on politics & society from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | July 1953
Can the Liberals Rally?
by Joseph S. Clark, Jr.
early one year after the Chicago conventions, how do the liberals stand? The early summer of 1952 was a time of high hopes in both political parties. Now seems a logical time to take stock, to appraise both strengths and weaknesses, and to agree upon a course of action which will recapture the citadels of Congressional and Presidential power occupied by liberals during most of the Roosevelt and Truman twenty-year era.
To lay a ghost at the outset and to dismiss semantics, a liberal is here defined as one who believes in utilizing the full force of government for the advancement of social, political, and economic justice at the municipal, state, national, and international levels. This concept is an extension of Webster's dictionary definition of a liberal as "A member of a party claiming to advocate progress or reform; not conservative." A liberal believes government is a proper tool to use in the development of a society which attempts to carry Christian principles of conduct into practical effect. Needless to say, however, there are many devout Christians among the conservatives.
A liberal may be either a Republican or a Democrat, although he is usually the latter. It is abundantly clear, however, that there are many Democrats who are not liberals. Senator Ives is a liberal; Senator Byrd is not. Senators Douglas and Lehman are liberals; Senators McCarthy and McCarran are not. A liberal is not an intelligent Tory, one who gives little to save much. Neither Winston Churchill nor Senator Taft is a liberal. There is no necessity for more exact definition; nor need the word be abandoned merely because it gives reformers a psychological advantage in debate with their essentially status quo adversaries.
For the liberal is, of course, a reformer. The liberal in America today inherits the tradition of Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman. All of these men tried, within the environment in which they found themselves, to remold the sorry scheme of things somewhat nearer to the heart's desire.
Eric Goldman has recently traced the history of the reform movement since the Civil War in Rendezvous with Destiny, a book which should be required reading for all who profess themselves liberals. Starting with Samuel J. Tilden and ending with Harry Truman, he points to the differences between what might be called "good government" reformers primarily interested in honesty, efficiency, and integrity in government, and the liberal reformers who frequently cared little about these matters but were concerned with mitigating the effects of poverty on human life and developing greater equality of opportunity for advancement of the individual.
It was not until Adlai Stevenson arrived on the national scene that these two separate currents converged under one leadership. The result can be a great thing for the liberal movement if this leadership continues to prevail.
The liberal movement tends to break down when it loses its moral status. The spoils system took much of the luster off Jackson. Theodore Roosevelt's excess of personal ambition contributed to the bitter frustration of his later years. The Treaty of Versailles temporarily destroyed Wilson's stature because it opened him to the same criticism from moralists which his conservative opponents could survive with impunity. Some of the slick chicks around Roosevelt hurt and might indeed have ruined him had not the impending crisis of World War II made liberals feel that the need for his personal leadership outweighed the disabilities of some of his lieutenants. We have just seen what the deep freeze did to Truman.
There is a substantial body of opinion which gets disillusioned with crooked liberals. They will leave the tainted liberal cause to support an honest conservative. The principle, however, does not seem to work the other way. Rutherford B. Hayes saved the conservative Republican Party after Grant. Calvin Coolidge saved the conservatives after Harding. Enough independent voters bought the "clean up from within" program to give the conservatives a new lease on the White House.
To be sure, there were other factors. But in the years immediately ahead liberals had better be honest. It is the best long-run policy for success in politics, as elsewhere. History proves it.
Political parties are tools through which people put ideas and policies into practice. Through the years since the Civil War, there has been little in the history of either the Republican or the Democratic Party which need inspire the undeviating loyalty of any adult, clear-thinking, reasonably independent individual. This is a good time for liberals to ask themselves whether the Democratic Party is still the best tool with which to work for the achievement of their purposes. There are only three possible choices, one of which has not been practical—on a national scale since the Whig Party disintegrated after the election of 1852. They are:—
1. To capture the leadership of the Republican Party.
2. To hold the leadership of the Democratic Party and defeat the elements within it which oppose the liberal cause.
3. To form a new third party which can, within the foreseeable future, be the vehicle to carry liberal principles into effect.
