Everyone loves history, especially their own. It is perhaps therefore not surprising to see a spate of Democratic/Liberal columnists fret about the possible similarities between the upcoming Democratic Convention in Denver and the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. There, the Democratic Party — caught between an entrenched old guard and a vocal youth vote, between supporters of the Vietnam War v. opponents, civil rights activists in varying degrees, and supporters of Robert Kennedy adrift after his assassination — engaged in brutal internecine warfare that split the party and gave Richard Nixon the victory.
But is it the right analogy? I would suggest, as I know others have as well, that the correct analogy lies not with 1968 but 1932. That story ended happily for the Democrats, and it is worth considering why and whether that success can be repeated — if we do not try to shove our differences under the rug and “play nice.”
More below . . . .
Unless one studies history in a serious way, it is easy to forget how divided the country was in 1932 and how difficult was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) rise to the nomination. First, we forget that in an age when physical handicaps were considered a source of shame, nominating a man in a wheelchair was as radical and historic as nominating a woman or an African American. But leaving this chance resemblance aside, we come to the comparison of the economic and foreign policy situation.
The Great Depression raged. The Republican Party, which had assumed the mantle of control of both Congress and the Presidency in a time of general economic prosperity and optimism, had become enormously unpopular. But this did not translate into a sure victory for the Democrats. The Democrats themselves were torn. On the one hand were traditional party leaders who supported only moderate changes in policy, lest radical economic reform destroy the free market economy and create the grounds for a Communist revolution. At the same time, the progressive wing of the party wanted radical reform to address the economic crisis, claiming that only radical economic reform could prevent a Communist revolution. Further, the electorate as a whole wanted the economic problems solved. With Dustbowl farmers literally starving in the street while the government destroyed excess crops to maintain prices for those farms that prospered, with foreclosures and bank collapses rendering destitute families that had believed themselves comfortably middle class, and with World War I veterans demanding the government honor its promise to pay veterans a bonus, progressives demanding radical reform had a strong base. Huey “the Kingfish” Long, then a young Senator-elect from Louisiana, pushed a program of wealth redistribution to take money away from the “old regulars” of oil, finance, and cotton interests and use these to improve the education and living standards of average Americans.
Internationally, the fear of the Red Menace inspired fear in the general populace and drove a host of anti-free speech and anti-civil liberties measures. Some of these were left over from WWI, given new force by the fear of a socialist revolution. Others were new. Either way, the FBI remained busy taping phones and conducting searches of possible “subversives” without troubling to secure warrants — and the country did not protest overmuch. After all, as anyone not a socialist could tell you, we were in a war against an international conspiracy that threatened to take over the world and hated us because of our freedoms. What with Europe caught between fascism and communism, did we really want to see that happen in America?
Against this background, FDR faced a serious challenge in uniting a fractious party and a restive, angry electorate. He did it by a fine art of compromise, ambiguity, appealing to greater principles (his promise to give “men and women, forgotten in the political philosophy of the Government . . . a new deal”), and using the relatively new mass medium of radio to his advantage. The result was not merely a substantial win (he won 57% of the vote and carried all but 6 states), but an election that realigned American politics. FDR’s 1932 victory ushered in an age of radical transformation of government and its institutions that continues to resonate and endure. Indeed, it is perhaps tribute to the success of FDR’s revolution that almost the entire thrust of the Neo-Con/Free Market agenda has been little more than to roll back these reforms, and that this roll back effort was halted by the electorate in 2006.
It is understandable that those who lived through the 1968 convention, or who recall how party divisions in the first two years of Bill Clinton’s Administration paved the way for the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, to worry about the fractures that have come to light during this election. (I do not say “emerged,” as some have, because they existed well before the election and were visible to anyone who cared to look.) Unsurprisingly, these pundits and party veterans are now publicly warning that we had all better “play nice” and avoid a fractious convention lest the Democrats dissolve into their own caricature of squabbling special interests, ideological purists, and identity politics.
To which I respond that ignoring divisions does not make them go away. What the Democratic Party needs is a frank and honest discussion among all its constituencies about real issues. The populists and progressives who supported candidates like Edwards and Kucinich will not go meekly into the night. Nor will the spectacle of African American and Latino civil rights leaders embracing and pledging to support whoever wins the nomination satisfy the rank and file that want to see their issues addressed. We need a nominee and a party leadership that does not shy away from the discussion, or try to silence debate within the party with appeals to expediency and the need to win the political contest of the moment. “Shut up, play nice, and wait your turn” is as sure a route to the fractious party politics of 1968 and 1992-94 as I can imagine.
What we need is someone with the political courage of FDR. Someone who can say to the progressive wing: “I have heard you and I promise real change; maybe not as much as you want, but enough to make a real difference.” Someone who can say to the traditional wing of the party: “It is not going to be a revolution, but it is going to be change — and I mean real change not just ”change.“ But if you work with me, it will be change you can live with; change done with you, not to you.”
That conversation won’t happen if we all hush up and play nice just so we can beat John McCain. And if we don’t have that conversation, than I am not at all convinced we will beat John McCain. The question of the hour, therefore, is not whether the Democratic rank-and-file can forget their differences and unite around the party leadership. Rather, the question is to the leadership. Do you have the courage to genuinely lead? Do you have the courage, the strength, and the ability to bring together factions with real differences and work out a livable consensus? Can you convince us not to set aside our differences, but to work through them to come to common ground? That’s what FDR and the Democrats did in 1932, that the Democrats in 1968 could not.
Which will it be? 1932? Or 1968?
Stay tuned . . . .