Commentary Magazine

The Democrats

The following exchange was occasioned by Penn Kemble's article, “The Democrats After 1968,” which appeared in January. Douglas Ireland, who is currently at work on a book about the New Politics, was Senator Eugene McCarthy's national labor coordinator in the 1968 campaign, and later served on the campaign staff of Allard K. Lowenstein. Steve Max was formerly Field Secretary of the League for Industrial Democracy; at present, he is conducting a study of the Wallace phenomenon among young workers.

In mid-January of this year, at the first meeting of the new Democratic National Committee, Hubert H. Humphrey delivered himself of a 53-minute analysis of the defeat of the party's national ticket—without once mentioning Vietnam, Chicago, or Lyndon Johnson. Thus did the man whom Penn Kemble venerated as “the most liberal major party candidate in history” demonstrate how well he had absorbed the lessons of his own defeat.

Kemble's own analysis is not nearly so crudely blind: he puts the blame on the desertion of the Dixiecrats, the city machines, and most of all the liberals, on whom he especially vents his spleen. The liberals, he asserts, “helped to lay a basis in certain areas for a Nixon victory” in the Presidential primaries through their attacks on the Johnson administration. Kemble would have us believe that there was no fundamental difference on foreign policy between the Kennedy-McCarthy position and that of the Johnson-Humphrey administration: “the only issue was how much de-escalation, when, and under what conditions.” Therefore, Kemble asserts, the roots of the division between the insurgent McCarthy-Kennedy movements and the administration lie in the fact that the liberal Left, with its middle-class outlook, could not understand the needs of the working class as championed by Humphrey: “They belittle the bread and butter politics of the New Deal coalition, and regard issues dealing with the moral quality of life, aesthetic needs, and foreign policy as having the utmost importance.” And he accuses the liberals of ignoring the right-wing threat of Wallace and the Republican party as a result of this view.


Every Western country has its party of the dominant industrial and financial interests—in America this is the Republican party (as demonstrated by the line-up of the big-money men in Nixon's cabinet); nor is the development of chauvinist regional movements, such as the Wallace phenomenon, unusual. The traditional way to fight such movements is through a coalition of liberal and centrist elements; and for any segment of the alliance to leave the coalition is irresponsible.

But what happens when the Right wing makes serious inroads into a constituency which should normally be in the liberal camp: the white working class? And what happens when a supposedly liberal administration, elected with a vast popular mandate and the aid of the liberal-labor-Negro forces, loses its popular mandate in four years?

Writing in COMMENTARY for February 1965, Bayard Rustin observed: “Johnson, who wants to be President of ‘all the people,’ may try to keep his new coalition together by sticking close to the political center. But if he decides to do this it is unlikely that even his political genius will be able to hold together a coalition so inherently unstable and rife with contradiction. It must come apart. Should it do so while Johnson is pursuing a centrist course, then the [liberal] mandate [of 1964] will have been wastefully dissipated.” Rustin, of course, was right.

As a result of his singleminded determination to pursue the Vietnam war, Johnson alienated section after section of his support. First to go were the liberals and the young, an increasingly potent political element; they provided the organizational spark that opened the way for the electoral repudiation of the administration in the primaries of 1968.

Next, the story of disaffection in the solidly Democratic urban ghettos is illustrated by the failure of the city machines to produce substantial Humphrey margins. Those blacks who voted were overwhelmingly for Humphrey; but hundreds of thousands just stayed home. The War on Poverty had dashed the hopes of the poor almost as rapidly as it had raised them, hence many imprisoned in the ghettos turned toward the black militants. Anti-poverty appropriations, halved in 1966, continued to dwindle in the next two years as annual Vietnam spending rose to over thirty billion dollars. Kemble cites a drop of over 25,000 votes in Newark; a registration drive in that city, which has a majority black population, would have produced those votes. But the militant black community in Newark is planning to put forward a candidate for Mayor in 1969. Small wonder, then, that the white Democratic machine was in no hurry to register Negro voters. Had the administration given priority to the needs of urban slum ghettos, there might have been less black apathy toward the national contest.


