Democratic dominance over American politics from 1932-1968 was born in the economic chaos of the Great Depression, the Allied military victory during World War II, and was strengthened by consensus over Cold War anticommunism and Foreign Policy issues. This consensus included general agreement over domestic policy before the second stage of the Civil Rights movement alienated many working class Americans after 1965. With the beginning of the Great Depression, many Americans accepted the idea that government had a greater role to play in regulating the economy and providing social services such as welfare, retirement programs, medical care for the poor, and, ultimately, expanded civil and political rights for African Americans. This program was the culmination of changes in American political thought stretching back through the Progressive era to the rise of the Populist movement in the 1890s, and bolstered by prominent figures like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Support for this agenda was geographically and ideologically dispersed, gathering labor organizers, wealthy liberals, farmers, and southern conservatives under a large umbrella. This broad coalition frayed and ultimately collapsed when Black Power ideology developed among a radical set of Civil Rights activists, and Americans grew unable to sustain a constant fear of nuclear holocaust during the late 1960s. The Black Power movement frightened to middle and working class whites, and the antics of radicals in the antiwar movement combined with urban riots demonstrated the breakdown of law and order in American society. American conservatives enjoyed an ideological resurgence relying on a mish-mash of anti-Communism, fiscal responsibility, and law and order rhetoric that carried racial overtones. The new conservative ideology of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan attracted parts of the Democratic coalition – working class voters repulsed by the excesses of the counterculture, Black Power, antiwar movement, and worried about competition with minorities for jobs and housing. To do this, the Republican Party appealed to the issues that concerned suburban voters – forced busing, taxation, law and order, and family values.
The Democrats gained electoral dominance with the 1932 elections largely because Herbert Hoover refused to use the power of the Federal government to help Americans through the Great Depression. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the new president, introduced programs designed to boost the economy through Federal spending based on pragmatic attempts not bound by a specific ideology. The successes of the New Deal faltered in 1937 when FDR attempted to return to a balanced budget, triggering a recession, but the combination of New Deal programs and the full employment brought on by World War II in 1941, definitively showed Americans that government could beneficially play a larger role in the economy. During the Second New Deal, Federal programs moved beyond mere jobs programs to include benefits like Social Security.
Barton Bernstein argues that a large part of the reason that the New Deal helped Democrats forge such a diverse coalition was that it built on the basically conservative agenda of the Progressive era. New Deal reforms were ultimately conservative in nature because they worked to protect American capitalism rather than replacing it with a truly managed economy. While the New Deal extended both welfare benefits and federal power, most benefit helped the middle class rather than the impoverished. The most conservative measure of the New Deal was the Social Security Act of 1935, which forced people to pay into retirement pensions. The effect was that while the Federal government administered Social Security, individuals were ultimately responsible for their own future, and the government would not be burdened with their upkeep.
In this same vein, Lizbeth Cohen argues that both the New Deal and workers were basically conservative in their outlook. Workers held a reformist, but not anticapitalist, vision due to their participation in corporate paternalist welfare programs during the 1920s. The New Deal fit with workers’ ideas of a “moral capitalism” – the idea that their participation in electoral politics, wars, and hard work entitled them to government programs that provided economic security and support for unions that balanced the power of employers. Workers believed that the wealth of the capitalist system should be distributed more equitably as a matter of reciprocity and justice, which melded well with Catholic doctrine on social justice. Cohen argues that these ideas developed organically from the welfare capitalism of the 1920s, which acclimated workers to the idea that business and government should provide certain benefits.
The consensus did not rest solely on domestic policy. Wendy Wall argues that government and business mounted a deliberate campaign to create an American Way that served to unify the nation from 1945-1965. The new American identity that was supposed to bind Americans together was based on a view of political and civil liberties that emphasized the idea of “freedom” over the concept of “democracy”, and was developed as a political project by groups desiring a coherent national identity. The chaos of the Great Depression led a coalition of advertising executives, government officials, and business leaders to work together to develop a uniquely American outlook as a counter to the “alien” ideologies of fascism and communism. This new American Way relied on two components. The first was the conservative nature of New Deal reforms that worked to support business rather than to nationalize or democratize business on the socialist model, and argued that economic freedom was the basis for all other civil rights, and cultural debates over how to successfully integrate immigrants and minorities into American society. The Depression was accompanied by a rise in racial and ethnic bigotry, which needed to be countered to ensure stability, but homogeneity had been discredited by totalitarian movements abroad, so the American Way was defined as the ability of diverse groups to live together in harmony. The United States became a nation of immigrants on the melting pot model, with some arguing that Americans were united by their Judeo-Christian beliefs. This definition of the American Way became a useful tool for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, as it tried to counter the wedges Communists attempted to exploit in American society by focusing on civility, and lending African Americans another tool to use when arguing for equality.
