve got to get legislation passed by Congress to save America.”
Not until almost 30 years later did a Democratic president—Lyndon Johnson—commit himself firmly and irrevocably to the cause of black freedom. But, as LBJ predicted, his support for civil rights and affirmative action split the party wide open, as white Southerners and not a few suburbanites in the North deserted for the GOP. Before that occurred, the Democratic Congress was able to enact Medicare, Medicaid, and a variety of anti-poverty measures. In 1966, Republicans picked up almost 50 seats in the House and effectively finished off the Great Society.
No one should regret Johnson’s principled stand. Propelled by a large and determined grassroots movement, he helped make the U.S. a more tolerant society and opened up good jobs to Latinos and women of all races, as well as to African-Americans. Yet truly progressive eras don’t last long in American politics; it’s been four decades since the last one ended. To keep a victorious coalition together, some compromises are always necessary. But in the 1960s, the Dixiecrats were exacting too high a price: They demanded that the party sell its liberal soul.
Fortunately, no issue of comparable significance divides the incoming Democratic majority. Whatever their misgivings, hardly any of the party’s office-holders favor overturning Roe v. Wade , engage in gay-bashing, or, notwithstanding a certain “independent” from Connecticut, think U.S. troops should keep fighting in Iraq for more than another year or two.
An overwhelming number of Democrats in the new House and Senate do endorse proposals that would begin to reverse the damage GOP administrations since 1981 have done to the welfare of ordinary Americans. Their program includes a serious hike in the minimum wage, tax breaks for college tuition, federal support for low-cost green energy sources, and the legal reform that would enable millions to join unions. A Bush veto would likely follow passage of any of these bills. But together, they could plant the seeds of a New Deal for the 21st century.
Isn’t that prospect worth a bit of compromise with office-holders whose constituents still regard “liberalism” as a metaphor for the anti-Christ? Democrats who can unite behind and forcefully advocate a package of populist economic measures will be in a good position to win the presidency in 2008. Without a friend in the White House, those seeds will never bloom into a fairer, more egalitarian society. So liberals might heed the wisdom of the prancing pundit Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need.”