David S. Brown: Jimmy Carter and the Origins of an Era of Democratic Party Dominance

Moderates: The Vital Center of American Politics, from the Founding to Today, by David S. Brown, cover imageThe fierce polarization of contemporary politics has encouraged Americans to read back into their nation’s past a perpetual ideological struggle between liberals and conservatives. However, in Moderates: The Vital Center of American Politics, from the Founding to Today, David S. Brown advances an original interpretation that stresses the critical role of moderate statesmen, ideas, and alliances in making our political system work. Beginning with John Adams and including such key figures as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., and Bill Clinton, Brown charts the vital if uneven progress of centrism through the centuries.

In today’s guest post, Brown explains how the Democratic Party under Jimmy Carter began to move closer to the political center.


Much of our conventional wisdom on Jimmy Carter’s presidency goes something like this: he was a failed one-termer who got steamrolled in the Reagan Revolution and stands in line with a number of similarly out-of-touch “liberal” Democratic candidates from the 1970s and 1980s including George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis. But there is another and, to my mind, more historically important way to view Carter’s brief leadership of the Democratic Party, and that is as a centrist who anticipated the type of to-the-center politics that did so much to embolden the Party’s fortunes in the 1990s and after. While Republicans have struggled in recent decades on the national stage—losing the popular vote in most national elections since 1992—Democratic candidates have been deemed by the electorate as more nearly right than their opponents on a number of vital cultural issues. And this is a huge turn-around from the party that Carter inherited in 1976.

That year, Democrats were still regarded in many quarters as the party of “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion,” a smear hurled at McGovern four years earlier and one meant to more generally tag Democrats as radicals on the losing side of the 1960s culture wars. On the economic front, Democrats were attacked as advocates of tax-and-spend policies designed to finance a huge social welfare state. The party had gone through a number of permutations during its history, moving from the agrarian-states’ rights stance of Thomas Jefferson to the New Deal state of Franklin Roosevelt. But by the 1970s, the social welfare philosophy had lost much of its potency, even to many Democratic voters, and it was evident that if the party were to find political success in national elections, it would have to once again reinvent itself.

Carter had no deep loyalties to the New Deal. He ran for his party’s nomination as an outsider to the Washington establishment but also eschewed the radical race politics practiced by southern Dixiecrats who, as recently as 1968, had championed the third-party presidential candidacy of George Wallace. He resisted ideological labels and told reporters that he was a liberal on some issues (civil rights, the environment) and conservative on others (fiscal policy).  While in the presidency he sought to reduce government expenditures, balance budgets, and refused to push for a new New Deal. Anticipating a key theme of Ronald Reagan’s successful 1980 presidential bid, Carter, in his 1978 State of the Union Address, insisted, “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

In 1980 Ted Kennedy took on Carter for their party’s presidential nomination.  In a sense, this was an ideological struggle for the Democracy’s future. Kennedy represented the more liberal wing of the party and believed that a powerful if latent liberalism still moved most Americans. The outcome of their contest is somewhat mixed. The incumbent Carter recaptured his party’s nomination though his 51% of the vote in the primaries (to Kennedy’s 37%) demonstrated that deep divisions among Democrats remained. That fall Carter lost in a landslide to Reagan, carrying only six states. Many in his own party failed to support his candidacy.

For the rest of the 1980s, Democrats continued to debate their identity. Were they essentially liberals or moderates? The defeat of Dukakis in 1988, the third consecutive landslide loss by a Democratic candidate, gave momentum within the party to a group known as the New Democrats. Though it did not have ties to Carter, it in many respects adopted his strategy of pulling the Democrats somewhere nearer to the center of American politics. This strategy came to fruition in 1992 with the election of the new Democrat Bill Clinton.

Ironically, it is now the GOP that, to many, bears the stigma of cultural radicalism. Its opposition to a woman’s reproductive rights and to stricter gun control, and its 2016 support for controversial presidential candidate Donald Trump threatens the party’s popularity in national elections. Back in 1976 Carter set out to change the DNA of the Democratic Party. He thought it too liberal to survive in the current ideological climate and sought to move it toward the center. One might say that he lost the battle but won the war.

David S. Brown is the Raffensperger Professor of History at Elizabethtown College. His published works include Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography. Moderates: The Vital Center of American Politics, from the Founding to Today will be published in January 2017 but is available for pre-order now.