My Grandmother’s Democratic Party (Part 2)

by Debra Morris

Image[1]In this part of the essay I'll draw out some possible consequences for the contemporary Democratic Party of a distinctive brand of partisanship exemplified, as I suggested in Part 1, by my grandmother, the woman known all my life as “Morris.” She is a true Texas type: the Yellow Dog Democrat. To be sure, she has always been more Lady Bird than Ann Richards in demeanor—proper, clean-living, quietly capable; disarmingly witty, though I've long suspected she keeps most of her jokes to herself. Now, the fact that Morris harkens to one of these ladies, rather than the other, is part of the reason I wonder about the value of the Yellow Dog sensibility; certainly no one writing or talking about Democratic Party strategy in Texas shows any nostalgia for my grandmother's kind of partisanship. And maybe, by now, it is a relic: irrelevant to the political landscape of Texas (not to mention the nation); more endangered by the day (literally so; my grandmother turned 100 last year, and it may well be her passing that distresses me, not the loss of a Democratic golden age in Texas); and, in any case, not the unambiguously positive thing that I might like to think, or that I dare suggest we preserve or try to resurrect. As I was reminded recently, when I characterized Morris as a “Yellow Dog Democrat” and a friend retorted “By which you mean Republican, of course,” the term and the phenomenon are loaded. What do I achieve by attempting to describe it, much less by lamenting its loss?

Readers seeking more detail or context may revisit Part 1, though its final paragraph is sufficient to summarize the argument I began there and to introduce the key concepts and contentions that I wish to develop further. My stated hope in Part 1 was that a narrative of the political lives of those around us, and of our lives as influenced by them, might uncover

… lost opportunities for political identification, for politics itself….[I]t seems to me that my grandmother's identity as “Yellow Dog Democrat” evanesced from a rich variety of things—her life as a woman and a Texan; as a teacher and a farmer's wife, and then as a farmer herself; as a rural school district principal and the mother of an only child, a career Army officer whose life she saw risked by administrations Democratic and Republican alike; as the best kind of sports fan, appreciative of grace and skill and cheerfully indifferent among teams (“pretty is as pretty does,” remember). It also seems clear that, for those in my grandmother's generation, party affiliation had a historical dimension as well; there could be a legitimate sense that a party deserved one's allegiance for its accomplishments in the past, that there was nothing nonsensical or disreputable in continuing to honor a compact that didn't promise immediate, tangible payoffs. This is both something more and something less than we expect today from political parties conceived as brands, from politics conceived as discrete state battlegrounds—something more, because it is binding across a life and across time; something less, because it is not a gargantuan matter of ego.

Of course, I need to say more about this “something,” not only because I think it describes more adequately the meaning of politics and partisanship in my grandmother's life, but also because I believe it to be essential to a better—more defensible, more sustainable—kind of party identification, and of Democratic Party politics, today. It may seem quite paradoxical that describing the political sensibilities of actually existing people, perhaps only those few whom we know well, in the narratively rich, or “thick,” way I recommended in Part 1 should generate any kind of normative claim about a party's agenda, including the most effective way to articulate and pursue it. (Many readers will insist that what is—much less, of course, what was—doesn't tell us anything about what should be.) And it is true that I offer but one case study, as it were, in this post. For any reader who finds the method suspect, then, or the analysis strained, I suggest that two recent book-length studies bear it out. These are Joan Walsh's What's the Matter with White People? Why We Long for a Golden Age that Never Was, and the earlier What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, by Thomas Franks, from which Walsh obviously takes inspiration. Both books are centrally concerned with the odd fact that political partisanship doesn't always fall out the way we might expect among people who otherwise share certain salient interests or circumstances (such that, in the end, party ideology doesn't track biography all that well). This is a personally vexing issue for Walsh, given the political schism in her own extended family. In fact she begins her story with what she concedes is a “fractious Irish fairy tale,” alluding to her father's penchant for interpreting his ethnicity as generating common ground with black Americans, for instance, whereas other relatives perceived no such connection. Franks, by contrast, would seem to have little interest in fairy tales, fractious or otherwise; indeed he is famously critical of the simplistic cultural narratives used by elites to distract groups from their shared material interests—a classic case of bypassing the Middle American head in order to win its heart, the better thereby to win elections.

