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Revisiting McGovern-Fraser: Party Nationalization and the Rhetoric of Reform

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2020

JAIME SÁNCHEZ JR.*
Affiliation:
Princeton University

Abstract:

The Democratic Party faced a crisis of political legitimacy in the late 1960s as distrust and protest permeated its electoral base. In response, the Democratic National Committee established the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection, tasked with restructuring the party’s presidential nomination process. Contrary to the conventional historical narrative of the McGovern-Fraser Commission that has focused on a supposed displacement of the party’s old guard by radical insurgents, this article instead argues that the main impetus for reform came from national party leaders seeking to build up the legitimacy and authority of the National Committee. Commission Chair George McGovern and the DNC used a particular reform rhetoric that charged state parties with the corruption of the political process, necessitating rescue by an empowered national party. This focus on the nationalizing impulses behind McGovern-Fraser serves to shift our attention away from ideological struggles and toward institutional motives.

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Article
Copyright
© Donald Critchlow and Cambridge University Press 2020

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Footnotes

The author thanks Michael Kazin, Kevin Kruse, Beth Lew-Williams, and Julian Zelizer for their invaluable feedback. This article was made possible by a generous History of American Democracy Graduate Fellowship from the Tobin Project.

References

1. Black and youth activists were at the center of the demonstrations at the 1964 and 1968 conventions, respectively. For the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge, see Todd, Lisa Anderson, For a Voice and the Vote: My Journey with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (Lexington, 2014)Google Scholar; Bass, Harold F. Jr., “Presidential Party Leadership and Party Reform: Lyndon B. Johnson and the MFDP Controversy,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 21, no. 1 (Winter 1991): 85101Google Scholar; and Zelizer, Julian E., “Giving Liberalism a Window: The 1964 Election,” in America at the Ballot Box: Elections and American Political History, ed. Davies, Gareth and Zelizer, Julian E. (Philadelphia, 2015), 184–95Google Scholar. For the 1968 Chicago Convention protest, see Farber, David, Chicago ’68 (Chicago, 1988)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kusch, Frank, Battleground Chicago: The Police and the 1968 Democratic National Convention (Chicago, 2008)Google Scholar; and Miller, James, “Democracy is in the Streets”: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (New York, 1987)Google Scholar.

2. Political theory defines “political legitimacy” as the justification of an institution’s representation of, or authority over, a constituency: Peter, Fabienne, “Political Legitimacy,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Zalta, Edward N. (Stanford), Summer 2017 Edition Online)Google Scholar; Landemore, Hélène, Democratic Reason (Princeton, 2012)Google Scholar; and Christiano, Thomas, The Constitution of Equality (Oxford, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In the specific case of the Democratic National Committee, Schmidt and Whalen argued that “the Democratic Party faces the essential task of developing standards to maintain, and in some areas to restore, the legitimacy of the Party and its National Convention.” See Schmidt, John and Whalen, Wayne, “Credentials Contests at the 1968—and 1972—Democratic National Conventions,” Harvard Law Review 82, no. 7 (May 1969): 1445CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Congress was simultaneously embroiled in debates over political legitimacy and institutional reform during the 1970s: Shickler, Disjointed Pluralism: Institutional Innovation and the Development of the U.S. Congress (Princeton, 2001), 189–204; and Zelizer, Julian E., On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and Its Consequences, 1948–2000 (Cambridge, 2004)Google Scholar.

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4. Shafer, Byron E., Quiet Revolution: The Struggle for the Democratic Party and the Shaping of Post-Reform Politics (New York, 1983)Google Scholar; and Crotty, William J., Decision for the Democrats: Reforming the Party Structure (Baltimore, 1978)Google Scholar.

5. Everson, David H., “The Decline of Political Parties,” Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science 34, no. 4 (1982): 4960CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Polsby, Nelson, Consequences of Party Reform (Oxford, 1983)Google Scholar. See also Burnham, Walter Dean, “Party Systems and the Political Process,” in The American Party Systems, ed. Chambers, William Nisbet and Burnham, Walter Dean (Oxford, 1967)Google Scholar.

6. The traditional emphasis on ideological divisions and political insurgency is a view of McGovern-Fraser best exemplified by Miroff, Bruce, “Movement Activists and Partisan Insurgents,” Studies in American Political Development 21 (Spring 2007): 92109Google Scholar.

7. Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed particular concern over the lack of a full-time national party organization that operated beyond the national conventions, and it wasn’t until 1929 that the DNC established its first permanent headquarters and a small staff: Craig, Douglas B., After Wilson: The Struggle for the Democratic Party, 1920–1934 (Chapel Hill, 1992), 8090, 181–87Google Scholar. State party leaders had dominated the presidential nomination process since the early 1800s after the official end of the congressional “King Caucus,” a balance of power that did not shift until the reforms of the 1970s: Walz, Jeffrey S. and Comer, John, “State Responses to National Democratic Party Reform,” Political Research Quarterly 52, no. 1 (March 1999): 192Google Scholar.

8. The shift in power from disjointed state parties to the National Committee was made possible by states’ adoption of the reforms as well as the reinforcement of the DNC’s rulemaking authority by the Supreme Court through the 1975 Cousins v. Wigoda decision, which established the National Committee’s authority over individual state party rules and state election laws in the determination of membership at the quadrennial convention: Reichley, A. James, “The Rise of National Parties,” in The New Direction in American Politics, ed. Chubb, John E. and Peterson, Paul E. (Washington, D.C., 1985), 185Google Scholar.

9. Bawn et al. offers the most compelling counter to the limited definition espoused by the party decline proponents. Their more capacious framework for parties is a coalition of party officials, politicians, activists, and interest groups: Bawn, Kathleen, Cohen, Martin, Karol, David, Noel, Hans, and Zaller, John, “A Theory of Political Parties: Groups, Policy Demands, and Nominations in American Politics,” Perspectives on Politics 10, no. 3 (September 2012): 571–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10. For an overview of political historiography during this period, see Jacobs, Meg, “The Uncertain Future of American Politics, 1940 to 1973,” in American History Now, ed. Foner, Eric and McGirr, Lisa (Philadelphia, 2011), 151–74Google Scholar. Contrary to the conventional depiction of parties in U.S. historiography, political scientists have embraced the institutional perspective of parties. For an early example, see Cotter, Cornelius P. and Bibby, John F., “Institutional Development of Parties and the Thesis of Party Decline,” Political Science Quarterly 95, no. 1 (Spring 1980): 127CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11. Shafer, Quiet Revolution, 15–21.

12. Four major systems of delegate selection were in operation: direct appointment (governor/state committee decides without the electorate), election by convention (district or state convention), direct election (primary selects delegates), preferential poll (primary that is purely advisory on voter preferences of delegates), or a mix of the four.

13. Democratic National Committee (hereafter cited as DNC), The Democratic Choice: A Report of the Commission on the Democratic Selection of Presidential Nominees (Washington, D.C., 1969), August 1968, p. 15, Box 78, Folder: 1968 Democratic Convention Rules & Order of Business Committee, George S. McGovern Papers, Princeton University Library Department of Rare Books and Special Collections (hereafter cited as GMP).

14. Milkis, Sidney, Political Parties and Constitutional Government: Remaking American Democracy (Baltimore, 1999), 94Google Scholar; Ranney, Austin, Curing the Mischiefs of Faction: Party Reform in America (Berkeley, 1975)Google Scholar. National Committee chairmen such as Stephen Mitchell and Paul Butler exacerbated Southern antipathy through their prioritization of liberal Northeastern and Western donors: Mitchell, Stephen A., Elm Street Politics (New York, 1959)Google Scholar; and Roberts, George C., Paul M. Butler: Hoosier Politician and National Political Leader (Lanham, Md., 1987)Google Scholar.

15. Frederickson, Kari, The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932–1968 (Chapel Hill, 2001)Google Scholar.

16. Polsby, Consequences of Party Reform, 58; Rae, Nicol C., Southern Democrats (New York, 1994), 5255Google Scholar; and Reichley, “The Rise of National Parties,” 176. For the Democratic Party’s realignment toward civil rights, see Black, Merle, “The Transformation of the Southern Democratic Party,” Journal of Politics 66, no. 4 (November 2004): 1001–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Schickler, Eric, Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932–1965 (Princeton, 2016)Google Scholar.

17. Transcript Rules and Order of Business Committee, 23 August 1968, Box 78, Folder: 1968 Democratic Convention Rules & Order of Business Committee, GMP, 260.

