It’s Their Party

A generation ago, socialists and civil rights activists tried to transform the Democratic Party. Why did they fail?

Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin in 1964. Stanley Wolfson / Library of Congress

In 1964, there were few things that Students for a Democratic Society and Barry Goldwater agreed on.

SDS was becoming a key voice of a new wave of American radicalism, and the organization’s veterans would go on to shape the US far left for decades. In much the same way, backers of Goldwater’s failed presidential campaign that year would eventually become key figures in the new Republican Party, turning it into a proselytizer for free-market fundamentalism whose vigor was matched only by the evangelical commitments of its new voting base.

Though the future trajectories of SDS and the Goldwater campaign were unknown at the time, in 1964 they were already implacable opponents. SDS, convinced of the threat Goldwater represented, reluctantly agreed to campaign for his opponent, Lyndon Baines Johnson, with the slogan “Half the way with LBJ.”

Yet SDS and Goldwater did find themselves in agreement on one central question in American politics: the place of the South. Historically a one-party region controlled entirely by segregationist Democrats known as the Dixiecrats, the successes of pro–civil rights forces inside the national Democratic Party had thrown the region’s alignment into question.

For Goldwater, it was obvious that these reactionaries belonged inside his emerging Republican coalition. Speaking before an audience of Georgia Republicans, the candidate assured them that he “would bend every mus­cle to see that the South has a voice in everything that affects the life of the South.”

In a time of federal civil rights laws, and the use of federal troops to enforce school desegregation, this kind of appeal to regional self-determination had a clear meaning. And the rationale for such an overture was equally obvious — black voters were not about to abandon the Democrats, and as such, they should “go hunting where the ducks are.”

Strangely enough, SDS agreed. In the 1962 Port Huron Statement, the defining manifesto produced by the group, they called for “the shuttling of Southern Democrats out of the Democratic Party.” It went on to comment specifically on Goldwater, musing that

It is to the disgrace of the United States that such a movement should become a prominent kind of public participation in the modern world — but, ironically, it is somewhat to the interests of the United States that such a movement should be a public constituency pointed toward realignment of the political parties, demanding a conservative Republican Party in the South.

SDS was hardly alone on the Left in welcoming such a shift. From liberals to socialists, the attempt to push the Dixiecrats out of the Democratic Party was widely held to be a necessary step in the project of building a more equal country, allowing the Democrats to become a party more like those of European social democracy.

Things did not exactly work out this way. The defection of the South to the Republicans coincided with the conservatization of the Democrats, and, in some accounts, even laid the foundation for the reemergence of the Republicans as a majority party. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss the advocates of the realignment perspective, who included both liberals like Walter Reuther of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and radicals like Bayard Rustin, as deluded or shortsighted in their strategy.

Indeed, their project was based on an analysis of American society whose level of sophistication and scale of ambition puts much of progressive thought today to shame. And, unlike most recent projects of the US left, it succeeded. Though many revolutionary leftists dismissed the possibility at the time, the Dixiecrats really were driven from the Democratic Party, even if the consequences of that exodus were not what SDS and other radicals had expected they would be.

Ultimately, the realignment strategy represented one of the high points of the struggle for social democracy in the United States. For a time, it seemed possible to transform the Democrats into a social-democratic party. The failure of this project should not be taken as a verdict on the failure of social democracy as a strategy. Its history does, however, contain lessons for adherents of that strategy today, as well as for socialists looking beyond it.

The Strategy

The strategy of realigning the Democrats by pushing out the Dixiecrats and creating a party run by a liberal-labor coalition was backed by much of the union leadership and social movements at the time. Figures from Walter Reuther to Martin Luther King Jr noticed that the Democratic Party contained within it both the most liberal forces in official American politics, like Hubert Humphrey, and the most reactionary, like Strom Thurmond.

The idea that the latter could be forced out, and that the party could be hegemonized by the former, was an attractive one that gained plausibility as the incipient civil rights insurgency intensified the contradiction between the two groups. By the early 1960s, realignment was the implicit strategy guiding the work of many of the leaders of the national Civil Rights Movement.

Inside the movement, the most important partisan of realignment was Bayard Rustin, perhaps the most talented organizer the US left ever produced. Rustin had been, among other things, a Young Communist, a pacifist, and an organizer for A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement for civil rights.

By the 1950s, he was a well-known figure. When the Montgomery Bus Boycott began in 1955, Rustin quickly headed down to Alabama, becoming a key advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. A few years later, Rustin would become the main organizer behind the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Rustin was a tireless advocate of realignment. He consistently argued that black Americans had to secure real political power in order to achieve equality. The only way to do this, he asserted, was by transforming the Democratic Party. Traditional methods of protest were insufficient:

We have to look at political parties differently than we look at other institutions, like segregated schools and lunch counters, because a political party is not only the product of social relations, but an instrument of change as well. It is the Dixiecrats and the other reactionaries who want to paralyze the Democratic Party in order to maintain the status quo. . . .

