Let's Clean Up the Democratic Party


By GENERAL HUGH S. JOHNSON, Political Commentator and Formerly Director of the N.R.A.

Before the National Democratic Club of New York, April 6, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 426-429

WE are met to honor Thomas Jefferson, the father of the Democratic party. I'll bet he would be glad to see many of you but I doubt if he would recognize what passes for sons of his in Washington. For old times' sake I'm glad to foregather with anybody who ever even used to be a Democrat. But I marvel at being asked to speak to a Democratic Club. Gee Whiz!—I'm a Democrat.

You ought to ask such battle-scarred party veterans as Harold Ickes and Henry Wallace, who probably never voted the Democratic ticket in their lives before 1932—-and maybe not then—or the vaudeville team of Corcoranand Cohen who, if they did support the party before 1932 were not important enough or responsible enough to have it make any difference. My information is that they were Hooverites.

But you asked for this. I didn't. You were specifically warned when I was asked to come here that I am not a linguist. I can only talk like a Democrat and not like the mangled whatizitz made over by the bright young men of the Washington palace guards.

I couldn't express my idea of what has happened to the Democratic party any more plainly that I did in a recent column:

"There used to be a Jeffersonian-Jacksonian Democratic Party which was usually a majority. It consisted mainly of the agricultural South and West as a balance to the industrial East plus what it could win in the East. It was organized not to exploit but to prevent exploitation—not to regulate but to prevent regulation. It sought to direct fundamental national policy rather than to force handouts from the Federal Treasury. If it was against anything, it was that. Its foremost slogan was: 'Equal opportunity for all; special privileges for none'.

"That grouping in the first half of the last century was almost unbeatable. Then the Civil War came. It split the West from the South and poured so much blood and bitterness into the wound that for two generations western farmers voted for Republican high tariffs against their own interests, largely because the South was against the tariff. All the Republicans had to do was to go out to the great open spaces, wave the bloody shirt and orate about Mother, Bible, Home and Flag, and the farmers forgot their interests and voted the regular ticket.

'That split made the Democrats generally a minority party until 1932 when the reunion of the West and South was accomplished largely on the Democratic promise of adequate farm relief. The Republicans had been leaning in that direction, too, but they were not quick enough. Mr. Roosevelt swept the prairies on a policy of recreating the majority South-and-West party of Jefferson and Jackson.

"New advisers flocked around him. Many were not Democrats but they knew which side was up for them. They reasoned that western agriculture alone was too weak a reed to lean upon—that it was Republican by heredity and could be taken back by G.O.P. promises as it was taken away by Democratic promises.

"They invented the idea of building upon the basic Democratic minority, especially the Solid South, by organizing and attracting thru Federal handouts, every discontented group in the country—regardless of previous political leanings, regardless of general policy, regardless of anything but political power and victory. They took the negroes, the unemployed, part of labor, part of agriculture, the Townsendites and the organized so-called Youth groups—all the pressure blocs who are in politics for themselves first and the country afterward. They took them and they can keep them as long as they can subsidize them out of the public treasury or until somebody else promises to subsidize them more. It is like the Cave of Adullam where King David of Jerusalem once hid and, according to Holy Writ, 'Every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt and every one that was discontented gathered themselves to him and he became a Captain overthem.' From there they raided the rest of the people. Theseare the Adullamites and not the chosen Democratic peopleand I warn you right now that I am not an Adullamite. "It is a strange collection whose divergent demands havecreated the incredible inconsistencies of this Administration.

Grouped together, these organized discontents could neveralone win any election, but added to the South, which is in political bondage to the Democrats, they swing the balance handsomely—notwithstanding that almost every policy forced by this grouping is such a contradiction of traditional Democratic principles that neither Thomas Jefferson nor Andrew Jackson could recognize it stripped to the buff in a nudist colony.

"It is formidable while it can be kept in line but it is in no true sense a political party. It is a monstrous demagogic contraption, assembled with hairpins and haywire and stuck together with spit."