18. Ibid., 281.

19. DNC Press Release, “New Committees to Be Appointed by the Chairman,” 17 January 1969, Box 157, Folder: Democratic National Committee–Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection 1972 (hereafter cited as DNC/CPSDS), GMP.

20. DNC list of members for Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection, 9 February 1969, Box 157, Folder: Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection (hereafter cited as CPSDS), GMP.

21. Miroff, The Liberals’ Moment, 20.

22. Correspondence from George McGovern to Adam Yarmolinsky, 20 February 1969, Box 157, Folder: CPSDS, GMP.

23. Correspondence from Ina Litke to George McGovern, 19 June 1968, Box 73, Folder: Democratic National Committee—’68 Campaign—National, 1968, GMP.

24. This was not the first time this kind of legislation had been brought up in Congress. A similar bill, S.J. Res. 84, had been proposed by Ervin and Senators Sparkmann and Dodd in the previous Congress and died in committee. The Lodge-Gossett Resolution of 1950 met a similar fate almost twenty years before.

25. Correspondence from Sam J. Ervin Jr. to George McGovern, 19 November 1968, Box 80, Folder: General, GMP.

26. Memo from George McGovern to members of CPSDS, 3 April 1969, Box 157, Folder: DNC/CPSDS, GMP.

27. Shafer, Quiet Revolution, 106.

28. Cowie, Stayin’ Alive, 88. Here, Cowie contends that “labor and many of the party regulars, to their detriment, did not respond kindly to the reform commission,” a general perception of labor expressed by Miroff as well.

29. Extracts from Commission hearings, Los Angeles, 21 June 1969, Box 157, Folder: DNC/CPSDS, GMP, 76.

30. Extracts from Commission hearings, Phoenix, 16 May 1969, Box 157, Folder: DNC/CPSDS, GMP, 244.

31. Memo from Commission staff to members, “Task Force Hearing Themes,” 27 May 1969, Box 157, Folder: DNC/CPSDS, GMP, 2.

32. Kenneth T. Jackson, “Richard Clement Wade,” The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives vol. 8, 509.

33. Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, 3rd ed., s.v. “Alexander Mordecai Bickel,” 26.

34. Memo to George McGovern with Wade-Bickel Papers attached, 20 October 1969, Box 157, Folder: CPSDS, GMP, 5–6.

35. Ibid., 9.

36. DNC, Demo Memo, vol. 1, no. 17, 18 November, 1969, Box 157, Folder: DNC/CPSDS, GMP.

37. Report by the McGovern Commission, “Official Guidelines for Delegate Selection,” 20 November 1969, Box 157, Folder: CPSDS, GMP.

38. DNC, Demo Memo, vol. 1, no. 17, 18 November 1969, Box 157, Folder: DNC/CPSDS, GMP.

39. The O’Hara Rules Commission’s task of addressing interstate apportionment involved calculating how many delegates each state would be allotted for the National Convention. Factors in this calculation included state population, number of Democrats per state, consistent Democratic wins, and balancing the power of large states. This reform was different from the McGovern Commission’s mandate to address intrastate apportionment, that is, how individual states selected the specific delegates assigned to them.

40. DNC, “Issues & Alternatives Outlined,” Demo Memo, vol. 1, no. 18, 4 December 1969, Box 157, Folder: DNC/CPSDS, GMP.

41. Transcript of NBC’s Meet the Press broadcast, 19 October 1969, Box 157, Folder: CPSDS, GMP, 8.

42. Ayer Directory of Newspapers, Magazines, and Trade Publications 1970 (Philadelphia: Ayer Press, 1970), 753.

43. George McGovern, “The Lessons of 1968,” Harper’s Magazine, January 1970, 43.

44. McGovern, “The Lessons of 1968,” 46.

45. Ibid., 45.

46. DNC, Mandate for Reform: A Report of the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection to the Democratic National Committee, April 1970, Box 80, Folder: George McGovern 1968, GMP, 8.

47. McGovern Commission Executive Committee Meeting Agenda, 7 July 1970, Box 157, Folder: CPSDS, GMP.

48. Memo from Bob Nelson to Executive Committee, “Response of State Parties to Date,” 6 July 1970, Box 157, Folder: CPSDS, GMP.

