Hubert Humphrey wears a Truman button as he addresses the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1948.Associated Press

Seventy years ago, on the night of July 14, 1948, Hubert Humphrey, speaking at the Democratic convention in the Philadelphia Convention Hall, changed the course of the Democratic Party, and of post-war American politics. Yes, that’s the same Hubert Humphrey whom those of us who came of age in the late 1960s remember as the incarnation of a shopworn Cold War liberalism, the martyr of the cataclysmic 1968 Democratic convention. That Humphrey was LBJ’s sad rubber-faced puppet. This Humphrey was the maverick mayor of Minneapolis, the Happy Warrior whom Time had put on its cover under the banner, “The number one prospect for liberalism in the country.” In 1948, “liberalism” operated as a synonym for energy, optimism, and, above all, idealism. But with the Democrats now under the stewardship of Harry Truman, a stodgy machine pol, men like Humphrey feared that the party no longer stood for anything worth caring about. And Humphrey had come to Philadelphia determined to commit the Democrats to the one issue that cried out for a politics of conviction: civil rights.

This year, The Atlantic is commemorating the 50th anniversary of 1968, that year of terror and wonders. For the Democratic Party, and for Hubert Humphrey, 1968 was a kind of Calvary. The year 1948, by contrast, is the origin story of the post-war Democratic Party. And the question this history imposes on us today is: Did the commitment of 1948 lead inevitably to the electoral calamity of 1968 and beyond? That is, did the Democrats doom themselves to lose much of the white middle class simply by demanding equal rights for black people? If that’s the case, then racism is so deeply inscribed in the American soul, as much of the party’s left claims today, that a Democratic majority can only be founded on a coalition of the disadvantaged and the high-minded. If it’s not the case, then Democrats and liberals need to ask themselves where they went wrong.

The Hubert Humphrey of 1948 already sported the widow’s peak that would become pronounced later in life; he had the Sunday-school earnestness of a Midwestern druggist—which he was—and the unquenchable zeal of a reformer. In Minnesota, he had driven the Communist-influenced left from the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. In 1947 he had helped found Americans for Democratic Action, the leading organ of the anti-Communist left. Humphrey and his ADA colleagues worried deeply about the appeal of Henry Wallace, the third-party candidate who opposed the Cold War and endorsed European-style socialism. Idealists were shearing off from the Democrats to Wallace. A bold civil-rights plank in the Democratic platform would go a long way to blunting Wallace’s appeal.

President Truman had appointed a Civil Rights Committee whose final report, To Secure These Rights, had called for federal anti-lynching laws, the prohibition of the poll tax, the desegregation of the armed forces. But the party depended on the “solid South,” and the Southern barons, led by Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, balked at anything that would allow the federal government to preempt state law. Truman had thus endorsed an innocuous civil-rights plank. Humphrey and the ADA had only reluctantly brought themselves to support Truman—and now Truman was abandoning his own principles.

Humphrey wangled a spot for himself on the platform drafting committee, where he fought for a civil-rights plank that reflected the findings of To Secure These Rights. “The party elders,” he recalled in his memoirs, “argued that we were going to split the party by causing a Southern walkout.” Democratic Senate leader Scott Lucas of Illinois called Humphrey a “pipsqueak,” and accused him of wrecking the party. In his diary, Truman referred to the civil-rights plank as “the crackpot amendment.”

The Humphrey plank was easily defeated in committee. The party’s entire hierarchy, and not just the Southern racists, opposed it. Humphrey knew that he had to be a good team player or risk his brilliant future. Nevertheless, he concluded, “for me personally, and for the party, the time had come to suffer whatever the consequences.” He agreed to bring up the measure before the full convention. ADA members fanned out into the hall to buttonhole delegates. Humphrey approached Ed Flynn, the fearsome boss of Tammany Hall; and Flynn, incredibly, said, “We should have done this a long time ago. We’ve got to do it.” Flynn had not suddenly turned Lutheran moralist: He knew that the party couldn’t afford to lose black and Jewish voters to Wallace. He promised to bring in Frank Hague, the boss of New Jersey, and the other big-city wheelhorses. The tide in the hall began to turn.

Humphrey was the Joe Biden of his day—irrepressible, unscripted, prolix. But as he prepared to deliver a speech introducing the minority civil-rights plank on the night of July 14, a speech that he knew would be the greatest political moment of his life to date, he wrote out his remarks, and he kept them short. Sixty million Americans followed the proceedings on the radio, and 10 million more watched on the new medium of television. (The audio version survives, but not, apparently, the video.) “There can be no hedging,” Humphrey cried in his eight-minute address, “no watering down. To those who say that we are rushing the issue of civil rights—I say to them, we are 172 years late.” The cheering of thousands of delegates became a sustained roar. “To those who say this bill is an infringement of states’ rights, I say this—the time has arrived in America. The time has arrived for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadows of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights. People—people—human beings—this is the issue of the 20th century.”