I am not here pleading that the Democratic party dig up the bones of Andy Jackson and go back to all the Democratic policies of 1835. I fervently agree with Thomas Jefferson who said, "You may as well expect a man to wear still the coat that fitted him as a boy as that civilized society should ever remain under the regimen of its barbarous ancestors."

I want to see the Democratic party keep ahead of the necessity for social legislation. In a twelve-year fight, I helped to invent and sell to it the idea—the necessity—of granting economic equality for agriculture. Maybe my old Blue Eagle was no aquiline Joe Louis. He certainly was picked to death by a sick chicken. But he first put into effect almost every principal social advance of this Administration—maximum hours and minimum wages, abolition of sweat-shops and child-labor, collective bargaining and independent labor representation, a tribunal rather than conflict to settle labor disputes and an effort, at least, to inject some decency into the welter of cutthroat methods in industrial and commercial competition.

Those things were in the Bible of the liberalism of the old Democratic party—the Chicago platform. I am therefore not here to apologize to so-called Fourth New Deal "liberals" for either the true party or myself being reactionary. Our party always was the liberal party in this country. Democrats invented and did these things and every other social advance while Fourth New Dealocrats talked about them. But none of these early doings of necessary things tried to set class against class in this country, to wreck the economic system that made this country great, to build up any crazy-quilt Cave of Adullam political monstrosity by federal handouts to quiet the complaints of every discontented group in the nation.

I object to that for two of many reasons. In the first place the way to satisfy discontent is to remove the causes— not to lard its symptoms with subsidies. In the second place, neither our political nor our economic system can long endure the cost of billions of annual handouts to purchase dissident groups and to make the nation safe for the Democratic party.

We have spread rich salve on the symptoms of our disease but, as to every single cause of discontent, we have improved not one. Agriculture still remains in the economic dog-house with its condition impaired rather than improved. Unemployment, which is the prime cause of all the other separate discontents, remains at about the same despairing figure. I go a step further. I think that the very cost and uncertainty of this method of salving symptoms has prevented and delayed a cure. The cure is for our business system to go back into normal activity. That salve has cost us 20 billions and increased our debt and taxes to a danger point. There is no relief in sight. That debt, those taxes and this political program of further spending, debt, taxes, class hatred and continued threat to the very basis of our tried and proved economic system—these evils are of themselves the proximate and removable cause of our national distress. Their removal is the cureof that distress and of every important discontent for which we have opened the Federal Treasury, mortgaged our future, and made our lagging economic failure a reproach and a laughing stock for most of the world.

This disastrous approach to such a problem is utterly inconsistent with every traditional principle of the true Democratic party. Never in the history of politics was there a simpler, sounder or more honest political platform than that adopted in Chicago in 1932. It was of the very fiber and substance of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian tradition. And it worked. It worked as no political formula ever worked before in an economic field.

In this Administration's first glorious hundred days, when it was brilliantly, faithfully and courageously putting that platform into execution, our business and employment index went from the lowest point to the greatest advance, in the shortest time in the economic history of this or any other country.

In the latter half of that year, under experiments advised by strangers to our Democratic faith, we began the shameful violation of every principle and promise of that platform—and we have been churning in economic futility and failure ever since.

This great party of ours doesn't need to be a big 90% dog wagged by half a dozen puppy tails of every radical group in this country. As between us and the Republicans, there is and there never can be in the minds of the American people any question but that ours is the liberal party— and this is a liberal age. There is no room for three parties in this country and there are not enough discontents in the Cave of Adullam to make a major party. They have no other way to go but toward this party of liberalism. Furthermore, there is no place else where it would be better for both them and the country for them to go. Any courageous and forthright Democratic leadership should recognize and act upon this simple fact and not compromise with principle, cower and give down every time a minority pressure bloc or a Huey Long makes a noise like going Third Party or Republican.