Liberals should come to the third alternative reluctantly, although the parallel between 1848 and 1952 has considerable allure. Zachary Taylor, a great military hero and an extremely intelligent man, unversed in politics and without much formal education, was elected President on the Whig ticket. Although the parallel is not exact, the Whigs in 1848 were the rough equivalents of the 1952 Republicans so far as their economic and political background is concerned. The election was won without a party platform and after a campaign in which the successful candidate refused to state his position on any of the leading issues of the day. His party was split into Northern or Conscience Whigs and Southern or Slave Whigs. Silence was accordingly golden. Upon taking office, President Taylor made valiant efforts to unify his party and to conduct his administration on a high level which would resist the extreme claims of the South in dealing with the admission to the Union of the vast new lands taken from Mexico in the recently concluded war. Being a Southern slaveholder himself, as well as a hero, his position was a strong one with the country.
He was faced with a Senate—led by Webster, Clay, and Seward of his own party and Calhoun of the Democratic Party—which, although bitterly divided on the slavery question, tended to outweigh the Executive in power.
No one will ever know whether Taylor could have met this challenge and averted not only the destruction of his own party but even, perhaps, the Civil War. He died suddenly, having been in office hardly a year. The Whig Party broke after the Compromise of 1850 and was never repaired. It lost the election of 1852 and disintegrated. The Conscience Whigs joined with moderate Northern Democrats who left their party because of its stand on the slave issue and formed the Republican Party. It won power in 1860 and held it, with the two Cleveland interludes, for fifty-two years, but the liberals lost control of the party with Lincoln's death, and only the accident of McKinley's assassination gave them the brief Theodore Roosevelt interregnum.
Parallels to the present are obvious. There is a substantial bloc of Republicans who are internationalists; there is a smaller bloc of Republicans who are liberals on domestic issues. In the Democratic Party there is also a wide split on ideological grounds. If the next two years bring control of the party by a combination of the isolationist, corruptionist, and reactionary wings of both major parties, the possibility of forming a new party for 1956 should not be written off.
However, the failure to achieve political power of the Populists, the Bull Moose Party, and the Progressive Party under La Follette makes such a course precarious at best. Henry Wallace's 1948 flirtation with the Communists proves the same point. Before resorting to such desperate tactics, liberals should weigh carefully the other two alternatives.
The first alternative, capture of the Republican Party, holds little prospect of success. To be sure, the strength of the Republican Party lies in its Governors and at its State Capitols, rather than in Congress. But these men, many of them liberals, have largely been ignored in the formulation of party policy. Moreover, the combination of big business and the McCarthyites controls the national party machinery so firmly that a liberal revolution within the Republican National Committee seems hardly likely. While the reorganization efforts of Chairman Hyde should be followed with interest, it is a rash liberal who expects the party leaders to change their spots. The fact of the matter is that liberals in the Republican Party are concerned almost entirely with international issues. Those who occupy themselves with domestic matters mostly fall into the "enlightened Tory" category. Their contribution to the solution of domestic problems is all too frequently too little and too late.
There remains the Democratic Party, bloody but unbowed. The great hope for liberals is that the Democratic Party machinery at the national level is, for the time being, in the control of Governor Stevenson, with all that means in the way of a sound, practical liberalism of integrity. If this control can be maintained through 1956, the tool is at hand to put the liberal program into effect.
There is serious danger, however, that the tool will pass into other hands. The two strongest elements in the Democratic Party today are the Southerners and the city organizations. In the interest of accuracy they should not be tagged as Dixiecrats and city bosses. There are really liberal Southerners who go as far as is possible, while still staying in public life, to support liberal principles among them Senators Kefauver, Monroney, Fulbright, Lister Hill, and Sparkman, and Mayor Morrison of New Orleans. There are urban leaders of high principles and integrity, such as John Hynes in Boston, Charles Merriam in Chicago, and Quigg Newton in Denver. But the fact of the matter is that these men are engaged in endless struggles with their own supporters to maintain a level of decency which will attract the independent voter.
