My late grandmother was one of the most generous, compassionate people who ever drew breath. She lived up in the foothills of North Carolina, in Rutherford and Cleveland County. God’s Country, we called it. And still do. In the depths of the Great Depression, she would see entire families walking down West Warren Street in Shelby and invite them in for dinner.
Those days made Democrats of hundreds of millions of people who worshiped, and that’s not an exaggeration, their unlikely champion, a man from multi-generational wealth, Franklin D. Roosevelt. He took the first and strongest steps through government work programs and public assistance to give people not just a meal, though they desperately needed that, but hope through a job, a peek at better days ahead. I knew people from the era who never allowed themselves even a casual reference to “FDR.” He was always “Mr. Roosevelt.”
As a result, Democrats kept the White House for 20 years. They were seen, and eagerly cast themselves as, the party of ordinary folks, of the disenfranchised and the disheartened, of working people who sought not wealth but just a chance. The tent expanded later, and the party became the champion of civil rights, and then women’s rights.
If the Democratic Party — and this comes from a former Democrat who’s been unaffiliated for several years — is going to restore itself and give the American public and the North Carolina public what they deserve, which is a fair, philosophical, issues-oriented competition for local, state and national office, it had better find out whatever happened to those people.
Enough of the complaining about evil Republicans or rationalizing how the Donald Trump movement was simply about a chance to express rage against the status quo or a hatred for Hillary Clinton or a modern-day revolution against a government removed from the concerns of average people. Oh, it may have been all of that, all right. And all those “average people” who voted for Trump will quickly find that his tax cuts and economic game plan, such as it is, will likely most benefit those who already are wealthy or titans of industry.
But in election postmortems, the flinging of blame by the losers accomplishes little and some of the blame, at least, is in the mirror.
In 1972, the Democrats nominated a very good man for president, a World War II veteran named George McGovern. But his campaign got walloped, cast by Republicans as the work of hippies and radicals and unpatriotic people who weren’t supporting our troops in Vietnam. After that, the Democrats got lucky — if the country didn’t — as Richard Nixon was driven from office in the scandal of scandals and that set the table for Jimmy Carter, who proved naive about Washington. Then Republicans came in for another 12 years as the Democrats put up more predictable liberals. Then Bill Clinton proved a progressive but deal-making Democrat. He left office with something like a 67 percent approval rating, and that doesn’t happen with just Democrats on your side.
All the while, though, the Democrats seemed to be losing more and more of the average working folks, the children of those from the Roosevelt era. The ones who’d been dealt in to the New Deal were getting older, and their kids seemed to be questioning whether Mr. Roosevelt’s party, committed to making the lives of average people better, now was preoccupied with the most liberal causes and had forgotten about working folks. It’s possible, of course, to take on such causes and remain true to that core, that base they call it now, of hard-working American dreamers. But the Democrats don’t seem to have accomplished that.
A refresher course on their history might help. Start at Hyde Park.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org