If we only protest for concessions from without, then that party treats us in the same way as any of the other conflicting pressure groups. This means it offers us the most minimum concessions for votes. But if the same amount of pressure is exerted from inside the party using highly sophisticated political tactics, we can change the structure of that party.

Later in the decade, Rustin’s insistence that black insurgents orient themselves around official politics in the US would bring him into direct conflict with the nascent expressions of black power, and he would eventually become one of its most prominent black critics. In the early 1960s, however, he was still moving with the general current of black protest.

His position on realignment was similarly popular in left milieus. In 1960, Reuther declared his intention to “bring about a realignment and get the liberal forces in one party and the conservatives in another.” And the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, who famously attempted to unseat the segregationist delegation from their state at the 1964 Democratic Party convention, was in part motivated by the same perspective.

Looking back on their effort, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and MFDP organizer Cleveland Sellers recalled that

We were thinking far beyond Atlantic City. If our venture there was successful, we intended to utilize similar tactics in other Southern states, particularly Georgia and South Carolina. Our ultimate goal was the destruction of the awesome power of the Dixiecrats, who controlled over 75 percent of the most important committees in Congress. With the Dixiecrats deposed, the way would have been clear for a wide-ranging redistribution of wealth, power, and priorities throughout the nation.

Realignment’s embrace by such a wide variety of progressive forces belies its rather obscure origins. Before Reuther and Rustin threw their considerable skills behind the strategy, it was being promoted by a little-known but key figure in the history of American radicalism: Max Shachtman.

Shachtman was the leader of a heterodox Trotskyist grouping that, although small, had helped lead important struggles in an earlier era, such as the fight against the no-strike pledge, enforced by both the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) officialdom and the Communist Party during World War II.

Shachtman had come to the position that the advance of the American workers movement was dependent on the formation of a labor party, and looked to union leaders like Reuther as the incipient nucleus of such a party. During the late 1940s, Shachtman and his associates attempted, unsuccessfully, to convince Reuther and other left-wing labor leaders to break from the Democrats and start such an organization.

By the late 1950s, it had become clear that a split was not on the agenda. Even before the 1955 reunification of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the CIO — in which progressives like Reuther took a back seat to the new organization’s head, the apostle of business unionism, George Meany — the labor movement had grown more conservative.

At the same time, the development of the civil rights insurgency raised the possibility that a right-wing split from the Democrats, led by the Dixiecrats, might be more likely than a left-wing one. The way might then be clear, Shachtman reasoned, for labor and its liberal allies to take over the party, transforming it into something like a European social-democratic party.

Shachtman’s thinking gained influence through the efforts of his followers, most importantly Michael Harrington. Harrington had joined Shachtman’s group in the early 1950s and, as the leader of the party’s youth section, quickly became a prominent member.

Hard-working, intelligent, and charming, Harrington gained influence in left-liberal circles, writing for Dissent magazine and becoming chairman of the League for Industrial Democracy, out of which SDS would be born. He befriended Rustin in the mid 1950s and forged an alliance between the older civil rights activist and Shachtman’s milieu. Together, the three men worked to build a broad consensus in the American left around realignment.

The material conditions supporting such a strategy certainly existed. What political scientists have called “the Southern veto” had effectively blocked efforts to secure progressive legislation around race or labor at the national level. Moreover, the Dixiecrats had prevented the Democrats from assuming a coherent political identity as the party of American liberalism.

Thus, the partisans of realignment held, even if the exit of the Dixiecrats cost votes in the short term, it would allow liberals and labor to run the party unopposed, finally creating a national political party unambiguously committed to a left agenda.

The Party of Which People?

The realignment strategy was powerfully attractive because it seized on major tensions in American political life in a way that connected political realities with radical ambitions. Unlike most left strategies today, it began neither with individual action oriented, somehow, toward social transformation nor with visions of social transformation disconnected from the grubby reality of society as it exists.

Instead, it latched onto what was arguably the key political fracture in the postwar period: the split at the center of the Democratic Party. Understanding both the significance of this split, and why it failed to transform American politics in the way the theorists of realignment thought it would, requires examining the forces responsible for assembling the modern Democratic Party.

The pre–New Deal Democratic Party was in many ways a regional party, based in the Solid South with support from urban political machines in the North. Virtually the entire business class supported the Republicans, the default party of government for the first three decades of the twentieth century.

