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1960: When the 'Salvationists' Came to Town

August 15, 2000|John Balzar

It was a liberal platform. Some said the most liberal they'd seen. Ultraliberal even.

Scary, huh?

The Democrats of 1960 did not know that being liberal would someday be the kiss of death in national politics. Back then you could be a liberal in the same way you could be a golfer or an orchid fancier, perhaps viewed around the neighborhood as a little possessed but probably not dangerous.

And what did you stand for, exactly, if you were liberal 40 years ago?

Well, party platforms aren't good for much, but they help answer that kind of question:

The liberals who ran the Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles back then vowed to rush the country forward with nuclear power because the Republicans had "stalled atomic energy development." They wanted "intensive management" of national forests and lands "to achieve full development for all the many functions they can serve."

They wanted to "strengthen the domestic mining industry." And "begin again to build multiple-purpose dams, hydroelectric facilities, flood-control works."

Well, OK, conservation wasn't much of a liberal cause then.


How about the military? This is where liberals shine--keeping the reins tight on the military-industrial complex, as Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower once called it.

The liberals began their platform with a blistering attack on the GOP for having "admitted that our conventional military forces, on which we depend for defense in any nonnuclear war, have been dangerously slashed for reasons of 'economy.' " The liberals promised to resume "essential [military] programs now slowed down, terminated, suspended or neglected for lack of budgetary support."

Well, how about the global economy? Liberals, after all, were solidly in the corner of organized labor.

"World trade," said the liberal platform, "is more than ever essential to world peace. . . . We shall expand world trade in every responsible way."

The domestic economy?

"The new Democratic administration will confidently proceed to unshackle American enterprise. . . ."


"First, we shall end the gross waste in federal expenditures." Next, the platform went after tax cheats and loopholes. Thus, no need for new taxes, and the budget could be balanced "with some surplus left for the gradual reduction of our national debt."


To be fair about it, these weren't the ideas that would eventually send liberals retreating to safe redoubts in the big cities.

That rub was the role of the federal government.

The liberals of 1960 wanted Washington to support education, to fight crime, encourage housing, expand highways, retrain workers, help the poor, provide medical care for the elderly and so on.

The fact that the federal government went on to do all these things, and more, under Republican as well as Democratic administrations is beside the point. Liberals actually liked these ideas. America's problems weren't reluctant obligations as much as wonderful opportunities. Liberals were just too enthusiastic. They believed more in us than the rest of us did. Right-wingers in their own party mocked them as "salvationists."

Liberals also believed in equality, black and white. If there was a single reason that the 1960 Democratic platform earned the label "liberal," it was a plank called Civil Rights.

Let's listen to opponents to understand what the platform said. Delegates from nine Southern states signed a bitter dissent. Excerpts:

* "For a convention composed of American delegates to support 'whatever action is necessary to eliminate literacy tests' as requirements for voting is unthinkable. . . . For our part, we are opposed to the establishment of a government by the idiots and ignorant for the idiots and ignorant."

* "There is no 'constitutional requirement that past racial discrimination be ended in public education.' All the courts have said on this subject is that if a state chooses to establish and maintain a public school system, the children in the schools of that system may not be segregated by the standard of race or color. If the people of any state choose to abandon their public schools rather than to integrate them, no court or Congress may compel the submission of any 'plan of compliance with the Supreme Court's school desegregation decision.' "

* "And we the undersigned are here to say that the states of the South will not be bribed with 'technical and financial assistance,' held out as bait in this platform, into sacrificing their children upon the alter of political expediency."

* "By no stretch of the imagination can the Constitution of the United States be interpreted so as to secure equal access of all Americans to all areas of community life."

Like we said, pretty scary people, those liberals. Good thing we don't have them to contend with this time.

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