The civil-rights plank passed 651 and one-half to 581 and one-half. The Democrats had finally shed their 19th-century skin, the old Jeffersonian individualism into which the Southern defense of racial domination had been stitched. The party had fashioned a new majority. Black voters who had long identified with Republicans were increasingly voting Democratic. Ed Flynn might have been right about the 1948 election, for Truman would, of course, go on to beat Thomas Dewey by a hair. Henry Wallace, who could have drawn off crucial support, would finish with only 2.3 percent of the vote. And the solid South began to deliquesce, just as Humphrey’s elders predicted it would. Once the civil-rights plank passed, Strom Thurmond led a walkout of Southern delegates. Thurmond ran at the head of the Dixiecrat Party and carried his own state as well as Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana—a footnote at the time.

The Democrats could, in fact, live without the most moss-backed regions of the Jim Crow South. In 1964, Barry Goldwater would carry essentially the same group of states Thurmond had, plus Arizona, and suffer a staggering defeat. What neither Humphrey nor party leaders had counted on, however, was the mass defection of white voters outside the South, a process that would begin in 1968 and consolidate in 1980. Today, of course, the entrenched conservatism of much of the white middle class remains an obstacle in the path of Democratic majorities.

FDR had created the modern Democratic Party by deploying the state on behalf of ordinary citizens—ordinary white citizens. By 1948, those Americans no longer needed the state as they had; black Americans did. Thanks to Humphrey and the ADA, the Democrats had done something even more dangerous than they understood: They had exchanged a politics of self-interest for a politics of moral commitment. They were counting on their voters to accept that the nation must do for others what it had done for themselves. They were still, of course, the big-government party; they had much to offer their supporters. The question, which they had not fully considered, was: How much would they have to take away in order to make civil rights a reality?

Humphrey only saw his dream of a politics of equal opportunity begin to be fulfilled in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which John F. Kennedy had introduced, Lyndon Johnson had championed, and Humphrey himself managed as floor leader, steering the bill through a 75-day filibuster by Southern Democrats. The act outlawed discriminatory access to public facilities—that is, Jim Crow—authorized the attorney general to sue school systems to enforce desegregation orders, and barred racial discrimination by employers and unions. In a letter to Walter Lippmann, Humphrey wrote, “The Civil Rights Act is without doubt the most significant piece of legislation of this century.” For once, he was not guilty of hyperbole.

Yet it had become plain that civil rights was not enough. As Johnson said in a 1965 speech at Howard University, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” The government needed to address the causes of persistent poverty, whether among whites or blacks. Johnson thus proposed, and Congress passed, the cataract of legislation that constituted the Great Society and led to the creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity, Head Start, VISTA, the Job Corps, the Model Cities Program. This revolutionary upheaval offered not just economic opportunity but rights, including voting rights and the right to legal representation. The Supreme Court, which had prohibited separate but equal school facilities in its 1954 Brown decision, mandated far-reaching legal changes by requiring mandatory busing for school desegregation, while upholding the constitutionality of affirmative-action programs in hiring and university admissions.

At first, Johnson’s near-frenzied commitment to make good the pledge of 1948 enjoyed tremendous popularity. He won his smashing victory over Goldwater. In 1965 his popularity stood at 66 percent. And then civil rights began to move north, above all through school and housing desegregation. Once the Great Society began to confer rights and privileges on black people beyond the Jim Crow South, whites who, whatever the truth of their behavior, had no consciousness of having kept blacks down began to feel that their abstract commitment to the cause of civil rights carried a very real cost. In Chain Reaction, a penetrating 1991 account of the relationship between race and politics, Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall observe, “As the civil-rights movement became national, as it became closely associated with the Democratic Party, as it began to impinge on local neighborhoods and schools, it served to crack the Democratic loyalties of key white voters.”

One could choose innumerable examples, but perhaps the most telling is school desegregation. The only way to make good the prohibition against separate but equal schooling, at least outside the South where blacks and whites generally lived far enough apart that they attended racially segregated neighborhood schools, was to bus black kids to largely white schools and vice versa (though fewer whites than blacks had to leave their schools). The whites in question were often working-class Irish or Italians who lived in heavily segregated urban areas. When the state of Massachusetts required all schools to desegregate in 1965, 44 of the 55 schools found to be segregated were located in Boston. This began a campaign of resistance that culminated with violence and riots in 1974, when a federal judge required some entire classes from virtually all-white schools to be bused to virtually all-black inner-city schools. White parents elsewhere in the country moved to the suburbs or enrolled their children in private schools.

