How 1980 Broke the Democratic Party

Jon Ward
Jon Ward
Feb 6 · 4 min read

Response to my new book, “Camelot’s End,” have been overwhelmingly positive, with an emphasis on the way the narrative has brought to life Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter and the differences between them. I’ve been thrilled to talk about the book on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” “Morning Joe,” “KasieDC,” and a variety of other formats across regional public radio, SiriusXM, and podcasts.

One criticism has come up a few times that I thought was worth addressing. Some have taken issue with the subtitle of the book, which says that the 1980 Democratic primary “broke the Democratic Party.”

David Shribman, reviewing the book in The Washington Post, praised the book as a “fast-paced, even-handed” narrative, and an “instructive volume for those too young to have witnessed one of the more fascinating passages in American political life.” Shribman’s one quibble: the subtitle was an “inflation” of what happened.

Shribman says that the Democrats were a broken party whether or not Kennedy and Carter fought their bitter battle in 1980.

“There is little likelihood … Carter would have defeated Reagan” if Kennedy had not run against him in 1980, Shribman writes. Walter Mondale’s defeat in the 1984 election, he says, “exposed how broken was the party [sic] — captive of special interests, of New Deal nostrums discredited a generation earlier, of regional and generational tension.”

Shribman is focused on the Democrats’ lack of electoral success in the 80’s, and on the ideological reasons for that. The Democrats were already off track and rudderless, he argues, and were destined for a decade in the wilderness with or without the Kennedy and Carter fight.

That’s a legitimate argument to make, although another argument is that if the hostage crisis had not dragged on for a year Carter might have beaten Reagan. Polling in the 1980 election showed Carter’s support falling off a cliff the final weekend, as it became clear his last ditch efforts to get the Americans out of Tehran would fail and as the TV networks focused on the one-year anniversary of their capture.

But the greater point behind the subtitle’s assertion is that the 1980 electoral loss broke the Democrat’s half-century hold on electoral power.

“The New Deal coalition created by President Roosevelt had helped Democrats dominate American politics for decades, but it was splintering,” I write in the book. “The South was turning against the Democrats, labor was weakening, and big- city political machines were losing power.”

One must only look at the maps of every presidential election in the 20th century to observe that Democrats had won the South in every election going back to the post-Reconstruction era. That hold cracked in 1968 as a result of the party’s support for civil rights, when five southern states supported white supremacist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who ran as an independent.

The entire South went Republican in 1972 for the first time ever in American history, supporting Richard Nixon over Democrat George McGovern.

And so when Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election, it was a resurrection of the key region that had helped Democrats compete in national elections for a century. He won the entire South with the exception of Virginia.

Carter, remember, was trying to take the Democrats in a more moderate direction in response to the country’s more conservative mood. The Democrats in 84 and 88 rejected that approach and nominated candidates with more left-leaning platforms.

And so Carter’s loss was not only the fracturing of their coalition of southern, midwestern and northeastern states, it also sent the party in a more liberal direction at a time it likely needed to move to the center. And it deprived the party of a president who might have at least held off their reckoning with the south a bit longer.

The 1980 election was also more than the loss of the presidency. The blow to the Democrats was epochal.

“For decades after 1932, Democrats were, by all appearances, the nation’s majority party,” writes political scientist Frances E. Lee in her 2015 book, “Insecure Majorities.”

“Democrats maintained majority control of both he House and the Senate for nearly a half century between 1933 and 1981,” Lee writes. They “controlled the presidency two-thirds of the time during this period.”

Democrats had held the House and the Senate entirely since 1933 except for two brief Republican wins of the Senate in 1946 and 1952, where each time the Democrats won control of the Senate back in the following election. But in 1980, the Democrats were shocked to lose control of the Senate for the first time since the 1952 election. And this time, the Republican majority would last six years.

“The 1980 elections,” Lee writes, “ushered in a protracted era of partisan parity.”

In fact, she argues, the 1980 election ended what had been roughly 120 years where American politics was usually dominated for long stretches by one party, going back to the Civil War. Since 1980, she writes, both Republicans and Democrats have had a chance at being the majority, and American politics has grown more bitter and nasty as a result.

“The period since 1980 still stands out from the long time series (1980–2016) for its narrow and alternating party majorities,” Lee writes.

Now, certainly the forces driving this realignment were larger than Teddy Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. But to reiterate my previous point, Carter did represent an effort to move the party to where the country was. Whether or not that was a doomed effort, ultimately, is perhaps not quite relevant to the fact that Carter lost in 1980, and that the 1980 election broke the party on the shoals of history in multiple ways that endure to this day. It has never recovered the dominance it had during the period from the New Deal to Reagan.

Jon Ward

"There is nothing for nothing any longer."

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