Americans associated the military and economic dominance the United States enjoyed after the end of World War II with Democrats and the liberal agenda as it developed under the New Deal. The Cold War allowed the liberal agenda to include anticommunism in the form of George Kennan’s theory of containment, which depicted the Soviet Union as an expansionist power that the United States must contain in all areas – economic, diplomatic, and military. Containment provided a reason for continued government spending on defense, which boosted local economies, especially in the South and West, where a third of Californians were employed by defense-related industries by 1960. With the exception of Eisenhower’s election in 1950, this combination of domestic policy, anticommunism, and conscious efforts to create an American Way, ensured that the Democratic Party controlled the Presidency through Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968, and the Congress through the 1994 Republican Revolution led by Newt Gingrich.
Cracks in the diverse liberal consensus developed as a result of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The first problems for the liberal consensus developed with the adoption of a civil rights plank by the Democratic Party in 1948, which was accompanied by President Harry Truman’s integration of the armed forces by executive order. That led Strom Thurmond and other New Deal Democrats to split off into the States’ Rights Democratic Party, or Dixiecrats. In the 1948 election, Thurmond challenged Truman and Dewey for the Presidency, capturing only four states in the Deep South (Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi). Thurmond and other Dixiecrats returned to the Democratic party, but many switched parties after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 desegregated public schools. 1964 was the tipping point for the liberal consensus. Strom Thurmond switched to the Republican Party to support Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, which focused on states’ rights and anticommunism. Dan Carter contends that George Wallace pioneered what became known as the “politics” of rage in his 1964 presidential campaign, which showed that northern voters who were becoming frustrated with civil rights legislation, and could be wooed by playing on their fears. Despite claiming that he no longer supported segregation in his 1968 and 1972 presidential bids, Wallace continued to play on racial fears by arguing against forced busing for desegregation. His success with northern voters provided Richard Nixon with a valuable tool, which he refined by using more veiled language to hint at the racial concerns of working and middle class voters across the country.
After the Civil Rights movement became identified with the national Democratic Party during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, southern Democrats began to vote for their party in state and local elections, but with the GOP in national elections. Earl and Merle Black argue that this voting pattern made it progressively easier for southerners to begin voting for Republican candidates at the state and local level, as well. Race became a central issue for southern Democrats, though by 1968 they preferred moderate sounding politicians to those that outwardly race-baited during their campaigns. Race played such a large issue that in the Senate that the majority leader had to use unusual parliamentary procedures to bring the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the floor of the Senate for a vote because the chair of the Judiciary Committee was a Mississippi Democrat who did not want the bill to pass. Even once it reached the floor of the Senate, Georgia Democrat Richard B. Russell filibustered the bill for 54 days before the Johnson administration found enough votes to break the filibuster
Passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the development of the Black Power movement created even more problems. Earlier Civil Rights activists had concentrated on ending segregation and gaining voting rights, but in 1966 radicals began to advocate for Black Power and black militancy. During a protest march to protest the 1966 shooting of James Meredith during his March Against Fear across Mississippi, Stokely Carmichael led the crowd demanding Black Power. Carmichael’s new philosophy coincided with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s rejection of nonviolence as a strategy, and used the armed Deacons of Defense to ensure security during the. In the following weeks Huey Newton and Bobby Seale organized the Black Panthers in Oakland to defend African Americans against police brutality.
The aggressive turn in the Civil Rights movement occurred at the same time the Supreme Court ruled for expanded civil rights for criminals, women, homosexuals, atheists, and pornographers. “New” protections included the rights to have an attorney, against self-incrimination, to due process, to a speedy trial, and protection against illegal search and seizure. Privacy rights protected the use of contraceptives and abortion appeared. The controversial verdicts, arriving in the midst of turmoil about traditional values and the breakdown of law and order in the cities caused more Democrats to leave the party – working class voters disagreed with protections for homosexuals and bans on prayer in schools, and worried about the maintenance of order in society when confronted with new rights for criminals.
This was especially true of the issue of abortion, which developed into a national controversy when California Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Therapeutic Abortion Law in 1967, only to have the California Supreme Court rule all restrictions on abortion unconstitutional. This was follower by New York’s legalization of abortion in 1970 by a margin of only one vote. When legislators in Western New York led a campaign to make abortion illegal in the state, Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller vetoed the bill. Despite this, abortion became a rallying issue for social conservatives, as Eyal Press described in his depiction of the abortion debate in Buffalo. This issue drew in many Catholic voters at the grass roots level, and separated them from the Democratic party as they became single-issue voters. Working with conservatives to ban or limit abortion exposed these voters to more conservative opinions, a phenomenon that only increased after the Supreme Court’s 1972 decision in Roe v Wade. Abortion continues to be a divisive issue that the Republican Party uses to mobilize voters.
