The Once and Forever Liberal

(Yoichi Okamoto/White House photograph)

Hubert Humphrey in 1965

This month marks the 40th anniversary of Hubert Humphrey’s death. The senator from Minnesota and vice president under Lyndon Johnson died of bladder cancer on January 13, 1978, ending a long career as one of the most notable and influential liberal Democrats of the 20th century. January 2018 also begins a year-long series of anniversaries where Humphrey’s name is expected to reappear in retrospective takes on the history of the Vietnam War, the New Left and the anti-war movement, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the 1968 presidential election—which Humphrey lost to Republican Richard Nixon.

But before those op-eds, editorials, and remembrances are written, we must consider what Humphrey means to Americans today: the lessons he provides for Americans living in the age of Donald Trump. Because if someone were to reanimate Humphrey and insert him into the current political climate, he would be pilloried as a “socialist,” a “radical.” He would occupy a wing of the Democratic Party reserved for left-wing liberals like Bernie Sanders, Representative Keith Ellison (also a Minnesotan), and Senator Elizabeth Warren. Like Sanders, one could foresee Humphrey dismissed as “unelectable,” offering unrealistic, pie-in-the sky solutions to problems of poverty, unemployment, and inequality.

Of course, Humphrey was no radical. What makes Humphrey “radical” are his politics in the context of the present: his fight for full employment, a strong labor movement, social justice for African Americans (including equal housing, an end to mass incarceration, and unionized jobs that pay a livable wage), open borders for new immigrants, a clean environment, strict government oversight of corporate activities, high marginal tax rates for the wealthiest Americans, and a government-led effort to reduce the power of private banks and capital. Sound familiar, Bernie supporters? These policies are now “visionary,” and to moderate, centrist Democrats, a “pipe dream.”

At the time of his death, however, many Democrats considered Humphrey a political dinosaur (albeit a respected dinosaur), a relic of the Great Depression and the Cold War. The New Left, anti-war activists, and “New Politics” reformers in the Democratic Party saw Humphrey as a tool of old, white, male bosses within the labor movement and the remaining Democratic machines, and as someone tethered to an unpopular, imperial war in Vietnam.

When Humphrey ran for the presidency in 1968, he was viewed by many Democrats much as their successors viewed the Hillary Clinton of 2016—he and his politics were antiquated; he was an orthodox voice at a time of sweeping change. Humphrey’s support for Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War meant he was the problem with American liberalism and the Democratic Party, not the solution. Young liberals did not want a pragmatic and self-professed “conservative” Democrat to lead the party in 1968. “Hubert Humphrey is a treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler who should be put in a goddamn bottle and sent out with the Japanese current,” said (with characteristic brio) Hunter S. Thompson in 1972.

These competing images of Humphrey encapsulate the current tensions and divisions within the Democratic Party, but more importantly, they reveal their extensive history. In his lifetime, Humphrey was a leftist and a liberal, a radical and a reactionary—but he was always a Democrat. Such is the nature of political candidates and parties: Never are they ideologically coherent, molded to suit the proclivities of the individual, and uniform in their purpose and design. To define the soul of the Democratic Party around a particular constituency is a fool’s errand, Humphrey believed. The Democratic Party must be a broad tent, welcoming of diverse, even contradictory perspectives. For Humphrey, politics was the art of coalition-building: Whoever amassed the largest voting bloc on Election Day won. That was all.

(The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University)

Rally for Humphrey, August 15, 1968

He knew this because he helped erect the modern Democratic coalition. Humphrey played a role in purging both communists and conservative Southerners from the Democratic Party, believing that both, in different ways, limited the possibilities for racial and economic reform. Humphrey saw demographic changes during World War II (blacks coming North during the Great Migration, a rise in unionized households) and cultural shifts in attitudes toward race, and thought the party had to appeal to blacks and minorities. The party could not win national elections if it were tied to racist Southerners who made blacks flee to the Republican Party, or communists who provided fodder for right-wing red-baiting, thus enabling the GOP to attack the Democrats and curtail progressive policies.

Indeed, Humphrey created space for identity politics in the Democratic Party, changing the nature of the party forever—even to his downfall. But the results were not perfect. Change was incremental. The Democratic Party was still controlled by white male elites; still beholden to the Southerners until the 1960s. But by the 1970s, the Southerners were gone, and the party more inclusive of the young liberals and leftists who had protested Humphrey’s nomination in 1968.

Liberals should keep this history in mind as they look to build a coalition that satisfies both leftists and moderate liberals, that merges concerns from urban and rural voters, the white working class with white-collar professionals. Political parties are characterized by their contradictions, not their cohesiveness. Current debates over the “direction of the party”—between pursuing identity politics over class politics (or vice versa)—are based on false premises. There is no ideal Democratic Party, no magical coalition of like-minded voters—at least not a winning one. To obtain political power in a two-party system, liberals and leftists must be welcomed in the Democratic Party—because of their differences, not despite them—so long as progress is the goal for all its constituents. This is the overarching lesson of Humphrey’s political life.

Humphrey’s start in national politics began at the Democratic National Convention in 1948. Humphrey came to the convention a two-time mayor from Minneapolis and an established progressive reformer on civil rights. He’d brought white workers, blacks, and even business interests together to end racial discrimination in employment and education. Humphrey’s coalition of supporters, diverse by the standards of the time, also reflected an economic and racial populism that engaged reformers at the grassroots, including members of the Urban League and the NAACP, as well as the AFL-CIO.  

