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The dilemmas for Democrats in 3 past visions for the party

In the “New Deal order,” battles over the shape of American politics were waged as quarrels inside the Democrats’ big tent.

Democrats cheering in July 2016, at the party’s national convention.
Democrats cheering in July 2016, at the party’s national convention.
Tom Williams/Getty Images

To recognize a distinctly Democratic tendency in American politics, one need only contemplate this fact: The major American party that didn’t nominate Donald Trump for president in 2016 was the one that subsequently rewrote its rules for nomination. Modifying a recommendation made by the party’s Unity Reform Commission, the Democratic National Committee voted in August 2018 to deny “unpledged party leader and elected official delegates”— so-called superdelegates — a vote on the first convention ballot of a contested presidential nomination.

With yet another round of procedural tinkering, the Democrats took a further step toward a plebiscitary vision of intraparty democracy, one in which formal party actors lack any special authority. That view remains dominant in popular discussion, if decidedly not in contemporary party scholarship. Hovering in the background of debates over rules lie deeper concerns over how to render disparate coalitional interests into a cohesive partisan vision. The Democratic Party has been asking these questions, in various forms, for a long time.

This essay explores three partisan visions from the 1930s to the 1970s — respectively, those of programmatic liberals, midcentury pragmatists, and McGovern-Fraser reformers. In the decades spanning the “New Deal order,” decisive battles over the shape of American politics were waged as intraparty family conflicts, quarrels inside the Democrats’ big tent. Theirs were not just squabbles between factions but deeper disputes over the purposes of the Democratic Party as it strove to win elections and wield power.

Postwar programmatic liberals sought to retrofit the party system to the new ideological cleavages over national policy that the New Deal had produced. This goal pushed them into battles with the pragmatists, who placed the brokerage of intraparty compromise at the very center of their political vision. The pragmatists clung to local and state power, the overhang of 19th-century-style party organization, even as they paddled upstream to adapt to new and often adverse political currents.

Finally, activists emerging from the social ferment of the 1960s to engage party politics via insurgent campaigns and, eventually, the transformative procedural reforms of the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection (known more commonly as the McGovern-Fraser Commission) promulgated a vision of parties as fully permeable vessels for movement politics. Reflecting who had power in and around party councils, this story is largely a white and male, in sharp contrast to a party that would become, though at times dragged kicking and screaming, far more diverse in the years that followed.

As for the Democrats’ key dissident faction at midcentury, Southern Democrats largely sidestepped parties as shapers of politics in their struggle to defend Jim Crow. At home in Dixie, fluid factionalism reigned, with the Democratic primary the decisive election. In national politics, Southern Democrats proved masterful and ruthlessly instrumental practitioners of bipartisanship in the service of maintaining their bloc’s clout within the existing system.

By the end of the period, the Democratic Party faced a new, far less congenial era, at once better sorted as the country’s center-left party and yet seemingly less capable of generating a compelling vision and project for power. In the oft-difficult decades since the 1980s, Democrats have rarely tackled so explicitly as their predecessors at midcentury the question of how the party’s organizational form relates to its goals in wielding power. And so, as 2020 looms, it seems an apposite moment to look back.

Programmatic liberals

In the decades after the Second World War, issue-oriented liberals sought a Democratic Party that would fulfill the New Deal’s incomplete political transformations. These programmatic Cold War liberals grounded their arguments about political reform and party practice, with varying though at times striking degrees of explicitness, in a scholarly doctrine with pre-New Deal roots: responsible party government.

Parties, midcentury reformers argued, should mobilize voters and organize governance on the basis of issues and program—not patronage, personality, or the ties of geography or demography. The programs that would define the national parties and the agendas of their nominees to office should concern national issues — not a hodgepodge of parochial interests. And voters would only be provided a meaningful choice and a mechanism for holding officials accountable if the two parties’ programs were distinct—not blurred by crosscutting coalitions and rampant bipartisanship in policymaking.

James Q. Wilson’s famous study of voluntarist Democratic activism distinguished the outlook of the “amateurs” from that of professionals: “The amateur takes the outcome of politics—the determination of policies and the choice of officials—seriously, in the sense that he feels a direct concern for what he thinks are the ends these policies serve and the qualities these officials possess.” Their prescription for nationalized, disciplined, ideologically distinct parties resonates unmistakably with facets of our contemporary polarized era, but with a key difference: “Issue politics” then were channeled into formal partisan activism rather than paraparty networks or nonpartisan advocacy groups.

These champions of programmatic partisanship were Democratic party-builders. Reformist parties provided the springboards for a slew of activist, multiterm governors — Orville Freeman in Minnesota, Mennen “Soapy” Williams in Michigan, Pat Brown in California — and liberal congressional leaders — Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Phil Hart, Phil Burton.

