When the Democratic Party Lost Its Soul

A version of this was originally published in New Ground 132, September — October, 2010.

by Bob Roman

Kennedy vs. Carter: The 1980 Battle for the Democratic Party’s Soul by Timothy Stanley (University of Kansas Press, 2010)

Kennedy vs. Carter is an historical narrative covering 1976 through 1980, a time when liberalism, left-wing radicalism, and labor were in retreat. Its author, Timothy Stanley, is a fresh British historian (Leverhulme Research Fellow at Royal Holloway College, University of London) and a left of center Labour Party activist. Because these years are considered a turning point in American political history, it’s a subject worth reading about. Obama in particular seems vulnerable to comparisons to Jimmy Carter though Marx would probably furiously scribble a two or three page tirade against such superficial foolishness, as he did in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. But DSA members have an additional reason to read Stanley’s book as it’s one of just a few histories of mainstream politics that spends any time discussing the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), a predecessor to DSA.

Stanley is very much a traditional historian, for whom the past is a foreign country and for whom history is as much story telling as social science. This makes for a very readable text with a wealth of details, each contributing to the narrative. If you lived through the Carter Administration, you’ll find much to be reminded of but also some that’s new. If you are too young for that, you’ll learn much about the period, though the book’s focus is pretty tight on the years in question and the conflict between Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter in particular. Some context will be lacking.

For context, you might pick up Judith Stein’s recent (Yale University Press, 2010) Pivotal Decade. While there is some overlap with Stanley’s work, Stein’s concern is just how the United States economy traded industry for finance. As this had (and has) profound consequences for the union movement, it drives many of the events described in Stanley’s book. Also worth referring to: William Greider’s book on the Federal Reserve, The Secrets of the Temple (Simon and Schuster, 1989) and Michael Harrington’s presentation on the crisis of economic theory (http://www.chicagodsa.org/audarch4.html [deleted]).

Kennedy vs. Carter is a polemical book. The conventional argument concerning this transitional decade is, in Stanley’s words, “that while President Jimmy Carter had been a moderate, decent man, his base had failed to appreciate the changing dynamics of the era. The American public rediscovered its innate conservatism. [I]n an act of extreme and arrogant opportunism, Edward Kennedy agreed to lead [liberals] in an ill-considered, futile charge against the president. His defeat in the 1980 Democratic presidential primaries suggested that liberalism was on the decline even among Democrats.” Stanley hopes to demonstrate that liberalism and the left were still a very potent force during the later 1970s, and that Kennedy was actually a stronger general election candidate than Carter; among other things, despite his liberalism, Kennedy also drew support from conservatives. “The American public in the 1970s,” Stanley writes, “was neither liberal nor conservative, but instead anxious, angry, and desperate for leadership from any direction.”

Stanley supports his argument in detail, including a fair amount of polling data. It’s helpful that Stanley’s “revisionist” version of the late 1970s is largely common sense; he mostly needs to demonstrate Kennedy’s potential strength as a candidate against Reagan and Anderson. I think he does that. It’s more difficult to imagine Kennedy overcoming the advantage that came with Carter’s incumbency to win the Democratic nomination, but the case Stanley makes does serve to demonstrate the strength of liberals and the left in the late 1970s.

The book has a number of weaknesses and problems. In discussing conflicts within what he calls liberalism, Stanley draws a distinction between “older New Deal liberals” and what he refers to as the “New Politics.” He never adequately defines these terms, though he does deal with it briefly in the introduction. Mostly, you are left to pick up what is meant from the context of its usage. New Politics are Democrats who are “liberal” on social, environmental, civil rights, or foreign policy issues, but “conservative” on economic issues, particularly those related to labor. Typically, these are politicians who represent constituencies where the labor movement was weak if not absent: suburban or rural districts, states in the Great Plains, the south, or the Rocky Mountain west.

It also would have been helpful to discuss just where the term “New Politics” came from. I vaguely recall it being in the vocabulary of insults used by George Meany / Max Shachtman social democrats, evoking the disastrous National Conference for New Politics held here in Chicago in 1967 (a big to-do: some 5,000 attended, few left unscathed). You can get a better sense of Stanley’s thinking from an essay he posted at The Utopian about the U.S. Anti-Vietnam War movement: “The Long Haired Conservatives: the Children of ’68 Reconsidered” at http://www.the-utopian.org/2008/05/000026.html [deleted; it can be found (2017) at Attack the System]. There are also relevant references included in the book’s notes, but these are sources inconvenient to the average reader.

While Stanley does use a considerable amount of polling data, this is all integrated into the text. This is where well done tables and graphs could have made his argument much more compelling. The same data could be used to game possible alternate outcomes of a Kennedy – Reagan – Anderson 1980 election, but that would likely have made for a dry and technical book.