Perhaps the most severe loss of support for the administration occurred in the white working class and among trade unionists. Had the AFL-CIO been able to hold the line as it did in 1964, or even as it did in 1960 (when 65 per cent of union families voted for the national Democratic ticket), then Humphrey would have been elected. But Nixon and Wallace between them carried 44 per cent of these votes in 1968, according to the Gallup poll (see the New York Times, December 1, 1968). Thus only 56 per cent of the labor vote went to Humphrey, not the AFL-CIO's figure of 68 per cent which Kemble cites. The difference is meaningful, because it represents the lowest percentage of Democratic votes among trade unionists since the formation of the CIO.

A look at the economic position of working people during the Johnson-Humphrey administration help us to understand the shift to the Right among significant portions of the working class. Ray MacDonald of the AFL-CIO Research Department points out that from 1960 to the first quarter of 1968, the average take-home pay for workers with three dependents (when adjusted for rises in the consumer price index) increased by only 9.6 per cent. Even more important, in the past three years there has been no gain at all in workers' buying power; furthermore, MacDonald tells us, a downturn in buying power which began in 1966 has not yet halted.1 To demonstrate the predicament of working people from another perspective: in 1959, the Department of Labor's “moderate” income level for an urban worker and his family was $6,100; by 1966, price increases had driven the figure to $9,191, while the number of families earning the “moderate” income or above had dropped sharply from 40.2 per cent in 1959 to 32 per cent in 1966.

This decline in the economic position of the American worker, to the point where two-thirds of the families in the country cannot earn the government's own definition of a moderate income, has set white against black in the struggle for economic survival. But as early as the winter of 1967, AFL-CIO COPE Director Al Barkan was on the campaign trail, telling trade unionists: “We don't have to wait until the Democratic Convention: the labor movement already has its candidate and his name is Lyndon Johnson.” Thus, from the outset all the “labor statesmen” could offer their members was more of the same. But for many workers whose paychecks were being eaten away by war-sharpened inflation and the Johnson-Humphrey war taxes, it just wasn't good enough; and so began the desertion to Nixon and Wallace.

Kemble ignores the dissipation of the 1964 mandate: except for a passing reference to a “badly discredited administration,” he takes no notice of the profound domestic failure of the Johnson-Humphrey “Great Society.” It is only by ignoring these facts that Kemble is able to put the burden of blame for Humphrey's defeat on the liberals.


Kemble heaps praise on the leadership of the AFL-CIO—George Meany and Co.—and declares that the election results were a powerful demonstration of the political effectiveness and liberal character of the labor movement. He notes that labor's intervention in “the decision-making of the Democratic party represented a major departure from the Gompers tradition of ‘reward your friends and punish your enemies.’” Labor's political effectiveness was also proved in a way Kemble neglects to mention: by withholding support from those liberal Democrats who refused to knuckle under to Meany's demands that they repudiate their opposition to the Vietnam war, the AFL-CIO hierarchy effectively killed the candidacies of Senators Joseph Clark and Wayne Morse, and of William Clark in Illinois, all of whom lost by narrow margins where labor support would have spelled victory. Yes, there was a reversal of the old Gompers maxim: it became “reward your enemies by punishing your friends.” The re-election of men like Senators Abraham Ribicoff and George McGovern, and Congressmen like Frank Thompson, Charles Vanik, and Henry Helstoski (all of whom were expected to lose) was due not to Meany's minions, who boycotted these outstanding liberals, but to the decisive mobilization of support effected by the McCarthy-Kennedy forces.

The “liberalism” of the AFL-CIO'S leaders was manifested in strange ways: when Humphrey wanted to soften ever-so-lightly the administration plank on Vietnam at the Chicago Convention—a gesture that might have won him later liberal support—Meany ordered him to stand firm. And when Humphrey, following the election, wanted to name John Gilligan of Ohio as Democratic National Chairman—the same John Gilligan on whom the AFL-CIO spent thousands in his primary fight against Frank Lausche, but who lost his labor support when he had the temerity to support the minority Vietnam plank at Chicago—Meany was again the one who turned thumbs down.

Meany at least understood one thing which Kemble does not: as noted above, Kemble asserts that there was no fundamental difference on foreign policy between McCarthy, Kennedy, and McGovern on the one hand, and Humphrey on the other, that “the only issue was how much de-escalation, when, and under what conditions,” a statement which surely takes the 1969 Orwell Prize for a new high in political Newspeak. Such an assertion could only come from one who took seriously the peace rhetoric that accompanied every escalation of the war on the part of the Johnson administration. There was never any mystery about the road to escalation: U Thant said it, the Pope said it, and Hanoi said it—stop the bombing of North Vietnam unconditionally. Had the Johnson-Humphrey administration wanted to end the war, the bombing would have been halted long before the eleventh-hour attempt to save the Humphrey ticket from defeat in November.