All of this changed during the Great Depression. Faced with a crisis of unprecedented severity and longevity, the political unity of the American capitalist class fractured. A large segment abandoned the Republican Party, whose traditional economic policies of protectionism and anti-labor repression had failed to halt the downturn. This section of capital, though wary of labor’s growing power, was open to the reforms promised by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and became a key base of support for his administration.

The split within the capitalist class was not merely the result of differing approaches to addressing the crisis — as Thomas Ferguson has argued, it was also rooted in the political economy of American industry. The firms that supported Roosevelt were, by and large, from two groups: capital-intensive industries who were internationally competitive, and internationally-oriented commercial banks. Both groups strongly supported Roosevelt’s affinity for free trade. But even more importantly, they were better able than other sections of American capital to bear the costs of reform.

A major swath of New Deal reforms — from the public employment programs to unemployment insurance — tightened labor markets by giving workers options other than either starving or toiling at the price capital would pay. Other measures, such as legislation compelling firms to recognize unions, made it easier for already-employed workers to bid up their wages.

For labor-intensive sectors, such as textiles or agriculture, wage-boosting reforms seemed to have near-apocalyptic ramifications. But for capital-intensive industries, such as oil, the consequences of higher wages were not nearly so dire — labor costs constituted a smaller share of their overall bill. For these businesses, the ameliorative programs of the New Deal were a sounder bet than either continued stagnation, or, even worse, the prospect of a revolutionary labor movement.

The South fit only awkwardly into the agenda of reform-minded capital. With a still heavily agricultural economic base, run largely on coerced black labor, Southern politicians were, at best, lukewarm toward the New Deal’s pro-labor reforms. Indeed, they worked furiously to secure exceptions that would allow them to keep their labor force as it was. This helped ensure that the benefits of the New Deal would flow disproportionately to workers in the North.

Southern politicians were, however, far friendlier to aspects of Roosevelt’s program that disproportionally benefited the South: the mushrooming subsidies to groups like agricultural producers and federal works programs that attempted to renovate the infrastructure of the country’s more backward areas. This Southern politicians could get behind — but the Republican Party, still committed to balanced budgets, was unlikely to endorse.

The modern Democratic Party, then, was born of a strange marriage, between the most advanced and reform-minded sections of American capital and the most economically backward section of the country. What united them was their support for economic policies that went far beyond what capital had previously been willing to stomach, from subsidies to regulation to forays into state planning.

This unity of interests, however, was accompanied by real tensions, particularly over civil rights and labor. Initially, civil rights was the less potent of the two. Before the late 1940s, the national Democratic Party had done little that would upset Southern sensibilities. Instead, clashes centered around labor, with Southern legislators playing a key role in both blocking pro-labor legislation and passing repressive bills like the Taft-Hartley Act.

As the 1950s progressed, however, and the movement for black equality gained in strength and scope (at the same time the labor movement was beginning its long decline), race moved to the fore as the party’s key fault line. The movement’s strategy of disrupting through nonviolent civil disobedience put the federal government on the defensive, the endless stories of white supremacist brutality proving troublesome for the US’s efforts to gain influence in the decolonizing world. The interests of the Southern ruling class had been throw into conflict with those of the wider ruling class.

The Realities of Realignment

The tension developed into a chasm, and then a split. But not only did the Democratic Party move to the right in the decade or so following the departure of the Dixiecrats, some argue it was precisely the exit of working-class whites from the “New Deal coalition” that paved the way for such a shift.

So why didn’t the outcome that Rustin and his co-thinkers sought come to pass? Explanations that focus on factors like the voting behavior of the white working class are ultimately too superficial to explain the sea change in American politics since the 1970s. It is instead necessary to attend both to the realignment strategy’s evolution, and to the same kinds of political-economic forces that made the odd coalition of Northern liberals and Southern reactionaries possible in the first place.

Legend has it that, in 1964, Lyndon Johnson told an aide that his signing of the Civil Rights Act had given the South to the Republicans “for a generation.” What Johnson saw with trepidation the partisans of realignment celebrated.

Of course, the Dixiecrats did not leave the party in one fell swoop. Many of the most prominent among them, such as James Eastland, remained Democrats until the end of their careers. Nonetheless, 1964 was a turning point. In the 1968 election, only the independent segregationist candidacy of George Wallace kept Republicans from sweeping the South. The way had been cleared, it seemed, for a liberal-labor coalition to begin turning the Democratic Party around.

The advocates of realignment had little time to savor their victory, however. Other developments in American politics put increasing strain on both their strategy and coherence as a political current.

Ultimately, these developments all flowed from the escalation of the war in Vietnam — by the late 1960s, one of the central issues in American politics. While it might seem that, for the group of socialists and pacifists pushing realignment, the war would hardly be a cause of internal discord, it produced a major schism.