Ours is a two-party system and not a system of political blocs in any party. That is rooted in the very foundation of our Constitutional, parliamentary and legal systems. Hitler could take over Germany principally because, in the Reichstag, there were no less than 26 separate political parties. The ridiculous parliamentary farce in France in the very presence of deadly danger is caused by a similar multiplicity of parties. The dignity and success and strength of the Mother of Parliaments—Great Britain— happens because there, as here, there have been decades of devotion to the two-party system.

In England this insistence has gone so far that the minority in Parliament rejoices in the official but amusing title of "His Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition"—and its leader is paid by the government £2,000 a year so long as he keeps his lead—£1,400 more than any other member of Parliament. A substantial party of opposition is plainly necessary to liberty. It is frequently boasted by the Nazis that there is neither opposition nor unemployment in Germany. Neither is there either in a penitentiary.

The two-party system is of the essence of democracy because it is the only way to insure the sole object of democracy and free and liberal institutions—majority rule. You can't get majority rule on continued policy with twenty or half a dozen parties—or even three. It creates the log-rolling monstrosity of horse-trading in which perhaps almost insignificant minority blocs can make the great groups of the people's representatives jump through hoops _by throwing their influence this way or that on closelydivided questions in return for some other concession not supported at all by the great body of the electorate. It is a frustration of democracy and of our most treasured standards.

This is especially true in a three party system and as we have seen—and the point I am trying to make is this— it is dismally true in a two party system where one of the parties is in truth controlled by a collection of conflicting pressure groups fastened like ticks on the body of a traditional American political party. These groups take continuously but they rarely give. It is hard to defend the charge that our great historical party has sold out not only itself but the country to minority groups of the most special privilege ever known in our history. We have erred from simple lack of courage to fight the issues through on principle rather than political pap. What does the party get from its burden of Fellow Travellers?

It seems worth noting to me that in getting its battles fought and mostly won in Congress and the country, this Administration has had little help from some of these strange new fish in the Democratic puddle. They make the policies but they can't put them across. The old-line Democratic leaders have to swallow every nauseous dose they brew and sell it to the Congress.

It is these veteran Democrats who have borne the heat and burden of all these close contests—not the Schwellenbachs, the Peppers and the Mintons, nor yet the Ickes, Hopkinses, Corcorans or Wallaces. It has been the Pat Harrisons, the Joe Robinsons, the Jimmy Byrneses, the Georges of Georgia, the Cordell Hulls—and saddest of all —the loyal, faithful Farleys. They have carried the fight and torch and all too often gotten kicks in the pants for their pains. Certainly our genial Jim—for all his smiling face—used to seem to sit down tenderly as though he would like an air cushion. Now he is not so careful but that is because of the callouses. But, above all, how can we excuse the submergence of the guy that got more votes than any Democratic Presidential candidate before his time—the man who for a generation stood as the leading standard bearer of liberal legislation in this country—the Captain who laid Franklin Roosevelt on the doorstep of the Democratic party—the Happy Warrior, Alfred E. Smith—and I would like to know where he is tonight. He is still alive but he is as far forgotten as Jefferson for whom a great monument is being erected in Washington by the New Dealers—tons of granite to keep that mighty hero from rising from his grave and driving them into the Atlantic Ocean.

The Good Lord knows that I have no wish to give aid and comfort to the Republicans—much as they need it. They haven't shown anything yet to convince me that they have advanced much beyond the God-awful platform and me-too policy of the 1936 Cleveland Convention. I haven't seen anything to indicate that they will put up a much stronger candidate than Governor Landon and there is no word in the English language adequate to describe anything less formidable than all that.

The way matters are going now, Mr. Roosevelt, whether he takes himself out of the race or not, will be nominated by acclamation after some stampeding cross-of-gold and crown-of-thorns speech in the convention. Then, if the Republicans repeat their campaign of four years ago— nothing but criticism plus imitation New Deal—half of the party saying one thing and the other half saying the reverse of that and neither saying much—it will be 1936 over again in the election as well as the campaign and they certainly have shown nothing different from that to date. It looks to me like another certain Republican defeat.

