walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: February 27, 2010
The Democratic Crisis?

The modern Democratic Party was formed out of four previously antagonistic elements in American society: urban working class and immigrant whites, Southern whites, African-Americans and upper middle class progressive reformers.  It began to take shape when Woodrow Wilson brought progressives into the mainstream of the Democratic Party; Franklin Roosevelt put all the pieces together when he built his New Deal coalition, reaching out to northern black voters while holding on to the white South.  For the first time since the Civil War, the Democrats were the natural party of government from 1932 through Nixon’s victory in 1968.

Intellectually, the progressives were the driving force of the Democratic Party of the 20th century.  Upper middle class progressive reformers, dubbed goo-goos by machine politicians offended by what they saw as an infantile and naive love of ‘good government’, are responsible for some of the greatest achievements of the twentieth centuries.  It was the goo-goos who fought for civil service reform, the development of the administrative and regulatory state, who sought to professionalize government and the academy and who generally fought (and fight) for transparency, accountability and the rule of law both at home and abroad.

Since 1968 the big story in national politics has been the gradual erosion of FDR’s grand coalition.  The white South was the first to go, alienated primarily by Lyndon Johnson’s decision to put the full weight of the party behind the civil rights movement, but also by the sympathy of many Democrats for the broader social agenda of the 1970s.  Northern working class and ethnic white voters also began to drift away from the party, turning from one of the party’s most reliable bastions of support into swing voters in the 1980s.

Charlie Rangel

Today, it is mostly the goo-goos and African-Americans who constitute the rock solid core of the Democratic Party, with Hispanics and the remnants of the party’s traditional north and south white support making up the rest.  Even in decline, it’s a strong and competitive coalition and few movements can claim to have shaped American history as decisively and to have done as much good as the Wilson-Roosevelt Democrats.  As recently as last year many observers thought the Democrats were on their way to another generation of political dominance like the run they enjoyed from 1932 to 1968.

President Obama–an African-American urban candidate who is also an intellectual comfortable with elevated talk about the nuances of reform with upper middle class whites–is the ideal candidate for the new Democratic core.  One hundred years ago Woodrow Wilson played a similar role; a white southerner (and the first southerner in the White House since before the Civil War), he was also a college professor and president.

But the coalition President Obama heads is a much more fragile one.  On one side you have the old time pols of the urban machines (like House Ways and Means Committee chair Charles Rangel); on the other you have the grim and determined brigades of morally uplifting upper middle class reform.  It is a coalition of The New York Times and the contemporary version of Tammany Hall.

What holds them together is their love of the Blue Beast; good government progressives are the heirs of the old Puritan vision of the state as the moral arm of a godly community.  Government can and should do great things — led by the righteous it is the instrument that will bring about the realization of a new dawn for all.  The urban political machines have a somewhat more pragmatic approach: a government that redistributes money and hires people provides both services and jobs to their constituents, and the distribution of government patronage is the lifeblood of a political organization.  The Civil Rights revolution and the Great Society brought these two elements in the body politic together and for all the failures and flaws the changes of those years were among the best and most important things our country has ever done.

But the grimly moral goo-goos are the hardest people in America to get along with.  Charlie Rangel and Cotton Mather would not have been good friends; at a time when the Democratic resurgence is threatened by widespread populist revolt, the goo-goos have unleashed the dogs of war against their less-than-perfect allies.  In recent weeks we’ve seen a high profile and scathing New York Times investigation of fundraising abuses at the Congressional Black Caucus; Times reporting has also forced New York’s first African-American governor to end his quest for a full term.  In the House, the goo-goos are calling for Rangel to step down from his powerful committee chair.  Reporting this aggressive on climate science would have sent Rajendra Pachauri packing months ago.

Democrats will now be playing a painful lose-lose game.  They can circle the wagons around African-American urban politicians tainted by increasingly embarrassing and indefensible scandal, or the last two major components of the Democratic coalition can rip each other to pieces in a brutal cage fight.  Both alternatives stink; they will have to choose one. Either way, the Republicans acquire additional momentum heading into the midterms.  (An excellent Steve Kornacki piece at shows in riveting detail why these issues are so painful for the party.)

