Who Are the Democrats?

Hubert Humphrey
Hubert Humphrey; drawing by David Levine

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…

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