1947 is, believe it or not, before my time. But I've argued often enough about how today's Republican Party is not the party of Lincoln, and how today's Democratic Party is not the party of southern white slaveholders, or even of their "Dixiecrat" descendants.
Still, I hadn't been aware that American liberals had accomplished a prior realignment, years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the GOP's subsequent "Southern strategy."
On January 4, 1947, in a meeting at Washington's Willard Hotel, 130 men and women gathered to meet a challenge posed by Joseph and Stewart Alsop, columnists for The New Republic, who warned that liberals "consistently avoided the great political reality of the present: the Soviet challenge to the West." Unless that changed, they argued, "In the spasm of terror which will seize this country ... it is the right -- the very extreme right -- which is most likely to gain victory."
Attendees, who included philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, journalist Arthur Schlesinger Jr., economist John Kenneth Galbraith, labor leader Walter Reuther, and Eleanor Roosevelt, announced the formation of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), declaring that, "the interests of the United States are the interests of free men everywhere," and therefore America should support "democratic and freedom-loving peoples the world over." Moreover, to do that would require recognition that communism was an aggressive danger to liberty, and that the Soviet Union was the era's dangerously expansive, despotic empire, one that must be contained.
"At the time, the ADA's was still a minority view among American liberals. Two of the most influential journals of liberal opinion, The New Republic and The Nation, both rejected militant anti-communism. Former Vice President Henry Wallace, a hero to many liberals, saw communists as allies in the fight for domestic and international progress."That paragraph was penned by arch-conservative author Peter Beinart, in "An Argument for a New Liberalism," an essay redolent with irony, because his intent was to demand that today's liberals and democrats cut themselves off from a fringe of pathetic campus socialists. In itself, that argument was easy to shrug off -- today's few dogmatic leftists are only relevant in that they serve as convenient betes noirs for Fox News. But what I found stunning, back in 2004 when Beinart wrote his piece, and even more so today, is how the lesson of 1947 is far more relevant to today's Republican Party than to contemporary Democrats ...
Beinart rightly points out how nervous the American left felt in those days, about Truman's evolving doctrine. Many Democrats still clung to romantic images of the USSR, leftover from our anti-fascist alliance, or even earlier. Yet, things were rapidly changing. The wholesale murder of scores of East European trade unionists stoked fury among hard-boiled members of the AFL-CIO. Moreover, having learned from refugees the truth about Stalin's purges, many liberals were finally able to cut through the propaganda of socialist mouthpieces like The Worker and Forward -- the pre-McCarthy versions of Hannity and Limbaugh, in their day. ...
Of course, what Beinart fails to mention is that Truman faced even more resistance from Taft, Vandenberg and other top members of the Republican establishment. Some wanted a return to pre-war isolationism. Others insisted on direct and immediate military confrontation with the Soviet behemoth, a thuggish, macho set-to, sure to trigger cataclysm. No, if support for assertive but calm patriotism were to come from anywhere, it wouldn't be the right...
This shift of liberalism also affected the domestic agenda, turning our national argument away from some abstract and divisive ideological or class struggle, toward focusing on specific, incremental reforms. Step by pragmatic step, this approach propelled a transformation of our evolving consensus about ourselves and our very character, in realms of civil rights, womens' rights, environmentalism and dozens of other areas. It was never easy and the sultry allure of indignant dogma never went away. But now, there can no longer be any doubt -- in the recent election of Barack Obama, we see proof that incremental-but-determined, pragmatic progressivism ultimately accomplished far more than doctrinal manifestos. And it all began at the Willard Hotel, in January 1947.
I have no problem with early liberal sympathies for the Soviet Union. That was understandable, and, although those sympathies turned out to be misguided, there's no shame in being wrong. We all make mistakes. What's shameful is not changing your mind when the evidence shows that you've been mistaken.
And liberals did, by and large, change their mind. Some didn't, but the vast majority did. That's admirable, very admirable.
Note, too, that none of this means that I admire the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy Era. The right-wing went much too far, and to the extent that Democrats - indeed, the whole country - went along with it, that was also a mistake. Let's learn from it.
But the fact is, we don't progress without mistakes. We don't live our lives without mistakes - none of us do. We try to keep the mistakes small, and we try to learn from them. That's the best we can do.
Of course, this wasn't the last time Democrats decided to bite the bullet and do the right thing. In the first half of the 20th Century, the South was solidly Democratic, as it had been since the Civil War. African Americans tended to vote Republican, to the extent that they were allowed to vote at all. The Northeast was the Republican stronghold in our country.
But then, a Democratic Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial segregation. Pushed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, a southern Democrat himself, after the assassination of President Kennedy, the law was bitterly opposed by those right-wing southern "Dixiecrats."
Democrats knew they risked losing the South, but they did the right thing, anyway. Republicans were gleeful. This was their chance! They started deliberately wooing white racists with their "Southern strategy." And it was wildly successful. Now, the South is solidly Republican. All those old racist "Dixiecrats" are now diehard Republicans.
If you look back at the last century, it's just astonishing how much the political landscape has changed. Oh, the Democrats are still the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, and the Republicans are still the party of wealthy bankers. But although some things have stayed the same, others are vastly different.
As I noted, the South flipped completely from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican. African Americans, seeing the GOP deliberately wooing white racists, overwhelmingly switched to the Democratic Party. The Northeast, which had been the Republican stronghold since the Republican Party began, did the same - all except for the moneyed interests.
Both parties reinvented themselves during the 20th Century, the Democrats twice. Both times, the Democrats did what was right. The Republicans did what was politically expedient. Admittedly, they were wildly successful. With their "Southern strategy," they've dominated nationally pretty much ever since.
Without the backlash from Watergate, which let Democrats take control of Congress and the presidency for a short while, at least, the Republican Party would have been even more dominant in the last half of the 20th Century. But even the complete and utter disaster of George W. Bush hasn't knocked them out.
Still, politics doesn't stand still. America has progressed. There's a reason why Republicans are increasingly hysterical these days. The party which deliberately wooed white racists is pissing its collective pants, now that we've elected our first black president.
Brin suggests that it's now time for the Republican Party to bite the bullet:
No one ever said it would be easy to fight for a chastened and rational conservatism -- one that is no longer misled by crooks and crazies. Life wasn't easy, either, for the Democrats of 1947. But they kept faith with the moderate spirit of our American wing of the Enlightenment. And liberalism has -- for all its ups and downs -- stayed relevant to this day.
I'll be frank, I wish the equivalent wing of the Republican Party well. I hope they'll find the strength and sense of duty to meet this challenge. We need a party that stands up -- in positive ways -- for nongovernmental problem-solving. If enough sincere, moderate conservatives were to stand up, their movement might yet earn an important place, once again, in American politics. And -- as if embracing a prodigal son -- many of us would welcome grownup conservatism back to our nation's dinner table conversation about the future.
David Brin wrote that in 2008. More than three years later, the Republicans have done just the reverse. They're become crazier than ever and are becoming more and more hysterical. I'll get to that in another day or two...
Edit: My follow-up to this post, looking at Republican prospects in the 21st Century, is here.