It is an important question whether, and in what ways, Walsh and Franks agree in their analysis—at least it should be an important question for anyone interested in strengthening the Democratic Party, since both writers identify with the same (broadly liberal) values but propose somewhat different means for organizing the Democratic Party around those values. They understand the central challenge to coalition-building a little differently; it could be argued that Walsh faults racism for obscuring shared economic interests, and Franks misspent culture wars for distracting us from them, though this is too simple and, besides, it implies that both analyses cannot be true at once.[1] (Surely both are key to understanding a state like Texas, with its sizeable Hispanic minority and an equally formidable religious Right.[2]) What I find helpful in Walsh's analysis is a greater willingness to admit concerns of the heart, rather than only the head (or, more truthfully, the pocketbook); perhaps this follows from the fact that she begins with her own family and therefore can't help but feel their pain, which conditions what she is able or willing to hope for from politics. In her conclusion, Walsh takes issue with critics on the Right, such as Ross Douthat, who “see[m] to be saying we can't have a real social compact in a multiracial society; it works only in monochromatic societies.” She wonders if it might not be “the ultimate example of American exceptionalism to prove him … wrong,” and we do this, she suggests, by offering a different fairy tale, as it were, “a new narrative around social justice that makes sense in a world without a dominant majority.”

The connection to my argument, and a big reason for my fascination with my grandmother's long and quiet dedication to party, is this: Walsh contends, for various reasons to which I can't do justice in this limited space, that both the “opportunity” she perceives and the solemn “responsibility” she invokes must lie with the Democratic Party. This is a party understood in the same capacious way as my grandparents' hero, FDR, understood it, as the vehicle for a social compact extending across time, with signature achievements in the past and an articulate and irrepressible impulse forward. This is a party with a past, in other words, a past that conditions our hopes for the future. Put another way, as Roosevelt insisted, “The Democratic party by tradition and by the continuing logic of history, past and present, is the bearer of liberalism and of progress” (all citations are in Part 1). Without my grandmother ever uttering these words, and despite elements in her long life decidedly at odds with such things as “liberalism” and “progress”—the persistent segregation of the small Texas town where she resided, to concede the most obvious—nevertheless I remain convinced that, because Morris had a history with the Democratic Party, she was willing to acknowledge that a political party could exert a legitimate claim on the future (not least of all her future, in the sense that it deserved her vote come election day).

This is not how we tend to think of political parties, or our identification with a given party, these days. “Bipartisanship” is uncritically celebrated; or we are urged to elect the best man or woman for the job (as if we were ever in a position really to know and thereby judge particular candidates; as if an individual won't always disappoint in a way a political platform cannot); or we vent our disgust with politicians of all stripes. Of course there is plenty of crowing on the winning side of every electoral contest, and, especially in cases like mid-term elections when results stack up in undeniably partisan ways—when a party can win effective control over an entire legislative body—it is common for winners to claim that what has been vindicated is their party, that is to say its overarching philosophy. But how sincere, much less meaningful, can such claims be, given the widespread belief—celebrated by some, dispassionately affirmed by others, cynically manipulated by a few—that victory actually comes down to a party's command over social media and databases, its capture of distinct demographics, its savvy in crunching the numbers?[3] In the midst of this new orthodoxy, which even scrambles the idea of an individual candidate having a coherent and assessable character, how can we begin to articulate the character of an entire party?

