This Is What Democracy Looks Like

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby reminds us that we’re approaching the 70th anniversary of a landmark event in U.S. history: Hubert Humphrey’s speech on civil rights at the 1948 Democratic National Convention and the subsequent vote on a civil rights platform. 

Humphrey’s 1948 triumph wasn’t the first important step the Democrats took in the shift from their Jim Crow past and toward their civil rights future — that would probably be the end of the two-thirds rule in 1936, which ended the Southern veto over Democratic presidential nominations. And it was hardly sufficient: The Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, Adlai Stevenson, ran as a moderate at best on the issue. Yet it was certainly important. Some Dixiecrats who walked out on the party in 1948 never returned, and as they and their successors moved to the Republican Party, the bigotry faction of the Democrats became smaller and smaller.

It’s an important story in the history of the civil rights movement, but it’s also an excellent example of how U.S. democracy can work.

For one thing, it demonstrates that internal party decisions are crucially important. Not all such decisions come to a vote within formal party organizations, the way this one did. Sometimes the decisions that matter involve a consensus reached within the informal party network. Sometimes, instead of a platform battle, it turns out that the crucial decisions are made between different candidates, backed by different coalitions, for a presidential nomination — such as Barry Goldwater’s nomination by Republicans in 1964, marking the initial triumph of the conservative coalition in that party. Or it may involve pressuring candidates to accept the party’s priorities — think of how Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards all supported (with minor variations) the basic framework that became the Affordable Care Act, or the way Republican candidates for office take a pledge against raising taxes.

However they are made, those decisions are how new policy options appear and become plausible governing options. And the ability of party actors to propose new directions and have a meaningful chance to get them adopted is absolutely essential to U.S. democracy. That doesn’t mean that intraparty democracy must follow a plebiscite model in which voters have to decide the party’s direction through primary elections or other such mechanisms. It does mean, however, that some form of intraparty democracy is necessary if the nation as a whole is to be democratic. 

The march toward civil rights also demonstrates why the vote is absolutely essential. The Democrats’ choice to move toward civil rights wasn’t just about Northern politicians gaining a conscience as they looked at white supremacy in the South. What mattered overall was black citizens moving north and starting to vote in their new cities. 

What that shows is that the vote is what really matters — more, in some ways, than whether any particular vote is enough to swing an election (although it certainly helped that the black vote was often seen as a swing vote). Politicians try to represent their districts. But without the vote, constituents are largely invisible to their elected officials. Of course, it also mattered that some of those voters began electing black politicians, who then fought within the Democratic Party for what their constituents wanted — for themselves, and for other black citizens. 

Democratic processes don’t always work in the U.S. But without the vote — and without robust political parties — they don’t have a chance.  

1. Michele L. Swers at the Monkey Cage on how senators are likely to vote on President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court choice.

2. Robert Farley on U.S. military power.

4. David Leonhardt has some solid advice for Democrats on the Supreme Court confirmation.

5. Jesse Ferguson on 2018, 1994 and the Democrats on guns

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