I was recently watching a special about President Woodrow Wilson and World War I and was struck by something awful- Wilson was a bigot and sexist. I knew this, but didn’t appreciate that quite enough until I watched this PBS Special. He did not want to give women the right to vote, and his feelings towards Jim Crow were regressive at best. It’s sad to hear how negative he was on the most pressing social causes of his day, because I generally regard Wilson as a good President, and he was overall, for his day. Remember, we mainly compare him to Taft and Coolidge, who were not so good.
There’s a real white-washing that we do towards American history, especially towards our Presidents and political figures. We tend to long for our heroes of times past, and often times we do so at the expense of some really important lessons we should learn from their experiences. This is obviously true among nationalists, who tend to see the world in “good vs. bad” terms. It’s also true on the progressive left.
It is true that FDR was the progressive of his time. You could also say that Harry Truman was more progressive in his time than most. You could argue that from 1930-1980, the Democratic Party dominated American politics, and that it was more economically progressive than the Republicans. The important word is economically though. Until 1964, the Democratic Party was socially a regressive political party. Only beginning in 1948 did the Democrats begin to take on the Dixiecrats, and no nominee made any real strong overtures to African-American voters until JFK in 1960. No real policy action on Civil Rights happened until LBJ. Democrats didn’t really take on the cause of abortion rights until after Republicans started beating them up on the issue in the late 1970’s. Democrats didn’t put a woman on the Supreme Court until the 1990’s. Democrats were better on LGBTQ rights as early as the 1970’s, at least compared to the GOP, but didn’t embrace marriage equality as a party until 2012. While Democrats have long fought for Latino rights and causes, we remain conflicted and confused on the immigration issue even today. We have long been an evolving political party, one moving towards social progress for quite some time, but we remain a work in progress, trying to strike the right balance between inclusion and becoming too narrowly based to govern.
It is true that Democrats have been the more progressive political party for over a century now, but that does not mean we have been truly progressive. When President Taft purged the GOP of the Teddy Roosevelt wing of the party, the carefully constructed alliance of northern capitalists and progressives in the party ended. The Republicans became the party of market capitalists, the wealthy, and Democrats embraced the working class. Candidates like Al Smith carried their banner, and lost, until the market crashed in 1929, giving rise to FDR’s New Deal. We consider FDR and Truman progressive for their time, but the only real politics of those times were economic. Women and African-Americans were very tiny parts of the electorate, and all you needed to do to be a progressive in those times was to be a populist. The Democrats became dominant in the union halls and work sites across the country, and mostly won. That stayed true until the 1960’s, when JFK embraced Martin Luther King Jr. in the closing days of a close election to boost his share of the African-American vote. LBJ carried that cause forward in signing Civil Rights legislation and picking long time Civil Rights advocate Hubert Humphrey as his Vice-President, and the Democratic Party’s share of the African-American vote began to jump in the Reagan era. President Clinton and President Obama enjoyed giant margins among African-American voters, decades later, but many of us forget that this trend is only about 50 years old.
Were FDR and Truman really that progressive though? Remember, they governed in a pre-Civil Rights era, before Roe v. Wade, before the Stonewall riots or the murder of Harvey Milk, when women and Latinos were a tiny minority of the electorate. Truman openly questioned JFK’s ability to govern as a Catholic. FDR had the internment camps for Japanese Americans. Truman dropped the atomic bombs (arguably worth it) and got us mixed up in the Korean War. FDR turned a blind eye on Jim Crow. Both men certainly had their faults. One could argue that President Eisenhower was more socially progressive than either of them.
None of this is meant to condemn either of their of their Presidencies in their entirety, as I think Monday morning quarterbacking former Presidents’ balancing of the constant struggle between social progress and a resistant public isn’t useful. My point is simple- no, the Democratic Party was not more progressive in 1945 than it is today. Not if you were a woman, gay, African-American, or a religious minority. The party is actually much more progressive today than it was then. Is it less so on economics? That’s not really true either, though it’s more arguable.
It is true that Democrats have won less and less since 1964, particularly Congressionally. That is to be expected for a party embracing minority group rights. There are structural disadvantages to being this party. That’s a choice Democrats have made. It’s a choice that makes them a more progressive party today than we were in 1933.