Democrats — the Party of Disorder, and Achievement
by Steven Conn on Nov 21, 2006
It was during Franklin Roosevelt’s first term that Will Rogers is said to have joked: “I am a member of no organized political party-I am Democrat.”
As the dust of this momentous midterm election settles, that joke has been resurrected — mostly by people much less funny than Rogers — to describe the dilemma of the incoming Democratic majorities in both Congressional houses. After all, many of the new Democratic members of Congress seem to sit to the right of the Democratic leadership on a whole host of issues. How can these Democrats govern, puzzles the punditocracy, since they are clearly so riven and disorganized?
The implicit answer, at least in much media analysis, is: they can’t. The new Democratic majority is simply too fragile to bear the weight of its own internal contradictions. This conclusion has become an orthodoxy in the press.
But this consensus seems willfully to ignore the history of Congress across much of the 20th century. Will Rogers said that his party wasn’t organized; he didn’t say that it was ineffective.
Between 1932 and 1994 Congress was ruled by Democrats except for a few years in the middle’40s, early ’50s, and the Senate in the ’80s, and the Democrats who controlled those congresses were always messy, unwieldy coalitions. As President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt fashioned a Democratic majority that included labor unions, the elderly, urban ethnics, African Americans and white Southern conservatives. Strange bedfellows indeed.
Far from being the bastion of liberal special interests groups, as the party has been caricatured by so many commentators, the Democrats in Congress were usually led by their conservatives and pragmatists. More often than not, since 1932, the Democratic House Speakers came from places like Alabama and Texas, and the longest serving (1961-1977) Democratic Senate majority leader was Mike Mansfield from that hardly left-wing stronghold of Montana. In other words, Democrats have always managed to balance their Congressional leadership ideologically.
Yet this motley assortment of Democratic politicians managed to work together enough to create the New Deal, including the Social Security program; fight and win the Second World War; pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts; and get man to the moon. While the Democratic big tent might often have resembled a three-ring circus, those Congresses managed to advance the nation’s agenda in historic ways.
Meanwhile, over this same period, the Republican Party looked remarkably stagnant. In his 1936 speech accepting the nomination to run for a second term, FDR called the opposition “economic royalists.” And so the party has largely remained. The only significant demographic the party has added are those white Southern conservatives and evangelicals, many of whom finally did leave the Democratic Party, largely because of racial issues.
Otherwise the Republican Party’s attempts to create its own “big tent” have faltered. George Bush was supposed to make the GOP an Hispanic-friendly place. In this last election Hispanics voted more than 70 percent for Democratic candidates.
During the twentieth century congressional Democrats may have governed effectively not despite, but precisely because of, their heterogeneity. Democracy, after all, is a process whereby people with many agendas come together to define a common good. It is a process that involves compromise, deal-making and operating pragmatically rather than ideologically. Given their intra-party experiences, Democrats simply have more practice doing all this than Republicans do.
During their 12 years in power, on the other hand, congressional Republicans could not play well with others. They governed only from their political base, relying on the very wealthy and the evangelicals for their support. They equated compromise with weakness, and set out to destroy personally those who offered other ideas. Their legacy is a bitterly divided nation. That bitterness came home to roost on November 7.
Indeed, Republicans don’t even seem to be able to play nicely with each other. Once some competing voices appeared within the Republican Party, the party imploded. In particular, moderate Republicans were marginalized and humiliated, and former administration figures who disagreed with White House policy were vilified in public.
Congressional deadlock is certainly a real possibility for the in-coming Congress. If that’s the case, however, I suspect it will be largely because of Republican intransigence and not because of internal disagreements within the Democratic Party. Democratic diversity – of ideas and experiences – has been the party’s great strength since 1932.
Will Rogers may have been right in saying that Democrats didn’t constitute an organized party. But then, this is a messy, bumptious, diverse nation, not a nation of people who march neatly in rank and file. Who better than the Democratic Party to represent that?
Steven Conn is Professor of History and Director of Public History at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.