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.
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 Salon.com 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.