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Who Are the Democrats?

The two-party system is like those magic black and white squares which look like a staircase at one moment and a checkerboard the next. Sometimes the two parties seem very distinct and sometimes they seem very much alike. This is one of those periods in which they look very much alike, whence the growing disillusion with the two-party system itself. The twin problems of retreat from empire abroad and of conciliating the black revolt at home call for changes of attitude and policy more fundamental than any we have faced since slavery.

The differences between the two parties just aren’t that fundamental. To examine the past and nature of the Democratic party, which has normally been the party of change and reform, is to doubt its capacity to cope with the twin crises of our time. In the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, unlike those of Grover Cleveland, it seemed easy to tell Democrats from Republicans. When we look back on the New Deal now, from the perspective of our present needs, the difference does not look as sharp as it did then. The rhetoric of American political controversy has never prized understatement, and the strategy of the rich has been to scream so loudly at the slightest diminution of their privileges that the sheer decibel count gives the poor the satisfying illusion that a revolution is going on. So it was with the Roosevelt Revolution. When the clamor died down and the smoke of battle began to lift, the Bastilles were still standing.

IF one were trying to explain the American two-party system to a visitor from a different political planet, let us say a citizen of a Soviet one-party state, the simplest way to begin would be to say that both American parties were capitalist parties. The difference between them has been that generally the Republicans have represented the interests of the big property-owners; the Democrats, the small. But both are equally devoted to private property. After five years of Lyndon Johnson, it may be hard to recall that in the Administrations of FDR and Harry Truman the Democrats were tormented by the accusation that they were crypto-Communist. If a Soviet visitor asked hopefully whether it was true that in those days the leadership were secretly inspired by Lenin, one would have to explain that such charges must be taken in the same sense as when oppositionists within a Communist party are denounced as agents of capitalism. This is the universal poetic license of political controversy. When the Democrats are most heatedly accused of interfering with free enterprise, it usually turns out that all they have been doing is trying to slow up the rate at which the big fish of business have been swallowing the little ones.

Any division of the two parties between big property and small requires many qualifications. Big landowners dominate the Democratic party in the Southern states, which are still pretty much one-party systems; small farmers are the backbone of the Republican party in the Midwest and the rural Northeast. There are also big businessmen in the Democratic party and small businessmen in the Republican; indeed Babbitt—the archetype of the Republican standpatter—was a small business man, from the Midwest let it be noted. It is often said that American politics stops at the water’s edge; it also stops at the oil well’s mouth. The same big oil companies which dominate the Republican party in New York and Philadelphia also dominate the Democratic party in Houston and Oklahoma City. Depletion allowances are as sacred as the Stars and Stripes.

Wisely managed corporations diversify their political portfolios by giving to both parties, though not so generously to the Democrats. In a famous incident during a Federal investigation of the Sugar Trust in the 1890s, a sugar magnate—or tycoon, as we now say—was asked about the extraordinary impartiality shown in the benefactions he showered equally on both parties. “The American Sugar Refining Company,” he replied genially, “has no politics of any kind….Only the politics of business.”

This helps explain why few big businessmen flee the country when the Democrats, as in the 1948 Truman campaign, wage anti-big business campaigns so ferocious as to make Soviet citizens tremble lest the directors of General Motors end up digging uranium in the Far North of an American Siberia. Truman, in a famous speech to farmers at Dexter, Iowa, a few weeks before the 1948 election, sounded like a latter day Robespierre. “The Wall Street reactionaries,” he said in prose as sharp as any guillotine, “are not satisfied with being rich…they are gluttons of privilege…cold men…cunning men…. They want a return of the Wall Street economic dictatorship.” But when this enragé won, the stock market barely yawned.

The style of politics has changed. Trouncing big business, which proved sure-fire stuff two decades ago, has gone out of fashion. We are in a new Era of Good Feeling, in which both parties—and both wings of both parties—share a trusting faith that any problem can now be solved by enlisting private enterprise—so long as it is sufficiently subsidized from public funds. The cynical may wonder whether this is not just another way of buying the acquiescence of the wealthy in social reform by arranging that they make a profit on that, too. Here is a sample of the new rhetoric, as practiced by a present-day radical Democrat:

I do not think we have many real grievances to be urged against bigness in business today…. Some Americans hark back before the days of the managerial revolution, back to the days of the “robber barons.” But this country and its economy have matured spectacularly since the trust-busting days…. The big businesses of bygone generations did, indeed, act in a pattern of savage repression of competition. And current revelations of price-fixing [perish the after-thought!] and other price-holding practices do not help to ease a strong historical suspicion of the motives of great corporations on the part of government leaders, small business men and others…. [But] the pluralistic economy of the 1960s bears little resemblance to the economy of the turn of the century that brought forth the first great trust-busting era…. It is high time that the traditional hostility between the intellectuals on the one hand and management on the other was ended. Doctrinaire thinking has no place…[etc.].