They mobilized the support of the rising organized exponents of postwar liberalism: middle-class issue activists, organized labor (especially the unions once in the CIO that in 1955 merged into the AFL-CIO), and civil rights advocates. The identities of their factional enemies served to clarify the nature of their project. For control of subnational organizations, the reformers did battle with patronage-based Democratic organizations oriented toward local and state politics. Nationally, they fused civil rights advocacy with a congressional reform agenda as they set their sights on the conservative southern Democrats who, through their control over congressional committees, exerted a chokehold over national politics.

The programmatic liberals succeeded, for a time, in showcasing an alternative model of party vitality to the machines. But they never adequately deciphered how to nationalize party politics without aggrandizing presidential power, and without hollowing out state and local party organizations. In this realm, the purportedly “issueless” politics of the midcentury pragmatists had the relative virtue of prioritizing local organizational strength.

Midcentury pragmatists

For James Q. Wilson, parties ought to serve as “neutral agents which mobilize majorities for whatever candidates and programs seem best suited to capturing public fancy.” A system of unprincipled professionals pursuing elected office in a free political market was, he believed, to be celebrated for its unmatched capacity to integrate diverse participants and to foster stability through steady, practical, incrementalist bargaining.

Jim Farley, Franklin Roosevelt’s loyal party chair until his break in 1940 over a third term, defined politicians’ role in similar terms: “It is they who must harmonize conflicting points of view; who must reach compromises, who must always look for the greatest common divisor of public opinion, and give the result form and substance.”

In a postwar context in which effective party bosses had integrated themselves into the New Deal order while battling the zealous reformism of the programmatic liberals, such a political ethic amounted to a kind of vision in its own right. Supportive, if often by default, of the party’s policy agenda at the national level while engaged centrally in the task of sustaining local control, the adaptive machines became the postwar era’s most explicit champions of both pragmatism and pluralism in national party affairs. For these actors, particular issues and policies came and went, while the prerogatives of the formal party and the principle of party regularity always remained central.

Racial conflict belied midcentury pragmatists’ claims of being the great conciliators of American politics, as the Great Migration and suburbanization transformed urban demographics in the postwar years. Machines faced an ultimately unsustainable balancing act. They had to accommodate white supporters’ intransigent opposition to residential integration and ongoing demands for jobs while incorporating vast new numbers of African Americans through the traditional incentives of patronage and welfare services.

By the 1960s, the tensions inherent in such efforts surfaced explosively in cities across the country. The increasingly recalcitrant posture of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley toward African American protest movements for fair housing, school integration, and economic development epitomized the failed bargain.

Programmatic liberals had rarely targeted the mixed convention system. Their bête noire in national politics was Congress. In 1964, however, presidential nomination became the arena in which latent tensions burst into open conflict. The biracial Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party aimed to unseat the state’s lily-white official delegation.

With Hubert Humphrey and Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers carrying out Lyndon Johnson’s orders to thwart them, they failed, emerging with just two at-large seats. But in 1968, the mixed system finally exploded into crisis. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago would bear the crudest marks of a party committed to regularity at all costs. Hubert Humphrey ineffectually attempted to invoke and resuscitate his own legacy as a reformist crusader. And outside the convention hall, the police forces of the last great machine-organized city proved much more than crude in their bloody engagement with radical protestors. In the fallout of this catastrophe, a nascent reform vision soon emerged that cast organizational prerogatives out of party process entirely.

As they reckoned with those new reformers, activists, and operators associated with the AFL-CIO’s majority wing under George Meany would take the lead in articulating the regulars’ vision one last time. They attacked the reformist upstarts as party-wreckers whose efforts, in the one words of one report, “run against the grain of American political tradition and the unique coalitional character of the Democratic Party.” But to the basic question of how to reconcile the party practices they championed with the legitimacy crisis that followed Chicago ’68, the anti-reformers had no answer. Their silence has echoed loudly across the ensuing decades.


In the aftermath of Chicago ’68, the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection, named in common parlance after its successive chairmen, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern and Minnesota Rep. Donald Fraser, established uniform standards for state delegate selection that emphasized openness to “meaningful” popular participation. A practical byproduct of states’ implementation of these reforms — unintended by the reformers — was the rapid proliferation of direct primaries to choose convention delegates.

The youthful activists at the heart of the reform effort, labeled at the time as exponents of a “New Politics,” brought to their engagement with mainstream party politics an outlook that bore some clear continuities with their programmatic liberal forebears. The critique of closed bossism and the goal of nationalizing party power both shaped the new authority that the national party would exercise to force state delegate selection practices to adhere to detailed standards and guidelines.

So, too, McGovern-Fraser reformers sustained their predecessors’ belief in the centrality of substantive, programmatic motivations for party activism. “The real heart and soul of a political party is its policy, its philosophy, its stand on the great issues of the day,” George McGovern said at a commission hearing. “Really the only purpose of party reform is to provide a vehicle through which those policies can be determined by the people rather than by the bosses.”