To understand how this could be, it is useful to recall the view of Shachtman and other realignment advocates that labor officials like Walter Reuther were potential leaders of a nascent American social democracy. As Shachtman and his followers gained influence in the wider labor movement, they broadened this stance to cover the labor leadership as a whole.

The most important figure in this milieu — and the most important figure in the American labor movement for the entire period of the realignment approach — was George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO. Meany was a labor bureaucrat’s bureaucrat, bragging that he had never walked a picket line in his life and openly contemptuous of organizing unorganized workers.

Also a staunch anticommunist, Meany enthusiastically backed the war in Vietnam (which delivered plenty of money to AFL-CIO workers in defense industries) and was deeply involved in the federation’s efforts to combat communism in unions abroad.

In their efforts to remake the Democratic Party under the leadership of the liberal-labor coalition, figures like Shachtman and Rustin were unwilling to take action that would push Meany out of that coalition. This carried enormous consequences.

It meant shrinking from even some of the mainstream demands of the civil rights movement. Affirmative action, for example, became an unacceptable position, as Meany and other officials in the AFL-CIO bitterly opposed such policies in deference to unions that still practiced black exclusion, such as the building trades.

Crucially, it also meant refusing to publicly oppose the Vietnam War. For some, such as Shachtman, this was hardly even a compromise. Shachtman had moved steadily to the right over the previous decade, and now held that American capitalism was preferable to Soviet totalitarianism, even if socialism was still preferable to both.

In line with this perspective, Shachtman publicly backed the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion (calling the US-backed counterrevolutionaries “good, stout, working-class fighters”), as well as the various counter-insurgency regimes installed in South Vietnam. For Rustin, the compromise was more difficult, as he continued to support a negotiated end to the war in private, and defended Martin Luther King’s public opposition to it.

Still, Rustin ultimately maintained a coalition with pro-war forces like the AFL-CIO for pragmatic reasons. He refused to support any part of the antiwar movement, and went out of his way to attack antiwar spokespersons. He also tempered his longstanding opposition to racism in the labor movement, declaring, “I myself am, in my own capacity, committed to end the vestiges of discrimination in the trade union movement, but I absolutely refuse to conduct the battle along lines that will ultimately injure the labor movement.”

The result was that Rustin, Shachtman, and their supporters effectively stopped trying to remake the Democratic Party at all — they simply became backers of its leadership. Meany and the AFL-CIO officialdom were, on the whole, perfectly happy with Johnson’s performance as president. Moreover, as it became clear that those attempting to build a more left-wing Democratic Party were largely motivated to do so by Johnson’s prosecution of the war, these realignment proponents began spending more time opposing those trying to change the party than trying to change it themselves.

New Politics

Not all realignment supporters were willing to follow this strategy. Led by Michael Harrington, a second group maintained its intention of remaking the Democratic Party in the image of the liberal-labor coalition. Their struggles to do so took them into the heart of the party — and, despite opposition from their former comrades, they managed to secure some real changes in party structure.

But the reforms did little to change the fundamental nature of the Democratic Party, and, in the context of the 1970s economic crisis, weren’t enough to prevent it from moving even further to the right.

The first victory for Harrington came in the early 1970s, when the Democratic Party implemented a series of reforms intended to open up the party and decrease the power of party elites. The reforms came on the heels of 1968 election, in which a candidate who had run in no primaries, Hubert Humphrey, ultimately won the nomination at a convention marked by Democratic Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s police force cracking the heads of protesters outside.

Disgruntled by this experience, supporters of the antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy managed to win a vote to create a party reform commission, which would be headed by South Dakota Senator George McGovern. The body (called the McGovern-Fraser commission) instituted affirmative action in delegate selection, required that delegates be picked in the year of the election, eliminated prohibitive delegate fees, and put in place a new, more transparent set of rules for delegate selection.

The immediate consequence of these rule changes was the nomination of George McGovern for president in 1972. McGovern had entered the race late in 1968, but had drawn attention as a principled opponent of the war with a solidly liberal voting record.

Drawing on the experience of the 1968 McCarthy campaign, McGovern employed a grassroots strategy, relying on networks of volunteers to secure the vote in key states like New Hampshire and Wisconsin and running a thoroughly antiwar and liberal campaign. It worked.

His success in dislodging frontrunner Edmund Muskie and winning the nomination quickly gave way to disappointment, however. In the November 1972 general election, McGovern lost every state but Massachusetts.

In subsequent years, McGovern’s campaign has come to stand as the symbol of a Democratic Party gone too far to the left, alienating the “silent majority” of Americans repulsed by the various manifestations of 1960s radicalism.

