by Joe Shea
October 30, 2010
SANITY AND/OR FEAR
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- On the eve of the 1970 midterm elections, economist and Democratic Party stalwart John Kenneth Galbraith wrote a short book entitled "Who Needs The Democrats and What It Takes to Be Needed."
Galbraith came to Washington to work in the Roosevelt Administration in the 1930s and played a role in the construction of the modern Democratic Party. But the political coalitions that were built by Franklin D. Roosevelt during the New Deal had come undone by the 1960s, and the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 marked the end of that era. Galbraith was an early opponent of the Vietnam War and an early supporter of anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy, two things that did not make him very welcome in Chicago.
The experience of that convention was, to Galbraith, another illustration of what he called "the most important thing about the Democratic Party, which is that no matter how much you dislike it and vice versa, you cannot escape it. And the reason is the raison d'etre of the party.
"The Democratic Party, not the Republican Party, not third parties, is where change occurs and thus where the action is. This follows, in turn, from the deepest political instinct of the American people. It is the party that is open to participation and responsive to pressure."
At the same time, Galbraith observed, the Democratic Party "within a relatively short span of time, has lost its main purposes. It has become a defender of the status quo, a role in which it is incompetent and cannot possibly compete with the Republicans. Harry Truman pointed out many years ago that faced with a choice between two conservative parties, the voters will always opt for the real thing."
Additionally, Galbraith stated that "history, in fact, has played a nasty trick on the Democrats. It has made politically commonplace all of the major policies for which the Party has stood in the last 30 years."
At the time he wrote those words, Democrats had succeeded in building a welfare state that ensured that the aged, the sick, the unemployed and the destitute would not suffer. They not only created a strong economy that smoothed out the boom-and-bust cycles, but also created an environment where trade unions flourished, workers were fairly paid and the middle class expanded. They made significant investments in education and infrastructure to keep the prosperity going.
For years, all the Democrats had to do was invoke President Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression to be politically successful. But President Dwight Eisenhower proved in the 1950s that Republicans were perfectly capable of running a modern economy, and Mr. Eisenhower was wise enough to recognize that the social welfare programs created by Preasidents Roosevelt and Truman were so politically popular that it would be folly to try and dismantle them.
The last part of the formula that kept Democrats in the White House between 1932 and 1968, with the exception of the Eisenhower years, was foreign policy, which, as Galbraith wrote, "recognized our responsibilities as a superpower and more especially as a bulwark (as we called it) against international communism, and which armed ourselves and our allies accordingly, but which resisted the idea of solving delicate international problems by blowing everyone up."
Galbraith called the Vietnam War "the culminating disaster of Democratic foreign policy" and blamed the delegation of foreign policy to the defense establishment as a major reason why the United States was sucked into a war that was doomed from the very beginning.
"Foreign policy like politics is the art of the possible," he wrote. "We now know what is not possible."
When the New Deal coalition cracked up over Vietnam and the civil rights movement, the door was opened for the Republican Party. The result was President Richard Nixon in the White House and a new generation of conservative operatives that would influence American politics for years to come. And the Democrats had a choice to take it all back during the first mid-term election of the Nixon Administration.
"Democratic candidates have always been tempted by the doctrine that, since the left has no alternative, the smart strategy was to bid for the conservatives, or anyhow the middle," wrote Galbraith.
"Nice as it would be to have two conservative parties, it won't do. There will always be nervous people who will feel that problems should be tackled even though the only available remedies - taxing the rich, nationalizing industries, regulating private enterprise, limiting consumption, redeeming power and policy from military and civilian bureaucracy - are outrageously radical.
"The function of the Democratic Party, in this century at least, has, in fact, been to embrace solutions even when, as in the case of Wilson's New Freedom, Roosevelt's New Deal or the Kennedy-Johnson civil rights legislation, it outraged not only Republicans but the Democratic establishment as well. And if the Democratic Party does not render this function, at whatever cost in reputable outrage and respectable heart disease, it has no function at all."
The Democratic Party establishment played it safe in 1972 and tried to push Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie as its presidential nominee. The liberals balked and instead, Sen. George McGovern became the last true liberal that the Democrats ever nominated for president. Mr. Nixon won his second term in a landslide. Since then, each successive Democratic candidate for president has moved to the right, and the party itself followed that shift.
Galbraith's fear has become true. We have two conservative political parties. The Democrats have backed so far away from what the party once stood for that the only thing that separates them from the current crop of Republicans is that they are more grounded in reality and not certifiably insane. That is not exactly a platform for electoral success.
The conclusion of Galbraith's broadside was written four decades ago. But his words eerily describe our current situation.
"For a while longer, in accordance with American tradition, the more fortunate and sanguine will imagine that these problems - inequality, unequal economic performance, dependence on military spending and subordination to military power, industrial arrogance and environmental damage - will yield to hot air, or like Marx's state, given time, wither away. ... But in the end, reality imposes itself. The system is not working. Violence is a threat, not a solution. The only answer lies in political action to get a system that does work. To this conclusion, if only because there is no alternative, people will be forced to come."
We can only hope that a majority of today's voters will reach the same conclusion as Galbraith. But we are in an irrational time where voters seem willing to vote against their own interests in the name of teaching the Democrats a lesson. And the Democrats have only themselves to blame if they are to be steamrolled by a political party that no longer has an interest in governing, only in achieving and maintaining power.
In another time, with bolder and more imaginative politicians, the Democrats could've swatted away the Tea Party threat. But the party has never really recovered from its crackup in 1968, and has never been able to articulate a true and creative alternative to conservatism.
Instead of fighting the people President Roosevelt called "economic royalists," it surrendered to them. Instead of reasserting civilian control of the military and foreign policy, it emboldened the military-industrial complex. And instead of fighting for the common good, it has been obsessed with holding on to what little status and power it has left.
I have some hope that maybe my fellow Americans won't be so stupid as to let the people that ran this country into a ditch have another crack at the steering wheel. But if that is the result on Nov. 2, it will be a result that was foretold a generation ago.
Chief of AR Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.