The Party Isn’t Over

The Parties: Republicans and Democrats in This Century

by Henry Fairlie
St. Martin’s, 236 pp., $8.95

Not to know of [Robert] Taft—not to let him into one’s mind, into one’s very bones, even if it is only then to expel him—is not to live and breathe the politics of America in this century, and not to have one’s being in it. [The Parties, p. 77]

It is difficult for any man to look serious while prescribing for all Americans a Robert Taft bone-implant. And it does not help to permit a subsequent Taftectomy. Fairlie does not improve things when he divides his book into elephant and donkey sections. The symbols are flogged with relentless cuteness. In fact, animal similes turn the book into a mad little animal farm. When the Republicans are not elephants (usually with two broken tusks), they resemble dead fish afloat; their candidates are horses from Caligula’s stable. Journalists are birds twigged with the lime of a phrase (he says this!). Roosevelt’s cabinet was a team of horses marvelously driven. Readers in the Library of Congress are grazing deer. Dewey was the runt of a litter, none of which deserved survival—but Dewey least of all:

They had picked a loser, and they stuck to the runt. It would have been a great deal better if, like a sow, they had just rolled over on the wretched creature. But instead they suckled him. Was ever a drying teat offered to such an undeserving mouth?

The analysis (indeed, the grammar) is on a level with this imagery. Fairlie, an Englishman, loves “old politics” of the machine sort—repeatedly praised as “rough and tumble.” He hates the “lavender” effetes of either party who refuse to tumble roughly—sissies like Stassen and Scranton, Adlai and Gene. Al Smith, Roosevelt, and Truman are the Fairlie heroes, and much of the book pits against their idealized portraits furious caricatures of everyone else. Feeling sorry for Nelson Rockefeller was not a knack I had acquired until I read Fairlie’s pages of impassioned vituperation:

So one turns to the most lackluster of them all: to the man who throughout the whole period has been perhaps the most ineffably incompetent politician on the national scene, the All Star of Born Losers, the black hole of the Republican universe into which astronomers gaze wondering if there can be such a thing as absolute nothingness, the leader who did not have to be buried in 1976 because he had self-destructed so often, the most dishevelled of them all, Nelson Rockefeller. It appears from the first pictures from Mars that there is no life on the planet: not in the sense of someone like a person walking about on its surface. But we must consider that if a spacecraft landed on our own Earth, and showed pictures only of Nelson Rockefeller, we might not recognize it as life. If in an earlier age his disembowelment had been ordered, he would probably at once have been declared a saint by his bewildered torturers when they discovered that from this man who had walked and breathed there was not even a length of gut to be extracted: that within this life there had only been a space.

Fairlie gets so worked up by the targets of his hatred that he becomes incoherent. Look at that sentence about a space ship landing so that we cannot recognize something on “our own Earth.” Or what was clearly meant to be a devastating comment on Wendell Willkie: “That is the liberal Republican: caught not with his trousers down, but with them up, as clothed as he ever is.”

Fairlie’s biases are comic. He attacks a Stevenson follower for elitism when she says, “We who were so lucky had great obligations.” But the Squire of Hyde Park is praised by Fairlie in the same terms: “It was part of his obligation as a ‘have’ to do something for the ‘have nots.”’ Though Fairlie says this country should have two “governing” parties—i.e., capable of governing as well as getting elected—he finds no beginning of such capacity in the Republicans (having performed his own Taftectomy). On the other hand, real flaws in the Democratic party’s history—e.g., its finessing of civil rights for so long, its military interventionism—are overlooked, to concentrate on the prissy rhetoric of Adlai and Gene. Despite a gesture or two at objectivity, Fairlie takes up a cheerleader pose before the Democrats. He even compares the party to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant: it “has borne on its own body the injuries of the nation…it has borne the sufferings of the nation, carried its wounds as its own…it has borne the wounds also of the Depression, and it has been a casualty also of the struggle for civil rights.”

It is hard to know where to begin on such an inadequate analysis of the parties. But some of the things Fairlie ignores or distorts can be listed.

—Though Fairlie says our political system will not regain its health until it has two governing parties, the normal condition of American politics is to have a stable majority (governing) party and a stable minority party. Fairlie treats as a scandal the fact that Democrats have been ascendant for forty-six years now—with only superficial intrusion by a nonpartisan Eisenhower and by a Nixon profiting from a split in the majority party. But he does not look at the long reign (seventy-two years) of the Republicans before 1932—with, again, only two intruders: Grover Cleveland when the Republicans suffered from reform and populist movements; Woodrow Wilson when the Republicans suffered the Bullmoose split.

