Political Junkie
Why Now? A Political Junkie Podcast
Episode 48: The Bright Sunshine of Human Rights

Episode 48: The Bright Sunshine of Human Rights

A conversation with journalist and historian James Traub about liberalism and his book, "True Believer: Hubert Humphrey's Quest for A More Just America"
Vice President-elect Hubert Humphrey with Coretta Scott KIng and Martin Luther King, Jr. at a rally at Harlem's 369th Regiment Armory, December 17, 1964. Photo credit: O. Fernandez for the World Telegram & Sun, Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

That was a small portion of the State of the Union speech that President Joe Biden gave on the evening of February 7, 2023. By the time many of you listen to this episode, Biden will have delivered his 2024 message to Congress, one that is widely expected to lay out his agenda for a second term and provide a compelling argument for the voters to give him a Democratic House and Senate to work with.

Biden is commonly criticized, not for his abilities, but for his age. And yet, age makes him an important link to the past and tells us a great deal about his embrace of a political agenda forwarded by the Democratic party’s Progressive caucus.

Why has Biden, an establishment Democrat, gotten behind LGBT rights, women’s rights, racial justice, and anti-poverty programs? Because he is a liberal. Although today, the word “liberal” is synonymous with moderation and centrism, that isn’t its history. For much of the twentieth century it was liberals—in both the Democratic and the Republican parties—who pushed American society closer to equality.

Beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s, liberals—often culling ideas from socialists, feminists, and populists—were the leading figures of the American progressive movement. We forget that at our peril, and if you watch tonight’s State of the Union, you will see how liberals transformed politics. Seated behind Biden’s right shoulder will be Kamala Harris, the first woman, Black, and South Asian person to become Vice President of the United States. In front of Biden will be Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to occupy the Speaker’s Chair and Hakeem Jefferies, the first Black American to serve as the Leader of either party. And there will be Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Biden’s only Supreme Court appointment and the first Black woman to serve in that role.

Joe Biden didn’t make today’s Democratic party: he inherited it from Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Jr. On January 3, 1973, when Biden took his first oath as the junior Senator from Delaware, Humphrey may even have been in the audience. Watching this fiery, 31-year-old liberal, Humphrey might have recalled his own arrival on the floor as a freshly minted, 37-year-old Senator. A rising star in the Democratic party when he took the oath in 1949, Humphrey became the leader of the party’s liberal faction when, as the progressive “Boy Mayor” of Minneapolis, he fought for, and won, a civil rights plank in the 1948 Democratic platform.

When you listen to the speech, you can hear the boos among the cheers. Humphrey’s words caused numerous segregationist Southern delegates, led by South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, to leave the national convention in Philadelphia. Mounting a third party Dixiecrat candidacy with Thurmond at the top of the ticket, within 20 years, these Southerners would find a home in an increasingly conservative Republican party determined to turn back the civil rights achievements of the 1960s and 1970s.

That’s the world we live in today: Republicans occupy the political right, referring to Democrats uniformly as “the Left.”

Ironically, many progressive Democrats disdain liberals, viewing them as the most conservative wing of their own coalition. But that’s not what it means to be liberal. Instead, liberalism, as it first cohered in the New Deal, then Harry S Truman’s Fair Deal, and then Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, imagines that government’s role is to take the actions, provide the support, and pass the laws that free all Americans to prosper.

This is why I invited James Traub, a journalist, historian, and expert on liberalism to talk to us today about his new book, True Believer: Hubert Humphrey’s Quest for a More Just America (Basic Books, 2024.) Traub takes us from Humphrey’s roots in a small South Dakota town to his years as party whip in the Senate and then Vice President to Lyndon Johnson, and his role in masterminding passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.

And yet, if Humphrey’s life’s work demonstrates liberalism’s achievements, it also illustrates its frustrations and flaws: liberal foreign policies that are at odds with human rights abroad; holding together a Democratic party that embraces so many different impulses; and above all, the constant need for compromise. To paraphrase Humphrey himself, liberalism moves freedom forward by asking for a loaf but being willing to take crumbs.

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Show notes:

  • Claire and Jim begin by discussing the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention. A classic account of that convention, and Richard M. Nixon’s well-orchestrated nomination at the Republican National Convention, is Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968 (World Publishing Company, 1968.)

  • Hubert Humphrey’s experience of watching Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s policies save the agricultural Midwest from the Great Depression was formative. Interested readers may wish to read Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (Mariner Books, 2006.)

  • Jim pinpoints 1948 as a turning point, not just for Humphrey, but for liberalism. An excellent account of this moment in political history is A.J. Baime, Dewey Defeats Truman: The 1948 Election and the Battle for America's Soul (Mariner Books, 2020.)

  • The context for both Humphrey and Truman’s civil rights proposals was a vigorous Black freedom movement, further invigorated by World War II: see Tompkins Bates, Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1925-1945 (University of North Carolina Press, 2001.)

  • Jim and Claire discussed Humphrey’s relationship with Lyndon Johnson at length; Jim refers us to volume 4 of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, Master of the Senate (Knopf, 2002.)

  • Jim used the telephone recordings between Johnson and his Cabinet as one of his sources. You can listen to some of these conversations, courtesy of the National Archives and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library.

  • You can watch LBJ’s March 31, 1968, television address announcing that he would not run for re-election here.

  • Jim mentions the so-called “hardhat riot,” when New York City construction workers attacked and beat anti-war protesters on May 8, 1970. You can access a longer explanation of this event, with photographs, here.

  • If you are interested in thinking more about full employment, and the solutions that the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978 offered, click here.

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If you enjoyed this episode, why not try:

  • Episode 39, Old Enough To Fight, Old Enough To Vote: A conversation with historian Jennifer Frost about her book on how 18-year-old Americans won the franchise, "Let Us Vote! Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment"

  • Episode 10, A Woman's Place Is in the House: John Lawrence, former chief of staff to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, takes us behind the scenes with a new book about a landmark politician who changed the Democratic Party

  • Episode 6, The Most Powerful Man in America: Yale historian Beverly Gage joins us to talk about her new book, "G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century"

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Why Now? A Political Junkie Podcast
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