That's why I am sure that the Republicans are not going to get much aid or comfort out of my kibitzer and probably unwelcome advice to my own party. No, I am not much afraid that it is not going to be a Republican defeat. My concern is whether it is going to be a Democratic victory—or just a triumph for a few Fourth New Deal Adullamites making a true Jack-ass out of the grand old Democratic donkey—riding him to a victory they could not themselves possibly achieve—and then turning him loose for another four years to browse and batten among the boulders and thistles of some barren back yard—while they do Heaven knows what more of the same to the peace and prosperity of this country.

I think I am as good a Democrat as anybody in this room but I'm not an Addulamite and I'm sick of being a sucker Democrat. In this I am not speaking from any yen for personal political preferment. I've got a job that I wouldn't trade for any on the political roster. But I am a citizen of the United States before I am a Democrat. In my opinion further continuation of depression and distress in this country is totally unnecessary. I am convinced that it could vanish almost overnight with an administration of Democrats in Washington. I greatly doubt whether it will ever vanish if Democrats win and then again step aside to leave the reins still in the hands of the same cock-eyed non-Democratic crew of business-baiters, wand-waving-wizards, drunken-sailor spenders, janissaries, do-gooders, and experimental theorists.

Almost all it would take to restore prosperity would be to get rid of this crew. If Jim Farley or Jack Garner or Cordell Hull or any other old-school Democrat got in there they wouldn't even wait on inevitable action. Beginning the day after election there would be the greatest exodus of economic pansies out of Washington since the Pied Piper did a job as exterminator for Hamlin—and business activity would resume like a flood.

They have gutted the Treasury and increased to the breaking point the burden of debt and taxes on the whole people. Worst of all, by these very actions they have built strong barriers to business recovery. In this terrible World War in which some of them yearn to embroil us, our fiscal strength is so seriously threatened that if we are sucked in, we can hardly hope to escape before the end bankruptcy and a totalitarian control of our democracy as complete and ruthless as anything that exists in Europe.

There is no help to humanity in that. We have maintained a plateau of safety, a refuge and a tower of strength for democracy in this country. This course is abandoning it to dilute our strength with the world's weakness and toget down in the gutter and wallow in the world's distress.

I wouldn't want to trust this problem to Republicans because I believe that there are too many among their seats of the mighty who want to turn the clock back beyond the principles of the truly liberal social advance of the great Democratic platform of 1932. I don't believe that can be done either without volcanic upheavals in another way retarding our long over-due prosperity and threatening our peace.

There is no doubt in the world that necessary social advances have increased our permanent cost of government to somewhere between six and seven billion dollars. But in my opinion all that it is necessary to do to bring reemployment and prosperity back to this country is to adopt a simpler rule. Do what Government must do as economically as possible rather than this disastrous recent policy that it should be done as extravagantly as possible on the theory that excessive spending is of itself a virtue and a cure. That change in fiscal policy plus a vigorous attempt to encourage our economic system to work rather than to abuse, browbeat, and put it under suspicion as an anti-social, barely tolerated and almost criminal racket. That economic system is all we have to rely on. The only alternative to it known to man are communism and fascism and neither has ever worked to anything except the destruction of human freedom and the reversal of every faith and tradition that we regard as peculiarly our own.

These two policies are the way out of our Valley of Despair—and they are the only way. The Democratic party should be the leader in adopting them. Simply these two— governmental economy and the utmost in freedom of private enterprise consistent with the public peace and welfare— these meet all the increased social requirements of our twentieth century civilization and yet are of the very essence of the Democratic faith and principles of both Jefferson and Jackson. Their application has changed and must change with changing conditions as Thomas Jefferson said —but the fundamental truths change no more than the multiplication tables, the precession of the equinoxes, or the mortality rates.

Let's get rid of the interlopers and usurpers in the Democratic party. Let's throw out these strange doctrines which have defiled the temples of our political religion. Let's return to the faith and house of our fathers and there let us, the Democrats, and no strangers, be master in that house. Let's do these things not merely as an act of party expediency but as a valiant deed in defense of the very security of our country and the welfare and prosperity of the citizens of every party, faith and creed.