Political Civility

May 25, 2016 § Leave a comment

Debbie Wassermann Schultz, Hillary’s acolyte-chairperson of the Democratic Party, has complained that Bernie Sanders’ disapproval of actual or threatened physical violence during the Nevada Democratic Convention was insufficient because he also expressed disapproval of the highhanded behavior of the chairperson of the convention who used her gavel to deny Sanders supporters a right to speak and participate meaningfully in the disagreement that dominated the convention.  Debbie complained that the Sanders supporters were not “civil”and used angry words and gestures to express their outrage.

Barbara Boxer, the California Senator who spoke at the convention as a representative of the Clinton campaign, claimed that she felt her “safety was threatened” because she was booed when she defended the way the convention was conducted.  She did not claim that she was touched by anyone or that anyone threatened to physically assault her.

I find these accusations of misconduct aimed at Bernie Sanders and his supporters absurd and comic.  Apparently Hillary’s supporters have not learned that, in the words of some legendary observer whose identity  has been buried in  the annals of political history, “politics ain’t beanbag“.

My first political convention was in San Antonio in 1952  In those days Texas was a “one-party state”.  That is, the republicans were so insignificant that all real political contests occurred in the primary elections in the summer.  The only important general election happened in presidential election years and, even then, the only significant contest was the presidential election.  No serious Republican candidates  participated in the general election.

The result of this circumstance was that Democratic conventions featured bitter conflicts between rightwing conservatives and liberals.

In 1952, Alan Shivers was governor.  Although he was from Jefferson County, where the oil workers union controlled local politics, he had abandoned his liberal roots and had become  a slavishly loyal puppet of the corporations who controlled Texas.  He used his position of governor to load the convention committees with conservatives and shut down any insurgency from the left.  The issue in the 1952 convention in San Antonio was “loyalty” to the Democratic Party.  We demanded that all delegates to the National Democratic Convention pledge to support the nominees of that convention in the 1952 general election.  Because the conservatives had no intention of voting for a Democrat in the general election, they hated the loyalty pledge like the devil hates holy water.

So, the liberals’ effort to force a vote on the loyalty issue was shut down at the convention.  Then Maury Maverick, a beloved icon of Texas liberalism, former mayor of San Antonio and formerly one of FDR’s favorite members of the House of Representatives, declared that the convention was no longer a legitimate representative body of Democrats.  He led us out of the convention hall to convene a “rump convention” at La Villita, a small historic Spanish village located in San Antonio.  It was raining,but we all marched to the new location, convened our own convention and selected delegates to the national convention.

At the national convention, Sam Rayburn, then Speaker of the House from Texas, and Lyndon Johnson, then majority leader of the Senate, also from Texas, sold us out, made a deal with Shivers and his delegation, and seated them instead of our “loyal” delegation.  Ike Eisenhower was the GOP nominee and Adlai Stevenson was the Democratic Party nominee.   Shivers and his group came back to Texas, disavowed their agreement and campaigned for Eisenhower.

Two years later, at another State Convention, the conflict between the “loyal Democrats” and the rightwing “Democrats” was replayed and, again, we lost.

Two years after that, in 1956, at the Democratic Convention in Dallas, three campaigns for governor by Ralph Yarborough had been used to create a strong real Democratic Party political organization.  Price Daniel had resigned his seat in the US Senate to return to Texas and run against Yarborough for governor.  The Dallas convention was a knock-down-drag-out old fashioned political scrap.  The lithographers union got one of the badges required to gain entry into the convention.  They used an early version of a Xerox machine to produce a few hundred counterfeit badges which we used to pack the convention hall.  The raucous demands for roll call votes just about shut down the convention.  We didn’t win everything but we did pay off LBJ who had promised Mrs.lloyd Bentsen a seat on the Democratic Party’s National Committee.  We blocked her and the convention selected Frankie Randolph, the godmother of Harris County liberal Democrats and mentor of Billie Carr, a legendary political organizer, to fill that National Committee seat.

Yarborough lost the governorship by about 3500 votes and, instead of proving that it was stollen, then ran for the Senate seat vacated by Daniel.  He was elected and became a useful and valuable Senator; the only southern Senator to vote “yea” when the 1964 Civil Rights bill was enacted.

These are just the highlights.  Each of the state conventions was preceded by hundreds of precinct and county conventions and many of them were disorderly, loud and definitely “not bean bag”.

This was my educational experience with convention politics.  I loved it and still believe it has much to offer as an alternative to the expensive and easily bought primary election system.

The above described conventions were followed by more organizing, led by governor races by Don Yarborough (no relation to Ralph).  In 1962, Don Yarborough lost a governor’s race to John Connally [or “Lyndon’s Boy John” as we called him] by about 25,00o votes.  In that election, the GOP had finally begun to organize its own party apparatus in Texas.  Strong plans were in place for a strong GOP primary election in 1964.  There is no doubt in my mind that, with the conservative opposition split between the GOP and the Democratic Party,  Don Yarborough would have become governor in 1964.

Unfortunately, in November 1963, JFK was  assassinated, John Connally was wounded and, thereby, became a hero.  The result was:  In 1964, with President Johnson’s backing,  he was a shoo-in for re-election and ten years of organizing went down the drain.

The liberals in Texas have never recovered.  Even when they had some success, e.g. the elections of Ann Richards and Mark White, those events were not accompanied by the kind of relentless organizing required to rebuild a Democratic Party political machine and regain control of Texas.

I believe we now have a chance.  But only if we have leaders who understand that political organizations are not merely temporary contraptions raise money and serve the egos of  political candidates.  The organization must be recognized as the dominant force and the candidates must agree to serve as implements of the organization, not the other way around.  We are now confronted with two candidates who exemplify the different kinds of candidates to which I refer.  The Clintons want organizations that will permit them to make the kind of deals they deem convenient to minimize the stress of maintaining themselves in office.  Sanders attracts and depends on followers who trust him to direct them toward the kind of policies not easily peddled “across the aisle”, but powerful incentives for attracting an electorate that will force a change in the location of the “aisle”.


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