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?