From this perspective, realignment failed by being too successful — activists like Harrington and his followers pulled the party so far to the left that they destroyed its chances with a still-moderate American electorate. In many versions of this story, the advocates of party reform — known as the “New Politics” supporters — drove the party toward supposedly middle-class concerns like feminism and environmentalism, repelling its (white) blue-collar base and eliciting the AFL-CIO’s decision not to endorse McGovern.

But however influential, this telling bears little resemblance to the actual history. For one thing, labor wasn’t especially powerful in the party even before the McGovern-Fraser reforms. In 1965, with a Democratic supermajority in both the House and the Senate, unions failed to win passage of a bill to ban state-level “right-to-work” legislation, an objective Meany had declared labor’s highest priority.

Labor did wield power as a behind-the-scenes broker, trading delegate slates and endorsements like machine politicians. The AFL-CIO officialdom’s ability to play this role was undermined by the McGovern-Fraser reforms.

However, it was precisely because they felt that they weren’t getting a fair shake from Meany’s wheeling and dealing that unions like the UAW, AFSCME, and the communications workers, supported these reforms. As such, it hardly makes sense to characterize the New Politics reforms as effecting a middle-class takeover of a formerly working-class party.

Nonetheless, there is a grain of truth to the idea that the commission’s reforms helped cost the party the 1972 election. Meany’s outrage over losing some of his backroom power translated directly into an intense hostility to McGovern and everything his supporters represented. That McGovern was also a steadfast opponent of the war in Vietnam only intensified Meany’s hatred.

He demanded that the AFL-CIO executive board vote unanimously against lending the federation’s support. While he came up short, Meany was nonetheless able to prevent the AFL-CIO from playing an active role in the campaign. Aiding him in this endeavor were the remaining Shachtmanites, who labeled McGovern the candidate of surrender and used their influence to attack his support in progressive circles.

These attacks undoubtedly made McGovern’s campaign more difficult, and while many union affiliates of the AFL-CIO endorsed his campaign, the organizational muscle of the federation itself was sorely missed. Thus, though it is true that McGovern was too far left for an important Democratic constituency, it is a gross distortion to equate that constituency — conservative union leaders — with working-class voters.

But even the loss of the AFL-CIO was less decisive in McGovern’s defeat than the ability of his opponent, Richard Nixon, to forge a new investor coalition and the incumbent president’s pre-election expansionary economic policy.

As discussed earlier, part of the core of Democratic-friendly capitalist firms consisted of multi-nationally oriented firms, such as global exporters and international commercial banks. When international economic disorder intensified in the early 1970s this capital bloc began trying to stabilize the system through increased international cooperation.

Formed by David Rockefeller in 1971 to steer away the country from economic nationalism, the Trilateral Commission was the main institutional proponent of this approach. The immediate stimulus for the commission’s founding was Nixon’s New Economic Policy (NEP), which suspended the dollar’s convertibility to gold — the foundation of the postwar economic order — and issued a new series of import tariffs.

The multinational capital bloc feared potential reprisals from other advanced capitalist economies, greatly damaging the bottom line of export-oriented firms. A series of attacks on Nixon’s trade policies began appearing in the business press, serving notice to the president that not all of capital was happy with his policies.

In 1972, Nixon responded adroitly, removing the import tariff and replacing the strongly nationalist Treasury Secretary John Connally with the more multilaterally-oriented George Shultz. Even more importantly, Nixon signed the Smithsonian Agreement in 1971, establishing new currency policies between ten of the largest capitalist economies.

Over the course of the election year, Nixon worked systematically to endear his administration to the traditionally Democratic bloc of multinationally oriented firms. His success in doing so deprived the McGovern campaign of yet another traditional source of Democratic Party support, a source that could hardly be identified with the values of the American electorate.

The final reason for Nixon’s resounding victory in 1972 was the “political business cycle” of that year. For decades now, scholars of American politics have noticed the tendency of economic policy to become reflationary in election years, effectively boosting the campaign of the incumbent (or his party).

Nixon furnished a particularly notable instance of this pattern in the years before the 1972 election. From 1970 to 1972, the Federal Reserve, chaired by close Nixon associate Arthur Burns, expanded the US money supply at an average rate of 7 percent a year. With the money supply expanding so quickly, businesses could easily acquire money for investment, powering rapid growth in the economy. Nixon also embarked on a program of strong fiscal expansion, pushing the growth rate to climb from about zero in 1970 to almost 7 percent in 1972.

Even with the specter of inflation lurking, a McGovern triumph in the context of such rapid economic growth would have been astounding. After taking into account the AFL-CIO officialdom’s abandonment of McGovern and Nixon’s wooing of the multilateral investment bloc, McGovern’s loss is entirely explicable.

