No political organization in Kentucky, where I’ve lived all my 71 years, needs more renovation than the once-dominant Democratic party, which is entreating the faithful to get involved at the grassroots.

The KDP is in the process of filling local committees in all 120 counties.

No political organization in Kentucky, where I've lived all my 71 years, needs renovation more than the once-dominant Democratic party.Click To Tweet

I grew up in western Kentucky when it was the state’s “Democratic Gibraltar.” Democrats joshed that you could fit all the local Republicans in a phone booth. The jokes have stopped.

Western Kentucky — the Jackson Purchase and the western Pennyrile — are as Republican Red as most of central and eastern Kentucky. (Louisville and Lexington are twin Blue islands in an otherwise Crimson Sea.)

Brian Clardy, a Murray State University historian and Democratic party activist, is all in for big-time county-level reorganizing. Me, too.

But he warns that a KDP comeback starts with the party brass making it abundantly clear what being a Democrat really means, not what the Republicans say it means. He’s right.

A KDP comeback starts with the party brass making it abundantly clear what being a Democrat really means, not what the Republicans say it means.Click To Tweet

“We’ve got to stop letting Republicans define us,” said Clardy, a Kentucky delegate to the 2016 and 2020 (the latter virtual) Democratic National Conventions. He advises the KDP powers-that-be to “tell our story. The party of Mitch McConnell cares zippity-squat about the average person and certainly about people of color.”

Three years after McConnell was elected the first time, Republican Vice President George Bush won Kentucky and the White House over Democrat Michael Dukakis.

Clardy said the 1988 campaign proved that Democrats lose when they don’t forthrightly challenge Republicans for defining them. “The thing that still infuriates me is that Bush kept hitting Dukakis with ‘liberal’ and ‘card-carrying member of the ACLU’ and Dukakis would never fire back,” he said.

“Yes, he was a card-carrying member of the ACLU – because he wanted to protect civil liberties and civil rights and to keep the country from becoming a theocracy. Why is that a bad thing?

“Dukakis favored jobs programs and programs for education and training. He was for cutting the defense budget as cold war tensions were winding down and for reinvesting those monies in helping people. What’s so wrong about that?”

Clardy also said Democrats should highlight their heritage as the party that stands for workaday Americans, the poor, and minorities.

He pointed out that during the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” provided gainful employment for millions of Americans via major public works programs, guaranteed workers the right to unionize, and created Social Security.

In the 60s, President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” expanded Social Security to include Medicare and Medicaid. LBJ also championed landmark legislation aimed at ending decades of Jim Crow segregation and race discrimination in the South and in border states like Kentucky, Clardy added. (In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act which built on Medicaid and Medicare and made health care less costly and more available for most people.)

“Democrats should be proud of their party’s progressive reforms that continue down to the recent stimulus bill,” Clardy said. “The Republican party — the party of the wealthy — is taking this country in the direction of authoritarianism.”

Clardy said me-tooism, or trying to out-Republican the Republicans, almost always gets Democrats nowhere.

Harry Truman, president when I came into the world in 1949, made the same argument in his 1952 address to the liberal-and-proud-of-it Americans for Democratic Action, whose founders included Louisville Mayor Wilson Wyatt.

The Man from Missouri warned:

“When the Democratic candidate allows himself to be put on the defensive and starts apologizing for the New Deal and the Fair Deal, and says he really doesn’t believe in them, he is sure to lose. The people don’t want a phony Democrat. If it’s a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time; that is, they will take a Republican before they will a phony Democrat, and I don’t want any phony Democratic candidates in this campaign.

“But when a Democratic candidate goes out and explains what the New Deal and Fair Deal really are — when he stands up like a man and puts the issues before the people — then Democrats can win, even in places where they have never won before. It has been proven time and again.”

I’d update Truman’s remarks to “when he or she stands up like a man or a woman.”

Some skeptics might dismiss HST’s admonition as way too liberal for 2021 Kentucky, where the Republicans rule the political roost. (Truman, FDR’s vice president, became president upon Roosevelt’s death in 1945. In 1948, Truman, whose running mate was Kentucky Sen. Alben Barkley of Paducah, was elected president.)

