Truman bowed out in 1952, probably because he believed -- correctly -- that he had shot his bolt. Lightning does not strike twice, and the voters were wise to him. Dwight Eisenhower, the aw-shucks general and war hero, was wooed by both parties, in a prototypical case of unprincipled bipartisanship. For Eisenhower, the Republicans seemed like a better bet; he was not the fool he appeared to be. And he was unsympathetic to the cause of civil rights, with which the Democrats had more or less inadvertently identified themselves, to their everlasting regret, in the Forties.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party, never really comfortable on the Left, was already embarked on its doomed quest for the mythical center, as it had been for some time; the apparent aberration of 1948 occurred because they expected defeat that year. In 1952, running more true to form, they nominated Adlai Stevenson to run against Eisenhower.
Stevenson was a droll, likable, unelectable nonentity: a Midwestern state governor, little known on the national scene. He was vaguely associated with the New Deal -- enough to conciliate the tamed, tranquilized liberals who remained in the Democratic party after its purge of left-wing elements under Truman. But he was, for his time, very far from being the leftie that subsequent history has made him out to be. James Loeb observes, "It's very interesting that the intellectuals just fell head over heels in love with Stevenson, largely because he was an intellectual, but he really was, of all the Democratic candidates in recent years, probably more conservative than any."
Stevenson supported the draconian anti-union Taft-Hartley act. He opposed national health insurance, a program that Truman promoted at least verbally (though as with a more recent Democratic initiative in this field, all the talk came to nothing). But Stevenson's great appeal was that he was known to be less than enthusiastic on the issue of civil rights, like his opponent Eisenhower. A "realist", in other words, by the standards of 1952.
It's tempting to think that the election of 1952 really set the pattern for the next half-century of Democratic strategy: trying to get elected by repudiating their greatest achievements. The result, of course - and here again, we see a pattern - was eight years of Republican rule.
It might have been sixteen years if the Republicans had nominated, in 1960, a slightly more attractive individual than Richard Nixon. But Nixon's ill-shaven jowls and sweaty brow, aided by the heavily Democratic graveyards of Chicago, put John F. Kennedy in the White House.
People of my age -- baby-boomers, that is -- think of Kennedy as a forward-looking, high-principled, progressive President -- a liberal par excellence. But in fact he was nothing of the kind. By Rooseveltian standards, he was an extremely right-wing Democrat. While still in the Senate, in 1957 he voted (along with nearly every other Democrat) against a civil rights bill sponsored by the Republican Eisenhower administration. In the 1960 election, he made a great deal of noise about a mythical "missile gap," and in office he presided over an unprecedented military buildup, after eight years in which the Republican party and the former general Eisenhower had steadily reduced the size of the US military. During the campaign, Kennedy made a few gestures in the direction of African-Americans, probably because their allegiance to the Democratic Party was not yet a thing that Party leaders took for granted. But historians generally concede that he entered office without any real zeal for change in the racial status quo.
A very modern election, in short: little separated the candidates except appearance and style. Kennedy squeaked in, and so, by little more than a historical accident, the Democrats were holding the bag when the country blew up in their faces.
The Democrats have never been a peace party. I remember, when I was quite young, asking my grandmother what was the difference between the two parties. She came from a family of anti-confederate Eastern Kentucky hillbilly isolationist Republicans, and this conversation took place sometime in the early 1960s. She told me, "You vote for a Republican if you want a depression, and a Democrat if you want a war." (This was before the days when either party could give you both.) She was thinking of Wilson and World War I, and Roosevelt and World War II, and Truman and Korea, and probably of Kennedy's saber-rattling, alarmist 1960 campaign.
Kennedy ran true to historical Democratic form. Who can forget the Bay of Pigs, the frightening macho brinksmanship of the Cuban missile crisis, and of course that masterpiece of Democratic foreign policy, the Vietnam war? We can never know whether Johnson would have embroiled us in this kind of folly if he had become president in 1960 instead of Kennedy; but when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and Johnson took over, he was either uninclined or unable to extricate himself from it, provoking the greatest social upheaval since the Depression.