Realignment at Last?

By the mid 1970s, the realignment strategy had lost much of its appeal. Shachtman and Rustin allied themselves with the extant power blocs in the party, essentially reconciling themselves to the existing order.

Harrington and his supporters, however, had not given up the fight, even after the McGovern debacle. The Watergate scandal had given the strategy a shot in the arm, ushering Nixon (and then Ford) out of the White House, bringing Jimmy Carter in, and enhancing Democratic super-majorities in the House and Senate.

In 1976, Harrington strongly supported Carter, declaring in a debate with Socialist Workers Party candidate Peter Camejo that “if Carter wins, he will owe his victory in considerable measure to the working class politically organized as a class.” At the beginning of his term, it seemed like Carter agreed. On the Democratic agenda were long-term liberal projects such as a federal Consumer Protection Agency, labor law reform, and a federal full-employment bill (a central project for realignment advocates since the 1960s).

Carter, however, took power amid a period of economic turbulence unknown since the Great Depression. Corporate profits, which had been declining since the late 1960s, dipped near 2 percent in the early 1970s, before rising again to an anemic 4 percent for the next few years.

As profits tanked, US firms looked to cut labor costs. Resistance to unionization skyrocketed. A decade earlier, many companies had acquiesced in the face of unionization elections, declining to challenge the results 42 percent of the time. By 1978, firms were contesting 92 percent of such elections. Companies also resorted to playing dirty more often, firing pro-union employees at rates that far exceeded those of previous decades. As in the Great Depression, the imperative to reduce labor costs fell most heavily on labor-intensive firms.

However, the 1970s were unlike the Depression decade in a crucial aspect: there was no threat of a radicalized labor movement to convince firms who could absorb higher wages that it was worth compromising. While labor radicalism spooked elites through the 1930s, a rank-and-file rebellion at the outset of the 1970s quickly receded as unemployment rates crept up.

Thus, while the same divisions of interest that laid the basis for the 1930s compromise with labor were present in the 1970s, the level of working-class insurgency that activated these divisions was absent. Lacking such a movement, capital-intensive industries potentially open to another informal accord were not about to complain too loudly about their colleagues’ efforts to strip workers to the bone.

The same period also saw an unprecedented level of business organization. The Business Roundtable, now the leading organization of American capital, was formed, and existing organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce experienced a resurgence in membership.

The impetus was both the recession itself — which revived memories of the Depression — and a wave of regulatory legislation in the preceding years, such as the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which, unlike previous legislation, which only targeted individual sectors, affected all firms, creating a common interest for capital to rally around.

Business was ready for a fight.

That fight came quickly, in the 1977 congressional season. First on the agenda was the creation of a consumer protection agency, which had previously passed in Congress but was vetoed by Ford. Everyone assumed the legislation would be approved easily. Business, however, put together a tremendous effort to defeat it, and the bill failed in a lopsided vote, 189-227. Of the newly elected Democratic representatives, 60 percent opposed the measure.

Next up was common site picketing, which allowed an entire worksite to be picketed if there were grievances against any employer at that location (a rule particularly important for construction unions, who often worked at places with multiple subcontractors). Also the victim of a previous Ford veto, common site picketing met the same fate as the consumer protection agency.

Unions’ biggest priority that year, however, was labor law reform. Reeling from capital’s new intransigence, labor sought to stiffen the penalties for various unfair practices during union elections. George Meany declared that the AFL-CIO was “going to fight harder for this bill than any bill since the passage of the Wagner Act.”

The skirmish did, briefly, bring to the surface the kinds of schisms between sections of capital that had been so crucial in the New Deal. Capital-intensive firms in the Business Roundtable advocated neutrality in the fight, preferring to save their legislative muscle for battles more central to their vital interests. But labor-intensive firms prevailed in the vote among the group’s leadership, 19-11.

Unburdened by the dilemmas created by working-class militancy, the capital-intensive segments of the class went along for the ride. Despite a Democratic supermajority, a filibuster ultimately thwarted the bill.

The final legislative defeat came disguised as a victory — the passage of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978. Long an objective of the liberal-labor coalition, full-employment legislation was seen as one of the most important steps toward building progressive social policy in the US.

By the time Carter signed the act, however, it had been completely defanged. While the original legislation mandated the president move towards full-employment levels — and included provisions enlisting the federal government as the employer of last resort in case efforts to stimulate private-sector employment failed — the final bill simply called on the president to report progress toward full-employment and lacked any language around direct creation of public jobs.

What had begun as an effort to force the president to produce an economy of abundant jobs ended up being little more than a declaration of his discretion to do so — discretion that would, ultimately, never be used. The legislative linchpin for those leftists still holding on to visions of realignment had finally passed, with practically no effect on the American political economy.

