How liberal is America’s Democratic Party?

Last weekend, I went on a one-day course at London’s City Literary Institute with the title “Liberalism And The Democratic Party: From FDR To Today”. The course was delivered by Brian Kennedy, a knowledgeable and eloquent American who hails from Boston.

We were told that a progressive wing of American politics first developed in the Republican Party with Teddy Roosevelt becoming the first progressive US president. The Democratic Party first embraced a progressive agenda with the election of Franklin D Roosevelt, a distant relative of Teddy Roosevelt. He took office after three years of the Depression and instituted a radical programme of economic stimulus, job creation and relief of poverty which he called the New Deal. FDR went on to win an unprecedented four terms in the White House in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944 before he died in office.

Originally, FDR’s running mate had been the Left-winger Henry Wallace, but the party managers judged him to be too radical, so he was replaced by Harry Truman who took over from FDR in 1945. He developed a package of policies that he called a Fair Deal which included proposals for a national health care system which were abandoned. He promoted racial liberalism.

The next Democratic president was John F Kennedy whose support for civil rights was actually begrudging. Perhaps surprisingly, it was Lyndon B Johnson – who took over from JFK when he was assassinated – that turned things around with a collection of radical policies which he called the Great Society and the War of Poverty. He was a powerful advocate of desegregation which caused Democrats to lose their historic control of the South.

Jimmy Carter was a rather conservative Democratic president. Bill Clinton, in spite of his approach of triangulation, was more radical. He made a failed attempt at reforming health care and proved to be particularly popular with African-Americans.

During the years of the second Bush presidency, Democrats tended to replace the term liberal by progressive. The advent of the first black occupant of the White House with Barack Obama promised much to the progressives. He did deliver reform of health care but, in many respects, he was a cautious leader and his policy of targeted assassinations by drones did not win him favour in certain quarters of the party.

In so far as it is possible to summarise a day of discussion, I guess the conclusion has to be that the Democratic Party has never been that liberal or progressive, certainly since the exceptional historic circumstances that prevailed when FDR first took office. There has been a real hesitancy in the party about moving away from the centre in case it upsets the electorate too much.

We saw this tension very dramatically when Bernie Sanders (not actually a Democrat) ran so closely against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. We are seeing it now with the strong showing by both Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the current nomination race.

Among many factors, two stand out as making it tough for the United States to have a genuinely Left-wing party: first, the electoral system which effectively demands that political parties appeal to a majority of the electorate; second, the massive influence of money in American politics which means that the rich can fund huge campaigns and lobbies against any progressive candidate or policy.

But maybe this year will see the beginning of transformational change …


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