Populists and Progressives A Brief History of the Democratic Party

“Do you believe in a citizen’s right to gun ownership?”
“I do.”
“Do you believe that the life of an unborn child should be protected?”
“I do.”
“And do you believe that religious freedom should be restored and expanded?”
“I do.”
“Then, sir, I think you would be very happy with our candidate running in your district.”
“Republican or a Democrat?”
“Republican, sir.”
“I wouldn’t vote for a Republican to save my own life. All they care about is helping big wigs.” The man hangs up 
the phone.

THIS CONVERSATION IS MADE-UP, but a Republican operative from Southern Indiana told me he has ones just like it every election (although fewer now than before). “There was a time when a third of this state wouldn’t vote anything but Democrat because of the New Deal,” he said, “and another third would never vote Democrat because of civil rights.” The former are now almost all dead, and the latter are smaller in number every year. Still, there are people like the hypothetical man above who, if they are party outliers on societal matters like abortion, guns, and discrimination, they aren’t party outliers in the sense of being outliers. As H.L. Mencken wrote a hundred years ago, “The plain fact is that the Democratic party is scarcely a party at all, but simply a loose federation of discordant minorities.”

Mencken’s observation feels almost as true today. Back then the discordant minorities were black Americans and Ku-Kluxers; wets and dries on prohibition; Silverites and monetarists; liberal Bourbons and Southern demagogues; urban progressives and rural populists. Now they’re immigrants and the working poor; organized labor and middle-class consumers; those gentrifying neighborhoods and those whose neighborhood is being gentrified; socially conservative minorities and gay men and women who want marriage equality; environmentalists who want clean water and North Dakotans who want jobs; the marginalized who don’t want to be mocked and intellectuals who resent further demands of self-censorship; suburban women who want gun restrictions and black men who know whose guns will get restricted. At times, Democratic voters seem to merely be those whom the Republican Party must demonize in order to win elections.

The Democratic Party has been called both “the party of the people” and “the second-most enthusiastic capitalist party,” seen by some as the only way to bring about social reforms and by others as the “graveyard for social movements.” In truth, it’s both. That is, it’s both the most effective tool for progress and the most effective tool for thwarting it. It’s the party for those who want a democratic society through class struggle and those who want a polite society through social harmony. Of course, in a fundamental sense it isn’t a political party at all. It has no platform that its politicians must commit to, nor a mass membership that would decide on such a platform. (Comedian Will Rogers once joked, “I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat.”)

In which direction the Democratic Party goes is determined by massive and complex forces: the ebb and flow of history, the mobility of capital, the industrial development of other countries, the balance of power between employers and employees. But the complexity in understanding the Democratic Party is no excuse for detachment. Nor is the cynical evaluation that the Democratic Party is corrupt and feckless and will always be. If the Democratic Party is a dead end, it might also be the only way forward. And, given economic inequality and furthering ecological ruin, understanding this paradox might be the only way to avoid catastrophe.

Ideologically speaking, the Democratic Party has two outlooks, referred to and signified in all sorts of ways—populist and progressive, radical and moderate, socialist and neoliberal, idealist and pragmatist. I’m going to call them populist and progressive (as I often don’t find the pragmatic moderate pragmatic or moderate or the radical idealist radical or idealistic), although they’re really best distinguished not with titles but by who each regards as the enemy. For the populists, the enemies are the rich and powerful—those who make the decisions of society, those who reap the spoils. For progressives, the enemies are the ignorant and the bigoted who vote for cultural affirmation rather than their checking account. In 1967 Arthur Schlesinger Jr. summarized the progressive outlook perfectly when he wrote,

It is no longer the common man against the economic royalist, or the worker against the boss so much as it is the rational against the indignant, the tolerant against the bigoted, the planner against the spoiler…the educated against the uneducated, the young against the old.

For the populist, politics is still very much about the common American against the economic royalist and the worker against the boss.

There’s often also a certain class distinction between the populist and the progressive. The populist is lower, the progressive is higher. The populist came from a family that needed a social worker; the progressive is a social worker. The populist votes for welfare, redistribution, and active government because those things guarantee more income and steady work; the progressive votes for those things out of philanthropic motivation or to extirpate a guilty conscience. The populist wants things to change; the progressive wants everything to stay the same, just without the bad.

The populist and the progressive are odd bedfellows and find themselves in the same party for structural and historical reasons that neither would’ve preferred. Since Republicans and Democrats collude to keep third parties out—even though individual Republicans or Democrats will support a third party if they think that party will steal votes from the other—all social movements are eventually corralled into one of the two parties or left out of the political process to fossilize into eccentric lifestyles.

