Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The DNC Gets Messy

If you heard “the Democratic National Convention was a real disaster!” and if you know much about American History, you might think of the year 1968. At that time, the DNC was so chaotic that George McGovern and Richard Daley were shouting obscenities at each other.

(McGovern was a Senator from South Dakota who was seeking the party’s nomination; Daley was the mayor of Chicago. The party nominated Hubert Humphrey as its presidential candidate.)

The Democratic Party was divided into various factions which did not get along well with each other. The extremists in the party were organized into groups like ‘Yippies’ and ‘Hippies,’ and started violent riots in some of Chicago’s city parks which were located a few miles away from the building in which the convention was held.

But 1968 wasn’t the only year in which the Democratic National Convention was turbulent - or even seething.

In 1924, the Democratic Party was sharply divided on several questions. The bulk of the party continued to embrace Woodrow Wilson’s racist segregation program, but one faction, seeing that the Republicans had benefitted from the votes of African-American citizens, wanted the party to embrace racial equality.

The party was also split on economic matters. Wilson’s administration had imposed the onerous and hated income tax. Should the DNC embrace tax cuts?

The disputes at the convention became so heated that some of them were deemed inappropriate for the airwaves. Modern media made themselves felt: extensive radio coverage embarrassed the Democratic Party, as its internal fights were presented to the listening public.

The DNC finally nominated John Davis as its presidential candidate. Long losing the 1924 general election, Davis would gain notoriety by defending segregation in front of the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education. Historian David Greenberg writes:

Ten days and a record 102 ballots passed with no resolutions. The nation again listened on radio, but this time fascination curdled into horror as the deadlock persisted, with ugly rhetoric abounding. The Democrats retained a censor to keep any offensive speech off the airwaves, but to spare themselves public revulsion, they would have had to censor the convention itself. Finally, on the 103rd ballot, they settled on John W. Davis, a West Virginia native, a former solicitor general and ambassador to Great Britain, and a corporate lawyer whose firm, Davis, Polk, held prestige with the white-shoe class but not the rank and file. Despite denouncing the Klan over the summer, he was sufficiently retrograde on racial politics to appeal to the party’s white supremacists. (Davis would end his career in 1954 defending segregation before the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education). To run with Davis, the Democrats selected Nebraska governor Charles Bryan, the younger brother of their thrice-failed presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan, creating the bizarre coupling of a Wall Street insider with a scourge of Wall Street.

The DNC, after airing its collective dirty laundry on national radio, was a fragmented coalition, barely able to feign the semblance of unity, presenting an unpalatable platform. The voting citizens could be forgiven if they also suspected that there was a lack of sincerity behind any presentation of a platform, given the internal divisions which would prevent united or cohesive support.

President Calvin Coolidge was swept back into office in November 1924 with a landslide. Even if the DNC had managed to unite itself and present a united front to the public, it still probably would have lost.

While the aura of racism clung to the DNC, Coolidge solidly refused to endorse the Ku Klux Klan, and in fact, Coolidge mocked the KKK with one of his election slogans, urging the Klan to calm itself in the words, ‘Keep Kool with Koolidge.’

Wilson’s plans for a “League of Nations” and a world government seemed, to the voters, to entangle the United States in too many foreign disputes, and to possibly infringe on national sovereignty. The DNC did not seem to offer a clear departure from Wilsonianism. Coolidge offered a foreign policy which engaged other nations diplomatically, but did not commit U.S. resources to a distant situations, and which maintained American sovereignty over American territory.

On the domestic front, voters were tired of high income taxes and regulated commerce. Coolidge offered a clear message about a free market: the citizens would be able to keep the largest share of their earning instead of having them confiscated in the form of taxes, and would be able to buy and sell as they pleased with fewer regulations.

The lessons of 1924 were, then, twofold: First, Coolidge’s vision of a free market, of racial equality, and of fewer international commitments for America was a wildly popular vision. Second, a political party could not afford to allow its intramural conflicts to spill out into the public via the convention.

The keen-eyed historian will see a number of parallels between 1924 and 1968.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, parties reconfigured their decision-making so that the candidates, and in large measure the platforms, were chosen prior to the convention.

Conventions thus became ceremonial unveilings of the candidates and platforms, rather than the workshop in which they were made. Contemporary convention are largely symbolic, a sort of “eye candy” to launch national campaigns.

Political party conventions prior to, perhaps, 1975, and certainly prior to 1950, were more actively involved in choosing candidates and shaping platforms.

Modern electronic media have decisively shaped and reshaped political conventions. A convention, e.g., in the year 1904, could discuss and negotiate the details of a platform, and be relatively certain that the details of such discussion would never reach the eyes or ears of the public.