There is the core of a useful point in Matt Stoller’s Atlantic story about “Watergate babies.” I largely agree with him about Carter-era Democrats, although I think he’s completely and obviously wrong to assert that the Democratic Party remains where it was in 1978 or 1994. The historical context presented by the article, however…is remarkable even by “misplaced nostalgia for the New Deal-era Democratic Party” standard. This passage, about the politics of the Jim Crow South, is absolutely astounding:
Competition policy was also a powerful political strategy. Democrats lost the U.S. House of Representatives just twice between 1930 and 1994. To get a sense of how rural Democrats used to relate to voters, one need only pick up an old flyer from the Patman archives in Texas: “Here Is What Our Democratic Party Has Given Us” was the title. There were no fancy slogans or focus-grouped logos. Each item listed is a solid thing that was relevant to the lives of conservative white Southern voters in rural Texas: Electricity. Telephone. Roads. Social Security. Soil conservation. Price supports. Foreclosure prevention.
Did the Democrats maintain their hold on the House because southern politicians ran and acted as economic liberals? This is…utterly wrong, cherrypicked flyers aside. First of all, one thing that doesn’t mention is that the benefits of the New Deal were distributed in a racially exclusionary manner — not all residents of the south had access to the policies offered by those NON-FOCUS-GROUPED flyers. And in related news, most Southern Democrats stopped being economic liberals well before FDR left office. They didn’t just obstruct civil rights legislation — they collaborated with Republicans to stop expansions of the welfare state as well. It’s particularly remarkable that Stoller does not once mention a little thing called Taft-Hartley, which had far more to do with increasing economic inequality that the decline in antitrust enforcement. The fact that it was sustained over Truman’s veto with a majority of Democratic members of the House and 20 Senate democrats seems highly relevant to evaluating the politics of Southern Democrats in the New Deal era. And it would be belaboring the obvious to point out that James Eastland and Strom Thurmond and John Stennis relied rather more on racist demagoguery than economic liberalism when they “related to rural voters.”
I never thought I’d say this, but this is where the misbogotten second volume of Caro’s LBJ bio might have some value. Caro was wrong to conclude that the 1948 Texas Senate Democratic Primary was not “a campaign between a liberal and a conservative” because both LBJ or Stevenson campaigned as reactionaries — New Dealers supported LBJ for a reason. But Means of Ascent certainly provides a more accurate sense of how Southern politicians “related to rural voters” in the Jim Crow south than Stoller’s whitewashed-in-multiple-senses account.