Right Turn

In some accounts, such as Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker’s Winner Take All Politics, business’s increasing political mobilization is the principal reason labor suffered these defeats — the implication being that, had labor been better organized, less divided, and less encumbered by the Meanyite officialdom, it could have successfully resisted the offensive. But what such a conclusion ignores is the way the crisis itself reshaped the political terrain.

With all sections of capital increasingly resistant to labor, the pressure for a compliant policy agenda ran through channels well beyond business lobbying, exerting direct pressure on the executive itself. The last two years of the Carter administration provide a devastating case study of this pressure at work.

Carter’s tenure had begun in the fashion typical of Democratic presidencies in the postwar era. His administration was so stocked with representatives of multilaterally-oriented capital that the association between Carter and the Trilateral Commission became a standing joke. The turbulence of the 1970s, however, broke apart the old Democratic coalition once and for all, propelling Carter to the right and setting the stage for every Democratic administration since.

The first shock to the administration came through the defection of the oil companies. As the capital-intensive industry par excellence, oil had been a Democratic stronghold since the New Deal, making the OPEC oil crisis particularly dicey. OPEC’s oil embargo forced up energy prices, leading to pressure from consumers for price controls. The Democratic congress had obliged under Ford, and though Carter managed to attract much of the industry back to the fold with talk of deregulation, suspicion now existed where there had once been none.

When oil prices skyrocketed again in the summer of 1979, the pressure on the administration became unbearable. Put simply, Carter had to choose between the interests of the oil industry, a key Democratic constituency, and energy consumers sensitive to price rises, which included the great majority of the electorate, as well as a large section of capital. Carter chose the latter, endorsing a windfall tax on oil profits as a means to address the growing budget deficit. United in opposition to such a surcharge, the oil industry thus began its association with the Republican Party.

The flight of oil made Carter’s administration all the more vulnerable to pressure from other sections of capital. Facing increased international competition in product markets, large sectors of corporate America began pushing for reductions in their tax rate. These tax cuts made it impossible for federal spending to continue at its previous levels.

Confronted with the demand to slash the budget from a wide range of the business community, Carter acquiesced. The austerity so often associated with the Reagan presidency actually began with Carter, under whom spending on welfare, for example, contracted more rapidly than it ever would under Reagan.

Carter also moved to deregulate huge sections of American industry, including the airlines, trucking, and, perhaps most saliently today, banking. Faced with an increasingly dissatisfied business class (despite their recent legislative victories), Carter acted aggressively to placate their concerns, attacking the interests of his own electoral base so ferociously that Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy was motivated to mount a brief primary challenge to the incumbent president.

Finally, Carter took a hard right turn on foreign policy. Reeling from the blow of the Iranian Revolution, which had overthrown a loyal US client regime, the president promised that the US would deploy military force to defend its interests in the Middle East. It is one of the few promises in American politics that has been kept.

Carter also reversed the détente between the US and the USSR, initiating an American arms buildup and successfully goading the Soviets into a bloody war in Afghanistan in the hopes of giving them “a Vietnam-style quagmire.

Today, it is a widely held assumption of the liberal-left that the rightward turn in American politics was launched under Reagan, and spearheaded by right-wing Christian groups such as the Moral Majority. A different version of the same story holds that it was Nixon who started that shift by mobilizing the “silent majority” against the Civil Rights Movement and the Left. Both of those narratives rest on a basic misconception. In fact, it was not a Republican, but Jimmy Carter who began this process. And he did it at a time when he commanded majorities in both houses of Congress.

One reason the myth of Republican ascendancy is so pernicious is that it suggests that it was voters who drove American politics to the right. Underlying this view is the notion that what really caused that move was the break-up of the so-called “New Deal Coalition,” which collapsed because of the increasingly reactionary bent of racist white workers.

It is certainly true that the 1970s saw the emergence of a racist backlash against the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. But it wasn’t led by racist white workers, and it didn’t destroy any “New Deal coalition.” In fact, working-class Americans remained left-wing on a broad range of political issues well into the 1980s. If anything, the Democrats’ defeat at the hands of Reagan reflected how isolated from their voters they were becoming.

The culprit wasn’t reactionary white workers electing Republicans. It was elites and officials, Democrats and Republicans alike. That doesn’t mean the decline of the Civil Rights Movement and collapse of the labor radicalism of the early 1970s didn’t matter. Without those kinds of radical movements, capital remained more or less united, without the kinds of splits that can open up space for the Left.

Far from Harrington’s hope that Carter might represent a respite from ruling-class aggression, and a chance for labor to have, at least, half a seat at the table, Carter’s presidency initiated the all-out attack on the New Deal order that Nixon and Ford had only hinted at. The window for realignment had closed.