These are odd questions, I suppose, given that I began this exercise convinced that it was possible to glean a better theory of party identification, of political partisanship, from the details of a life—an idiosyncratic life, by definition, my grandmother's own—and now I seem to be casting doubt on the politics of “biography.” Perhaps it will be clearer what I find valuable in my grandmother's narrative by considering the limitations of something that looks very similar but, I contend, is not. I'm thinking of Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis's life narrative—from Fort Worth trailer park to Harvard Law School—which gives pride of place to her tough Texas pedigree rather than the Democratic Party whose ideals she has consistently, and successfully, defended.

By now there has been a great deal of attention devoted to Davis's story, from criticisms that she slanted certain details in order to paint a more heroic picture of herself (e. g., she was divorced at 21 rather than 19, so she can't call herself a “single teenaged mother”), to attacks upon the person that emerges from those details (she lost, gave up, or in the very least neglected custody of her two young daughters for the privilege of studying out East), to more thoughtful considerations about the pitfalls of campaigning on one's biography, with several of the latter acknowledging that women candidates risk inordinate and unfair scrutiny when doing so. When a person's biography carries excessive weight in his or her campaign for public office, there is bound to be nitpicking about the details of that life—if only because that person's challenger is aware just how compelling this particular narrative can be. There is a great deal at stake, in a proud state where secession is reckoned a permanent possibility, in claiming that one exemplifies “Texas values,” that one's very life is a testament to them. Little wonder, then, that when Davis's account of her life was challenged, she responded as any self-respecting female Texan would—defiantly. (As the bumper sticker says—and as my own mother has confirmed many times—”Texas women shoot their own snakes.”) So, when questioned about the exact length of time she resided in a trailer home, or whether she relinquished “custody” of her children in order to attend Harvard, she warned that “Greg Abbott and his folks have picked a fight with the wrong Texas gal…”(the Texas Tribune, January 28). Thereafter, fully in character, Davis has taken pains to refine the state's narrative just a bit, to more accurately fit her own personal journey. So, speaking recently at an inner-city community center in Houston, she insisted that, as her own life confirms, the true “promise of Texas is that where you start does not determine where you go” (the Los Angeles Times, February 18)—even if “where you go” is, God forbid, Harvard.

Davis's opponent Greg Abbott and his camp, even while disputing the details of her life story, hew as closely to the overarching state narrative as she does. Abbott's campaign is explicitly portrayed as protecting Texas families (by necessity, given that he's running for governor), but also, more fundamentally if more elusively, Texas values. This is what rendered Abbot vulnerable to the charge that, in allowing Ted Nugent to campaign for him, he endorsed whatever “values” can be said to animate a man capable of describing our President (or any US President, really) as a “subhuman mongrel.” It is hard to imagine that Nugent was considered a campaign draw because he embodied all things Republican (one might have secured someone known first and foremost as a Republican for that); rather, he was intended to play the part of the quintessential Texan. Naturally, then, Davis attacked Nugent (and, by extension, Abbot) for failing to represent “Texas values,” though arguably she should have branded Nugent a contemptible clown and left it at that. Does Nugent “shame all Texans,” as Davis contended? No, not this Texan—and certainly not my grandmother—if only because there is only the most dubious connection between Nugent and us. There is, however, a crucial difference, one of party. Shouldn't this be the issue during a gubernatorial race?

Perhaps what I'm saying is that all this talk of Texas—its people, its values, all in “larger-than-life” terms—does nothing for the Democratic Party in Texas. It is not the way to a resurgent party; romancing the Texas archetype cannot transform the state into an actual political background; it doesn't awaken voters to their enduring interests as “Texans” (pace Paul Begala, native Texan and noted Democratic strategist, waxing lyrical: “We've had a bit of a drought in Texas. Davis is our hope for a revival. She's larger than life, and Texans love a larger-than-life figure.”[4]). It's unclear whether Davis's narrative as tough “Texas gal,” even if it helped get her elected, could do anything for her once she was in Austin—and this because, as Ken Herman slyly observed in the Austin American-Statesman (February 11), it would be rather hard to govern as a Democrat if one hadn't won as a Democrat (likewise, as I tried to suggest in Part 1 regarding the paradoxes of her “no-label” campaign, Davis could never claim to have won as a Democrat if she had declined to run as one).[5]