—Fairlie says the Republicans cannot govern because they do not feel at home in America—i.e., not at home with the Eastern Establishment. But that feeling is widespread, and not more provincial than Eastern contempt for “the hinterland.” In representing that feeling, the minority party performs its normal function of including what might be left out. As V.O. Key noted, the national minority party is a majority party within many enclaves and electoral units. It survives like marbling in a cake, strong within confines. At the local level, many Americans have always lived under one-party rule (not necessarily the rule of the national majority party).

—Fairlie rhapsodically celebrates the “realistic” tactics of ward and precinct without noticing the conditions that make such tactics irrelevant to much of modern politics. The role of the city machine was to handle the large influx of immigrants in a paternalistic way. There was a trade-off of largesse for votes. But federal welfare undercuts this process, ‘replacing the bosses’ hack “Santa Claus” with civil servants. Besides, increased literacy and mobility, campaign-finance reform, and a broadened electorate have loosened party ties at the local level, increased ticket splitting, and expanded the role of radio, newsreels, and then TV. Fairlie’s nostalgia for Al Smith gives no guide to politicians trying to cope with these conditions. He mentions a few of them, to be dismissed with a flat assertion that the parties’ death has been prematurely announced.

So Fairlie’s “method,” if it can be dignified with that term, is to cheer heroes, boo villains, and yearn for the good old days. The irony is that his idealization of Roosevelt and Truman makes him overlook the “rough and tumble” realities of the New Deal coalition. He argues that the party became truly national and governing under those presidents because of a heroic inclusiveness. This explains what he considers the near miracle by which the Democrats have retained the South despite their benevolent attitude toward blacks: “It is hard to think of any other party in any of the Western democracies that has so instinctively and then so resolutely been ready to identify itself with a subject minority in the nation.” Thus, when Carter ran in 1976, he could include all of the South. Fairlie twice cites with approval this explanation of the result: “The blacks, the farmers, and the rednecks. Who else is there?” But, 1) it is still to be seen whether the Democrats can retain the South; and 2) Carter did not win the rednecks in 1976—he narrowly lost the white Southerners’ vote; and 3) the South cannot be reduced to Fairlie’s three categories; and 4) the Democrats succeeded in the South precisely when they were not willing to “bear the wounds” of blacks.

This latter point is systematically whitewashed by Fairlie. Roosevelt retained the “solid South” by opposing anti-lynch and anti-Klan planks and laws. He repeatedly told NAACP director Walter White that not only could he not introduce an anti-lynch law, he could not give support to any bill introduced from the Hill. When, in 1938, he allowed himself to say something in favor of abolishing the poll tax, he quickly retreated when challenged by Senator Pat Harrison: “At no time and in no manner did I ever suggest federal legislation of any kind to deprive states of their rights directly or indirectly to impose the poll tax.” Even Roosevelt’s defender, Frank Freidel, concluded that he “seemed ready to leave well enough alone in questions that involved white supremacy; Mrs. Roosevelt was sometimes accused of tinkering with these matters, but not her husband.”

Roosevelt ran with a defender of the racial status quo, “Texas Jack” Garner—as Stevenson ran with Sparkman and Truman with Barkley. (By the time Kennedy, to the horror of his liberal supporters, struck the customary deal with the South, his running mate was no longer blatantly racist—but neither was he the civil rights reformer he would become after Kennedy’s assassination.)

Fairlie is just as starry-eyed about Truman. He says that the civil rights plank of 1948 was “passed with the president’s approval,” that the party “was ready with the support of its leader to risk the defection of the South.” Actually the famous Clark Clifford memorandum of 1947 convinced Truman that the South would not split over the introduction of a civil rights bill, a bill which had to be introduced, according to Clifford, to meet the real danger from the left, Henry Wallace’s third party effort. When Clifford proved a false prophet, Truman sent him to the Philadelphia convention to finesse the problem by retaining the toothless plank passed four years earlier. Hubert Humphrey blocked this White House strategy; but Truman’s famous campaign of 1948 undercut the Dixiecrat threat by concentrating on the do-nothing Republicans on the Hill, not the powerful Southern chairmen protecting white supremacy. Civil rights played no part in that famous upset—except by the absence of reference to the issue.

Fairlie wants to praise Roosevelt for being tough and pragmatic; but then he presents him as messianic. It is true that the black vote, what there was of it, was part of the New Deal coalition. But only managed blacks were allowed to vote in any formidable way down South (where the post-civil-war Republicanism of blacks was sentimental when not self-defeating). The great migration of blacks north had not yet occurred, and registration and voting levels were low in the black population that did exist there.

Roosevelt could juggle North and South precisely because of conditions that no longer exist in our national politics. He could claim that he was unable to dictate to strong local machines or impregnable Southern chairmen. The level of black awareness and organization was still low. The North retained, in large part, its sappy view of the South (represented by Gone With the Wind’s popularity both as book and movie). The national explosion of television had not yet occurred. Regional appeals could be compartmentalized.