Alert readers may already have recognized the prose style, as bland as marshmallows, richly garnished with fashionable literary and political clichés1 of Hubert Humphrey. The quotation is from his last book as a Senator, The Cause Is Mankind. So statesmanlike had he become by 1964 even before his maturing four years as Lyndon Johnson’s Vice-President.

HARRY TRUMAN was an unsuccessful haberdasher while Humphrey has been stigmatized, somewhat snobbishly, because of his family business, as “a drugstore liberal.”2 On the eve of a new nominating convention, it may be useful to recall that the great heroes of the party of the common man have not been of lowly origin. Its four outstanding Presidents were all of the Gracchus type, upper-class leaders of lower-class upsurge. All the Democratic revolutionaries—as their fond followers hailed them—were men of comfortable fortune and privileged position. Jefferson and Roosevelt were landed aristocrats; Jackson—the only one of them born in poverty—amassed a fortune in land and slaves, in shrewd alliance with the haves against the have-nots of the frontier; the kind of early hardship Wilson knew was of the genteel and socially secure variety that afflicts the sons of ill-paid Presbyterian ministers in well-to-do Southern small towns.

Except for Jefferson, all were originally of rather conservative views, and none was ever as radical as he sounded. Even Jefferson, as Richard Hofstadter observed in his perceptive The American Political Tradition, confined “the generous and emancipating thoughts for which his name is so justly prized” almost entirely to his private correspondence. To their overwrought political opponents, all four seemed to be traitors to their class, reckless leaders of the angry dispossessed. But unlike the Gracchi none of them ever nourished the tree of liberty with more than a few drops pin-pricked from the privileged, who bleed easily. They were revolutionists only in an inflated and metaphorical sense.

Jefferson affirmed the equality of man but never tried to extend the right to vote beyond the propertied minority. Jackson was the symbol rather than the leader of the Jacksonian Revolution; its battles for universal white manhood suffrage and free public education were won before he became President. Wilson, like Teddy Roosevelt, began by being disdainful of the progressive tide they both later rode to fame and power. The measure of Wilson’s New Freedom—how glamorously our liberal patent medicines have been labeled!—is that its principal surviving monuments are the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Trade Commission. The former, after all the attacks upon “the Money Trust” which led up to it, merely rationalized our central banking system. The latter, which was to protect the country against the abuses of big business, long ago degenerated into a toothless watchdog.

THOUGH UTOPIAN SOCIALISM had as great a vogue among American intellectuals before the Civil War as Communism did before the Second World War, and the American Socialist party was a living force before and for a decade after the First World War, socialistic ideas—as distinct from specific reforms which the Socialists were first to advocate—never penetrated the Democratic party. Even Roosevelt, who was ready to try anything to get the country out of the Great Depression, stopped short at the socialistic. Early in his Administration there was some agitation “to put idle hands and idle machines together”; there was an attempt to do just this in an idle Ohio mattress factory. I can remember my disappointment as a young editorial writer on one of the few pro-New Deal newspapers in the country when the project was so quickly nipped in the bud that it seems to have disappeared from the history books. Production for use—a forgotten phrase—was taboo. The Roosevelt Administration preferred to make jobs by “leaf-raking” and public works rather than disturb production for profit. FDR’s celebrated pragmatism ended where the profit system began. His successors show no disposition to go beyond it.

The Democrats as the party of the agrarian and small property-owner, and of the urban machines based on the proletarian immigrant, have tended to be readier for social reform than the Republicans, but not beyond the frame-work of the capitalist system. Indeed, the Democrats are super-sensitive to attack as “soft on communism.” This is often a major determinant of what they will do in foreign and domestic policy. But the record is full of anomalies. Wilson began the non-recognition policy the Republicans applied to the Soviet Union. Roosevelt broke the diplomatic embargo and extended recognition to Moscow.

SHOULD INCREASED international tension or domestic turbulence bring a flare-up of our characteristic American anti-Communist paranoia, it is hard to tell which party would be first to pander to it. It was the liberal Democrat, Wilson, who sent Eugene Debs to jail in World War I and the conservative Republican Harding who pardoned him. The first American witch hunt after the Russian Revolution was launched by Wilson’s Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. But it was the Republicans who revived the Red mania as a political tactic early in the Great Depression under the now forgotten Hamilton Fish, the first sniffer-outer of what came to be known later as “un-American activities.” Right-wing Democrats and Republicans carried this on as a weapon against the New Deal and with covert help from J. Edgar Hoover revived it again as soon as the Second World War ended.

  1. 1

    Often misconstrued, as in the reference to the managerial revolution. Apparently Humphrey did not get beyond the title of James Burnham’s book.

  2. 2

    The Drugstore Liberal by Robert Sherrill and Harry W. Ernst, Grossman, 198 pp., $4.95.

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