The sweep of that final “the people,” however, indicated a key distinction between the midcentury liberals and the McGovern-Fraser project. The latter reformers emerged from movement cultures that emphasized participation and looked askance at hierarchy. Those values carried over into a view of party renewal that valorized institutional openness to continual, self-generating mobilizations. Parties in the strongest version of McGovern-Fraser’s theory would serve as the instruments of grassroots will. But open participation hardly implied informality. Lest parties backslide, clear standards and detailed procedures for inclusion would keep them in line. In place of organization would be process.

Though the historical resonance of such views helped to saddle the reformers with a reputation as anti-party neo-Progressives, in fact the framers of McGovern-Fraser envisioned highly active and institutionalized political parties. They supported, for example, a party charter proposal co-authored by Donald Fraser in 1972 that called for dues-paying party membership and biennial issue conventions.

In their concern with what Eugene McCarthy in 1968 had called “democracy in party procedure,” they hewed fast to the venerable notion that, suitably updated, all the inherited machinery from the Jacksonian era — committees and conventions, delegates and platforms — could still define the essence of the political party.

The parties prophesied by McGovern-Fraser activists would serve as vessels for movement politics. Through proper procedures and permanent mobilization, they would continually sidestep the iron law of oligarchy and thus avoid turning into career politicians’ playthings. When movement politics simmered down in the 1970s, however, the pursuit of process — the eternal refinement of rules — came itself to constitute an intrinsic value to reformers as much as it was a means to party renewal.

With critics having so fully shaped their long-term reputation, due recognition of the McGovern-Fraser reformers’ affirmative party vision is important. But so is identifying the legacy of those reforms for contemporary party hollowness. Three developments stand out. First was their effect on subnational party organizations. Though the gradual ascension since the New Deal of ideological activism centered on national issues already posed challenges to state and local parties, when McGovern-Fraser directly and explicitly ended state parties’ discretionary control over the methods by which delegates would be selected, it denied those organizations a key source of energy and power.

Second, the reformers’ call for parties that privileged the voice of grassroots activists drawn from movements and issue advocacy came just as issue-driven politics beat a rapid and enduring retreat from formal party politics. That exodus from formal party activism both presaged and embodied a broader shift from federated mass membership groups to professionalized, staff-driven operations.

New players eschewed the moribund and embattled party organizations for candidate campaigns and direct issue advocacy. In short, ideological activists in the postreform system would wield new influence over party politics — but from outside via the unwieldy networks of paraparty blobs rather than from within by a mobilized activist membership. And contrary to claims that formal parties and paraparty groups amount to a distinction without a difference, the dynamics of a system in which outside entities dominate internal decisions render parties distinctly vulnerable. If they lack the social rootedness and legitimacy to command positive popular loyalties, then polarized parties deepen rather than alleviate problems of democratic legitimacy.

Legitimacy connects directly to the third, most profound legacy of the McGovern-Fraser era for our own. The drafters of McGovern-Fraser’s final report, Mandate for Reform, brought out an old chestnut to justify their work: “The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.” Critique and prescription alike were grounded on the principle of democracy—and little else.

The reformers’ refusal to defend a special role and clout for formal party organizations left them rhetorically and politically ill-equipped to resist the rapid proliferation of direct primary systems that followed as an unintended consequence of reform. The spread of presidential primaries has in turn encouraged Americans to blur categorical distinctions between party-nomination and general-election procedures and to presume that unmediated participation sets the benchmark for legitimacy in both. With “more democracy” left as the only normative game in town, formal party leaders lack grounds to make the affirmative case for parties: to celebrate their democratic and egalitarian commitments, and to build up the organizational strength required to honor them.

McGovern-Fraser’s children have grown up to become the party establishment, but, squeezed between the regular and reform traditions, they have not found the role an easy one. After 1981, Democrats spent decades largely in the wilderness, asking again and again, in conversations that meandered from cycle to electoral cycle and that ranged across race, class, gender, ideology, and region, what ideological vision and coalitional strategy might possibly bring their disparate factions together, and achieve victory for candidates up and down the ticket. Though newly mobilized in a wide-ranging civic and electoral “Resistance,” Democrats still find themselves groping for answers.

On the one side comes accommodation to the party’s many stakeholders, itself a reflection not only of the party’s coalitional diversity but of the less reformist strands in its heritage. At their most candid, some Democrats echo their pragmatist forebears in emphasizing the unromantic exigencies of elections and the political inevitability of mammon.

Far more often, with the language of participation the coin of the realm, they dare to voice old defenses of party regularity and pluralism only sotto voce. On the other side lies the high-minded commitment, tinged with technocracy, to continual reform in search of a common good — devoid of any need to make connection with grubby party politics. Critical of both tendencies, in ways at once similar to and different from the charges leveled in the 1960s, left dissidents increasingly assail an out-of-touch party and its insular establishment. Lost in all these approaches is a call to meaningful party purpose, voiced with the expectation that it will resonate. In moments of conflict or crisis when it may be needed most, the party’s own voice, as a party, rings hollow.

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