the democrats’ urban/rural problem, 1918 edition
I recently discovered an important little book from the 1960’s, written about an era 40 years prior. David Burner was a well-regarded history professor who passed away only a few years ago, probably most famous for his biography of Herbert Hoover. Yet his dissertation book is what struck me, titled The Politics of Provincialism: The Democratic Party in Transition, 1918-1932 (Knopf, 1968), the book describes how, to quote it opening sentence, “in the years of Republican ascendancy from 1920 to 1932, the national Democratic party transformed itself from an institution largely rural in its orientation and leadership to one that embodied the aspirations of the American city dweller—and most notably, the urbanite of immigrant stock.”
This tension between city and country—and its relative role in determining national elections—is nothing new in American—and by, extension, English—politics, and there are ever more op-ed’s every day, both pro and con, about how Democrats should think about rural communities. (Friendly facebook commenters reminded me, when I posted this yesterday at facebook, that the urban/rural division is also a mainstay of classical sociological theory and the work of Ibn Khaldun—thanks Graham Peterson and Nick Tampio!)
Yet it’s worth remembering that at one point it was Republicans who were the party of Yankee elites and Democrats the party of rural distaste for cities, especially that particular urban mélange of snooty elites and people-not-like-us (whether Jews, Italians and Irish then or African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims now). These historical transfers are not as clean as I’m describing them here, and race obviously has a huge part to play in this story. Yet this is the common message we all get, more or less: the Democrats placated angry whites as long as they could, ignoring Jim Crow, giving preference to whites in the New Deal and GI Bill, and only really having to turn around under LBJ’s passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts, after which Nixon and Republicans cemented the Southern Strategy and the parties traded places.
That story’s not wrong, but it ignores the way in which whiteness was itself very much a product under construction. Burner’s chapter on the Klan is quite good on this, focusing on how Democrats disagreed about how much they should hate Catholics, among other things. This comes to a head in 1928, in which there was a real election in the South for the first time since Reconstruction, pitting Southern white supremacy against Southern anti-Catholicism (unsurprisingly, white supremacy won). While Burner does pay attention to race in these discussions, my one real complaint is that he should have done a lot more of it.
His last page has an important quote: “In 1932, Roosevelt’s candidacy sealed together in common cause farmers and laborers, natives and foreign stock, country and city.” Burner attributes this to quite a few causes, but his most striking is his last one, “the crucible of the depression—which substituted for the divisions of culture and ancestry the common identity of the dispossessed” (252). That insight parallels recent claims that Obama only got elected at all because the recession was just so bad, yet it’s striking how, in Burner’s description of folks coming together, he leaves out African Americans, who had obviously already been in northern cities and were entering them in much greater numbers in the great migration. It’s a big problem for the book, but I’d still recommend checking it out for a careful study of an important change in American history.
One other bit: it’s interesting how much prohibition in that era mirrors urban/rural fights in our own, especially regarding the strong sense of moral urgency, manifested in a deep inability for some to live and let live precisely because to live in a certain way seems contrary to the good life itself. There’s an interesting article to be written about the parallels being worrying about someone else’s drinking and worrying about someone else’s sex life. What’s easy to lose here is how of course that worrying is sometimes very much about a kind of hatred but-and this is the bit that’s often forgotten–it is just as often about a kind of (deeply misdirected, patronizing, other negative adjectives) love, honestly believing that the good of society at large and the individual in question would be better grasped by living life as particular moralists would have you live it. Looked at this way, an obsession with grit in contemporary education reform and all sorts of other ways of thinking about “urban” problems take on a new light.
So: a kind of religious moralism within the Democratic party regarding prohibition allied itself with a kind of religious fundamentalism and nativism. Eventually, cities forced the Democratic party to chill out a bit, and the Depression helped many people to come together. Many, but not all. And so, about 50 years later, this otherwise quite good book about American politics has a lot of important things to say yet isn’t nearly sophisticated enough about race. Americans’ stories actually do change, but it’s striking how often they stay the same.