Even more unluckily for Johnson and for the Democratic Party, the civil rights movement, steadily gathering strength for decades, had become an irresistible force. Johnson concluded that African-Americans' claim to equality could no longer be put off with vague promises, and to his credit, he acted vigorously, once the necessity was plain, to address that claim, though he recognized, quite accurately, that he was "signing away the South for fifty years." It's not too much to say that Lyndon Johnson, to his everlasting credit, destroyed the Democratic party as it had existed since before the Civil War: the party par excellence of slavery and then of segregation.
Unfortunately for Johnson, he was unable to act so decisively and constructively against the other side of his Democratic heritage -- the war-party side. It was a divided, weakened Democratic party, with the garrulous and faintly ridiculous Hubert Humphrey as its nominee, that entered the election of 1968, with two fatal tin cans tied to its tail: an unpopular and unsuccessful war, and an identification with civil rights. Richard Nixon, with his uncanny, almost supernatural ability to rise repeatedly from the dead, put together the famous "southern strategy." He appealed to disgruntled, formerly Democratic racists and social conservatives, and unlike John Kerry in 2004, he promised to end the war; and found himself, fatefully and improbably, in the White House.
Nixon's election in 1968 marks the beginning of the contemporary era in American politics, and for all practical purposes brings us up to date. But we should spare a moment, before we conclude our look backward, for the tragicomedy of 1972, a trauma that has defined the Doomsday scenario for Democratic politicians ever since. The nominee in that year was George McGovern, and Democratic folklore holds that the "left took over" and was duly punished by a record-breaking defeat.
True, McGovern took stances that now would seem bold: legalization of marijuana, amnesty for Vietnam War draft resisters, and easy access to abortion -- the famous "three A's: acid, abortion, and amnesty." Nixon, meanwhile, though he was far from ending the war, had reduced the number of American troops committed there, had reached a ceasefire agreement with Hanoi, and had opened relations with China. Nixon would have been tough to beat for anybody. McGovern might have done better if he had focused more on economics -- unemployment was up and incomes were down -- rather than on what are now referred to as "social" issues. Whatever the reason, he undeniably lost, and lost big.
It's instructive to compare the McGovern debacle with another debacle, the Goldwater campaign of 1964. Goldwater, the Republican nominee for President, was a hard-line, highly ideological Sunbelt right-winger of a type still unfamiliar, in 1964, outside of Orange County, California. He was painted as a kooky "extremist"; his supporters were mocked and made to look ridiculous much more thoroughly than McGovern's social liberals in 1972; and he was steamrollered by Lyndon Johnson.
The Goldwaterites, however, were undiscouraged. They went back to their drawing boards, took advantage of the Democrats' disarray, and elected another Sunbelt right-winger, Nixon, four years later -- although Nixon was far from being a True Believer of the Goldwater type. Their triumph was complete in 1980, when they elected Ronald Reagan on slogans little different from the ones that seemed so ridiculous in 1964, and ushered in the second phase of the modern Republican hegemony -- what we might call the "ultra" or Jacobin phase.
Unfortunately, the left wing of the Democratic party, or what passes for one, failed to follow this shining example after McGovern's crushing defeat in 1972. They gave up. The Goldwaterites, after 1964, learned how to do their work more effectively. But the Democrats after 1972, like the Bourbons after the French revolution, "learned nothing and forgot nothing." They concluded that the left must never again be allowed out of its padded cell; and the left, so-called, acquiesced meekly in the verdict.
Nixon's victory in 1968, confirmed by the overwhelming second victory of 1972, founded the Republican party as we know it today -- and in fact, it's not too much to say that Nixon also founded the Democratic party as we know it today: the permanent second banana, the systematically etiolated and enfeebled official opposition, representing a few marginalized, minority constituencies and representing them badly at that; the scavengers at the carnivores' feast, scraping into office from time to time after a particularly juicy scandal, like Watergate, or a particularly inept Republican performer, like the first George Bush.
We are still living in the world Nixon made, though the subtle and wily Californian himself, looking down or up on the spectacle from wherever he is, is no doubt shocked by the hubris of his successors. But he has no one but himself to blame. He it was, after all, who gave them a political system without any real opposition, a world where they and their corporate patrons could run wild to their hearts' content.
For those of us who don't like the world Nixon made, and especially don't like the way it's going, the point is not only to understand but to change it. Can we expect to do that as long as our wagon is hitched to the long-dead Democratic donkey? I think not.