Fifty Words that Changed America

One of the most important bits of history in the matter of the strength of political parties in America before 1948 is to get a concept of how the parties worked.

We’ve already mentioned that the process of party work was rooted in the smallest political unit throughout our nation, the precinct. If nothing else, you can recognize that because it is the place where you vote. Precincts can vary enormously in geographic size but they generally share one trait, they serve a convenient number of citizens in a cohesive area. They are always the basic unit of larger political jurisdictions but only rarely have any government power or recognition except as they relate to the election process. Together, they form larger districts that would be the units of government at county and state levels. They would be a less significant factor in federal elections for the House of Representatives and the United States Senate and, in terms of presidential politics, fade to being the most local element in government.

Though seldom described in this way, the purpose of a political party is to win and maintain political power. That’s it. Why did you think they exist?

For that reason the precincts are very important. They are the touchstone for “getting out the vote” on election days. Certainly it is true that in today’s world that is difficult to see because with the loss of party strength their effectiveness to help citizens on local issues has faded. In the old days, however, before 1948, political leaders were very attentive to precincts, learning and paying attention to problems in these small areas whether the well-known potholes, need for better schools or more police.

When these matters were brought to party attention it was visible to the citizens at the precinct level when something was done. It was also the case that party leaders kept notes about this process, notes on who had raised the issue so that person or group could be contacted at election time and asked to vote to continue making it possible for the party to be of help in the future. As the strange growth of non-partisan election of county government officials spreads, that time-honored responsiveness fades.

When the time comes that you need “to know somebody” it’s difficult to figure out who to call. But that’s what parties were for and should be again.

Joining Together to Create Government

Even today, the parties have their platforms but — for the most part — they take a back seat to the new power of individual charisma and “name recognition.” At the end of the initial political work that shapes these platforms of today, it is too late to require candidates who seek power as a member of a given party to follow any platform.

Before 1948, however, the process of writing the platform was critically meant to bring the wishes of all the precincts to the table where the final platform took shape. Clearly, that did not mean the address in each precinct where a pothole could be found. “Pothole” politics gathered steam as the process went from council, legislative, state, congressional and federal needs. Pothole concern grew to better farm to market roads, public transportation, interstate highways and airline safety. If you stop and think about it, that may be all you need to understand why the platforms formerly had such power. Every elected official came to understand that he or she wasn’t going to be elected because of personal ambitions for power but, rather, because he had pledged to “do something” as required in the platform of his precinct, county, state and nation. Those planks fell into place with a lot of effort by small community leadership who were not inclined to forget what they wanted.

The wording of those planks on every subject that was properly before government was carefully derived as the level of party organization rose. Platform committees worked as hard as anyone in the structure of politics to make it clear that if the party were elected it would fight for those specific matters. Individuals were vital, of course, but they were joined when — as an example — the American Automobile Association got it’s licks in on the transportation plank and pledged to support the candidates of the party who would help with their issues.

If you can see how that worked, you will simultaneously understand why it was not necessary for massive multi-million-dollar campaigns to be elected to the House of Representatives. What the citizens at every political level were voting for was to get their wishes fulfilled and they knew the best way to do that was to back the candidates of the party with the platform best structured to get the job done.

If you can keep the G.I. Bill of Rights of 1944 in mind and compare the way our returning veterans are treated today you will see the difference and that is the point of this blog.

Consider Your Post Office

If there is one service of national government that is vital for everyone, it must be the United States Postal Service. Rather than using examples that may be very different in your area than in mine — highways, schools, etc. — let’s stay with sending each other mail and getting packages from companies and family at a reasonable cost in mind.

Why do we have FedEx and United Parcel Service when Benjamin Franklin created what was once the most efficient and trustworthy systems for that purpose in the world?

I don’t know. What I do know is that you can send a pretty large box by Priority USPS Mail Flat Rate and it will get there in three days even from Hawai`i to New York. That would be about ten dollars for a box 12″ x 12″ x 5.5″ and it can weigh whatever you need. If you order over the internet, however, you will have a very hard time finding any company that will send you something in one of those boxes or a smaller one that would only cost five dollars. And the Post Office will pick it up at the sender’s address.

Now why is that? The answer is simple. The American public took its eyes off the government services that really matter to you and me. So the Post Office was made a sort of private operation, no longer part and parcel of the government. The New Yorker magazine takes almost a month to get to you but, for some reason, NetFlix DVDs arrive the next day which tells you the Post Office can still do its job if IT wants to. My company requires heavy shipments of printing stock. If sent by Priority Mail insured it will get here for an average of $90 for my typical orders but UPS and FedEx charge twice that and the problems over damaged goods is about the same.

Most companies you reach by phone or internet won’t ship by Priority Mail. It is too difficult for them to deal with the Post Office and, frankly, they don’t care if it costs thee and me more. Because I’m in Hawai`i those shipping costs are significant so my policy is to require USPS shipping if they want my business. Most don’t but some do when they look into the cost and ease of doing so. Amazon.com is one of those.

The point is that government is not responsive to what was always seen as one of the most vital elements of transportation and commerce in the nation. I don’t know why but there seems to be similar problems in getting health care problems fixed. The worst element of government — and this may be because I have friends and family in military service — the federal government can’t do anything about the open thievery of funds in the process of military contracts. Think on that and wonder what it is they are devoting all energy to.

Most politicians will tell you their time goes to fund-raising. Year after year. What’s wrong with this picture?

Those Fifty Words

In 1948  Harry Truman was running for President. He had succeeded to the office at the death of Franklin Roosevelt. In earlier years he made his national reputation by prosecuting American companies who profiteered on World War II. He also fostered the G. I. Bill. He did enough good things that made it pretty clear he would be elected but Republicans wanted him out and put up New York Governor Tom Dewey who had lost to Roosevelt and Truman in 1944.

It was not likely to be an easy election for the incumbent Truman. It seemed clear that he would need all the help he could muster from his Democratic Party because, putting it mildly, the Republicans were all whipped up to win. Henry Wallace had been Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of commerce and had been fired by Truman. He was running against Truman as the Progressive Party candidate. It seemed essential for Truman to keep the southern states in his column for victory.

Hubert Humphrey, Mayor of Minneapolis, arrived at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and championed a civil rights plank that some thought too weak and others as too strong. Both felt it would damage Truman’s chances for re-election. Truman did not support the plank. Humphrey gave a rousing speech and the plank passed causing 36 Southern delegates to walk out behind Strom Thurmond who then ran for President on the States Rights ticket.

Humphrey said this in his speech:  “The time has arrived in America for theDemocratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

This is, in its entirety, the 1948 Democratic National Convention Platform Plank on Civil Rights:

“We call upon Congress to support our President in guaranteeing these basic and fundamental rights: 1) the right of full and equal political participation; 2) the right to equal opportunity of employment; 3) the right of security of person; and 4) the right of equal treatment in the service and defense of our nation.”

The moral of this story is that Truman won that election and most Americans today wonder why there was such a fuss over those fifty words.

We wonder about that but the other result was that incumbent politicians of both parties opened a war on the principles of government of the people, by the people and for the people. The phrase for what they were doing was — and is — we don’t want them telling us what to do. “Them” in this case is you and me.

More to come and I hope you will join with comments and spreading the word.

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Published in: on June 10, 2009 at 1:35 PM  Leave a Comment