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Deciding the Democratic Party’s direction

Democrats today face similar questions as those faced by Republicans after 1960.

Richard Nixon making a fist during a press conference.
(Ellsworth Davis/The Washington Post via Getty)
Ellsworth Davis/The Washington Post via Getty

The Democratic Party right now is going through a challenging intraparty debate, and seems to be stuck in the same arguments over policy, ideology, governance, and procedures it was fighting in early 2016. In some ways, though, this isn’t new — we’ve seen parties have these sorts of fights after a narrow loss. One way to get a sense of where the Democrats are going is to look to the Republicans after 1960.

Republicans in 1960 had sought to win a third consecutive term in office by nominating someone who’d been in the limelight for years and had clearly been angling for the White House most of his life. Richard Nixon, the sitting vice president, won the nomination thanks to broad support within the party’s leadership, even though many held reservations about him.

The election itself was painfully close, with John Kennedy prevailing in the popular vote by just 100,000 votes out of 69 million cast. But for a few tens of thousands votes across a few states, Republicans would have gotten their third term. Indeed, there were many allegations of various types of voter fraud across several swing states, particularly in Illinois.

The results left Republicans wondering what to do next. Notably, there’s not much evidence of recriminations against Nixon — no “Nelson Would’ve Won” bumper stickers or “We Should Have Gone With Goldwater” op-eds, as far as I’ve seen. Rather, the party struggled over which direction to move in, both ideologically and geographically.

The party’s moderates claimed that their loss had come because they had underorganized in the nation’s urban centers — properly staffed precincts in places like Philadelphia and Chicago could have made the difference in the election. The RNC established the Committee on Big City Politics to address these concerns. Under the direction of Ohio Republican Chair Ray Bliss, the committee pushed for a non-ideological, technocratic organizational buildup in various cities, including the hiring of full-time staffers at the precinct level.

Conservatives in the GOP read the 1960 election results differently. Nixon had done surprisingly well in the deeply Democratic South, winning Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia and coming within a few points of Kennedy in the Carolinas. Sen. Barry Goldwater argued that Nixon lost because he hadn’t campaigned aggressively in the South and because he had signed on to Nelson Rockefeller’s liberal civil rights plank in the Republican platform.

For Goldwater and others, the key to the party’s future lay among conservative white Southerners, who had long considered themselves Democrats but were open to Republican appeals taking an anti-civil rights stance. As Goldwater famously argued in 1961, “We’re not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 and 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are.” Robert Novak reported on a convention of state party chairs in 1963:

A good many, perhaps a majority of the party’s leaders, envisioned substantial political gold to be mined in the racial crisis by becoming in fact, though not in name, the White Man’s Party. “Remember,” one astute party worker said quietly over the breakfast table at Denver one morning, “this isn’t South Africa. The white man outnumbers the Negro 9 to 1 in this country.”

The party ultimately invested far more resources in “Operation Dixie” than in its big-city campaign, and Republican successes in the 1962 midterms in Southern states suggested to party leaders that they were onto something. These decisions would essentially set the course for the next half-century of party polarization, inviting the most conservative voters — white Southerners — into the more conservative of the two parties.

It’s difficult to know now whether the Democratic Party faces as consequential a decision today as Republicans did in the ’60s. On one level, Democratic arguments are over things like open versus closed primaries, campaign finance limits, and other technical details that aren’t like to dramatically reshape the party no matter who wins. At another level, the party is arguing over whether to try harder to appeal to working-class white voters in the Rust Belt or to speak to the concerns of racial minorities. In other words, race is still at the heart of the question.

(Note: I have drawn extensively on Phil Klinkner’s The Losing Parties for this piece. For more on this, see Eric Schickler’s Racial Realignment, which notes the roots of these party shifts on civil rights in the 1930s and ’40s, as well as recent research by Boris Heersink.)