This fraying of his coalition magnifies the importance of President Obama to the Democratic Party — and makes it much harder for him to lead it.  Both the African-American urban establishment and the upper middle class reformers think of him as one of his own (the reformers, probably rightly, think they have the better claim).  Will he support demands that Rangel step down?  Remain neutral?  Support the chair?  Whatever he does, it will leave many of his strongest supporters feeling betrayed.

This problem has been quietly building up for decades.  The bright and shining progressive dream of clean, professional government has very little to do with the gritty realities of urban politics today — any more than it did when Tammany Hall and the other great white urban machines were at the peak of their power.  Like all political machines, today’s urban organizations grow sloppy and careless over time.  The corruption grows deeper and more pervasive; the early idealism that brought talented young people into politics fades away.  The slow demise of the blue social model is also a factor; in the past, both the goo-goos and the machines were building the American middle class.  It’s not clear now what they have to offer, beyond support for entitlements and public sector labor costs that seem more expensive, less sustainable and less attractive with every passing year.

The decadence of the machines and the fraying of the great blue dream are eating away at the deepest foundations of the modern Democratic Party.  Both blacks and goo-goos will have to find new ways to define and address their agendas; that process could well take them in quite different directions.  It’s not as clear as it used to be that this alliance will last.

show comments
  • Russell

    I think you think too highly of the Great Society and progressives in general. That is what has given us this unsustainable blue model. I think when it is all over even you will see it for the massive mistake it was.

  • N. Phillips

    I strongly take issue with the implicit claim that Franklin D. Roosevelt “did good”. In fact, his policies caused the Great Depression to last an estimated seven(!) years longer than if he had done nothing. See “” for the details, which result from the first serious look at his policies by economists. The basic error was trying to prop up wages in big unionized companies by encouraging price fixing (to keep their prices high) under the condition that much of the benefits to the companies actually went to the workers.

    A later study by one of the authors finds that Roosevelt’s policy was an extension, by more aggressive means, of efforts by Herbert Hoover in the same direction. See “–hps081909.php”. In short, Hoover created the depression by trying to prop up wages in a recession, but Roosevelt made it far worse by a more aggressive version of the same policies.

  • fw

    When will we see some redress of the inequities in balance of payments between the federal government and states like California and New York, which support the rest of the country by sending out far more in tax revenues than they receive in federal government aid? Easy as it is to criticize corruption and mismanagement in Sacramento and Albany, the fact is that one half the country is subsidized by the other half.

  • Luke Lea

    Well, since no one else is commenting I will just link to the “Born-Again Democrat” platform I drew up in the aftermath of Kerry’s 2004 fiasco. Obviously I was pretty angry at the time but I still stand by most of it. And I still think it would work to bring red-state an blue-state Democrats together in a working coalition.

  • Jules Mopper

    I don’t believe today’s “goo goos” are the progressives of yesteryear. The original progressives may have been meddlesome bourgeois snots, but they actually cared about uplifting the poor. I see nothing in today’s NYT that indicates a genuine concern for lower class people.

    This is because the upper-middle class “left” conveniently (for their bank accounts) stopped caring about poverty, and started caring only about racism; to today’s progressives, poverty only counts if you’re black. Otherwise, your an awful teabagging racist. To today’s progressives, poor white people are the enemy, not even worth the condescending “help” traditionally offered by progressives. Instead, “progressives” just complain about how “those people” are “too dumb to vote in their own self-interest.”

    Frankly, I hope the black-“goo goo” alliance dissolves. When leftists start talking about people as individuals, and not as members of oppressed groups, then they’ll naturally propose moral policies that can win against the continuing onslaught of Reaganite propaganda, exemplified in the above posts.

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  • http://n.a. Adam Garfinkle

    Great piece., Walter — spot on. But what depressing comments……, although Mopper makes an incisive comment about the left’s subdivision of poverty and racism. If he adds their other two passions d’jour, he’ll have an accurate picture of their brain waves: the criminalization of political judgment (hence the obsession about “torture”); and the joys of homosexuality. All this can be seen, over and over and over again, in the New York Times Magazine, in particular.