But the line was clear: in May, after the Democratic insurgency had already forced Lyndon Johnson out of the race, the President declared that “the United States will not allow itself to be pressured into halting the bombing of North Vietnam.” Such statements were typical of both Johnson and Humphrey throughout the pre-Convention period.

Contrast this view with Senator McCarthy's three-point program for ending the war, as reported in Look, February 1968:

  1. The bombing of North Vietnam should be immediately and unconditionally halted;
  2. The United States and South Vietnamese governments should seek immediate negotiations with the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam.
  3. To encourage these negotiations, the United States should generally withdraw its troops from certain areas of South Vietnam and reduce its commitments to a point where the Vietnamese will have to negotiate with the Vietcong and settle the war.

And let us remember Humphrey's assertion that a coalition government including the NLF, as proposed by Senator Kennedy, was “like letting a fox into the chicken-coop.” Beyond these immediate issues, the basic premise behind American intervention in Vietnam and in the Dominican Republic was sharply opposed by both insurgent candidates: by Kennedy, who declared that there must be “no more Vietnams” and insisted that “America cannot be policeman of the globe,” and by McCarthy, who flayed the concept of foreign policy by Presidential fiat. The debate in the Democratic party over foreign policy was not invented by the liberals as an excuse to attack Johnson's Texas accent or Humphrey's tearful emotionalism: the issues were basic and profound.

Even so, Kemble's division of the Democratic party into a “conscience wing” and a “class wing” is inadequate. Rather, we must distinguish those who perceive the deep connection between foreign policy and bread-and-butter domestic issues from those who believe there is no necessary connection between the two. The distortion of national priorities, by which domestic advance is sacrificed to our interventionist foreign policy, is sharply reflected in the breakdown of funds appropriated by the last Congress: over 70 per cent of all funds were spent on war—past, present, and future.


There is no end in sight. While Kemble is confident that by 1972 foreign policy will no longer be a major issue dividing the coalition, there has been little in the first months of the Nixon administration to indicate any departure from present interventionist policy. The increasing activity by potent revolutionary movements in Third-World countries will likely give us yet another Vietnam by 1972: whether in Laos, Guatemala or Brazil.

If a progressive alliance of labor, the minorities, and liberal Democrats is to win the Presidency four years hence, this coalition will have to unite on both foreign and domestic policy and carry the fight forward on both fronts.


Penn Kemble

There is much I could disagree with in the comments of Steve Max and Douglas Ireland, and there are some things with which I could agree. The task of replying is difficult, however, because they have not really written a response to my article.

Max and Ireland are mainly concerned with justifying the Kennedy-McCarthy insurgency in the Democratic party, and with attacking labor for supporting the Johnson-Humphrey wing in the struggle for the nomination. My article was neither an attack on the Kennedy-McCarthy Convention challenge nor an apology for labor's role in the pre-Convention period. I did not in fact discuss this period in any significant way; my article dealt with Humphrey's race against Nixon and Wallace. For some anti-war Democrats, the difficulties encountered by Humphrey in his Presidential campaign, as well as his ultimate defeat, constituted no more than a fitting denouement to the outcome of the Chicago Convention. For them, labor's mobilization against Wallace in September and October has no meaning, nor does the failure of some liberals to support Humphrey—when even some modest help might have elected him—justify any reproach. As far as they are concerned, the real Presidential race is hardly worth discussing.


Rather than trying to outline my own views of the struggle for the Democratic nomination, let me comment on a few of the issues that Max and Ireland have raised.

First, I believe that the Left should place its main emphasis now on solving the problems of the present and the future and not in debating the rights and wrongs of the struggle for the Democratic nomination. Fred Harris, the new Democratic National Chairman, is working to reunite the party on the basis of the reforms adopted at the Chicago Convention, and has appointed McCarthy supporters to major positions on the commissions that will oversee party operations. This is to my mind a move in the right direction, and it is far preferable to rubbing salt in the old wounds.