The populists’ enemies are the rich and powerful. For progressives, it’s the ignorant and the bigoted. The populist wants things to change; the progressive wants everything to stay the same, just without the bad.

In 1968 the Republican Party had effectively been without political power for thirty-six years. Dwight Eisenhower had served two terms as president, but he had a Republican majority in Congress for only two of those years and won both the 1952 and 1956 elections by essentially promising not to enact the Republicans’ economic agenda.

Up until this time, progressives were prominent in both parties. After the 1968 presidential election, however, a perfect storm of those massive and complex forces mentioned above came together and pushed almost all the country’s progressives into the Democratic Party. In turn, progressives already within the party argued that the only way for Democrats to win again would be to abandon the class politics of the populists and stick exclusively to cross-class issues like environmentalism, women’s rights, racial equality, and consumer protection (and even these only when purged of redistributive character). Since then, despite a few populist upsurges—Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in 1984, for example—progressives have been in steady control of the Democratic Party.

For its part, the GOP, like all political parties of the powerful, has only one election strategy that works. It goes by many names—”white backlash,” “know-nothingism,” “the politics of fear,” or “the culture wars.” Fundamentally, this strategy promises not improvement but validation. The government won’t give you more say at work, but it will make sure the state holiday decoration is called a “Christmas tree.” It won’t build dams or invent cures, but it will do its best to make sure your daughter doesn’t date a black boy. Do you like to bring your AR-15 to Denny’s? You’ll hear no sneers from the Republican Party. In US history it’s Calvin Coolidge’s “Americanism,” Republicans of the Gilded Age “waving the bloody shirt,” and the 1840 presidential campaign of William H. Harrison. That year the Whig Party didn’t even bother putting together a platform; Harrison was a hard-cider drinker from Ohio, Martin van Buren an effete aristocrat from New York—what else did one need to know?

Richard Nixon ran on this strategy in ’68. He was the anti-progressive candidate who spoke for those who weren’t rioting in the streets, growing their hair out, using drugs, or having promiscuous sex. European ethnic minorities—Italians, Poles, and Irish—were alchemized into “working-class whites,” and Nixon promised this new “silent majority” not a better life but that the rest of the country—particularly black protesters, student rioters, and the “old stock” progressives who excused or even sympathized with them—would be made to suffer in silence as they had to. The sons and daughters of those who had been demonized as the “foreign element” and “criminal class” by the Republican Party in previous generations were now the ideological self-image of the party’s base. Republicans had been courting the South ever since Southern Democrats ran their own presidential candidate in 1948 (the last time the South had done so was in 1860); now the party of Lincoln was telling Southerners there wasn’t a thing in their platform that wouldn’t make Jefferson Davis blush.

The backlash strategy only works under particular conditions—such as a stable economy (it sometimes gets called “the luxury of bigotry”)—because in times of economic crisis, people need solutions rather than scapegoats. In 1932 Herbert Hoover, rather than promising to do anything to get the country out of the Great Depression, instead blamed the whole thing on Hispanic immigrants and European banks, and lost by eighteen percentage points to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who at least promised to do something (even if he never said what that something would be).

For Nixon in ’68, the backlash strategy couldn’t have been a better fit. Not only was the economy working, the Democrats’ donor base of labor unions, city machines, and Southern property owners was falling apart. Throughout the fifties, anti-Communism had purged the labor unions of its most radical members; those left behind in union leadership survived by personal timidity and patriotic zeal. The city machines were furious with the national Democratic Party for extending olive branches to rioters and protesters. The South had obviously had enough. No longer could the national Democratic Party pretend to be only indirectly chipping away at white supremacy through universal programs; civil rights were the fulfillment of what labor unions and progressive intellectuals had been maintaining for years—that Southern racists should not be a part of the people’s party—and Southern racists finally agreed.

The more the Democratic Party has depended on the business community, the more its politics have benefited investors and executives at the expense of employees.

Much popular attention has been given to the Democratic Party’s loss of the South. A loss, it should be said, that wouldn’t be the case if the Democratic Party had the decency to fight for the voting rights of black Southerners and for the continuation of government programs that brought black people into the party to begin with. (The re-election of FDR in 1936 was the first time the Democratic Party had won a majority of black voters.) If it weren’t for anti-democratic laws, the South would still be Democratic. In Mississippi, for example, you can lose your right to vote just by writing a bad check, and the governor must not only win the popular vote but also the majority of congressional districts, which are of course gerrymandered. In 2018, the Alabama state legislature passed a voter ID law, then turned around and closed DMV offices in counties with high black populations. Southern Republicans obviously wouldn’t bother themselves with all this work of suppressing votes if they didn’t think it might sway an election.