White supremacy and the spoils system are the great dangers which confront liberals within the Democratic Party. It is not too much to say that, as a practical political matter, civil service is as important as civil rights.
The practical problems of liberals within the Democratic Party therefore are:—
1. To develop within the Southern states a young, aggressive, enlightened leadership which will lead public opinion within the community sufficiently to the left to bridge the gap between the Northern Democrats and the Southern party organizations. This will require courage on the part of these Southerners, plus a shrewd appraisal of how far one can go while still being nominated and elected to office. It will also require adult behavior on the part of the Northern liberals, who must appreciate the very real problems of their Southern brethren and the necessity for a fair compromise in the interests of unity and therefore of success. Civil rights and economic Bourbonism are the issues which must be dealt with.
2. To develop within the great urban communities which are the strength of the Democratic Party in the North able, intelligent leadership, determined to raise the ethical and moral level of urban Democracy and to curb the power of machines built on patronage and graft.
3. To raise the money necessary to maintain a strong organization and wage a series of political campaigns without selling out to five-percenters and big contributors who use politics for personal gain. This will not be easy with the party out of power. Some method, perhaps the Ruml Plan, will have to be adopted for raising large sums of money in relatively small gifts from many people. Spread of the $100 dinner idea and some adaptation of Community Chest techniques are other possible solutions. A liberal party cannot survive as the captive of the fat cats.
Unless these problems are solved successfully by 1954, the liberals will have lost the Democratic Party. It is only a short way back to Huey Long, Jimmy Walker, and Bilbo, as John Maragon, William O'Dwyer, and Governor Shivers make clear.
Needless to say, these problems must be solved without losing the support of groups committed to social and economic justice, such as labor and the racial minorities which have contributed so much to Democratic majorities in the North. But a majority party cannot be built exclusively out of minority groups. The 1952 election proves that, if it proves nothing else.
The difficulties of solving successfully these three practical problems are enormous. Liberals tend to underestimate the need for money and effective political organization. A million men will rarely spring to arms to carry even the most appealing ideology into effect through political action; and if they do, they will go home the day after election believing their term of enlistment is up and leaving implementation of the victory in the hands of a small group who, all too frequently, are quickly overwhelmed by the wise old regulars. Moreover, if the party coffers are empty there will be no arms to spring to. There is a need for dedicated liberals who are also practical politicians—men like Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Competent personnel of integrity is the great need of the liberal movement. The philosophy of the reformers in the universities becomes the action platform of the liberal politicians of the next generation. This leads to the inquiry Who goes into politics and why?
The vast majority of men and women in politics today come from the county courthouses or the city ward organizations. Politics is their livelihood. It pays for their groceries. There is a smaller coterie of rich businessmen who want anything from merely kudos to an opportunity to make a fast buck through political influence. There are also the pressure group leaders—veterans, labor, organized minorities, and the like. Finally, there are the reformers, ranging from the practical to the starry-eyed, some rich, some poor, a few merely well-to-do, ridiculed by the others in private but recognized as supplying at least a veneer of respectability which helps put the ticket across.
A particular individual, of course, may—and frequently does—incorporate within himself some traces of each of these four points of view. More so than in most other fields, almost everything in politics is gray—hardly anything is black and white.
Nevertheless, if the Democratic Party is to be a useful tool for the liberal movement, it has to become a substantially lighter shade of gray than it was when the Chicago Convention opened in July, 1952. Such a change is far from impossible. By election day in November, the Democratic Party leadership was as close to being pure white as it had been in twenty years. Only in 1912 and 1932 did it approach such splendor. What Wilson and Roosevelt did for it in those days, Stevenson did last fall. The party's present problem is to keep, in adversity and out of office, the high standards it set during the earlier periods, when it captured both the Presidency and the Congress.