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  • Norm

    I read through this and it all sounds convincing, but there’s something that just doesn’t quite hang together.

    In one of Edmund Wilson’s biographies of Theodore Roosevelt he comments that TR was the last GOP president to garner a majority of black votes, but it took over 20 years for the New Deal coalition to coalesce. Dr. Mead offers that the Civil Right Act broke the New Deal coalition, but that was over 40 years ago now. Patronage and technocracy were clearly in tension even in the 1930s when Harry Truman was an effective good-government leader in Kansas City even as he was an ally of the local machine (it seems he managed to keep the “spoils” contracts effective and delivering what was promised).

    Is the problem really as simple as the GOP is famously “the stupid party” and so the self-identified US liberals (somewhere in the mid-20 percent range of the population) have been able to wield disproportionate influence on society from the “commanding heights” of academe, government, and media, that were able to seize and consolidate from 1930 to 1950?

  • hattip

    Upper middle class progressive reformers, dubbed goo-goos by machine politicians offended by what they saw as an infantile and naive love of ‘good government’, are responsible for some of the greatest achievements of the twentieth centuries

    Huh? Have any proof for this assertion? This is complete and utter claptrap–little more that Democrat electioneering lies–and that you can repeat it so reflexively and so naivly shows a complete misunderstanding of the greatness of America, the source of that greatness and the actors who called that greatness forth. Hint: Few of those folks went to Harvard. The goo-goos and their spawn in fact cause great damage to this nation. They prolong the great depression, shredded the Constitution, savaged liberty and gave us the overarching socialist state in both its hard and soft forms. WW2 might never had been a world war at all without their and their European co-religioinists’ idiotic handling of the 1930’s .They have corrupted and destroyed every institution that they have touch–most signally Academia, Media, Faith, public and private Virtue and Morality, and our political institutions.They have laid waste to our culture and our society. They pilfered private and public treasure to do so.

    Their interest was purely self-serving: They sought to create an American verions of the Soviet nomenhklatura with themselves at the helm. They have contempt for all that is good and true about the West in general and the USA in particular. They are supreme narcissists who will sacrifice everything that the rest of us hold dear–everything worth valuing at all–for the sake of their self-absorptions and self-delusions.

    Reform government? We will never know the depth of corruption in the New Deal as they robbed the real wealth producers of there wealth and quite literal stole their properyy from them. To imagine that matters were otherwise, that there is any possible moral defense for this, is to be a Marxist.

    You consider these “accomplishments”?

    It was the goo-goos who fought for civil service reform, the development of the administrative and regulatory state, who sought to professionalize government and the academy and who generally fought (and fight) for transparency, accountability and the rule of law both at home and abroad.

    This is just PR used to to mask their self serving attempts roll back the constitution and implement a Central European Welfare (read fascist) state with them in charge.

    What hogwash.

    “professionalize the Academy”? Turn it is to a camp for “professional” Marxists is more like it.

    Certainly Wilson and FDR had complete contempt for the constitution, and both plunged us into wars, but the collision of the wayward trust-fund brats of the turn of the centrality WASP aristocracy and the “collision” of Leninists, Stalinists and Trotskyites FDR put together in the New Deal are rather two different kettles of fish altogether.

    There is the little matter of the Oct. revolution on the other side of that divide.

    It is a marriage of Tammnay Hall and the Kremlin.
    It is Hell on Earth.

  • Hattip

    You deleted my comment.

    Say, I have new for you. there was am American middle class in the 19th centruty. The Goo-goos did not “create them”. they destroyed them. Middle classes are not created by anyone but themselves.

    More elitist Democrat hogwash. You are a thoroughgoing narcissist.

    You are not only coward, you are a liar,

  • A. Jay Adler

    Interesting, if curious, post with “depressing,” indeed, comments, from the obvious low to the high. Even if Adam Garfinkle makes the vacuous typographical argument of placing quotation marks around torture, it is still torture. I wonder, should disappearances, ethnic cleansing, even genocide be rationalized as “political judgment”? They are almost all trying to protect their nations. How little we learn.

