Race, Class, and the Ghosts of the Democratic Party

As Seth Masket pointed out yesterday, Joel Kotkin has written a piece in the Daily Beast urging the Democrats to abandon race, environmental issues, and “feminine” issues (yes, that’s what it says; no, I don’t know what it means without being attached to “style,” “mystique,” or “product”). There’s enough wrong with this article to warrant at least two blog posts, so I’m adding to Seth’s response. While the piece itself may not be so important, the ideas that it draws on are prevalent enough in discourse about the Democrats’ direction that I think they call for a serious consideration.

In time for Christmas, here’s how Kotkin got it wrong in terms of the Democrats’ past, present, and future. (Does this make me the Jacob Marley of party politics blogging?)

The meaning of a Truman Democrat tradition: what Kotkin got wrong about the past

To put it plainly, the Democratic Party of the Truman era wasn’t looking past race. They were a party divided, at times deeply and bitterly, over race questions. For one thing, presidents aren’t the only leaders of the parties. During the years that Truman occupied the White House, entrepreneurial Northern Democrats pushed a civil rights agenda as a political and moral move. Southern opponents of equality walked out of the convention in response to the 1948 civil rights platform, and formed their own ticket. Various actors in the party tried to find common ground and avoid further splits in the wake of the 1948 walkout.

To recast the Democrats in the image of Truman as a party icon, which is an interesting thought experiment, would be to draw inspiration from a leader who contended with this divided party. It would be to draw inspiration from a leader who was himself conflicted on the issue. Truman’s own personal background had been in a border state family whose own views were hardly progressive on race. Scholars continue to debate whether Truman’s promotion of civil rights in the executive branch was an act of courage or of calculation, or some mixture of both. (I was once on a conference panel that was almost entirely derailed by a debate about this.) Truman’s steps toward civil rights mostly amounted to rhetorical gestures – addressing the NAACP and speaking in favor of civil rights protections in other contexts. More substantively, he issued an executive order desegregating the armed forces.

One of Kotkin’s points is that the Democrats should “embrace exceptionalism.” Seth countered that Obama has arguably done that. It’s also worth mentioning that Truman’s move toward civil rights was partly rooted in the idea of American exceptionalism; as the Cold War began in earnest, it became increasingly difficult for American leaders to claim moral superiority when African-Americans (including some World War II veterans) were treated so badly. Racial equality and American exceptionalism became tightly connected during the middle of the twentieth century, and good leaders understand that nations can’t just declare themselves exceptional. They have to strive toward realizing their ideals.

Finally, the criticism that Obama should have abandoned health care in favor of a more extensive jobs plan doesn’t really align with historical facts either. Part of Truman’s proposed “Fair Deal” was national health care. Obama’s successful pursuit of major health care legislation is a realization, not a rejection, of the mid-century Democratic legacy.

Who are the contemporary Democrats? What Kotkin got wrong about the Democrats of the present

The premise of Kotkin’s argument about the state of the Democratic Party is flawed as well. The problems he identifies for remediation are the party’s “irrelevance” and their failure to win white working class voters. Neither of these problems are self-evident, however. Larry Bartels has pretty effectively destroyed the conventional wisdom about “white working class” voters and the Democratic Party. And the Democratic candidate has won the popular vote in three of the past four presidential elections. It’s true that recent Democratic candidates don’t win landslides like FDR and LBJ (and it’s not clear, once again, why Truman would be the go-to example there), but Republicans don’t either (with the twenty-year-old exception of Reagan in 1984). Midterm losses appear to be driven mostly by differences in turnout from presidential years, combined with the usual losses for the president’s party.

Turning once again to the internal logic of the Democratic Party, it’s also not reasonable to expect the next group of party leaders to emulate the strategies of mid-century presidents – whatever our interpretation of those strategies may be. The present Democratic Party is not the mix of liberals and conservatives it once was. As Seth mentions, it’s now a party that has been made by liberal activists. To suggest that the party can somehow be decoupled from key elements of its own constituency is fantasy at best. When the argument is that race and gender should be jettisoned in favor of the (putative) concerns of a group of white men, the prescription also smacks of retrograde ideals.

Finally, as I’ve written here before, the contemporary Democratic Party is mostly pretty tepid when it comes to race. Most of the people Kotkin quotes are writers or other activists outside the party structure – not politicians. Despite the outrage directed at New York City mayor Bill deBlasio in the past 48 hours, most mainstream Democrats have hardly been radical in their comments over the past year. Obama – having been harshly chastised whenever he mentions racial prejudice – usually frames race issues in terms of economic inequality, as has the Democratic platform. Economic inequality is important, of course. But activists, journalists, and scholars have repeatedly demonstrated that racial disparities go beyond money. On these questions, the Democratic Party doesn’t lead. It lags.

The common welfare is our business: ignoring the issues of the future

Political leadership isn’t just responding to the immediate demands of a constituency. It’s finding ways to make it politically possible to address the problems facing your constituents. Politicians who are lucky and skilled will be able to turn this into a serious legacy.

Politicians and parties who ignore looming issues usually face a different fate. Looking once again to the past, the Whig Party proves instructive here. This was a party that sought to avoid taking a stance on the issue of slavery. But their non-stance didn’t prevent the issue from escalating. With help, of course, from the Democrats and their missteps, the Whigs’ refusal to get seriously involved in policy about slavery and expansion contributed to the eventual unfolding of the conflict. It also contributed to the party’s demise and reconstitution as the anti-slavery Republicans. The environment, gender inequity, and race issues all affect human well-being in and outside the United States, and any or all of them could shape the politics and economics of the twenty-first century. To pretend otherwise isn’t to affirm American exceptionalism or return to some glorious lost history. It’s difficult to imagine a party attaining long-term success by ignoring these issues and hoping they go away.

Within both parties, there’s a bit of movement toward challenging the old “tough on crime” paradigms that have led to the drug war and mass incarceration. The implications of racial injustice are all around us, daily. In other areas, policies are changing at the state and local level as voters elect to raise the minimum wage and relax marijuana laws. People like Kotkin can continue to pine for their version of the past. But experience suggests that the biggest confrontations over these issues are yet to come.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.