Nevertheless, some of the points Max and Ireland make should be answered if the wounds are to heal cleanly. I refer especially to their claim, which is frequently heard in some circles, that the AFL-CIO boycotted the campaigns of Vietnam war critics who were running for election to Congress. This is outrageously untrue; the fact that it is circulated means only that those who hear and repeat it are avidly eager to believe it.

A spot check of those officeholders mentioned by Max and Ireland elicited the following responses to the “boycott” charge:

Senator Abraham Ribicoff: “My campaign was not boycotted by the AFL-CIO. Quite to the contrary, the AFL-CIO and others in the labor movement were active supporters, and most helpful in all respects.”

Rep. Frank Thompson: “The statement is incorrect insofar as my situation is concerned. I was assisted materially by labor in my campaign, and am most grateful for that assistance.”

Rep. Henry Helstoski: “The role of the AFL-CIO in my campaign was fairly significant. I detected no boycott effort aimed at my campaign.”

Rep. Charles Vanik: “There was no such boycott, and I was appreciative of all the help cope was able to give in my crucial election.”

Inquiry into the role of labor in the campaigns of other doves yielded the following:

  • Senator William Fulbright, the leading dove in the Senate, had labor support, including the endorsement of the Arkansas State AFL-CIO, in his difficult campaign. Senators Church and Nelson also had labor support.
  • Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania was endorsed by the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO and received substantial financial and organizational support in his campaign.
  • John Gilligan got more financial support from labor in his bid for the Senate than any other candidate in the country. His labor support was not withdrawn after the Convention, what happened rather was that the Ohio State AFL-CIO had nearly exhausted its funds in the primary race, and, while it did give substantially after the Convention, it did not do so with the largesse that Gilligan may have expected.
  • Wayne Morse did receive substantial labor support in his Senate race against Packwood, even from the Machinists who had opposed him in the primary. In fact, the recount of his close race could not have been held were it not for financial help from labor, and labor is now helping him pay off his campaign deficit. It is true that many unions supported Duncan, a hawk, against Morse in the Democratic primary, and a case can be made that even from the union point of view the primary battle against Morse may have been excessively bitter, and thus may have contributed to his ultimate defeat.

But labor dissatisfaction with Morse was not, as Max and Ireland would have it, invented by George Meany to punish Morse for opposing the Vietnam war. It stemmed rather from local and state labor bodies who were angry at Morse for his role in several crucial labor battles of the last few years. Morse delivered himself of some bitter attacks on the Steel-workers' and the Machinists' unions, both strong unions in Oregon, while serving on special panels set up by President Johnson supposedly to mediate bargaining deadlocks in steel and the airlines. (In the airlines dispute Morse called for the invocation of Taft-Hartley injunctions against a Machinists' strike.) It takes some special ingenuity to overlook this record, and to see only foreign-policy differences, in explaining the difficulties Morse had with labor in his primary fight. It takes even more ingenuity to dismiss labor's swing to Morse in the general election, and to discover a boycott instead.


I do not mean to argue from these facts that the views of some dovish candidates did not cause some friction with the labor movement. Friction existed, and there were undoubtedly instances in which labor could be criticized. My point is that there was no concerted boycott; on the contrary, the AFL-CIO supported many doves in a very substantial way. In fact, if there was any boycott in the last election, it came not from labor but from a section of the anti-war movement.

Those anti-war liberals who refused to support Humphrey had their reasons, and those reasons are not to be taken lightly. True, I did say, that the only issue dividing McCarthy and Humphrey was “. . . how much de-escalation, when, and under what conditions.” But Max and Ireland overlook my next sentences: “In itself, of course, this was a serious question, one which might have been expected to set off passionate debate and hard-fought organizational battles, but it is difficult to believe that this issue alone could have divided the Democratic coalition so profoundly that the arch-enemy, Richard Nixon, was almost assured victory. . . .” As for the bombing of North Vietnam, it by itself was obviously not the only obstacle to a settlement of the war, as Max and Ireland suggest. The unproductiveness of the Paris talks now that the bombing has been halted sadly testifies to the fact that those who made a bombing halt the all-important issue of the campaign were exaggerating its importance as the sole means of ending the war.

