Yes, Democrats Won Lots of Elections Back When They Tolerated Bigotry

Joel Kotkin has some unusual advice for the Democratic Party in his recent piece, “Time to Bring Back the Truman Democrats“:

To regain their relevancy, Democrats need to go back to their evolutionary roots. Their clear priorities: faster economic growth and promoting upward mobility for the middle and working classes. All other issues—racial, feminine, even environmental—need to fit around this central objective. In survey after survey, economic issues such as unemployment, the economy, and the federal budget top the list of concerns while affirmative action, gay rights, and climate change barely register. [emphasis in original]

Kotkin repeatedly hits on the theme that an emphasis on civil rights has been a mistake for Democrats and that it’s the reason that many white voters have abandoned the party. He advises the party to look to the example of its founder, Andrew Jackson, who “challenged financial power… but also worked to expand the economy, opening new lands to settlement, and encouraging home ownership and grassroots entrepreneurship.” [emphasis added]

There are many, many distressing things about Kotkin’s article. Just think about the racial subtext of Andrew Jackson’s “opening new lands to settlement,” for one. He also has a tendency to look at how a few demographic subgroups voted in 2014 and see evidence of the Democratic coalition fracturing, even though it was really just one typical midterm election with an anti-presidential vote. He bizarrely suggests that a “neo-WPA” that provided employment and job training, enacted early in Obama’s first term, would have been a difficult target for the Republicans, even though that’s pretty much exactly what the stimulus was. And he says part of the Democrats’ problem is that Obama has refused to claim a belief in the nebulous concept of American exceptionalism, even though Obama has done exactly that.

But on his main empirical point, that Democrats used to do better in elections back when their leaders didn’t talk about race or gender or the environment, well, that’s actually true, although probably not quite in the causal sense Kotkin seems to be implying. The Democratic Party of the mid-20th century was an historical anomaly. Thanks to the legacies of both the Civil War and the Great Depression, Democrats had an enormous and ultimately unsustainable coalition of both northern liberals and southern conservatives, integrationists and segregationists. Basically, a lot of poorer southern whites were still blaming Republicans for “northern aggression” in the 1860s and a dismal economic record in the 1920s and 30s. Democratic leaders tried to prolong this coalition as long as possible, largely by avoiding taking stances on civil rights. Ultimately, civil rights activism on the streets and in party conventions forced Democratic leaders to change their stances and actually begin advocating for civil rights laws, which is what finally drove most white southerners out of the party. You can chart a similar path by feminists and gay and lesbian activists to achieve the same ends in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

The decision for the party to confront environmental degradation, meanwhile, was one made over many decades by Hans Noel’s ideological coalition merchants and party activists, who worked to make sure that only candidates who cared about these issues could become Democratic nominees. Mid-century Democratic leaders didn’t bring up the issue because it just wasn’t much of an issue yet, not because of some brilliant political tactic to keep their coalition large.

There was undoubtedly much to admire about the Truman Democrats, but their legacy of avoiding action on race, feminism, the environment, and other issues is not really one of them. And there’s little reason to believe that the party would suddenly reclaim its giant mid-century coalition if it abandoned its stances on those issues. More likely, it would just lose the support of those activists who have worked hardest to give it its victories over the past few decades.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.