When it was easier to have a big Democratic coalition

I really love this post from Seth Masket that places the struggles of the Democrats in some nice historical context.  It’s wonderfully titled: “Yes, Democrats Won Lots of Elections Back When They Tolerated Bigotry.”

But on his main empirical point, that Democrats used to do better in elections back when their leaders didn’t talk about race or gender or the environment, well, that’s actually true, although probably not quite in the causal sense Kotkin seems to be implying. The Democratic Party of the mid-20th century was an historical anomaly. Thanks to the legacies of both the Civil War and the Great Depression, Democrats had an enormous and ultimately unsustainable coalition of both northern liberals and southern conservatives, integrationists and segregationists. Basically, a lot of poorer southern whites were still blaming Republicans for “northern aggression” in the 1860s and a dismal economic record in the 1920s and 30s. Democratic leaders tried to prolong this coalition as long as possible, largely by avoiding taking stances on civil rights. Ultimately, civil rights activism on the streets and in party conventions forced Democratic leaders to change their stances and actually begin advocating for civil rights laws, which is what finally drove most white southerners out of the party. [emphasis mine]

Yes!  Whenever pundits, etc., call for political strategies that emulate that of the mid 20th century, it largely shows they just don’t get history.  As Masket notes, this period is quite anomalous in our history.  Absent the Civil War, the South simply would not have stayed solidly Democratic for the next 100 years.  And we’ve got nothing like the historical conditions that produced the mid-20th century anomaly.  So, sure, make some good suggestions for helping the Democratic party, but if they involve taking us back to 1950 in a variety of ways, think again.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to When it was easier to have a big Democratic coalition

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    Mid-20th century – the days when both political parties seemed to function as brokers, uniting left and right in both parties, tho for sure the GOP’s middle ground was more right wing than the Democrats. But the extremes were controlled into a more centrist party view. Also we had a powerful enemy to unite us – the USSR.
    But the Democrats carried on much of the New Deal progressivism. The deal within the party was to support labor and somewhat progressive economics and ignore the race issue. It didn’t always work smoothly.
    That deal fell apart after Nixon and now the extremes in both parties have much more influence, even more in the GOP. Powerful enemies don’t seem to unite as before.

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