Democrats -- the Party of Disorder, and Achievement

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Mr. Conn is a professor in the history department at Ohio State University and a writer for the History News Service.

It was during Franklin Roosevelt's first term that Will Rogers is said to have joked: "I am a member of no organized political party-I am a Democrat."

As the dust of this momentous midterm election settles, that joke has been resurrected -- mostly by people much less funny than Rogers -- to describe the dilemma of the incoming Democratic majorities in both Congressional houses. After all, many of the new Democratic members of Congress seem to sit to the right of the Democratic leadership on a whole host of issues. How can these Democrats govern, puzzles the punditocracy, since they are clearly so riven and disorganized?

The implicit answer, at least in much media analysis, is: they can't. The new Democratic majority is simply too fragile to bear the weight of its own internal contradictions. This conclusion has become an orthodoxy in the press.

But this consensus seems willfully to ignore the history of Congress across much of the 20th century. Will Rogers said that his party wasn't organized; he didn't say that it was ineffective.

Between 1932 and 1994 Congress was ruled by Democrats except for a few years in the middle '40s, early '50s, and the Senate in the '80s, and the Democrats who controlled those congresses were always messy, unwieldy coalitions. As President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt fashioned a Democratic majority that included labor unions, the elderly, urban ethnics, African Americans and white Southern conservatives. Strange bedfellows indeed.

Far from being the bastion of liberal special interests groups, as the party has been caricatured by so many commentators, the Democrats in Congress were usually led by their conservatives and pragmatists. More often than not, since 1932, the Democratic House Speakers came from places like Alabama and Texas, and the longest serving (1961-1977) Democratic Senate majority leader was Mike Mansfield from that hardly left-wing stronghold of Montana. In other words, Democrats have always managed to balance their Congressional leadership ideologically.

Yet this motley assortment of Democratic politicians managed to work together enough to create the New Deal, including the Social Security program; fight and win the Second World War; pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts; and get man to the moon. While the Democratic big tent might often have resembled a three-ring circus, those Congresses managed to advance the nation's agenda in historic ways.

Meanwhile, over this same period, the Republican Party looked remarkably stagnant. In his 1936 speech accepting the nomination to run for a second term, FDR called the opposition "economic royalists." And so the party has largely remained. The only significant demographic the party has added are those white Southern conservatives and evangelicals, many of whom finally did leave the Democratic Party, largely because of racial issues.

Otherwise the Republican Party's attempts to create its own "big tent" have faltered. George Bush was supposed to make the GOP an Hispanic-friendly place. In this last election Hispanics voted more than 70 percent for Democratic candidates.

During the twentieth century congressional Democrats may have governed effectively not despite, but precisely because of, their heterogeneity. Democracy, after all, is a process whereby people with many agendas come together to define a common good. It is a process that involves compromise, deal-making and operating pragmatically rather than ideologically. Given their intra-party experiences, Democrats simply have more practice doing all this than Republicans do.

During their 12 years in power, on the other hand, congressional Republicans could not play well with others. They governed only from their political base, relying on the very wealthy and the evangelicals for their support. They equated compromise with weakness, and set out to destroy personally those who offered other ideas. Their legacy is a bitterly divided nation. That bitterness came home to roost on November 7.

Indeed, Republicans don't even seem to be able to play nicely with each other. Once some competing voices appeared within the Republican Party, the party imploded. In particular, moderate Republicans were marginalized and humiliated, and former administration figures who disagreed with White House policy were vilified in public.

Congressional deadlock is certainly a real possibility for the in-coming Congress. If that's the case, however, I suspect it will be largely because of Republican intransigence and not because of internal disagreements within the Democratic Party. Democratic diversity - of ideas and experiences - has been the party's great strength since 1932.

Will Rogers may have been right in saying that Democrats didn't constitute an organized party. But then, this is a messy, bumptious, diverse nation, not a nation of people who march neatly in rank and file. Who better than the Democratic Party to represent that?

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Michael J Pearce - 12/6/2006

However, like all history, it never exactly repeats itself.

We live in a time unlike before even '94. The public is ever more divided on issues, and these differences are strengthened by all the available media.

It will be interesting to see how the Dems do in power...

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/30/2006

For several years prior to 1994 there was little cooperation between the Democratic majority in the House and the GOP minority. There was a modicum of cooperation under President Reagan with tax laws, but little else, even though G. H. W. Bush was practically a liberal. Bush finally sold out his side egregiously in the "read my lips, no new taxes" fight, and he also generally sold out on extremist environmental matters. The National Register pages, which had contracted sharply under Reagan (just after Carter), resumed expanding again with a vengency under G. H. W. Bush, as burdensome regulations came pouring out of Washington again. Bush 41 appointed one conservative to the Supreme Court, and one rabid liberal. He was, in fact, a dreadful excuse for a GOP president. He not only failed to depose Saddam, he also made the wrong noises to Yugoslavia and other new countries when the Soviet Union broke up. You heard nothing from Bush, Sr., about the venality and criminality of the United Nations, even though he knew that story as well as his son did.

Bill Heuisler - 11/29/2006

When he writes, "relying on the very wealthy and the evangelicals for their support. They equated compromise with weakness, and set out to destroy personally those who offered other ideas." he forgets the Dem refusal to deal at all on such early Bush issues as social security reform and energy policy.

He forgets the Dem ex-Presidential candidate who shouted President Bush, "...betrayed this country!" two years after agreeing with a vote to use armed force in Iraq. He forgets those Dems who accused our President of "lying" to get us into war.

Wealthy? does Conn mean those who make over $50,000 with two workers? They are the ones Kennedy wants to punish. Mr. Thomas brings up Soros and Gates. Does Conn forget all the multi-millionaire Dem senators who will rescind tax breaks that help small business and middle class double-earners. What elected official has more money than Kennedy, Corsine, Rockefeller, Boxer et al, Mr Conn?

Tired old truisms don't belong in an article purporting to have something to do with history.
Bill Heuisler

Frederick Thomas - 11/28/2006

... but I would tender one small correction.

The Republicans are not the party controlled by big money. Rather the democrats are. As convicted felon George Soros and convicted monopolist Bill Gates say, "It's my party," and you do not get much bigger in loot than these two leftist Democrats.

The fact is that US manufacturers have been clobbered for over 70 years with exhorbitant double taxes and one-sided labor legislation, none of which they have been able to counter by campaign spending.

This policy has halted our formerly world leading rate of capital formation, which is the entire basis for a prosperous economy with high living standards. Formerly great companies such as GM and Ford are all but bankrupt today, and their jobs have been sent overseas. The retired workers who extorted such overly generous benefits stand to lose them all. For small companies, the burden is even greater. The Democratic party and its labor supporters are largely responsible for killing the goose that laid the golden egg in America.

How ironic that China taxes its corporations much less than do we today. The results of such wise policies are clear in the results. Investment in China is enormous, and is growing rapidly while we are dying in the manufacturing sector.

The days of a real link between big business and the Republicans go back to the civil war, which was heavily pushed by Northern manufacturers such as explosives manufacturer Du Pont, and which might fairly be laid at their feet. There is no comparable strong connection today.

Aside from that little issue, this was a fine article.