By 1948 all these things were changing. The blacks had moved north and settled into the cities. Black and white service in the war had increased pressure for integration of the armed services. Party conventions were, for the first time, televised.

The importance of that last fact is not often overstated, but it is frequently misstated. We are told that television puts too high a premium on glamour and gimmicks—as if torchlight parades and campaign hoopla were not the very stuff of American campaigns. The age of Harry Treleaven has nothing to teach the age of Phineas Barnum about “selling” people. In one sense, by bringing a candidate into the home, television makes it harder to wrap him in mythology and symbols. We are also told that television is inordinately costly; but the money directed there was spent in many hidden ways through the largesse of the old machine campaigns. Besides, the open power of money can hardly be pushed more than it was by Mark Hanna, when there were no heavy “media expenses.”

The real impact of television on politics is its constant exposure of candidates to the nation as a unit. It is easy to forget how revolutionary that is. In the past, the national ticket was presented to voters through the mediation of regional spokesmen. Roosevelt and racism came as a natural package in the South. Roosevelt did not have to disengage himself from that arrangement, since he came as part of quite different packages in different regions of the country. The presidential candidate was something superimposed on the local political apparatus. The idea of the voters’ direct access to the candidate, of omnidirectional challenge and accountability, of daily interrogation on inconsistencies, was unthinkable. Campaign oratory was formal, outdoors, and local. Candidates alternated crowds and privacy.

The immense change we are discussing can be caught in three symbolic moments. When he was nominated in 1860, Abraham Lincoln said he would give no speeches, enunciate no positions, answer no questions during the campaign because that might be divisive. He not only stuck to that program; more important, his doing so raised no great astonishment or resentment. The local party was left to explicate its candidate in the terms it thought most effective for the immediate audience.

In the Thirties, Roosevelt’s use of a few “fireside chats” generated a national shock of intimacy. Speaking to the whole nation, as if in every front room, was a new experience for his listeners. This was a change the radio was bound to introduce in politics—it corresponds exactly with the change from music-hall voice like that of Al Jolson to the “crooning” use of a microphone by Russ Columbo and Bing Crosby. But it was hastened by Roosevelt’s inability to stride through crowds or engage in any but minimal platform oratory. He summoned newsmen around his desk for press conferences because he could not walk out to meet them. He used the “chat” formula to make people expect him to be seated when he talked.

The third symbolic moment came in 1976, when Carter was accused of tailoring his rhetoric on civil rights for different audiences. The alleged changes were mainly of omission—mentioning Dr. King in one place, not in another. But they were not only reported to the whole nation simultaneously, they were debated back and forth, all regions chiming in, giving a quick verdict on the consistency of an explanation addressed to everybody. The intensity of this universal exposure can be gauged from the fact that only twelve years earlier some of the same journalists accusing Carter of inconsistency had ridiculed Barry Goldwater because he did not exercise some regional discretion in choosing topics for comment. Or consider Ford’s slip on the freedom of nations behind the Iron Curtain. Before the age of television debates, that would have been a minor error, presumably inadvertent, only locally noticed with any real interest. But the conditions of full national exposure create their own expectations about the solemnity of the statement, the preparation presumed behind it, the capacity to voice a government’s views on anything a president might be asked about in his ongoing exchange with the whole nation.

These changes are inevitable, whatever their mixture of good and bad effects. But their impact on the parties is immense. The local party apparatus was the visible reality people experienced, before the party’s national representatives became more familiar than any local spokesman.

Television both changes the symbol to a person and raises that person’s representative status, weakening the importance of the local party. But other conditions are weakening the power of the national leadership as well. Fairlie criticizes the Republicans for having no “farm league” of rising candidates, which prevents them from being a “governing” party. Even if elected, they have no body of capable people to fill the government. But that ignores, first, the essentially nonpartisan nature of the foreign policy establishment and, second, the civil-service permanence of the domestic bureaucracy. If Nixon had not taken Kissinger, he would have had to choose someone from the same stable—which is Brzezinski’s stable as well. Hamilton Jordan said his “outsider” would not have to put up with Cy Vances any more—with what success we see. Fairlie is blind to all this because he continues to treat politics as nothing but electoral politics. But much of our political decision-making and governing is hardly affected by elections—not a new development, by any means.

It is easy to make a case that the parties cannot survive. But it is hard to imagine anything that might replace them for the functions they still perform—including ritual functions. Fairlie’s recommendations cannot be helpful when his analysis is so divorced from reality. After telling us that the parties must not be ideological, he says they must stand for something and offer some choice. His formula is to tell the Democrats to stay where they are, a little to the left of center. This, he argues, may involve developing a manly left to replace the “effetes”; but the party has been not only successful but saintly without such people. Republicans must stand a little to the right of center, which means that their effetes should stop being me-too semi-Democrats and their right wing should obligingly disappear.