To do this it needs new blood, new faces, new enthusiasms. These must come in the next two years through local and state elections and in the Congressional election of 1954. When the Democratic National Convention meets in 1956, it must have political leadership of a higher level of both integrity and intelligence than it had last summer. In the great urban communities the personnel problem is how to get good enough ward leaders to nominate first-class citizens as candidates. As long as the city organization is based on patronage, as long as the dominant motive is politics for revenue only, it is almost impossible to achieve this result.
In the South a leadership must control which recognizes that South African apartheid is no longer a possible solution of our American racial problems; and that the labor union, like the airplane, is here to stay.
The primary difficulty is not to get good men and women elected. It is to get them nominated. The people will respond if the party gives them half a chance.
How can this leadership problem be solved? Essentially it is a matter of recruitment. Fortunately, free compulsory education works for the liberals. With the enormous increase in the number of high school graduates, there is a greater awareness of political problems and of the need for political action than ever before. There is a wider understanding of the basic fact that democracy is social and economic as well as merely political. There is a better understanding of democracy itself and its need for intelligent grass-roots leadership.
Politics must be made both attractive and feasible to these younger men and women. There is a vast potential reservoir of political leadership coming from the schools and universities; a potential leadership which springs racially from many roots but has the competence to deal on an adult basis with the complex problems which the future holds for all of us. Moreover, it is a potential leadership psychologically prepared to enlist under the liberal banner. Big business has not yet taken over American education. Adlai Stevenson has more supporters among the schoolteachers and college professors than Tom Dewey. It is significant that what used to be called "history" is now "social studies." Spiritually and economically youth is conditioned to respond to a liberal program of orderly policing, of our society by government, subject to the popular will, in the interests of social justice.
If liberals are to recover lost ground and move ahead, they must tap this human reservoir by procedures which will channel the available personnel into effective spots in a practical political organization.
Reference has been made to "social, economic, and political justice." This is indeed a large mouthful. What does it mean? Of necessity, we must think in international as well as in domestic terms. The Truman Administration went about as far as then seemed practical in assisting the free world to resist Communist aggression, to give it economic support to maintain a still far too low standard of living while rearming, and to furnish the technical assistance under the Point Four program which can eventually increase production and wealth.
But at no time during the last year of the Truman Administration did there appear to be a real chance of a general settlement with Russia. The Eisenhower Administration, inheriting the cold war, started off with a more "positive" foreign policy coupled with suggestions that we would have to cut substantially aid to our allies. Liberals and conservatives alike could be excused for viewing this approach with some alarm. But as these words are written the Russian "peace offensive" is in spate, there is still some hope of a truce in Korea, and the news from Laos indicates a possible halt in Communist penetration of Southeast Asia. The U.S.S.R. has agreed to a new secretary of the UN. Under the circumstances all we can do is to hope for the best and support the President, whether his foreign policy opponent be Malenkov or McCarthy. It would be a rash author who would attempt to predict the state of the world or of Washington when this article sees the light of day. This is no time for liberals as such to quarrel with the foreign policy of the White House. In fact we can strongly support it with liberal votes in Congress—votes which there is every indication will be badly needed.
The battle is fiscal, not ideological. Campaign promises to balance the budget and cut taxes have, of necessity, been abandoned temporarily by President Eisenhower and his Secretary of the Treasury as the harsh reality of responsibility succeeds the wishful thinking of the hustings in October. But the President is under heavy pressure to cut foreign aid and military spending beyond the danger point; and the economy and isolationist blocs in Congress, licking their wounds, have not abandoned their fight.
The world situation is far too critical to permit self-indulgence at the expense of security for ourselves and our allies. We can have neither if we curtail our foreign aid or military strength to the point where the free world rests on its oars. If there is one thing the last eight years have taught us, it is that strength and strength alone is respected in the Kremlin.