Being British, and a lefty, Stanley takes organizations more seriously than most academics and political observers in the United States. Consequently, one gets an account of the doings of not just political leaders but various political organizations as well. Given the multitude of national organizations, Stanley inevitably must be selective. The New Democratic Coalition (a 1970s version of Progressive Democrats of America) ends up with but one mention, in passing, and no listing in the index, for example. So how does DSOC rate several pages?

During the 1960s and 1970s, there was an effort on both the right and the left to “realign” the Republican and Democratic parties so that all the conservatives would be Republican and all the liberals would be Democratic. On the right, William Buckley and the Young Americans for Freedom, among others, led the effort. On the left, getting a later start, there were groups including DSOC and the New Democratic Coalition. Both sides had some reason to believe that a majority of the electorate would be on their side.

Among Democrats, the quest for realignment dated back to the New Deal, but by the 1970s this effort at realignment was conflated with a populism that sought to cut out the middle-man of party organization, making candidates, as much as possible, directly selected by the Democratic Party electorate. And as public officials, they were to have some accountability to that same electorate. The demand for direct selection of candidates led to an accelerated spread of primary elections over conventions and caucuses as a means of selecting candidates, delegates, and party officials. This has facilitated the “realignment” of what we call the Democratic and Republican parties.

On the national level among Democrats, the 1970s effort at accountability led to the establishment of a “mid-term” national convention. The first such convention was held in 1978. It was the only such convention because of the near success of Democratic Agenda, a project of DSOC, at holding Jimmy Carter accountable to the many promises he made to win his nomination by the Democrats in 1976. Democratic Agenda elected, lobbied and organized convention delegates, and came very close to defeating a sitting president on a number of votes. The votes were close enough that Carter’s victories were counted as defeats. An American analyst would have ignored these organizational details and labelled Democratic Agenda as a stalking horse for the Ted Kennedy for President campaign and paid no more attention to Democratic Agenda. Stanley does not.

Democratic Agenda at the 1978 convention gave DSOC a great deal of “street cred” among political professionals. It also is the root of the enduring DSA stereotype: that DSA works exclusively within the Democratic Party. Oh, yes. Carter’s floor manager (thus DSOC’s chief opponent) at the mid-term convention? Hillary Rodham.

Democratic Agenda’s campaign was accomplished on a shoestring by mainstream standards. Democratic Agenda had a yearly budget of about $61,000 (in 2009 dollars, about $217,000) half of which was donated by three unions: the UAW, the Machinists, and AFSCME; a Washington office; one full time director and two part time field staff. Part of the point Stanley is making is that Democratic Agenda was able to accomplish so much with so little because it was sailing with the political wind.

Stanley does get some things wrong. He moves DSOC off the stage with a paragraph that begins dramatically: “an acrimonious internal split tore DSOC apart over primary tactics.” This is story telling. In fact, no such split occurred and the reference he cites does not support it. He is correct, however, that the opening DSOC exploited was closing. The 1978 mid-term convention was the only one the Democrats ever held though a carefully neutered 1982 mid-term “conference” was held in Philadelphia, mostly as a way of gracefully backing out of having such meetings. The 1980 Democratic National Convention was the last convention where delegates actually had much autonomy or anything of consequence to decide. Subsequent conventions became extended TV commercials for the putative nominee. DSOC never came to any consensus regarding what to do in response and the debate about that was indeed sometimes heated. Instead, DSOC began negotiations with the New American Movement to merge, all the while continuing to press the Democratic Agenda lever (later rebranded and repurposed as “Democratic Alternatives”) like some over-trained pigeon in a Skinner Box. Even so, DSOC continued to grow. Stanley notes that membership stood at about 3,000 in 1979. That year the organization set a goal of 5,000 members by 1980, and exceeded it.

Stanley also misattributes the December, 1980, “Eurosocialism and America” conference to Democratic Agenda. The conference brought together political leaders (indeed, future presidents and prime ministers) from Europe and the United States for an extended policy discussion. Some 2,000 people attended, and an unknown number were turned away by the Washington, DC, fire marshal for exceeding the venue’s capacity. The conference was a DSOC project, held under the auspices of the Institute for Democratic Socialism, DSOC’s 501c3 affiliate, and it says so in the reference Stanley cites (Eurosocialism and America, edited by Nancy Lieber, Temple University Press, 1982). The conference, incidentally, seriously irritated AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland and the now defunct Social Democrats USA; the AFL-CIO did its best to sabotage the event while not being too public about it.

These are minor points but worth mentioning because, after all, this is a DSA newsletter.