But what if the point is not to win an election—at least not this election, this year? What if the aim is to establish a party (meaning, in the case of the Texas Democratic Party, to reestablish it)? This would require that Davis run as a Democrat, to embrace the label rather than run away from it. Her stances on individual issues would issue from, and in turn contribute to, an emerging Democratic “narrative around social justice” (Walsh again), a distinctly Democratic understanding of the social compact, a vision of the Democratic Party that designates it, “…by tradition and by the continuing logic of history, past and present, [as] the bearer of liberalism and of progress” (FDR). Now, I'm sensitive to the objection that this would put Wendy Davis at considerable risk—namely, risk of losing—and, as a woman, I have to wonder if we'd demand the same sacrifice of a male candidate. Is it unreasonable to ask that Davis run as a proud Democrat, that she spend this campaign, at least, getting us to think seriously about what it means to identify as a Democrat, what it requires of us? I suppose I have enough confidence in Davis to believe that she'll be around for a long time and that her time, as Governor, will come. In the meantime, it's legitimate to wonder how much of a sacrifice it would really be if Davis did not win this year, if she were not swept into office on the appeal of a “bio [that] connects her to Texans in a way that very few other things do” (in the words of one of her DC-based ad makers, Maura Dougherty) but couldn't save her from the agonies of trying to govern in a vacuum, that is to say, without a strong party behind her.

I've implied at various points in this essay that Morris's identity as Yellow Dog Democrat, what I've characterized as a patient and selfless dedication to party, was practically heroic. Perhaps this is even what compels me to return to it again and again, as offering, perhaps, a key to understanding a great deal not only about my grandmother but about the world she inhabited. Maybe I think it offers a way back to ideals that we seem to have lost sight of, or can no longer understand, or can't bear to trust. Thomas Franks acknowledges how truly incredible these ideals seem nowadays, thus how fearful it can feel to embrace them: if Democrats eschew the language of class, of inequality, Franks understands their “fears about venturing into this territory. It feels like a throwback to an incomprehensible time—to a form of liberalism that few of them understand anymore.”

But I've also taken pains to insist that my grandmother's identification as Yellow Dog Democrat was more matter-of-fact than heroic, that it grew out of a range of other identities—as a wife and mother, a long-time educator, a Texan, a farmer—and was as much a distillate of them as a governing logic. (This is altogether fitting for a pragmatic lady disinclined to over-think things. It is revealing, I think, that when my father was given a fancy, finely-wrought cap by the owner of the town's crop-dusting business, and he expressed delight at receiving this artifact “for free,” Morris gently chided him, “Son, that free cap cost exactly $3,082.50″—quoting to a penny the latest invoice.) And perhaps it was even rather easy for my grandmother to be a Yellow Dog Democrat, at least in the beginning: she was, after all, a white Texan; she was well-educated, a successful professional and her husband Lewis a successful farmer; their relative affluence would have shielded them from any bluntly redistributionist ideas or schemes; there were not yet contentious demands for racial or gender or sexual equality to disturb their sensibilities. This would be the cynical interpretation of the Yellow Dog Democrat.

Still, I can't believe Morris's allegiance to party was ever this easy—can't accept that my grandmother indulged a life-long preference for the Democratic Party simply because she could afford to. Because other things certainly did not come easy—being a woman, for one thing; daring to dream of a career for herself; undertaking 20 summers of study to secure the credentials she needed; braving many miles of barren Texas road, alone, for the joy of watching her husband play semi-professional ball; and finally, over five decades, first with my grandfather and then on her own, reaping satisfaction and self-respect from the fraught business of farming. All of which is to say that my grandmother is not a frivolous person; Morris always had her reasons, so naturally I'm compelled to understand the reasons for something that hardly seems accidental or trivial.