49. Memo from Bob Nelson to Commission members, “Progress Report,” 3 November 1970, Box 157, Folder: CPSDS, GMP.

50. McGovern for President, McGovern on the Issues, September 1971, Box 80, Folder: George McGovern 1968, GMP, 43–44.

51. McGovern for President Press Release, 16 February 1972, Box 103, Folder: Reform Commission 1972, GMP.

52. Donald Janson, “Only Muskie and McGovern Enter Full Slates of Delegates in Pennsylvania,” New York Times, 16 February 1972.

53. Though the network had previously planned to feature only Democratic frontrunners George McGovern and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, an FCC complaint and legal challenge from Democratic presidential contender Shirley Chisholm forced the inclusion of Chisholm as well as Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty and Alabama Governor George Wallace (who sent a proxy in his stead). Thomas Asher of the Media Service Project in Washington submitted the airtime challenge to the FCC and then to the U.S. Court of Appeals on Chisholm’s behalf. Not only did this impact ABC, but CBS and NBC also had to extend equal time to Chisholm. Shirley Chisholm, The Good Fight (New York, 1973), 80.

54. Transcript of ABC’s Issues and Answers broadcast, 4 June 1972, Box 156, Folder: Democratic Party Reform 1972, GMP, 3–4.

55. ABC, Issues and Answers, 6.

56. Ibid., 8–11.

57. Transcription by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, “1972 Democratic Party Platform,” 10 July 1972, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29605.

58. Kamarck, Elaine C., Primary Politics: How Presidential Candidates Have Shaped the Modern Nominating System (Washington, D.C., 2009), 8689Google Scholar.

59. McGovern, George, “How I Won It,” Newsday (Garden City, N.Y.), 16 July 1972Google Scholar. Newsday circulation figure obtained from Ayer Directory, 1972. This article was simultaneously reprinted as an exclusive for Newsday under various titles in other national papers, such as the Boston Globe as well as abroad in the International Herald Tribune. See George McGovern, “McGovern Tells How He Did It,” Boston Globe, 16 July 1972; and McGovern, George, “McGovern’s Victory for Experimental Science,” International Herald Tribune (Paris), 17 July 1972Google Scholar.

60. McGovern, “How I Won It.”

61. “Remarks by National Campaign Chairman Lawrence F. O’Brien Before the Democratic National Committee,” 8 August 1972, Box 156, Folder: Democratic National Convention General 1972, GMP, 1.

62. Memo from Eli Segal to George McGovern, “1972 Democratic National Convention Statistics,” 27 November 1972, Box 156, Folder: Democratic National Convention General 1972, GMP, 1–2.

63. Crotty, Decision for the Democrats, 144. The increased representation of women among delegates to the National Convention in 1972 is widely regarded as one of the major achievements of the party reform process. For more, see Wilma McGrath and John Soule, “Rocking the Cradle or Rocking the Boat: Women at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, Social Science Quarterly 55, no. 1 (June 1974): 141–50.

64. The question of how state parties reacted and why they acquiesced to the DNC’s reforms is a question that is explored in greater detail elsewhere. For more on this issue and the noncompliance argument for state party reform adoption, see Walz, Jeffrey S. and Comer, John, “State Responses to National Democratic Party Reform,” Political Research Quarterly 52, no. 1 (March 1999): 189208Google Scholar. In contrast, Bill Cavala suggests that the political expediency of uniting the liberal wing of the party behind the old-guard favorite Edmund Muskie was motivation enough for state leaders to acquiesce in the national delegate selection standards: Cavala, William, “Changing the Rules Changes the Game: Party Reform and the 1972 California Delegation to the Democratic National Convention,” American Political Science Review 68, no. 1 (March 1974): 31CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

65. Chisholm, The Good Fight, 10.

66. Jacobs, Meg, “The 1980 Election: Victory Without Success,” in America at the Ballot Box: Elections and American Political History, ed. Davies, Gareth and Zelizer, Julian E. (Philadelphia, 2015), 198202Google Scholar.

67. DNC Press Release, “Westwood Announces Commission on Delegate Selection,” 7 September 1972, Box 156, Folder: Democratic National Convention General 1972, GMP. See also Klinkner, Philip A., The Losing Parties: Out-Party National Committees, 1956–1993 (New Haven, 1994), 114–20Google Scholar.

68. Garry J. Moes, “Party Chief: More Reform,” Washington Post, 17 July 1972.

69. Cohen, Marty, Karol, David, Noel, Hans, and Zaller, John, The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform (Chicago, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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