Nonetheless, losing the South has been a political fact for the Democratic Party and its negative effects have been just as much rhetorical as political. The Southern rhetorical style—quick, direct, and armed to the teeth with folk metaphors and folk analogies—is largely missing from Democratic speech today, replaced by the New England style that is somehow both too safe and too harsh. A style well suited for moral absolution but not for practical politics—fearless in a sermon but gun-shy in a debate. Say what you will about Southern Democrats like Louisiana’s Huey Long—and there are plenty of nasty things to say—but when a bunch of racists tried to oppose his program for statewide education by pointing out it wouldn’t be just for white Louisianans, he said black and white alike had a right to learn and that the only people who benefited from black Louisianans not knowing how to read or count were plantation owners trying to shave a dollar off their paychecks. Compare that with the modern progressive who opposes free college because it might inadvertently help some rich white kids or universal healthcare because there are a few families that can actually afford to pay their deductibles.

Members of National Nurses United labor union march through in Foley Square in New York City on Day 20 of Occupy Wall Street, 2011.

Worse for Democrats than losing the South, however, was losing their symbiotic relationship with labor unions. A loss no better exemplified than by the fact that in 1968 the AFL-CIO was a major donor and foot soldier for Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign, while in 1972 they wouldn’t even formally endorse George McGovern.

Money abhors a vacuum, and the vacuum left by labor and city-machine money was quickly filled by money from the business community—particularly from finance, technology, and media. The business community was very conscience of corralling the Democratic Party. “A great danger in America is if we go the way of the British,” said the executive director of an oil and gas lobby in 1986, “with a labor party and a business party. And that’s what’s going to happen if the Democrats get no business money.” Since the sixties, labor and the Democratic Party have been caught in a negative feedback loop. The more the Democratic Party has depended on the business community, the more its politics have benefited investors and executives at the expense of employees. And the less power and money labor has had because of those politics, the less it has been able to influence the party.

Hence the Democratic Party’s two biggest constituencies are now progressive professionals (professors, social workers, lawyers, software engineers, copywriters, fundraisers, non-profit workers, and so on) and black Americans of all classes, occupations, and political beliefs, having been alienated from the Republican Party by decades of racist fear-mongering about interracial dating, affirmative action, “welfare queens,” Barack Obama’s birth certificate, and, more recently, Chicago’s murder rate. Progressive intellectuals haven’t demanded much more from the Democratic Party than to beat Republicans, and most black Americans vote Democratic simply because it’s their only option. They aren’t expecting any help, just a de-escalation of anti-black politics (and even on that Democrats don’t always deliver—see Bill Clinton’s crime bill and his Sister Souljah speech).

Progressive professionals are materially linked to the party only through staffing, and neither they nor black Americans contribute much to the party’s overall funding. Therefore “the party of the people” spends most of its time wooing the business community just like the Republicans. When Tom Perez, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, visited Indianapolis two years ago, he had lunch at the Skyline Club rather than at a union hall or a black church. When Donna Brazile, the interim chair before Perez, was there recently for an annual Chamber of Commerce dinner she let the audience know that people like her were working hard to blunt the populist demands of Democratic voters.

When your voting record doesn’t distinguish you from your political opponent, you have to find something that does, and that something is always something toxic— like patriotic virtue—or frivolous—like lifestyle choices (why should driving a truck or doing yoga suggest anything about a person’s politics?).

As many critics of the Democratic Party’s rightward drift like to emphasize, the party has gone from the party that, in 1933, passed the Glass-Steagall Act (forbidding financial institutions from being both banks and investment firms) to, in 1999, the party that virtually repealed it. The repeal contributed to the 2007–2008 financial crash, where the country, like in 1929, turned to the Democrats for solutions. This time, however, we didn’t get any. For the Great Depression, FDR was willing to upset the business community to get people working again. Some of the party’s progressives attacked him for it; two former Democratic presidential nominees, Al Smith and John W. Davis, joined the executive committee of the American Liberty League (a business lobby that was established in opposition to Roosevelt’s New Deal). The Obama-era equivalent of this would’ve been like John Kerry and Al Gore joining the Tea Party. That didn’t happen though because Obama didn’t do anything to upset the business community (and therefore didn’t upset the progressive wing of the Democratic Party). His economic team was staffed with former Wall Streeters, and bankers expressed genuine astonishment at just how much the White House was willing to do for them.

Well before then, the Democratic Party had already so limited its vision and purpose that it was boasting about essentially acting like progressive Republicans. “We’re Eisenhower Republicans here,” Bill Clinton told his staff in 1994, “and we are fighting with Reagan Republicans.” Alan Greenspan, a self-described “lifelong libertarian Republican” who was nominated to chairman of the Federal Reserve by Reagan and reappointed by Clinton, said Clinton was “the best Republican president we’ve had in a while.”