Her life leaves me clues, as good as any for deciphering the meaning of my own life. Here is one final clue, another tantalizing riddle about Morris. Farming during my grandparents' day could be an insanely expensive enterprise; at times enormous outlays of capital were necessary, with the largest sums often needed for the most innovative, but perforce untried, ideas. My grandfather, apparently, was something of a visionary. Occasionally this required him to approach Morris, his wife, for a loan. I can well imagine the calm and mutually respectful way in which this played out, with my grandmother considering the merits of a state-of-the-art plow, or irrigation system, as my grandfather outlined them for her; discretely assessing my grandfather's credit-worthiness; weighing the risks … and then making the loan. A loan which my grandfather always repaid, in full and on time. It wasn't necessary that my grandparents do things this way, but they did; they carved a partnership out of a marriage, and in so doing they elaborated upon the idea of trust, finding new outlets for fidelity, reciprocity, promise-keeping. I can't help but believe that Morris's lifelong dedication to the Democratic Party also reveals important truths about the social compact, replenishing our sense of what we can achieve together.

[1] Franks is often quite insistent that class is the defining antagonism today, as, for instance, here. It is worth quoting Franks at length:

“Inequality” is not some minor technical glitch for the experts to solve; this is the Big One. This is the very substance of American populism; this is what has brought together movements of average people throughout our history….”Inequality” is the most basic issue of them all, the very reason for liberalism's existence. It is about who we are and how we live….This is the World War II of political subjects, and if we are going to win it must be a people's war, not a Combat of the Thirty between the plumed knights of the Beltway.

[2] Some, like Scott Arceneaux, believe that the South as a whole forces us to contend with the interplay of race and class and affords, thereby, the most promising platform for a resurgent Democratic Party. The challenges of the South also present very real political opportunities. See Arceneaux's piece “Painting Dixie Blue: Can Democrats retake the South? Yes, and here's how” in Politico. Like Thomas Franks, Arceneaux contends that the issue of “inequality” awaits its worthy Democratic adversary:

This is where the road back to power starts for Southern Democrats. Populism and economic inequality will be the battleground of the 21st century, and while it's true that in the South these issues are still inextricably tied to race, it's a different conversation than the one our parents had.It is more honest and more open, both about race and about its economic and social implications for our society. We are the only party that can have that frank discussion. Racial equality leads to economic opportunity. We should own this issue, whether we are talking to African Americans, Hispanics or whites. (my emph.)

[3] This belief is what has won, effectively crowding out every other conception of what politics, specifically electoral politics, is about. In a recent editorial, Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic bemoans the narrow-mindedness of “data journalism,” embodied most famously—and successfully—by Nate Silver. True, what Wieseltier defends against Silver are opinion journalism, more broadly public reason, and more broadly still the process of democratic opinion-formation in a free society, rather than any theory of party and partisanship, but he takes issue with the very same things that any party ideologue would: Silver's suspicion of “ideological priors,” his disavowal of “advocacy,” and the frankly apolitical “analysis” he champions instead (quoting Silver, “We're trying to just do analysis. We're not trying to sway public opinion on anything except trying to make them more numerate.”). Find Wieseltier's editorial here.

[4] Quoted in the Los Angeles Times, February 18.

[5] In an excellent piece in the New York Times Magazine, February 12, Robert Draper also questions the wisdom of campaigning on one's personal story, however compelling or “larger than life” that story may be. Draper reflects on a morning spent in Davis's senatorial district in Ft. Worth:

But I had taken in enough to recognize a story line that was compelling, tangible and, as it would turn out, factually unassailable — one that showcased a red-state Democrat in the unexpected role of “leader of economic development in the city,” according to former Mayor Kenneth Barr. Curiously, the Davis campaign was not broadcasting this story around the state. Nor, for that matter, was it pushing the one that made her the national Democratic Party's brightest new talent to begin with: the 11-hour filibuster that she conducted last June to halt the Legislature's passage of a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and set requirements that would effectively shutter many women's health clinics….

Find Draper's piece here.