It goes way, way back
By Rick Perlstein
The schism between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders is knit into the DNA of the modern Democratic Party, in two interrelated ways. The first is ideological: the battle of left versus right.
Start in 1924, when the party cleaved nearly in two. That year, at Madison Square Garden, the Democratic convention took a record 103 ballots and 16 days to resolve a fight between the party’s urban wing and its conservative opponents. How conservative? Well, the convention was nicknamed the “Klanbake,” because one of the great issues at stake was—no kidding—whether the KKK was a good or a bad thing. The divide was so heated that tens of thousands of hooded Klansmen held a rally and burned crosses to try to bully the party into meeting their demands.
Eight years later, under Franklin Roosevelt, the party’s urban, modernist wing established what would become a long hegemony over its reactionary, Southern one. But that hegemony remained sharply contested from the very beginning. In 1937, bipartisan opponents of FDR banded together to forge the “Conservative Manifesto.” Co-authored by a Southern Democrat, the manifesto called for lowering taxes on the wealthy, slashing government spending, and championing private enterprise. Hillary Clinton’s eagerness to please Wall Street can be traced, in part, to that ideological split during the New Deal.
Indeed, over the years, many of the most “liberal” Democrats have remained sharply conservative on economic questions. Eugene McCarthy, the “peacenik” candidate of 1968, ended up backing Ronald Reagan. Dan Rostenkowski, the lunch-pail chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, proposed a tax package in 1981 that was more corporate-friendly than Reagan’s. Jerry Brown of California, long derided as “Governor Moonbeam,” campaigned for president in 1992 on a regressive flat tax. That same year, Bill and Hillary Clinton won the White House with the business-funded support of the Democratic Leadership Council, which sought to downplay the “big government” solutions championed by FDR.
Which brings us to the second strand in the party’s divided DNA: It’s sociological.
Slate’s Jamelle Bouie has pointed out the pattern’s clocklike consistency: Since the beginning of the modern primary process in 1972, the Democratic divide has settled into a battle between an “insurgent” and the “establishment.” But Bouie errs, I think, in labeling every insurgent as “liberal.” Just look at Brown in 1992—an insurgent who was conservative on economic issues. Or Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and 1972—an establishment favorite whose signature legislative initiatives, including centralized planning boards to dictate industrial production, were more socialist than those of Sanders.
This year, however, the traditional order of battle aligns with crystalline precision. Clinton, endorsed by 205 out of 232 Democratic members of Congress, is clearly the establishment’s pick—and also, increasingly, that of Wall Street masters of the universe terrified by the prospect of Donald Trump. Sanders represents the guerrilla faction, arrayed this time behind the economically populist banner of FDR.
Does history tell us anything about how Democrats can bridge their long-running divide and forge a stronger, more unified party? Sanders would do well to remember that sore loserdom never helps. (“George McGovern is going to lose,” a leading Democrat supposedly vowed after Humphrey lost the nomination in 1972, “because we’re going to make him lose.”) And Clinton needs to recognize that campaigning on economic liberalism is almost always a good political bet. (Even at the height of Reagan’s morning-in-America blather in 1984, barely a third of American voters favored his plans to reduce the deficit by slashing social programs.)
If Hillary has any doubts about embracing the economic agenda laid out by Sanders, she should ask the insurgent of 1992: William Jefferson Clinton. The man who ended a dozen years of presidential exile for the Democrats didn’t do it simply by promising to get tough on crime and to “end welfare as we know it.” He also pledged $80 billion in federal investments to improve America’s cities and to create four million new jobs—not to mention, of course, a plan to deliver health care to all Americans.
Rick perlstein is a historian and the author of Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge.