My Grandmother’s Democratic Party (Part 1)

by Debra Morris

Until my grandmother—whose 100th birthday we celebrated this year—took up residence first with my parents and then at the care center where three of her sisters also spent their last years, she lived independently and, in many ways, unconventionally. (Whereas she is content to describe her long life as “good,” my grandmother deviated from the norms of small-town Texas just enough, and in enough domains of her life, for that life to seem quite remarkable to me. That nearly everyone calls the lady “Morris”—a long story, but it originated when I was very young and couldn't replicate my mother's polite “Mrs. Morris,” so I shortened it and the name stuck—is only the first of many odd details that I'd need to explain to anyone meeting her for the first time.) When her husband suffered a fatal heart attack after a morning spent plowing, she inherited a prosperous family farm and kept it that way for four decades more. She hosted retired teacher banquets, a duty (though certainly not a grim one, my grandmother was the type to understand it as a duty nonetheless) born of a storied 40-year career as teacher and principal in the Quail Rural Consolidated School District (the largest such district in the country at the time). To this day, she is my family's only elected official, having served a term as the County Superintendent of Education. For many years she split her leisure time between a full slate of daytime TV dramas—what she called her “stories”—and virtually any televised sporting event. Whenever I asked, she could catch me up on the tangled relationships and intrigues of any given soap opera, somehow managing to dignify the most idiotic plot or one-dimensional character. She could conjure the same remarkable effect with sports; normally oblivious, I would suddenly understand the beauty and depth of a sport (who knew golf could be anything but tedious?), envying her effortless command of baseball stats and NFL playoff hopes, and sharing her quiet marvel at a beautiful swing.

And, on top of all this, every two years or so she would vote a straight Democratic ticket. This, at least, is how her only son, my father, tells it. About ten years ago—or it could have been fifteen, or five; it hardly matters because this stunning revelation came when Morris was already quite old, and long after Texas had turned solidly Republican—my father referred to my very proper grandmother as a “yellow dog Democrat” (meaning, to any Southerner, someone who would sooner vote for a yellow dog than a Republican). He said it with what seemed like mild exasperation, as if he couldn't make sense of, or fully commend, this irrational allegiance to a political party. But I remember being secretly thrilled (I think he could have told me that Morris was an avid day-trader and I would have been less surprised). Maybe I felt vindicated, too; apparently the Democratic gene can skip a generation, but obviously it was there, deep in me, ensuring that a family's rich history would continue to bind, and instruct. Perhaps most surprising of all, I discovered that I was proud—suddenly proud of a party that could have earned my dear grandmother's life-long support.

I don't recall having much of a conversation at the time, but it seems to me that my father accounted for Morris's “yellow dog” sensibilities in the same way he explained other key features of her psyche, as the stamp left by the Great Depression. And this would have explained a lot about her, certainly: my grandmother's caution, her prudence, her invulnerability to “isms” of any kind (they simply didn't register on her; when I begged her for confirmation that a new hairstyle would transform the life of this particular awkward teenage girl, and she replied with a simple “pretty is as pretty does,” I already recognized this as more than a platitude to her: she really did privilege actions over images, over ideas). But I'm not sure that surviving the Depression would explain party allegiance—as opposed to, say, gratitude for a particular Democratic president, FDR, whom my grandfather also apparently revered. Nor would it account for what I suspect was a full-bodied rather than narrowly ideological political identity, something I'm tempted to call “organic” because that word is evocative of the ways in which Morris's party affiliation intertwined with her life as a Texan; with her husband's and later her own success in a tough profession, farming; with her quiet determination over some 20 summers to secure a BA and then an MA in Education, when it was uncommon for a woman to aspire to any kind of career. And her surviving the Depression would not account for gratitude, by which I mean the decision, again and again, to support a particular party and its candidates, however varied or superficially unlike her, because it seemed the right thing to do based on what I think any of my grandparents might have called that party's character.