Expanded rights for criminals an alarming issue for working and middle class voters as urban rioting spread after 1965, beginning with the infamous Watts Riot, which the media used to showed television viewers violence in poor, black, urban areas. Violence in cities across the country showed that civil rights legislation was not enough to fix the economic and social challenges facing African Americans. Riots also showed that many young blacks had run out of patience with the slow pace of change. The successes of 1964 and 1965 had not magically fixed things for the black community, or quashed dissent in the way that white supporters of the movement had expected. Coming at the same time the United States Supreme Court gave greater protection to criminal suspects, the riots alienated working and middle class voters, and pushed them toward the right side of the political spectrum where Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” preached a message of law and order in a manner palatable to the frightened electorate. These development of these issues coincided with the development of civil rights and antiwar protests in Northern and Western cities where the core of the Democratic electorate resided. The extension of forced desegregation to cities like Boston further aggravated the cracks in the liberal consensus.
Thomas and Mary Edsall argued that a plethora of social problems were magnified in what conservatives labeled the era of permissiveness. Crime rates rapidly increased from 1966-1971, arrests of blacks for homicide more than doubled during the 1960s, and illegitimate births to African American women increased by a third. Democrats had no response and offered no solutions for these problems because their concerns over racial equality and the equitability of the system prevented them from seriously discussing issues that combined race, crime, and social structure. Media depictions of poor blacks, increased crime, and illegitimacy kept most Americans from seeing the successes of African Americans who moved into the middle class. The GOP offered working and middle class voters a clear ideological alternative – reduced governmental social support for the “able poor” and increased emphasis on law and order.
Exacerbating the influence of the issues were competition working class whites felt from blacks moving into Civil Service jobs, moving out of ghettoes, into working class neighborhoods, and enrolling children into now-desegregated schools. That the migration of African Americans was funded by Federal welfare and rental assistance programs further frustrated working class whites, who saw their tax dollars used to help other compete against them for housing and jobs. Forced busing of students out of their neighborhoods to desegregate school systems rather than relying on parents to proactively choose alternate schools for their children further disenchanted many Democrats. Population shifts from urban areas to the suburbs provided further fuel for Americans threatened by the changes they saw. Matthew Lassiter argues that many suburbanites tried to abide by the Brown decision by allowing “meritocratic” black students into their schools, or accepted the idea of busing, as long as it was one-way, bringing minority children into their neighborhoods, but not sending their children to schools in poorer areas. Suburban living also had the effect of leading toward tax revolts like the one that Robert Self describes in Oakland, where suburbanites were swayed by conservative candidates arguing for reduced property taxes on suburban homes, which they believed should not pay for improvements in nearby cities. The net effect was to identify Democrats with minority groups and their agenda.
If issues of race and culture were not enough to destroy the liberal consensus, the Vietnam War dealt the final blow. The war siphoned off the funding available to President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and forced tax hikes that included a surcharge on income that led many to Americans feel the burdens of both war and anti-poverty programs. The increasing radicalism of antiwar protesters also alienated these Democrats. The news media focused on the most radical members of the antiwar movement, showing the radical minority shouting profanities, destroying offices, and committing other outrageous acts. While this behavior inspired other members of the movement, it alienated the majority of Americans, even though most Americans were against the war by 1968.
The end of the liberal consensus may have been sealed at the Democratic National Convention in August 1968. Held in Chicago, the Democratic convention erupted in chaos, initially highlighted by the lighthearted hi-jinks of the Yippies, led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, who nominated a pig named “Pigasus” for President. Other protesters exacerbated the situation with a series of antiwar protests that paralyzed downtown Chicago in what later became known as the Siege of Chicago. Democratic mayor Richard Daley threw fuel on the fire with his efforts to present a powerful image to the nation.
After banning marches and rallies and setting curfews in the city, Daley used thousands of police officers in an attempt to limit negative television coverage. Daley’s efforts backfired when protestors refused to disperse on August 25, taunting and insulting the police. Perhaps predictably, the police attacked protesters with tear gas and truncheons. The resulting street fighting lasted the three days of the convention, ending with what officials later described as a “police riot” on August 28th when the crowd against taunted the police. This time the police attacked without regard to who they injured, targeting protesters, journalists, bystanders, and even convention delegates.