    I wonder, too, regarding the post, when did the African-American segment of the electorate become synonymous with urban, machine politics?

  • Edmund Burke

    Very insightful post! Good historical analysis. Some of the comments show how ideological our world has become. People love to live in echo chambers where their beliefs and fears are parroted back to them. Sad.

  • Chris Bolts Sr.

    This is the third post that I have read of Mr. Mead’s and each time I have become slightly more knowledgeable and stimulated by his power of words and descriptive analysis. I agree with mostly everything you’ve said – well, I agree with everything you’ve said. I was going to disagree with the point about the progressives scoring remarkable achievements in the early 20th, but that is an argument about semantics as it cannot be taken away from the goo-goos that they were able to achieve some things in their early years. However, we can now say with definitiveness that their ideas have failed because in the grand scheme of things, human beings are programmed to be individuals and not part of some grand collective and will do things in their own self-interest. There is no way the state can make people do things against their will unless brute force is needed (which our little totalitarian President is now finding out). However, as Irving Kristol said, he will find out when what happens when a blatant conservative nation feels that a great wrong is being heaped upon it.

    To A. Jay Adler, a good primer on your question regarding Blacks and machine politics would be Jonah Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism”. More pointedly, the ’60s was a turning in American history, including Black Americans. The saying, “the means justify the ends” is apt and it is true in more ways than one. Unfortunately, in the end, it corrupts.

  • Alfred J. Lemire

    I wrote 820 words and was just getting started. Too much. Briefer: many on the political left, like the President, come from an academic environment where the problems, rules, and opportunities of society are discussed, learned, taught, and advocated from almost exclusively a leftist perspective.

    A leftist by academic training and by experience like the President does not understand or respect dissenting views. His intolerance to other views is common among current “goo-goo” leftists. His ideological blindness let him assert to Republicans on January 21, “I am not an ideologue. I’m not.” Expectably, the press did not report that nor did it seek to provide the many proofs that that statement could not be true. (Think of the planned trial of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in New York City.) But the press doesn’t report much it should: last Sunday, Speaker Pelosi said that her planned health care legislation would create four million jobs. Her interviewer did not ask her about that and no one else in the press followed up on that startling statement.)

    That suggests another problem that, at least in the short run, is tearing off at least some members of the urban working class from the Democrats: the catastrophic failure of the mainstream news media. Partisan and incompetent, it helped Sens. McCain and Obama to be nominated, Sen. Bad and Senator Much Worse. Much Worse won. (America would be better off with either Mitt Romney or Hillary Clinton as President.) The press is blind to the President’s weaknesses, in person and policy, and that has hurt the Democrats mightily.

    On Tuesday, March 2, my newspaper ran a 597-word article by the AP’s Steven Hurst on the Republican’s use of the filibuster in the Senate. But I have been unable to find a single word by an AP writer reporting the substance of the critiques of the Democrats’ approach to health care reform, which Republicans made at the “summit” on February 24. Sens. Kyl and Coburn and Reps. Ryan, Cantor, and Boustany, and other Republicans had much of substance to say. My newspaper has printed not a word of their critique.

    As one result of both the separation of the haughty, leftist political class from white urban workers: the auto mechanics where I get gas and service in Massachusetts listen to Rush Limbaugh. And they voted for Scott Brown. Anecdote? Sure. But telling.

  • Alfred J. Lemire

    Sorry for a typo: should be Republicans’, not Republican’s, in the 2nd to last graf. I worked as a newspaper reporter, a publications editor, and, along the line, a proofreader. But we all err. Well, I do.

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  • ROB

    There are no googoos. Today’s reformer is tomorrow’s regular…one he seizes power.

  • A. Jay Adler

    To Chris Bolts Sr., on the identification in this post, specifically, of the African-American portion of the Democratic base with urban, machine politics, and his own citation for me of Liberal Fascism, from his blog:

    “Standing against Progressivism, Liberalism, Socialism, and Communism because they all represent the same thing – the reenslavement of America.”

    There really is no point.

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