To explain these sorts of things, it is necessary to speak of values, of ideals capable of enduring once embodied in solemn acts and institutions. It is only possible to speculate (my grandmother is now often beyond reach, heartbreakingly so for her family), but speculation is the point of this exercise, anyway. I want to suggest that my grandmother's allegiance to the Democratic Party was due in no small part to the aggressive actions of a particular president, acting self-consciously as the leader of a particular party. FDR may have won elections with sweeping majorities, including some traditionally Republican constituencies, but he governed as a Democrat. That he governed during acutely challenging times, and was able to govern for an exceptionally long time, both undoubtedly influenced what he called “Democratic,” such that there were dramatic shifts (perhaps the better word is “shades”) in how he conceptualized the party's essence and his own attempts to actualize it. H. W. Brands paints a rich portrait of FDR's career and political philosophy in Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2008), and any attempt to summarize Brands's analysis in this brief space invites certain dispute. What I wish simply to highlight here is the centrality of the Democratic Party to FDR's thought and practice, a centrality evident even when he appears to be equating the party with, or deriving it from, something else entirely. Roosevelt could virtually identify the Democratic Party with liberalism—”The Democratic party by tradition and by the continuing logic of history, past and present, is the bearer of liberalism and of progress” (on accepting the nomination at the 1932 Democratic Convention)—and then shift, often within the same speech, from what he considered liberalism's authentic past to its promise for the future, which promise he thereby claimed as the Democratic Party's own. Again, in 1932: “We are going to make the voters understand this year that this nation is not merely a nation of independence, but it is, if we are to survive, bound to be a nation of interdependence.” And where did this prospect of “interdependence,” this aspiration to “share in the distribution of national wealth,” come from? Well, far from being a novel and un-American idea—it is strange that invoking interdependence and, moreover, contrasting it to “mere” independence clearly raised fewer eyebrows in 1932 than it does today—it had described a vital part of real Americans' real lives, according to Roosevelt, such that “[o]n the farms, in the large metropolitan areas, in the smaller cities and in the villages millions of our citizens cherish the hope that their old standards of living and of thought have not gone forever.” There was nothing illogical about a New Deal that aimed to restore old standards of living and even to reconstitute the “logic of history”—nothing dishonest about Democrats who saw themselves as conservators of old, even specifically liberal values, and simultaneously as “prophets of a new order”—once it is understood that the Democratic Party served, in FDR's thought and politics, to bind together a variety of ideals, allegiances, experiences, facts of the matter. I would contend that it is this function of a political party that served FDR, and served him well, as a Democratic President, whatever boost it may have given him as a candidate. “This,” as he always contended, “is more than a political campaign.”[1]

One thing that Brands documents uniquely well is this complex and evolving, though still strong, party affiliation and how “proudly, defiantly, confidently” FDR articulated it and how resolutely he brought it to bear across a long and challenging career. This dimension of his presidency seems to me quite extraordinary; nothing like it is in evidence these days. Democratic Party identification now seems nothing but a campaign matter; strategists worry over the party's electoral fortunes rather than the depth, substance, or integrity of its vision. Nowhere is this focus on electability rather than governance so stark as in Texas—to the point, even, of downplaying that it is a Democratic that is running, as in Wendy Davis's paradoxical “no label” campaign for governor.[2] Perhaps we should scrutinize this strategy—this exclusive focus on winning elections—more closely, not least because resurrecting the party in Texas, making that state truly competitive, would very frequently swing presidential elections and decisively influence national politics. But I'm actually more interested in the broader consequences for the Democratic Party: this may seem a much narrower concern but I contend that it might just be more important. I think we could expect that, with greater electoral success in Texas, whatever came to define the party in Texas would reverberate well outside the state, conditioning and constraining the party's ideals, vision, its long-term purpose and viability.

That the Democratic Party in Texas is focused exclusively on electability seems clear. Indeed, what defines Battleground Texas (the effort to transform Texas into an actual battleground, where Democrats have a legitimate shot at winning statewide and national office and where Democrats and Republicans actually vie for control in the Texas Legislature) are its infrastructure and its methods. As an organization, Battleground Texas is constituted by the “top campaign talent” brought in from outside the state; it will work by exploiting the very same “data-mining” tools that have proved so successful elsewhere (most recently, of course, in President Obama's re-election campaign). Now, all of this makes perfect sense, and I am as excited as the next registered Democrat that it might actually work. But there is something dubious here, and it is latent in the very name Battleground Texas, for what is particularly Texan about all this? “Texas” is quickly revealed to be no more than a particularly expansive and weighty electoral district—to be gerrymandered, as it were, from the inside out this time—”a prize so spectacular” as to justify the money and talent poured into it. If Texas is “where the next opportunity lies” for the Democratic Party, the opportunity extolled is a pure function of demographics, that is to say of numbers and of crunching those numbers more advantageously. All right, then, two quick responses here (which I'll try to elaborate and defend in future installments of this essay, as commentators take me to task on them!): first, that while getting Democrats elected is, of course, necessary, it may not be sufficient to their governing (much less their governing well); second, it invokes at the same time that it obscures whatever it is about Texas that deserves to be replicated nationwide.[3]

I want to emphasize that second point, as a way of closing out this part of the essay as well as bringing it back to where it began, with a fond appreciation for my grandmother's breed of Democrat. In statements that are fairly baffling given two seconds' thought, it has been claimed that Battleground Texas is essentially a matter of securing representation of Texans as Texans, of ensuring that candidates actually work for their support (as opposed to being able to count on it by virtue of how district lines are contingently drawn and redrawn).[4] Statements such as these invoke the power of an identity, that of “Texan,” and I can't quite decide whether the attempt is merely lazy (and sort of dumb in the way that campaign rhetoric often can be) or dishonest and maybe even dangerous these days. Does it make sense any longer to speak of Texans “as Texans”—and is it in fact a good thing for the Democratic Party, my party, to hope that these Texans are Democrats deep down, when I know for a fact that most of my own extended Texas family are confirmed Republicans (if they are not simply disgusted by and alienated from all politics and politicians, whatever the label)? When a Democratic Party strategist touts a “broad grass-roots organization” the purpose of which is to “identify and ultimately mobilize progressive voters,” shouldn't we worry that assuming a necessary relation between “grass-roots” (a matter of numbers) and “progressive” (a matter of values) is a dead-end for the Democratic Party? Perhaps the fact that the Tea Party exposed a similar schism between electoral strength and political values—exposed the terrain between numbers and values that has to be fought for, and forged, rather than assumed—provides a valuable lesson. In the very least, it might elicit that “harder work” we're told to demand from Democratic candidates and party strategists, first by actually identifying as Democrats and then by trying to tell us all that might mean.

Is it a little clearer, then, why I feel compelled to plumb my grandmother's complex relation to her party, her identification with it, even as most people seem happy to leave such partisanship behind and settle, instead, for artful data-mining? I suppose I still hope that, through some patient “thick description” of the lives of those closest to us, we might rediscover lost opportunities for political identification, for politics itself. I may be quite wrong, but it seems clear to me that Morris'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 battlegrounds—something more, because it is binding across a life and across time; something less, because it is not a gargantuan matter of ego. It is a Democratic Party, and a Democratic politics, built to a grandmother's size—a real grandmother, no less; my own.



[1] All quotations are taken from Brands, Traitor to His Class, pp. 252-53.

[2] As Mark Barabak observes in the Los Angeles Times, in her nearly five-minute campaign video Brown makes no mention of her party affiliation. Of course, she also neglects to mention the filibuster against abortion restrictions that catapulted her to national fame last summer. Barabak doesn't hesitate to speculate about the reason for these omissions: “[S]he can't possibly win running as an abortion rights crusader or champion of the political left.” But if Brown can't run as a Democrat, then what chance does she have of winning as one? See http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/politicsnow/la-pn-wendy-davis-no-democrat-texas-governor-run-20131008,0,5201667.story#axzz2otPXcb2E

[3] I suggest that, for similar reasons, the Republican National Committee might want to reconsider possible rule changes that would effectively make Texas the “big prize on March 1, 2016,…the first multiprimary day” of a proposed new calendar. “As a result,” Jonathan Tilove writes in the Austin American-Statesman (December 22, p. A1), “for the first time in more than three decades, Texas would command attention in the GOP primaries befitting its size, drawing candidates' time and advertising dollars.” Is it necessarily good for Republicans nationwide that Texas would be in a position to shape the agenda of a presidential candidate so profoundly?

[4] This is how Jeremy Bird conceptualizes the mission of Battleground Texas. Bird is former national field director for President Obama's reelection campaign, founder of 270 Strategies, and driving force behind Battleground Texas. For various perspectives on the organization, only some of which spell out the implications of a resurgent Democratic Party for Texans, as opposed to the entity of Texas, see Alexander Burns' piece here: http://www.politico.com/story/2013/01/democrats-launch-plan-to-turn-texas-blue-86651.html

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