PRIMAL SCREED/James McCarty Yeager

When Dems were Dems

Washington, D.C.

Return with us now to the stirring days of yesteryear, when Democrats were Democrats and Republicans, as Gene McCarthy said, were like moss on the north side of a rock: they didn't have much vitality, but they never really died out either.

This wasn't all so long ago, you know. Specifically it was 1948. Hubert Humphrey was the Boy Mayor of Minneapolis. Gene McCarthy had just knocked off the Republican Chairman of Ways and Means. Strom Thurmond and the Governor of Texas bolted the Democratic Party out of disgust with its democratic aspirations for black Americans. Forty-eight dead people voted in alphabetical order in Starr County to elect Lyndon Johnson Senator. Richard Nixon answered an ad to run against Jerry Voorhis in the lowest campaign of the 20th century, until his next.

Not so long ago at all. As an intro into 1998, it may well be time to resuscitate the Democratic Party platform of 1948 and use it as the yardstick with which to measure the aspirations and plans of the different wings of the Democratic party 50 years later.

As always, the Republicans remain irrelevant in any but the most obstructionist ways. If the country is not saved from the Republicans, it cannot be saved at all. Their insistence on corporate selfishness as the national ideology would disqualify them from serious consideration even if their manifest incompetence at governing did not do so. Any party whose leadership counts House Speaker Newt (Nuke 'Em) Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent (Boy Cheerleader) Lott as principal (though not particularly principled) moderates is obviously destined for increased marginalization as even the companies who paid for them come to realize their ineffectiveness.

How far have the mighty fallen? Well, let's see. The Democrats in 1948 didn't favor just civil rights, they favored racially blind economic justice. The Democrats in 1948 didn't favor health insurance reform, they favored universal health coverage. The Democrats in 1948 didn't favor labor freedoms, they favored worker empowerment through organization. The Democrats in 1948 didn't favor reinventing government, they favored delivering government services and protections. The Democrats in 1948 didn't favor the Fortune 500, they favored the economy as a whole. The Democrats in 1948 didn't favor welfare reform, they favored a living wage and full employment. The Democrats in 1948 didn't favor just a balanced budget, they favored a fair distribution of goods and services.

Under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman the Democratic Party united the city and the countryside, the blue collar worker and the white collar small businessman, the farmer and the laborer, and thereby vast sections of the middle class were formed. In 1948 the post-war vision of a Fair Deal for all came up against the specter of professional anti-communism and, for the moment, triumphed. The issues were clear, the divisions straightforward, the choices unmistakable. It's been downhill all the way ever since.

It is fashionable nowadays, a mere six years after its commencement, to notice how the Liberal Republican Administration of Bill Clinton has taken over Republican themes (balance the budget and screw the consequences, which is a vain worship of idolatrous figures at its worst.) He attempts to present capitalism with a human face, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did before him; and, like FDR, he is reviled for his pains. The right hates him because he thinks things need fixing and the left regards him, quite rightly, as not wanting to fix enough things thoroughly. Of course, FDR did have a majority of his own party to work with in Congress, and some electoral clout with which to compel them to do it ...

I would not want to argue that the Democratic Party was less corrupt in 1948 than it is now. But then the same holds true for the Republicans. Somehow in 1948 the Democrats managed to fight for a few basic tenets that would have been revolutionary if attained then and still would be if realized now.

Take universal health insurance. The idea to which the Democrats were pledged in 1948 was to just treat every American like they were members of the Armed Services. Or, as my father used to say, "Give every citizen the same socialized medicine Dwight Eisenhower had all his adult life." We, the people, need everybody's productivity. Therefore we will all pay for everybody's health care. Pretty straightforward, really, and even if it might lead to doctors becoming salaried public employees instead of private buccaneers that would be no loss of national freedom at all.

But the real test is now, as it was then, civil rights. The theory of 1948 was if the armed forces can be integrated, and the rest of the federal government, and education, then the states individually and the economy as a whole cannot be far behind. But the goal was the economic integration, not meeting a series of legalistic tests. This goal underestimated the virulent opposition of the south and the lassitude of the north toward any economic redistribution achieved on behalf of poor whites and poor blacks. While the obstruction was based on the notion of America as being rich enough to throw away a portion of its citizens, that notion has long since been exploded in fact though not in the fanciful imaginations of the New Confederates who dominate Congress.

Nowadays, the business and union Democrats are as corporatist as the Republicans, with the additional layer of betrayal that they will not reform a campaign financing system so odoriferous it makes the sewerage seem clean by comparison. Members of the reform wing of the Democrats vacillate between being the prisoners of the academy and being its outcasts. Whether up against Republican opponents who are either blow-dried suburban New Confederates or cash-flush small businessmen, Democratic Congressional candidates lack only the courage of their 1948 forebears to stand for fundamental rather than marginal change.

James McCarty Yeager lives one block from the ruins of Fort Sumner in Maryland, one of the ring of forts that protected the Union capital from the Confederacy.

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