Realigning Expectations

The story of realignment harkens back to a time when large-scale historical projects still animated the US left. Even though it is apparent in retrospect that the strategy never had much of a chance, it is possible to look back with respect at the strategic thinking that motivated Rustin, Harrington, and their comrades. They astutely identified one of the major fault lines in American politics, and developed a way to shake that fault line such that when the dust settled, something like an American social democracy would exist.

Today, this kind of thinking has all but disappeared. To be sure, there are many who continue to labor in the shadow of Harrington’s vision, who often speak of “intensifying the contradictions” between the Democratic Party’s base and its investors by backing left candidates within the party. What’s missing from this orientation is any sense of the momentum of the party.

The contradiction between the party’s base and its investors has existed since the birth of the modern Democratic Party in the New Deal. It has persisted through the Great Society, through the New Politics era, through Carter, all the way up until the present. Again and again, this contradiction alone has proven inert, unable to change the basic structure of power within the party.

In the late 1950s, it was obvious that tensions between Dixiecrats and the rest of the party were coming to a head. And if the internecine schism between base and investors could not turn the party leftwards then, when accompanied by the civil rights revolution, there’s little reason to believe it will do so today, in our far drearier historical moment.

Gloomy as this conclusion is, the history of realignment also offers if not hope, then at least some sense of the grounds on which hope can be built.

The strategy was correct in looking for divisions in official politics. It failed, ironically, in not recognizing the divisions that made its strategy even possible — the fractures in capital that allowed a more accommodating sector, fearful of losing everything to working-class insurgency, to compromise with labor. This concession was the condition of existence for the Democratic Party, and when its own conditions of existence were undermined in the crisis of the 1970s, that compromise ended.

The contemporary left should aspire to do what the realignment strategy tried to accomplish — to recognize the different interests that exist within capital, and leverage them to our own ends. To be successful in this endeavor, however, and to avoid the sorry end of postwar realignment, it will have to organize on the basis of two truths that Harrington and his co-thinkers ultimately forgot.

First, working-class insurgency is the only force that renders the contradictions between capitals dynamic and capable of serving the Left. Second, whatever power labor manages to assert against capital, whether on the shop floor, in a capitalist party like the Democrats, or even in an actual social-democratic party, will always be partial, and subject to dismemberment as soon as capital is able. While Harrington’s intellectual work stresses this, the project he helped built did not reflect it.

The failure that ensued was nothing to celebrate. The absence of an American social democracy is not only responsible for the brutal and devastated character of working-class life in US society — it has also yielded a feeble revolutionary left.

Deprived of the robust class-wide organizations built and preserved by social democracy elsewhere, the revolutionary left has perpetually struggled with the most extreme forms of political isolation, and the political and organizational pathologies that accompany it. The sectarianism and splintering that afflict the radical left are not, as is sometimes smugly implied, a cause of the radical left’s powerlessness. They are instead a symptom of a situation in which splitting over obscure questions of doctrine carries no real consequences for the Left’s ability to change anything.

American social democrats have also suffered from the failure of realignment. The absence of a real American reformism has left would-be social democrats largely holding on to the coattails of the unreformed Democratic Party. Again and again, this has occasioned the spectacle of committed radicals, including Harrington, campaigning for politicians, like Carter, who oppose everything they believe in.

The problem with this dynamic is not so much that radicals sully themselves with the impurities of compromise — some measure of compromise is necessary in any kind of electoral participation. Rather, it is that in arguing that workers should defend their interests by voting for progressive Democrats when possible (or neoliberals when there are no progressives), American social democrats orient politics on a sphere in which it is actually impossible to defend those interests.

The argument always goes, of course, that social struggles outside the electoral sphere are necessary as well. But as anyone who has ever been inveigled to support the lesser of two evils knows, somehow the emphasis on those forms of struggle never reaches the frenzied pitch of election year appeals.

Any political action comes with opportunity costs, and the costs of a strategic focus on electing Democrats have been grave — from the labor movement’s inability to defend itself against attacks from “their” party to antiwar movements that disappear when a Democrat comes to office. Configuring left politics around electoral action, in the absence of any kind of social democracy, inevitably results in a situation where, as Robert Brenner puts it, reformism doesn’t even reform.

The failure of realignment, then, contains lessons for socialists who fall on both sides of the old “reform or revolution” argument. Its history should not be taken as a verdict against reformism. Indeed, the story of realignment serves to clarify what, exactly, will be required for a successful American reformism. Because ultimately, the kind of grand strategic vision that animated realignment is a prerequisite for both those who wish to see, at long last, social democracy in the United States — and those who wish to go beyond it.