Renewal of the reciprocal trade treaties should be a cause which liberals support. President Eisenhower is in favor of renewal, but Congressman Simpson is flirting with the high tariff bloc, and as these words are written "Buy American" is leading "Trade, not aid" in the back stretch. Repeal of those provisions of the McCarran-Walter Act which are an affront to our allies and an embodiment of racial and religious prejudices is also a common objective—but an objective with little prospect of imminent achievement.
In the domestic field, there are strong elements in Congress which are trying very hard to turn back the clock. Again, the contest is primarily fiscal. The portion of President Truman's proposed Federal budget devoted to the attainment of social and economic justice is relatively small. Yet the Republican leadership in the House has already sought to wreck the low-rental housing and redevelopment programs, though the Senate, it seems, may partially remedy the damage. Rural electrification, stream valley control, and the various Federal aid programs for highways, health, welfare, education, and civil defense are in grave danger of drastic curtailment
Another cause for concern is the spoliation of our natural resources evidenced by the offshore oil legislation. The whole policy of conservation of national resources first established by Theodore Roosevelt is under attack. These tendencies should be fought vigorously. We cannot build a sound democracy at home by a return to laissez faire.
Perhaps the greatest controversy between liberals and their adversaries in the next two years will be over what has come to be called McCarthyism. Here the contest is an old one. Denials of intellectual freedom and civil liberties recur constantly in our history. Andrew Hamilton's successful defense of Peter Zenger in 1735, the hysteria which resulted in passage of the Alien and Sedition Laws in John Adams's Administration, and the red-baiting raids of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer at the close of World War I are a few examples. But never has the danger been greater than today. It is particularly acute because there is reason to believe that Communists have infiltrated into some positions of power and importance and because liberals have foolishly denied, from time to time, the existence of a clear and present danger from this source. Nonetheless, the menace of McCarthy and his spiritual colleague, McCarran, must be fought and fought hard. Democracy can and must defend itself from infiltration by those who would destroy a free America, without resorting to the tactics and techniques of the totalitarians.
All of this was set forth with such eloquence by Governor Stevenson in the last campaign that further elaboration is redundant.
In the present situation the struggle for President Eisenhower's mind assumes enormous importance. It is far too early for liberals to write him off. He may yet become a great leader in the liberal tradition. By the spring of 1954 he may be fed up with the bill of goods sold him by the leaders of his party. The implications of government by big business, when fully realized, the activities of Senators McCarthy and Jenner, the nineteenth-century thinking of Congressmen Taber and Martin, will put a heavy strain on the party loyalty of a great contemporary American. There must be moments when the General wonders whether he is leading the right army. It would be a great thing for the future if liberals could persuade him he is not.
On the battlefield at Gettysburg, four months after the event, a very great Republican liberal inquired whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal could long endure when its modus operandi was a government of, by, and for the people. Two world wars and ninety years later, Lincoln's question is still unanswered. But the modern liberal, like Lincoln before him, must answer that question yes. As the world becomes more complex, as problems of government become more difficult of solution, as the need for competence in public office increases, so must our demands for higher standards in public life. Democracy can succeed only if its leaders believe and practice the truth that the end never justifies the means. A political party is doomed which is led by men who permit the means to become the end. Winning an election or a series of elections solves nothing. Meeting the responsibility of government in accordance with soundly conceived principles, stated publicly in advance of election, is the standard which must be lived up to if democracy is to meet the challenge of the second half of the twentieth century.
The greatest enemy of mankind is still man, as in Alexander Pope's day. In the eighteenth century one could contemplate that truth at leisure over a bottle of port. Today we had better do something about it pretty quick. The strength of the United States of America may well be all that stands between mankind and destruction of the human race. The best hope for survival lies in control of that strength by clear-thinking, adult liberals of integrity.
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Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; Jul 1953; Vol. 192, Iss. 000001; pp. 27-31.