Daniel L. Feldman

Where Reform Democrats Came From: Warm Hearts and Idealistic Minds, 1930-1950

In National Politics, NYC Politics on January 13, 2011 at 3:42 pm

I really liked the history of political party clubs in New York City in Francis Barry’s 2009 book The Scandal of Reform (Rutgers University Press, N.J.), especially how they weren’t divorced from saloons until 1893, and gradually became “official” organizations subject to state law, rather than clubs in the usual, private sense. The title of Barry’s book makes it obvious that he does not admire the reform movement. Although I cannot dispute some of the criticism he leveled, I also cannot think of myself as other than a loyal product of that movement. In general defense of its role, I am reminded of FDR’s rendition of Dante’s adage, also quote by JFK, that “divine justice weights the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales.”

Barry, and I, can point to examples of warm-hearted “regulars” and cold-blooded “reformers.” Barry might even argue that on balance, “people-oriented” regulars show more warmth than “ideal-oriented” reformers, but that’s not really the point. Reformers come to the game, at least, with the notion of imbuing it with higher ideals. I think the intention deserves credit, even if some who call themselves reformers only pursue selfish interests, and if others eventually do so. “Regulars” pledge fealty to the established powers, presumably in return for the satisfaction of their personal interests. The establishment can always be improved, but the regulars do not assign themselves the goal of improving it. Therefore, by my lights, the reform orientation should prevail, notwithstanding the fact that Tales from the Sausage Factory clearly reflects my deep admiration for regular Democrat Stanley Fink and later editions of this blog may well include kind words about some other regulars. I do not write these comments to persuade you but only so you will understand the perspective from which the forthcoming stories are written.

Barry did not describe the evolution that many idealistic New Yorkers experienced personally between the 1930s and the 1950s. He did describe how Fiorello LaGuardia beat the Democratic mayoral candidate in 1933, after Tammany’s domination of “a city government awash in corruption, as he put it. He also noted how FDR, with the help of organized labor, created the American Labor Party, for people who wanted to vote for FDR but were repelled by Tammany Hall’s control of the Democratic party, and how LaGuardia won again in 1937 with votes from the ALP.  I knew people who typified supporters of the ALP in those years.

The Depression was a period of intense suffering by the common people, brought on by the excesses of unregulated capitalism. American constitutional understandings had followed a design from a period prior to great concentrations of economic power capable of vast oppression. FDR’s New Deal, and the new course adopted by the Supreme Court starting in 1937 upholding New Deal protections, revised those constitutional understandings to enable government to counterbalance those great economic powers in order to protect individuals.

All this unleashed the imaginations of intelligent and idealist Americans, who identified with “the working class,” whether or not they were themselves. What was good for the working class was good for America, in their view, and that surely meant increasing the power of workers as opposed to the power of bankers and other capitalists. Failing to see the danger of untrammeled power when exercised by bureaucrats, some became Communists. The Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, however, opened the eyes of many in that category, who then joined the larger numbers who, more astutely, pushed the boundaries of New Deal reform. By the end of the Second World War, the ALP’s continued ties to some Communists repulsed many of its former members. Barry correctly noted that the ALP’s “anti-Communist labor leaders” left to create the New York’s Liberal party, but failed to note that many of its members now joined the Democratic party, the party of Roosevelt, still motivated by the idealism of their youth.

These were the people that I’m talking about. In years to come, they and their actual as well as philosophical descendents would populate the reform movement in the Democratic party.

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