My mother's father was an upper crust Bostonian, one term congressman, mayor of Cambridge, MA, a very powerful and influential lawyer in Boston and a relatively important backroom player in Massachusetts Democratic politics. He also suffered from COPD, which may explain why he seemed to be, in my humble opinion, a total SOB. My dad died on a detox when I was 12 and I grow up mainly in working class factory towns outside New York City. Every year for 2 weeks in summer, we would go visit. I came to loathe that snotty upper crust scene. However, as I gotten older I have come to realize that Grandpa did have a solid understanding of American politics. It's from him that I learned that the Electoral College forces us to have only two large coalition parties, as opposed to the multiple parties you get in a parliament system. This used to be called America's big tent politics.

Grandpa said that the Democratic Party from about 1880 to the then, late 1960's present had two great and often opposing factions, the civil rights Democrats and the economic rights Democrats.

The economic rights Democrats included many rural southerners at a time African-Americans could not vote in the south and so they tended to be fanatically pro segregation, and in the north they included many unions of which many, but not all, also opposed equal rights for African-Americans because they believe this would weaken the power of the mainly white unions.

The civil rights Democrats included people of color, Irish and Italian Catholics who in some cities faced almost worse discrimination than African-Americans, Jews, and often those of English Puritan heritage, many of whom were very wealthy.

There has always been a strong but in general minority strain of thought in English language Christianity that believes all people are equal in God's eyes and so therefore should be treated so under law. This egalitarian ideal can first be seen in John Ball's teachings during the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and the teachings of the Lollards. It is strong in the teachings of the Quakers, Diggers, and Levellers during the English Civil Wars in the mid 1600's and is clearly evident in the writings of Roger Williams in Rhode Island, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, and the wonderful Flushing Remonstrance in what would become New York. Grandpa said that because these values although a common minority held view in England over this 300 year period threaten the powerful upper classes, it was nearly always illegal to have them in England. This is why so many who had religious beliefs in this direction ended up moving here and the idea of equality under law became a sacred religious belief to many of English heritage in the northeast. This is why you find strong support for abolition and women's rights even among some of the rich and powerful in the northeast. This doesn't mean that they weren't antisemitic or racist in their personal lives just that they strongly believe that governments in the U.S. should be blind to race, class, religion, or even gender. Obviously, the economic rights Democrats were not always comfortable with some rich snot from Boston or Philadelphia who wanted segregation ended in the south but really wasn't sure he wanted unions in his factory in the north.

The genius of FDR was he managed to get both sides to work together for mainly economic gains, but economic gains that could be claimed to help all Americans. Eleanor was far more of a civil rights Democrat than him and personally I like her better than him for that. Grandpa would say things like, "we went for what we could get" and "the country wasn't ready." Perhaps he was right.

In 1948, Grandpa worked the floor for Humphrey when he put through a minority plank committing the Democratic Party to the idea of racial justice. Grandpa said after the courage of African-American soldiers in World War II and the horrors of the Nazis the time was right. A couple of southern states walked out, but that was just the beginning. Over the next 30 year drip by drip the Democratic Party lost most of its economic rights wing. In truth in some ways the civil rights wing drove them out, but actually many of the supporters of the economic reform side of the party were so racist they would rather support a party that was working against their economic interest than vote for a party that wanted fair treatment of minorities.

So now we are at a time when at least the law is written to be color blind. I honestly can't imagine even David Duke calling for the return of segregated schools and stuff like that. Is it time to declare victory? Should the Democratic Party actively work to recruit blue collar northern and white rural southern voters again? How do we do it without betraying all the good work of the last 68 years? Can we rebuild our economic rights wing without them?


Upgrayedd's picture
Upgrayedd 1 year 33 weeks ago
Quote Helen Willis:

The civil rights Democrats included people of color, Irish and Italian Catholics who in some cities faced almost worse discrimination than African-Americans

Helen Willis 1 year 33 weeks ago

Bad phrasing. Writing is definitely not my strong suit. In Boston according to some of the political people I met back in the 60's, the Irish Catholics had a really nasty time in the late 19th and earlier 20th century, some said treated even worse than African-Americans, who were in general protestant and native born. In New York during the same time, the Italians were pretty horrible treated, on the west coast I heard that the Chinese may have been the most brutalized group, and I think that Native Americans certainly were horribly treated in many cases. My point was that these groups along with some northeastern protestant, including Quakers, and the other sects which 50 years earlier had been the white abolitionists, many of whom were quite wealthy became a civil rights wing of the Democratic Party. This wing often care about feeding the poor as a sort of religious obligation but were uncomfortable with unions and workers rights and such.

I also will say here that many Democrats were sort of centrists, sort of supportive of both sides. My point was that when some Democrats choose to push the civil rights position, which I think was the right thing to do, the party lost most of its southern white rural and much of its northern white unions support. I am not opposed to turning to a more economic agenda, but can we do it without those two groups? If not how do we get them back without losing any of the ground on civil rights we have gained in the last 68 years?

Upgrayedd's picture
Upgrayedd 1 year 33 weeks ago
Quote Helen Willis:

In Boston according to some of the political people I met back in the 60's, the Irish Catholics had a really nasty time in the late 19th and earlier 20th century, some said treated even worse than African-Americans

Helen Willis 1 year 33 weeks ago

It was apparently common for many businesses in Boston in the 1890-1910 period to have signs by the door which said, "No Irish and dogs allowed." This was very much legal at the time. The Al Smith candidacy for president in the 1920s supposedly set off a wave anti-Catholic fever that was incredibly intense and violent. The second wave of the Klan in the late teens-early 20's was supposed to be even more anti-Catholic and antisemitic than anti-African-American. As I understand it the bigots' argument was that Catholics would obey the foreign pope over the government of the United States. John Kennedy had to deliver a speech early in his candidacy for president saying that he would basically be loyal to America over being loyal to the Catholic church. All three Kennedy brothers said that it was partly their family's stories of this bigotry which made them such strong supporters of all Americans' civil rights.

Helen Willis 1 year 33 weeks ago

Until the mid 1960 it was completely legal for companies to hire or refused to hire people based on gender, race, religion, or ethnic background. At that time at least a sizable minority of America thought this was fine. It was just as legal to discriminate in renting. Moreover, not only did we have legal segregation by race in the south, much of the United States had red lining and what in New York was called, "restrictions" which was a legal barring of many different kind of people for neighborhoods, resorts, and restaurants.

For example many of the resorts outside the Catskills barred African-Americans, Jews, Italians, and Irish people from staying in their hotels. This is what lead to the famous ethnic resorts of the Catskills.

There really has been wonderful progress on this front in the last 68 years, but it was at the cost of the Democratic Party losing the support of the southern whites who had been economically progressive. (George Wallace is the poster child for this.) And a lot of the white unions members in the north.

Do we have to win the working class vote back to address the economic Issues? If so how do we do it?

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