The Democratic Party of Story, Myth and Song

April 8, 2009

 (Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Shakespeare’s Henry V is a great play because, among many other reasons, it is deeply revealing about the national ideals of the British. Henry, pressed onto the throne at a young age after a checkered youth, rises the occasion when the odds are deeply against him. Shakespeare’s Henry is at once brave, inspiring, fierce, merciful, eloquent, God-fearing and even multi-ethnic (Shakespeare emphasized Henry’s Welsh lineage for contemporaneous political reasons).

Now of course the real Henry V didn’t begin to live up to these noble ideals. In fact, he ordered a group of French prisoners executed during the Battle of Agincourt. When his knights refused to murder, he had to order his archers to do the butchery.

Why let the truth get in the way of a good story? Shakespeare’s plays tell us about the aspirational ideals of the British- how they wanted to see themselves.

Democrats, before and after the creation of the New Deal coalition, have long seen themselves as champions of the little guy. The reality, of course, is that as a broad tent party, the Democrats have not always lived up to this ideal. Over the years some rather unsavory factions have drifted into and out of the Democratic coalition. The Democratic Party I know however-from books-deserves some credit for real moral courage. Sometimes.

In 1910, a group of Progressive Republicans teamed with Democrats to strip the Speaker of the House of power, including the power to appoint committee chairmen. Chairmen came to be appointed by seniority, which not only decentralized power in the House, but enormously empowered Democrats from the old Confederacy. The Republican Party was the party of Lincoln, you see. After southern racists saw to it that former Slaves couldn’t vote, Republicans were no threat to win an election in the south.

The Old Bulls, as the committee chairmen came to be known, ruled their fiefdoms with an iron fist. They decided which bills would get hearings, and which would die. They said jump, and the rest of the committee said “how high?” Disproportionately, the Old Bulls were southern segregationists.

So just for example, any change in American tax policy had to begin in the House Ways and Means committee, and there was the Right Honorable Bubba Klan serving in his 5th term as chairman. If you guessed that the Right Honorable Darrell T. Klux was biding his time waiting to replace Bubba when he finally went to pick cotton in Hell’s sharecropping plantation, give yourself a gold-star.

Think that might give Bubba and Darrell a little leverage in keeping African Americans down? You bet. The Old Bulls ran the House for a mere 60 years and change.

This however is not the Democratic Party of today. The Democratic Party of today was forged in opposition to these bigots, fought them, and finally defeated them at great cost through the prolonged application of blood, sweat, tears and moral courage.

In the Shakespearean telling, liberal Democrats grew to hate the oppression of Southern Democrats. The United States Supreme Court began chipping away at Jim Crow in the 1940s. Harry Truman integrated the military unilaterally. Martin Luther King’s voice sent the English language into battle, and his courage and conviction galvanized the conscience of the nation. Finally, when John F. Kennedy was struck down by an assassin’s bullet, Lyndon Baines Johnson, himself a southerner, defeated the Old Bulls by building the greatest tribute possible to the fallen President by passing the key elements of his previously stalled agenda-including (amazingly) the Civil Rights Act. Finally, in the wake of Watergate, progressives overthrew the Old Bulls by eliminating seniority.

Much is true about this story. Of course, like Henry V, much has been air-brushed out- like a series of Democratic Presidents including Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt who failed to do so much as to raise a finger to aid disenfranchised African Americans. The Old Bulls were powerful, you see, and to get along you had to go along with some things, even if they were shameful. You can learn to live with that, in return for power.

I’ve argued previously that today’s alliance between progressives and education reactionaries will not and cannot last, because the ideals of progressives are so completely at odds with today’s status-quo. It could however last a good long while- the call of cynicism is strong. It whispers in your ear that you have to accept certain things in order to do good things.

This much is certain- the cynics are going to have a hard time convincing anyone they are doing the right thing by throwing 1,700 DC kids under the bus simply to keep their reactionaries happy. When it comes to reauthorizing the DC program, which Democratic Party will show up- a group living up to their ideals or to their short term interests?

 Why do I think there is still a chance for DC Opportunity Scholarships? Because of people like Diane Feinstein. Read her quote again:

Why should the poor child not have the same access as the wealthy child does? That is all he is asking for. He is saying let’s try it for 5 years, and then let’s compare progress and let’s see if this model can work for these District youngsters…I have gotten a lot of flak because I am supporting it. And guess what. I do not care. I have finally reached the stage in my career, I do not care. I am going to do what I sincerely believe is right.

These are not the words of a cynic, or a stary-eyed naif, but rather someone who knows that she has a limited time in this world, and wants to do what is right.  In the end, I believe many Democrats will find moral courage to match that of Feinstein, but it is going to be a hell of fight to get there.

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