Actually, though there has been a weakening of the party at some levels, the national symptoms ascribed to this weakening—volatility, single terms, an exposed presidency—have to do with a far more specific and circumscribable problem, the principal anomaly of our recent political history. The Democrats are still the majority party in every significant way but one. They have a firm grasp on the national legislature (and have for all but two years since 1932); they outregister Republicans two-to-one; they predominate in the state governments. But despite all this, they cannot win the White House without the single largest homogeneous block of voters, the South. If that block goes to the minority party, it can win (as in 1972). It can win even if that block is simply withheld from the Democrats (as in 1968).

This is a non-problem for Fairlie who thinks the Democrats nobly solved the race problem under Roosevelt. But in 1964, the South showed it would not vote even for the first Southern president since Andrew Johnson if he crossed them on racial matters. (Wilson, as a transplant, did not appear Southern even to Southerners.)

In 1968 Senator Thurmond saw his Dixiecrat threat of 1948 finally vindicated. In 1976, not even Jimmy Carter could win a majority of white votes in the South. And remember that Carter was not some study-group liberal planted in the South, like Terry Sanford or Reuben Askew. He was a rural reborn authentic Southerner in all ways but one—racism. If he can’t carry the white South, what Democrat can? Jerry Brown? And if the party does not carry the South, the anomaly persists.

What is now perceived as the weakness of the presidency as an institution, or of this president as a person, is really the result of the anomaly Carter alone has a chance of resolving. He is criticized for his Georgia mafia, his personal righteousness, his remaining an “outsider” even while in office. But all of these are necessary if he is to retain some claim upon the South. Denied the easy appeal of Wallace and Nixon to repression and veiled racism, he must cling to the distinctive style that links him to the South. Southern feelings that Bert Lance and Hamilton Jordan are being picked on by people who hate the South are important to Carter’s prospects for reelection.

On the other hand, Carter must (like Lyndon Johnson) be superclean on race, precisely because he is a Southerner. That gives Andrew Young his irreplaceable importance. (Daddy King will not live forever.) While pursuing détente and policies liberal enough to retain the Northern Democratic vote, he must be bellicose at Wake Forest (military appeals “grab” the South more than any but “anti-crime” ones). Denied the luxury of Roosevelt’s regionalism, Carter must juggle the two key elements to Democratic success in the full glare of national attention.

Carter’s difficulties are structural, not personal. He had to be a Southern outsider to get elected, though that is an anomalous position to maintain after election. Only he could have united the party with its long-lost and vital Southern element (the last time it had voted Democratic was in 1960). Yet the close margin of his victory, both nationwide and in the South, shows how precarious the reunion remains—and that explains the precariousness of Carter’s position. Thus there are many more opportunities for the Republicans than Fairlie can imagine. He rightly thinks Nixon’s Southern strategy was a crude concept; and even if it were stated in more sophisticated terms, it would reflect a regionalism more proper to Roosevelt’s time than to our own. It is true that only fools overtly “write off” parts of the electorate. But the heroic inclusiveness Fairlie attributes to the Democrats never occurred; they won because they knew how to combine targeted sectors of the electorate.

Our history indicates that the minority party cannot escape that status until the majority party falters. This can happen 1) when the majority party splits (to follow rejected leaders like Theodore Roosevelt or George Wallace); 2) undergoes disaster (the Depression); 3) or fails to include new parts of the electorate (western groups in the Jacksonian movement). The current majority party still suffers from the Wallace split—Carter’s loss of the white vote in the South may prove that his effort to reunite the majority party was a papering over of differences too deep to make real union possible. The party was hit by the disaster of its Asian policy, forcing its president to renounce a second candidacy. It must deal with a demographic shift of votes to young members of the middle class, to increasingly conservative workers, and to the southwest portions of the Sunbelt.

All of these developments offer the Republicans fresh prospects, if they show any imagination. Some are beginning to realize, for instance, that the unions may be detachable from their traditional democratic allegiance. If the Democrats can no longer count on city machines, labor unions, or the South, they have lost much of their traditional base, and all Fairlie’s talk of “folk memory” and a “real” party becomes as idle as his daydream about Roosevelt’s emancipation of the blacks.

The historical odds are that a president can survive unpopularity and rebuff in the first half of his term (when most presidents try their most outrageous initiatives, whether court-packing or Cuban invasion). But even if that proves true of Jimmy Carter, can a liberal like Mondale inherit? Can he keep the South in the fold, making the Carter combination something more than a personal achievement? These are the party concerns in what look like Carter’s merely personal troubles of the moment.


Hyperopia October 26, 1978