The logic of civil rights required mandatory desegregation; if the policy was right, resistance was wrong. I certainly took that view at the time, from the safety of my fancy all-white suburban public school. I would have said that white racism killed school desegregation. But how would I have felt, and how would my parents have felt, if the bus had come for me? Would we have agreed that, as the unconscious beneficiaries of entrenched white privilege, we had an obligation to participate in the cure? Maybe; or maybe we would have found a way around the problem. It was a lot to ask, especially outside the South, where whites did not feel complicit in a legal system of racial separation (even if they should have felt complicit in a de facto system). And if those who devised this massive social experiment seemed largely exempt from its demands, how could one persuade those families in Boston and Chicago and Washington of the justice of the policy? It’s telling that Humphrey, a small-town boy of deeply ingrained modesty, was “dubious from the beginning” about compulsory busing, according to a former aide.

In the 1968 election, Richard Nixon sent carefully coded racial signals, endorsing Brown but questioning the role of federal courts in enforcing it. George Wallace, the white-supremacist governor of Alabama, running as an independent, understood that a direct attack on civil rights would win him only the dead-enders who had voted for Thurmond and Goldwater. Instead he targeted the liberal judges and lawmakers who wrote the laws rather than the blacks who benefited from them. “They have looked down their nose at the average man on the street too long,” he said. The Alabama governor only carried the Dixiecrat states, but he won 13.5 percent of the popular vote.

It was Wallace, not Nixon, who figured out the code of a new populist rhetoric that put liberals and their minority clients on one side and ordinary, hard-working Americans on the other. As the Edsalls note, “Wallace provided a desperately sought-after moral justification to those whites who saw themselves as most victimized and most displaced by the black struggle for civil rights.” Nixon picked up on this in 1972—as did Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George Bush in 1988. A generation later, Donald Trump would feel able to drop the subtle hints and run directly on Wallace’s message.

I have, of course, compressed a vast history into a pellet. Humphrey lost in 1968 not only because of white resentment at the Great Society, but because rioters were torching cities, the kids were taking over the dean’s office, Black Panthers were brandishing guns, the courts were adding protections to accused criminals, and the Vietnam War had sapped the Democrats of their moral authority. Broad economic growth had underwritten activist government; but middle-class incomes began to stagnate in the 1970s, and never recovered. The “rights revolution” made whites, and above all white men, feel that they were being pushed to the edges of American culture. Immense phenomena do not have single causes. But race has always remained close to the center of the story. In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt make the profoundly discouraging observation that American bipartisan comity in the 19th and 20th centuries was built on an implicit agreement over the exclusion of black citizens. The passage of the Civil Rights Act shattered that shared identity.

Perhaps, then, a straight line leads from 1948 to 1968 to 2018. In the end, the Democrats’ commitment to civil rights required the majority to agree to sacrifice privileges—unearned privileges, to be sure—on behalf of the minority. Maybe democratic politics can’t ask that much.

In fact, one can think of a still darker moral: Bill Clinton spent eight years laboring mightily to remove the taint of the Great Society, including by signing a welfare-reform bill so harsh that many Democrats could not swallow it. Barack Obama announced himself to the nation by saying, “There is no black America and no white America,” and governed as if he believed that were true. Both made modest inroads among middle-class white voters.

Yet today far more whites see the Democrats as the party of liberal elites and their minority clients than was true in 1968. The civil-rights struggle is long over, but many voters continue to see the Democrats as the champion of groups, and of blind forces, that threaten the legacy world of American hegemony, patriarchy, and white Christian dominion. What’s more, economic stagnation has made almost everyone feel like a victim and thus drained the willingness to make sacrifices for others. Ergo, it’s hopeless. Today’s Democratic Party should just accept that it is the party of minorities, the marginalized, and their young and elite liberal patrons.

Yet one of the lessons of the history I’ve just recounted is that liberals drove themselves into a dead end that nobody saw coming in 1948. The sense of superior moral standing that liberals derived from defending the rights of the marginalized often blinded them to the effect of their policies on white Americans (and at times on the marginalized themselves). This is hardly a new insight; the neoconservatives built a movement on it. Yet it seems piercingly relevant today. Donald Trump can speak the unfiltered language of George Wallace because so many white Americans feel victimized the way Wallace voters did 50 years ago. The fact that your racism is sincerely felt does not, of course, make you any less a racist; but Trump voters also may have reason to feel that something precious is being taken from them. Maybe it behooves today’s Democrats to take those grievances more seriously than they’re inclined to. Maybe, to take one example, our current system of immigration, which delivers a wonderfully diverse world to cosmopolites and cheap workers to employers, is a raw deal for working-class whites.

Hubert Humphrey had no illusions about the deplorables of his day, whether Communists or racists; but he did believe that the ordinary American was open to a message of collective responsibility and common purpose. Perhaps he was the hopelessly naïve product of mid-20th-century America. Or maybe liberals need to keep trying.

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