It is true that there were other foreign-policy issues dividing the Democrats, one of them being the issue of the acceptability of a coalition government in South Vietnam. Yet this issue divided anti-war Democrats almost as deeply as it divided the party. Senator Kennedy, far from proposing a coalition government in his campaign platform, as Max and Ireland claim, needled McCarthy for doing so in their California debate, and the minority peace plank which the anti-administration forces supported at the Convention did not include a coalition government proposal. But the bombing of the North was the issue on which many McCarthy supporters based their unwillingness to support the ticket. When the bombing was stopped just before the election, such leaders of the anti-war faction as Allard K. Lowenstein, Paul O'Dwyer, and Gerald Hill declared their support for Humphrey. Thus it was fair to treat this as the main issue dividing the party. It was a grave issue, but in my opinion not grave enough to justify a refusal to support the ticket.


There are two other points worth commenting on. As was quite clear in my article, my figure of a 68 per cent labor vote for Humphrey was based on the voting of union members alone, not the vote of blue-collar districts, where, naturally, the figure was considerably lower. This is the AFL-CIO'S own estimate, borne out by a Kraft poll of union members outside the South which estimated the figure at slightly over 70 per cent. (The difference in the figures between union members and blue-collar districts generally is itself a good argument for the progressive impact of unionism.) However, even the figure for blue-collar districts, which includes non-union workers, family members, etc., may not be as low as the Gallup figure of 56 per cent; CBS put it at 60 per cent.

Finally, I fully agree with Max and Ireland that it is necessary for the Left to take both foreign and domestic issues into consideration. But the more adamant McCarthy supporters did not share this view; on the contrary, they refused to support a candidate with an obviously liberal domestic program against one with a frankly conservative program because the liberal, like his Republican opponent, did not fully share their position on the Vietnam war. But Max and Ireland are not really arguing that it is possible “. . . to carry the fight forward on two fronts.” For them, all domestic progress depends on a change in foreign policy. But suppose the war is not stopped. Could not those after-tax corporate profits, up 95 per cent since 1960, be put to some social use? Of course they could. But Nixon is not the man for such a project. Or, suppose the war is stopped; is there any guarantee that the funds now spent on Vietnam will be promptly refunded to our rotting cities? Of course not. The new budget already proposes that funds freed by decreased expenditures in Vietnam (between three and four billion dollars) be channeled to the Pentagon to develop more advanced forms of destruction. And if the ultimate in weapons is discovered, there are still more jetports and highways to be built, and more taxes to be cut.


There were ghettos before the war, and there will be ghettos after it; only when a strong enough political movement is established will the necessary funds be appropriated for abolishing slums. And the job of creating such a movement is not served by exaggerated attacks on the trade unions. In fact, these attacks on the most important constituency for domestic social change may be the worst way to create the kinds of changes in the Democratic party that Max, Ireland, and the New Politics movement want.

I think the point was best put by Michael Harrington, a McCarthy supporter and now a member of the Executive Committee of the New Democratic Coalition, in Toward A Democratic Left: “. . . a mass party of the democratic Left cannot be initially organized in response to international issues where there is a maximum potential for discord among its various constituencies. It will develop first out of domestic stirrings and crises.”


If I were to revise anything in my article now it would not be my analysis of the election, but rather my slighty over-optimistic conclusion about the possibilities for reuniting the liberal coalition with Nixon in office. So far Nixon has been remarkably successful in avoiding the kinds of openly conservative or hawkish moves which would arouse the liberal public to a united opposition. I expect that this will be the style of his administration: calmness, efficiency, and a neutralization of government. This will be quite satisfactory to his business constituency, which will do very well for itself if it is left alone. But it will make it more difficult than ever for the liberal coalition to reunite, especially since, to judge by the example of the 50's, the left-wing intelligentsia is liable to disengage from politics if there are no dramatic issues to arouse it. This group lacks the impetus of the economic and social self-interests which will be so necessary in the long, dull, political battle against Nixon's kind of conservatism.

Max and Ireland's letter is in a small way a symptom of the malaise to which Nixon's victory could eventually lead. Although he has been in office four months, they have almost nothing to say about him. If pressed, they would probably admit that he has moved the country to the right in both domestic and foreign policy. But they prefer to relive the battles of last summer, the golden age of middle-class radicalism, and to make ready again, perhaps unwittingly, for what could well be a similar battle in 1972.


1 AFL-CIO Federationist, July 1968. It should be noted that these trends occurred under conditions of stabilized unit costs to manufacturers, and an increase in after-tax corporate profits of 95 per cent from 1960 to the first quarter of 1968.

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