Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both had to contend with restive Congresses.

Democratic Party Wasn't Always Liberal

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Thomas Frank has published a screed at Salon that blames political scientists and their supposed fellow travelers for pretty much everything he doesn't like in U.S. politics. I'd normally ignore this (or leave it to Jonathan Chait's capable hands). But in this case, there's one huge misreading of history that I see all the time from liberals and conservatives and that is always worth debunking because it makes it more difficult to understand the proper context for the Washington gridlock.

Frank says:

Allow me to drop a single, disturbing data point on this march of science. You might recall that Democrats controlled the House of Representatives from the early 1930s until 1994 with only two brief Republican interludes. What ended all that was not an ill-advised swerve to the left, but the opposite: A long succession of moves toward what is called the "center," culminating in the administration of New Democrat Bill Clinton, who (among other things) signed the Republicans' NAFTA treaty into law.

It's true that Democrats won a House majority in 1930 and held it, with only two, two-year exceptions, until the 1994 election. But it isn't true that liberal Democrats maintained long majorities in the House.

Specifically, from 1939 through 1957, neither liberals nor Democrats "controlled" the House very often (and the mid-1930s were shaky, too). Democratic majorities meant that Democrats were committee chairmen and held the (very weak) speakership, but it was the "conservative coalition" of Republicans and Southern Democrats that held the balance of power in the House, and won on pretty much any issue they cared to. Not only were many committee chairmen extremely conservative Southern Democrats, but the crucial House Rules Committee was generally run by the conservatives. Today, Rules is the instrument of the party leadership, but that wasn't the case until the 1960s. Conservative coalition dominance wasn't just about race, either; perhaps the most important law on economic issues passed during these 20 years was the Taft-Hartley right-to-work bill; it's not a crazy stretch to argue that this 1947 law's long-term (and slow developing) effects have been more important for inequality and general economic development than anything that President Ronald Reagan or those 1990s Republican Congresses did.

Rules Committee reforms and others happened after the huge 1958 landslide gave liberals real majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time in 20 years, which led them to realize that House procedures still prevented them from using that majority. Reform took about 15 years to produce the modern, party-dominated House. And as the South realigned, Democratic majorities were more likely to be liberal majorities. Still, the conservative coalition was important, if not dominant, from 1967 through 1974. And even after reform, the first Reagan Congress in 1981-1982 essentially had a conservative majority in the House. So, yes, the 1994 election ended a liberal Democratic majority, but one that had only been in place continuously since 1985. Not 1930.

Indeed, looked at with a longer focus, it's true that a Democratic "swerve to the left" was responsible for the party eventually losing the House in 1994. This is true so long as "swerve to the left" describes the Democrats' decisive break (which itself took several decades) from their history of racism, and the subsequent slow-motion shift of white Southerners from the Democratic "Solid South" to very large majorities voting Republican. Against that huge development, whatever minor changes Bill Clinton made to mainstream liberal thought were tiny blips.

It's important to note that all of this is painting with a very broad brush. Liberal legislation did pass in "conservative coalition" Houses, just as liberal legislation was signed into law by Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. And liberal Congresses passed some laws that conservatives like. But generally, the idea that there was a liberal majority in the House (let alone the entire federal government) for about 60 years is utter nonsense. The truth is that there have only been a handful of years (Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term, 1961-1966, Jimmy Carter's presidency, and the first two years of Clinton's and Barack Obama's presidencies) when there were clear, working liberal majorities in the House, the Senate and the White House. Just as there have been very few moments when the House, the Senate and the White House were all effectively under conservative control.

In other words, the real history of national political institutions over the last 80 years (at least) is one of stalemate, with only very incremental change possible, interrupted from time to time by real ideological majorities and sudden, less-incremental change. Gridlock is normal; (ideologically) unified government is rare.

That doesn't mean the current period of stalemate is the same as previous eras; it is in some ways but not in others. Nor does it mean that gridlock is necessarily good; there's plenty of legitimate argument about just how much stalemate a healthy political system should allow (or perhaps, how much stalemate a healthy system should encourage).

Nonetheless, it's a serious mistake to think of the Democratic Party of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s or even 1960s as similar to today's party. Today's Democrats may not all be "liberals" in the sense that Frank and some others wish they were, but none is conservative in the sense that modern mainstream conservatives mean, and none is even as conservative as the most moderate House and Senate Republicans. And that just wasn't the case for almost the entire 20th century.

  1. And that's counting Carter as a liberal, which is fair in this context, even though he was much more of a centrist Democrat than Clinton or Obama. A critic might also point out that talking about a "working" majority in the White House overlooks the incompetence of Carter -- and, for much of 1993-1994, of the Clinton administration.

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net