A Historical Perspective On Divided Democratic Conventions

[ Posted Monday, August 25th, 2008 – 04:54 UTC ]

Today begins the 2008 Democratic National Convention. The media (or some sections of it, I should say) have been pushing for a big rousing fight on the floor of the convention in Denver -- the Hillary Clinton supporters staging some sort of scene for the cameras -- so they can continue their "look how divided the Democrats are" storyline. The "party divided" theme will be pushed hard by some, in an effort to interject a little suspense and drama into what is usually (at least in modern times) a carefully-staged and rather over-produced American political event.

This, historically speaking, is utter hogwash. Baloney. Absolute bunkum.

Allow me to take you back to a time when the Democratic Party truly was divided -- sixty years ago, in 1948. The Democratic National Convention back then did have dramatic events showing the party not just divided, but actually splintering into factions and birthing a new (but, thankfully, short-lived) third party as a result. All this from the convention floor itself.

It is reported that President Lyndon B. Johnson said, as he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, that "we've lost the South for a generation." The "we" he was speaking of was the Democratic Party, and any quick look at the electoral college vote from then until now proves he was not just right, but actually conservative in his estimate -- it is now fully two generations later, and the South is still a Republican stronghold.

But while Johnson was more right than even he knew (as subsequent history has shown), it wasn't 1964 when Democrats really lost the South, but sixteen years earlier.

What must be remembered is that until after World War II, the Democrats had an absolute stranglehold on the South. Republicans were (back then) actually seen as the party of civil rights. Strange, but true (how the pendulum of American politics does indeed swing... but also, how few bother to remember the last cycle). Southerners, though, have a long collective memory -- much longer than the American public at large. And Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president. Before there were "Blue Dog" Democrats, there were "Yellow Dog" Democrats. These were Southerners who would vote for a "yaller dog" on the Democratic ticket, rather than vote for a Republican. All because Lincoln had been a Republican, and had waged the "War of Northern Aggression" (as the Civil War was called in the South for over 100 years). Like I said... long memories.

By the post-WWII-war period, though, the Democratic Party was beginning to rely on black voters in northern states to win elections, and were becoming downright embarrassed by the Southern wing of their party. President Harry Truman, who had not yet been elected president (he got the job when F.D.R died), made the decision that changed the Democratic Party forever. And it happened during the 1948 convention.

Truman had shown strong support for the federal government's involvement in civil rights, as evidenced by the speech he had given the year before, in front of the N.A.A.C.P. (Truman was the first president to ever have addressed the group):

To these principles I pledge my full and continued support.

Many of our people still suffer the indignity of insult, the harrowing fear of intimidation, and, I regret to say, the threat of physical injury and mob violence. The prejudice and intolerance in which these evils are rooted still exist. The conscience of our nation, and the legal machinery which enforces it, have not yet secured to each citizen full freedom from fear.

We cannot wait another decade or another generation to remedy those evils. We must work, as never before, to cure them now. The aftermath of war and the desire to keep faith with our nation's historic principles make the need a pressing one.

The support of desperate populations of battle-ravaged countries must be won for the free way of life. We must have them as allies in our continuing struggle for the peaceful solution of the world's problems. Freedom is not an easy lesson to teach, nor an easy cause to sell, to peoples beset by every kind of privation. They may surrender to the false security offered so temptingly by totalitarian regimes unless we can prove the superiority of democracy.

Our case for democracy should be as strong as we can make it. It should rest on practical evidence that we have been able to put our house in order.

For these compelling reasons, we can no longer afford the luxury of a leisurely attack upon prejudice and discrimination. There is much that state and local governments can do in providing positive safeguards for civil rights. But we cannot, any longer, await the growth of a will to action in the slowest state of the most backward community.

Our national government must show the way.

This was not what the South (and the Yellow Dog Democrats) wanted to hear. They were making their stand on "state's rights" -- which meant: "let us keep our Jim Crow laws." Even though it was an election year, and his popularity in the polls was down, Truman pushed the issue in 1948 -- beginning the year by stating his intention to desegregate the military through executive order, rather than trying to get Congress to enact legislation.