Just because progressive control over the Democratic Party has coincided with the party’s general trend of bureaucratic caution and Chamber of Commerce economics doesn’t mean progressivism should be totally rejected. Nor does the cynical abuse of progressivism discredit its genuine expression. Historically, progressives have gotten plenty of things right that populists have missed or downplayed—the most morally poignant case being the movement for abolishing slavery. Most populist Democrats in pre-Civil War America dismissed abolitionism as the moral crusade of Northern progressives brave enough to attack chattel slavery from across the Mason-Dixon line but silent (or even approving) of the wage slavery right down the street. Many populist Democrats even argued that chattel slaves had it better than wage slaves: the latter treated as property invested in; the former an employee easily discarded if it saved his or her temporary master a quick buck. (It should be said that as the nineteenth century went on, there were populists who attacked both chattel and wage slavery. Wendell Phillips, for example, understood that abolitionism and the labor movement were the same fight, and the founding list of demands of the Free Soil Party in 1848 included the “abolition of chattel slavery and wage slavery.”)

The fact that slavers in the 1830s and 1840s felt themselves to be in a political dilemma about whether to ally with the Northern business community (which defended slavery on the grounds that slaves were property and that all property was sacred) or the populist Democrats (who attacked abolitionism as a moral front of the business community trying to lower the value of labor by flooding the North with free black workers) shows that the populist fixation on the immediate challenges of the struggles between employee and employer, debtor and creditor, renter and landlord, can lead to fundamental errors in morality. An imperfect contemporary analogy with this would be like when Bernie Sanders, in a 2015 interview, called “open borders” a “Koch brother’s proposal.” As wage slavery was used against chattel slavery, so has native labor been used against immigrant labor. (For those who would object that a political party only has commitments to its country’s citizens, it’s worth remembering that slaves weren’t considered American citizens at the time and that they were seen as economically beneficial because they were doing the work citizens weren’t willing to do.)

A tragedy (or at least unhappy inevitability) of populism is that it must eventually turn its historical heroes into human beings, if not into outright villains. Before FDR, the most popular populist president was Andrew Jackson. FDR himself compared his New Deal to Jackson’s war against the banks, and the Communist Party USA once declared itself a torch-bearer for the Jacksonian tradition. Now Jackson is remembered not for white male suffrage or workhour regulations but for Indian genocide and for censoring abolitionist literature. It’s possible that when future populists think of FDR, who today is praised by even pessimistic populists, they’ll think of Japanese internment camps and New Deal legislation that was anti-black, particularly in social security and housing.

The Democratic Party finds itself in a double bind. It wins votes by promising radical change, but it wins funds by promising peace of mind for the business community. Part of why we see so much polarization today—apart from the profitability of controversy-making partisan media—is that both parties suffer from this internal bipolarization. For fifty years, on policies of war and economy, the two parties have been practically identical. From annual increases in military spending to the Federal Reserve’s current monetary policy, Republicans and Democrats vote the same way. And when your voting record doesn’t distinguish you from your political opponent, you have to find something that does, and that something is always something toxic, like patriotic virtue, or frivolous, like lifestyle choices (why should driving a truck or doing yoga suggest anything about a person’s politics?).

The progressive wants to be different from the conservative—their moral self-perception depends on it—but when the only way they differ is how polite and professional they think ICE agents should be while harassing and arresting immigrants, then the only way to safeguard that moral self-perception is by attacking people over even the tiniest deviations from the progressive faith. It’s when the differences are small, not big, that heresy hunting is most extreme. In other words, to get less polarization, the poles of both parties have to move further apart, not closer together.

The Democratic Party would lose few elections if the country were more democratic. If there were a popular vote rather than Electoral College, proportional representation rather than gerrymandered districts, a national holiday for elections rather than long lines after work, universal voting rights rather than criminal disenfranchisement. All these things would be great for the party electorally but awful politically. Right now, Democratic leadership wants to be the opposition party rather than actually govern, because when they govern, the country sees the difference between the party’s promises and its policies. They don’t want to challenge an anti-democratic system that they themselves are a part of.

The ebb and flow of the Democratic Party’s two wings must synchronize to meet the demands of our time. The feedback loop between working people and the party must be made positive again, which will require actions outside the political process. Voting isn’t Calvary; it along won’t save anything—although it isn’t nothing either and comes with its own kind of psychological returns. The party shouldn’t settle for more equal representation within an unequal system; it should be fighting for a more equal system in itself. As the first Democratic president wrote, “The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the Grace of God.” And, to take wisdom from one’s enemy, it should not wish for there to be the saddled or the spurred.