Ahis­tory of un­suc­cess­ful Demo­cratic purges

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - BRUCE BARTLETT

The de­feat of Sen. Joe Lieber­man in Con­necti­cut’s Demo­cratic pri­mary is treated as a purge by both Democrats and Repub­li­cans. Those on the Demo­cratic Party’s left wing hope it will send a sig­nal through­out the party that op­po­si­tion to the war in Iraq is ab­so­lutely manda­tory for all Democrats. Repub­li­cans will ham­mer home the idea that Democrats are no longer will­ing to tol­er­ate in­ter­nal dis­sent on this is­sue even from some­one who was the party’s vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee just six years ago.

This is not the first Demo­cratic Party purge of those viewed as be­ing to the right of its left-wing base. In 1938, Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt set out to per­son­ally purge the party of any con­gress­man or sen­a­tor un­will­ing to sup­port ev­ery New Deal pro­gram down the line, no ques­tions asked. It proved to be the first step in wean­ing the “Solid South” away from the Demo­cratic Party and putting it into the Repub­li­can col­umn.

Be­fore the Civil War, the Demo­cratic Party was the party of slav­ery, fight­ing ev­ery con­gres­sional ef­fort to end that aw­ful in­sti­tu­tion. The Repub­li­can Party was cre­ated to end slav­ery, which the Whig Party was too fright­ened to take a po­si­tion on. Af­ter the war, Democrats fought en­act­ment of the 14th and 15th Amend­ments to the Con­sti­tu­tion, and in ev­ery South­ern state they en­acted “Jim Crow” laws to keep blacks down and re­in­sti­tute de facto slav­ery through chain gains, pe­on­age laws, lynch­ing and dis­en­fran­chise­ment.

Repub­li­cans fought th­ese ef­forts, pass­ing many civil rights laws that ended up in­val­i­dated by the Supreme Court. It would be al­most a cen­tury be­fore the court’s phi­los­o­phy changed and al­lowed sim­i­lar laws to be en­acted in the 1960s. Repub­li­cans also fought Demo­cratic ef­forts to reim­pose de facto slav­ery in the South af­ter the war, but it re­quired fed­eral mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion to pro­tect the rights of blacks, which could not be main­tained in­def­i­nitely. Af­ter with­drawal of fed­eral troops in 1877, racists re­took con­trol and kept the South firmly in the Demo­cratic col­umn for the next 100 years.

Roo­sevelt tried to break South­ern con­ser­va­tives’ power by openly cam­paign­ing against many of them in 1938. This failed to­tally. In Ge­or­gia, Roo­sevelt’s op­po­si­tion to Sen. Wal­ter F. Ge­orge boomeranged and prob­a­bly en­sured Ge­orge’s re-elec­tion. Ge­or­gians didn’t much care for out­siders telling them how to vote — even a pres­i­dent they had sup­ported over­whelm­ingly in 1932 and 1936.

As a re­sult of the failed purge, Roo­sevelt found his power in Congress sub­stan­tially di­min­ished af­ter 1938. South­ern Democrats were in­creas­ingly will­ing to op­pose him, even join­ing with Repub­li­cans to do so. By 1948, many South­ern Democrats broke with the na­tional party, vot­ing for the so-called Dix­ie­crat can­di­date in­stead. In 1964, they voted for Repub­li­can Barry Gold­wa­ter for pres­i­dent — prob­a­bly the first time many had ever pulled the Repub­li­can lever.

De­spite grow­ing alien­ation from the na­tional Demo­cratic Party, South­ern states still con­sis­tently voted Demo­cratic in vir­tu­ally all House and Se­nate races: Many South­ern Democrats held pow­er­ful po­si­tions in Congress as com­mit­tee chair­men who could de­liver pork and other fed­eral good­ies to their con­stituents.

But North­ern Democrats were em­bar­rassed by their South­ern brethren and their racist past. Af­ter win­ning huge ma­jori­ties in Congress in 1974 and 1976, they mounted a purge of South­ernDemocrats, re­mov­ing many from com­mit­tee chair­man­ships. The South­ern­ers had noth­ing to gain by be­ing Democrats.

In the 1980s, Repub­li­cans started mak­ing a se­ri­ous ef­fort to win elec­tions in con­gres­sional and state races through­out the South. They re­cruited good can­di­dates, fi­nanced them well, and em­pha­sized over and over the dis­dain of North­ern Democrats for those in the South. By 1994, the Demo­cratic Party was dec­i­mated through­out the South, con­tribut­ing pow­er­fully to the Repub­li­can takeover of Congress that year.

From this his­tory, it is clear past Demo­cratic purges have only aided the Repub­li­can Party. I sus­pect the purge of Mr. Lieber­man may have the same ef­fect, pos­si­bly turn­ing what might have been solid gains by the Democrats in this fall’s elec­tions into mod­est gains. There are lots of Democrats who think like Mr. Lieber­man on Is­rael and Iraq. They now have no choice but to vote Repub­li­can.

His­tor­i­cally, the Amer­i­can peo­ple have of­ten sup­ported can­di­dates they be­lieved were mo­ti­vated by gen­uine con­vic­tion, even when out of step with most of their own be­liefs. Amer­i­cans like men of prin­ci­ple and dis­like those who merely pan­der to mo­men­tary pas­sions. For this rea­son, I think Mr. Lieber­man will tri­umph in Novem­ber, run­ning as an in­de­pen­dent. It won’t sur­prise me if this latest Demo­cratic purge ends up help­ing the Repub­li­cans once again.

Bruce Bartlett is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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