This was as stunning as if Bill Clinton had campaigned in the 1996 election on letting gays serve openly in the military -- a bold and radical move during a presidential campaign, which was guaranteed to absolutely enrage an entire region of the country.

In February of 1948, Truman addressed Congress in strong support of civil rights. Again -- during an election year -- he pushed the extremely controversial issue to the forefront of the political debate. Southern newspapers openly compared him to the Gestapo for doing so -- three years after the Nazis had been defeated, it should be noted. Such comparisons were even more inflammatory then than they are now. Even nationally, it was not a popular issue -- Gallup polls showed Americans overwhelmingly disagreed with Truman on the issue of civil rights.

So it's no surprise that by the time the convention rolled around, the fight had just gotten more bitter within the party. Truman pushed for a civil rights plank in the platform which was a watered-down version -- which he felt might be acceptible to the South. But the platform committee enacted a much more strongly-worded civil rights plank.

As Barack Obama hit the national spotlight during the 2004 convention, a young politician (who would later go on to become Vice President) gave a rousing speech at the 1948 convention, after leading the effort to strengthen the civil rights plank. From Hubert Humphrey's speech:

Yes, this is far more than a Party matter. Every citizen in this country has a stake in the emergence of the United States as a leader in the free world. That world is being challenged by the world of slavery. For us to play our part effectively, we must be in a morally sound position. We can’t use a double standard -- there’s no room for double standards in American politics -- for measuring our own and other people’s policies. Our demands for democratic practices in other lands will be no more effective than the guarantee of those practices in our own country.

Friends, delegates, I do not believe that there can be any compromise on the guarantees of the civil rights which we have mentioned in the minority report. In spite -- In spite of my desire for unanimous agreement on the entire platform, in spite of my desire to see everybody here in honest and unanimous agreement, there are some matters which I think must be stated clearly and without qualification. There can be no hedging -- the newspaper headlines are wrong. There will be no hedging, and there will be no watering down -- if you please -- of the instruments and the principals of the civil-rights program.

To those who say -- My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late. To those who say -- To those who say that this civil-rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights. People -- People -- human beings -- this is the issue of the 20th century. People of all kinds -- all sorts of people -- and these people are looking to America for leadership, and they’re looking to America for precept and example.

The result of this was that during the roll call, three dozen delegates stood up and walked off the convention floor in protest. The entire delegation from Mississippi, and half the Alabama delegation, just stood up and walked out. They were led by Strom Thurmond (at that time still a Democrat), and they went on to form the "States' Rights Democratic Party" (better known by their nickname, the "Dixiecrats") who convened their own convention in Alabama, and subsequently nominated Thurmond as their presidential nominee. Although Harry Truman was the sitting President of the United States, he was actually kept off the ballot in Alabama as a result of this defection. The Dixiecrat Thurmond went on to win four states (South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana) and part of another (Tennessee) in the general election, for a total of 39 electoral votes -- which was an admittedly an impressive showing for only winning 2.4% of the popular vote (for comparison, H. Ross Perot won 18.8% of the popular vote in 1992, but won exactly zero electoral votes).

But Truman wasn't just challenged from the South, there was also another splinter third party in the running -- the Progressive Party -- which challenged him from the left. They nominated Henry Wallace and also won 2.4% of the popular vote (think: Ralph Nader), but won no electoral votes.

The Democrats, split into three factions, were not expected to win the election. Truman did try, during his acceptance speech at the convention, to bring the Democrats into some sort of party unity. In a passage from his acceptance speech (which could easily be echoed in the next few days from the podium in Denver), Truman proclaimed (in what was widely acclaimed as a barn-burner of a speech, even if most television viewers had gone to sleep by the time he had delivered it):

This convention met to express the will and reaffirm the beliefs of the Democratic Party. There have been differences of opinion, and that is the democratic way. Those differences have been settled by a majority vote, as they should be.

Now it is time for us to get together and beat the common enemy. And that is up to you.

