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Parties can’t be measured by the past

July 14, 2012
By Dr. David Turner , The Inter-Mountain

Will Rogers remarked after Franklin Roosevelt offered up several reforms in 1935 that he was saying "Lay over Huey, I want to get in bed with you." This of course is a reference to Huey Long. Nevertheless, it gives a picture of how FDR slowly changed the Democratic Party.

It also is a reminder of how fluid the American political system was and is presently. In the 1920s, the Democrats were an odd mixture of southern rural tories and big city machines. Their 1928 nominee, Alfred E. Smith, recruited the head of General Motors, John J. Raskob, to head the Democratic Party despite that he remained a Republican. Smith's issues did not touch on the inequality of wealth, but on one issue - the repeal of prohibition. Even then-Gov. Roosevelt, in 1929, thought the Wall Street crash in October was a mere "flurry."

The Depression and its political opportunities changed the Democrats. By 1936, Smith denounced FDR as a socialist and Ellison Smith of South Carolina walked out of the convention because a black minister gave an invocation. When World War II broke out, Democrats had a national party that coexisted uneasily with the remnant of the old predepression organizations.

By the 1960s, another transformation, not a by-product, of the Voting Rights Law of 1965, Southern Democrats suddenly were coexisting with a group that had been an enemy - African Americans. Now that they could vote in some numbers, blacks insisted on gaining a voice in a party which they once saw as the symbol of Jim Crow.

Southern white politicians, seeing that they had to survive primary challenges, gradually made their way into the Republican Party. But they kept much of their attitudes toward federal largesse. When they joined the GOP, they brought a laundry list of pork. But as the good old boys were replaced by honest-to-God-conservatives, little was left of the wink-and-nod Democratic heritage and only the hard edges of traditionalism remained.

Which leads us to 2012, where Democrats and Republicans scarcely resemble the parties of a generation ago. Republicans are less affluent and Democrats more so. Environmentalism has replaced economic populism and Civil Rights has become the center of the party's platform. Republicans, though they have hardly embraced economic populism, look more like national Democrats of the 1920s and southern Democrats of the 1950s.

For traditional pundits who still prefer the old contours of political conflict, it is all confusing.

Yet most voters discern the change as Ronald Reagan put it in 1980, "I did not leave the Democratic Party, it left me." Some former back bay Republicans joined the opposition. Fact is, none of the parties can be measured by old standards. This will be a challenge to see how both parties are once more changed by this year's election results.



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