The 1948 convention proved to Democrats (and the public) that Humphrey was ahead of his time on civil rights. Inside the hot, humid convention hall in 1948, many Northern and Midwestern liberals wanted the Democrats to adopt a strong pro–civil rights plank. The Southerners did not. President Harry Truman tried to shut down the civil rights issue, but Humphrey refused. In an eight-minute speech, Humphrey said it was time “for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

“That speech,” as Humphrey called it, made him a star among left-wing liberals and a pariah among conservatives. Southerners, upset that the Democratic Party was now beginning to respond to the civil rights movement, walked out of the convention hall and formed the States’ Rights (Dixiecrat) Party. After he was overwhelmingly elected to the Senate in 1948, Humphrey arrived in Congress and immediately alienated his Southern colleagues, particularly Georgia Democrat Richard Russell. “Can you imagine the people of Minnesota sending that damn fool down here to represent them?” Russell said.

In the context of the U.S. Senate in 1949, Humphrey was a leftist. He tried to lessen the Southern chokehold over racial justice, introducing legislation that ended poll taxes, integrated private and public facilities, and eliminated segregated housing. Humphrey also worked for policies that enfranchised the white working class and black Americans. His ultimate dream was to bring back the National Youth Administration, a New Deal agency that had brought jobs to thousands of young Americans during the Great Depression. In today’s terms, full employment for millennials.

Humphrey ran for the presidency in 1960 on this storied liberal record, but lost to John F. Kennedy in the primary. His moment of legislative glory came in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Humphrey organized conferences with Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen and created the strategy for defeating the Southern filibuster and quorum call on the bill.

(White House photograph)

Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson, and General Creighton Abrams in a Cabinet Room meeting in March 1968

Johnson then selected Humphrey for the vice presidency—a promotion that doomed Humphrey’s further ascent. Humphrey felt trapped in the office, promoting a war he disagreed with and hamstrung by Johnson’s relentless animosity toward Humphrey for his initial dissent against the war: In February 1965, Humphrey told Johnson the war would be unpopular, and he should pull out American troops. “1965 is the year of minimum political risk for the Johnson administration,” the new vice president said. Johnson ignored the advice, then ignored Humphrey for the next three years.

Vietnam and the events of 1968 killed Humphrey’s reputation as a left-liberal. As the country unraveled in 1968 following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and urban riots, Humphrey urged restraint and patience, delivering a tone-deaf affirmation at the strife-torn Democratic Convention of “the politics of joy.”

There were few takers in the summer of 1968. The times were against Humphrey, and Humphrey was too cautious in reacting to them. He resisted reforms in the Democratic Party; responded to the “gestapo tactics” of the Chicago police at the 1968 Democratic convention with caution, not condemnation; failed to embrace the women’s rights movement in unequivocal terms; and took too long to come out against the Vietnam War, waiting until just five weeks before the November election—not enough time to defeat Richard Nixon.

After losing in 1968 (and being out of politics for two years), Humphrey moved back into the Senate in 1971 (taking the seat of Eugene McCarthy, who chose not to seek re-election). But Humphrey found himself once again in a hostile environment. By 1971, Humphrey was in some ways the Dick Russell of 1948: a knowledgeable, out-of-touch legislator, a retrograde force opposing the “New Democrats” with their “New Politics,” who rejected the Cold War and its offspring: Vietnam, inflation, and what some saw as a bloated federal budget. 

Humphrey pressed on with efforts toward social justice. He championed a living wage, the Equal Rights Amendment, and a federal bank to invest in poor and black communities. When Humphrey died in 1978, the nation’s Happy Warrior was seeking full employment and New Deal programs to rectify inequality, proposals that represented the era of “big government” that was on its way out.

The Democratic Party—and Americans in general—have forgotten Hubert Humphrey’s legacy, to the detriment of their coalition and their understanding of how American politics work. Humphrey demonstrated there is no one correct path to social justice. While many Democrats (including the congressional leadership) represent moderate change, the Elizabeth Warrens and Keith Ellisons of the party are needed to push them to the left—which in many ways, they’ve done. This should be the takeaway from the 2016 Democratic primary, not whether the party is dominated by “neoliberals.”

Moreover, that Hubert Humphrey is now akin to both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton tells us something about how far the Democratic Party has come. The most conservative Democrats in 2017 are not even remotely the Southerners of 1948. Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi might be moderates, but they are not segregationists. Even the bluest of Blue Dog Democrats believe in gender equity, marriage equality, and a living wage. Democrats across the spectrum universally embrace human rights, social justice, and economic reform in some measure. The same could not be said when Humphrey died 40 years ago.

This is a basis from which Democrats can build a new party. Internecine debates are healthy and appropriate, but they cannot lead to cannibalizing like-minded reformers in search of party purity—for a candidate who can check off everyone’s ideological boxes. In looking for fights to win, liberals cannot turn inward, defeating each other before looking to take on their enemies.  As Hubert Humphrey remarked in 1967, “Liberalism, above all, means emancipation—emancipation from one’s fears, his inadequacies from prejudice, from discrimination, yes, from poverty.” We can all get behind that.

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