We have been working together for victory in a great cause.

Except back then, there truly were ideological divisions in the party. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama shared almost exactly the same stance on just about every major issue this year, meaning that the difference and division between the two was (and still is) a matter of which candidate voters personally liked, and not so much their political position. But the rifts in the Democratic Party in 1948 were deep and revolutionary, and a different party emerged as a result.

Nothing of that scope faces Democrats in 2008, it should be noted. No matter how the media focuses on a few rabble-rousers -- either outside the convention hall or within -- any Hillary Clinton supporter would be hard-pressed to detail exactly how, ideologically, Barack Obama is any different than their preferred candidate. This was just not so in 1948.

Newsweek called the 1948 Democratic National Convention "the worst-managed, most dispirited convention in American history."

Incensed at the Dixiecrats' defection, Truman issued Executive Order 9981 less than two weeks later, which would eventually and completely desegregate the United States military.

Everyone thought Truman was going to lose. Everyone. Every radio pundit, every newspaper reporter, every pollster -- every single one of them -- the verdict was unanimous. Truman was going to lose. Big time. The Gallup Poll was so convinced of the fact they actually stopped polling -- three weeks before the election. They obviously felt there was no need to keep polling, because the outcome was written in stone -- Republican Thomas Dewey was going to win in a landslide. The night before the election, the head of the Secret Service traveled to New York City, so he could be with Dewey on election night. It was a done deal, in other words.

But Truman's running mate, Alben Barkley, came up to him while he was preparing to campaign from the back of a train (a "whistle-stop" tour), and gave him what would today be called his "bumpersticker" slogan for the campaign -- "Give 'em hell, Harry!"

And Truman, in his campaign, did just that. In the words of a Labor leader of the time, Victor Reuther:

"Harry was a damned good campaigner. He loved to get out and mix with people and he knew how to talk their language. You know, he was no high-falutin' guy. He could be understood by every factory worker, every coal miner, every textile worker, every housewife."

Truman, during the campaign, talking to farmers:

Vote for your farms. Vote for the standard of living that you won under a Democratic Administration. Get out there on Election day and vote for your future.

Truman, of course, won the election. Otherwise we'd all learn about "President Dewey" in grade-school history class. In reality, the only thing most of us remember about this election is the photograph of Truman the morning after the election, holding up the spectacularly-wrong headline in the Chicago Tribune -- "Dewey Defeats Truman." That's all we as Americans remember from this election -- one newspaper that printed the wrong headline.

Historical parallels are hard to draw normally, and in this unique presidential race , they're almost impossible. I do not mean to suggest that 2008 is going to be exactly like 1948 in any way, shape, or form. But we shouldn't forget the lessons learned in Truman's 1948 campaign. Sometimes playing it safe isn't the way to win. Sometimes being bold pays off. If you can connect with "the people" in a real and tangible way, they'll vote for you. Connecting with working-class America can deliver you the election. But you've got to fight to get their vote. You've got to give the other side "hell." Never back down. Don't believe what the pollsters and media tells you is "conventional wisdom" -- go out there and make some conventional wisdom of your own!

And, most especially for 2008, don't buy into the media narrative that this is some sort of "divided party" -- because today's Democrats aren't. All true Democrats worthy of the label are pulling hard to defeat the legacy of George W. Bush, and his handmaiden John McCain. We've had a divided party in the past, and it helped forge a stronger and better party as a result. And that party's hopes and dreams are embodied in Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

Who will lead a unified Democratic Party to victory this November.

Now that's a story the media should be telling.


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


One Comment on “A Historical Perspective On Divided Democratic Conventions”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Now, that's journalism. What a wonderfully enlightening post.

    That is the story the media SHOULD be telling but are - generally speaking - woefully incapable of telling.

    Barack Obama and Joe Biden must transcend this obstacle of a free press, unwilling or unable to fulfil their duty and resposibility, and find a way to make their message resonate in the hearts and minds of Americans throughout the country and across party lines...and make them vote in favour of their interests, instead of against them.

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