Okay, Kentucky has since swerved hard right. The last Democrat to capture the state in a presidential election was moderate Bill Clinton in 1996. Since, no other Democrat has come close. (President Donald Trump twice won Kentucky in landslides; he carried all but Jefferson (Louisville) and Fayette (Lexington) counties both times.)

In the sixth of his famous radio Fireside Chats, FDR declared that he agreed with Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, who said, “The legitimate object of Government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all or cannot do so well for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.” (FDR and Lincoln tie as my favorite presidents.)

The Republicans slammed FDR as a socialist and even a communist. Sound familiar? “I am a Christian and a Democrat,” he responded. Sounds like Joe Biden.

Sadly, the party of Lincoln is long gone. The GOP of Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell is dedicated to the proposition that only rich white lives matter; that if you’re poor, it’s your fault; that unions are of the devil; and that Uncle Sam has no business helping people who need help.

“The Democratic party has a long history of pulling people up to becoming full citizens,” Clardy said. This historian would advise those running the KDP reorganizing effort to never pass up a chance to cite examples of that history.

I’d make them Kentucky-specific and personal-true stories, like one about my grandfather Vest of Mayfield, where I grew up. He was a member of Paducah Painters Local 500 and a devout Democrat.

Like millions of others, he was out of work during the depths of the Great Depression. One Christmas, he and my grandmother were down to $1.45 between them.

FDR and New Deal Democratic senators and representatives believed that work meant more than a paycheck. Work provided dignity, they said. So the president and his party provided both through public works programs. The largest and most famous was the Works Progress Administration of 1935.

The WPA provided jobs — and training — to millions of jobless people. My grandfather and one of my uncles were part of a WPA crew that cleaned up Paducah following the devastating 1937 Ohio River flood.

After work one afternoon they were about to board a truck back to Mayfield when a stray puppy wandered up. My uncle put her in his coat pocket and brought her home. “Refugee” was a beloved member of the Vest family for many years. (My grandmother, who shared her spouse’s Democratic fealty, later joined the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union at the Mayfield clothing factory where she worked.)

New Deal public works projects in my neck of the Kentucky woods range from TVA’s mammoth Kentucky Dam — 206 feet high and 8,442 feet long — to a tiny 10-foot concrete bridge in Arlington, in Carlisle County, where I live. On Highway 80, it spans a little gully just east of the Canadian National railroad tracks.

A date is molded into the north side of the bridge: “1935.” And 86 years after it opened, cars, trucks, and farm equipment are still safely rolling over that bridge, one of hundreds like it across Kentucky and thousands nationwide.

No doubt skeptics — some Democrats among them — would argue that if the KDP embraces New Deal and Great Society-style liberal government and gets on the “wrong” side of the “social issues,” the Democrats will get clobbered even worse at the polls.

Well in November, 2019, Andy Beshear got elected governor as a pro-choice Democrat. (He defeated incumbent Matt Bevin, a pandering, bigoted, union-despising Trump Republican.) Last year, Beshear addressed an LGBTQ-rights rally, where he called for a statewide fairness law and for legislation outlawing so-called “conversion therapy.”

In office, Beshear has used the constitutional power of his office to lead Kentucky’s effort to defeat the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. A February Mason-Dixon poll showed 55 percent of respondents like the job he’s doing.

“When we go ‘Republican lite’ we lose our identity,” Clardy said. “When we lose our identity, we lose elections.”

When we go 'Republican lite' we lose our identity. When we lose our identity, we lose elections. — Brian ClardyClick To Tweet
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Berry Craig of Arlington, Ky., is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and an author of seven books and co-author of two more, all on Kentucky history. His latest book is Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy, published last fall by South Limestone Books, an imprint of the University Press of Kentucky.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Andy Beshear only defeated Matt Bevin by a little over 5,000 votes or 0.37%. That’s not very much. Beshear did not carry any of far western KY.

    Over the years either the Democratic Party has changed their view or the voters have changed……..or both. The social issues that you mention are a big factor in some people’s vote selection. Most conservative Christians likely don’t vote Democratic in national elections. And Kentucky probably has a lot of conservative Christians. So the Democratic Party would have to do an about face…….. a total 180……..to become popular again with conservative Christians; and it would have to be top to bottom…….from the Federal level on down. And I don’t see that happening any time soon.

    Unions can get good benefits sometimes for workers, etc., but the religious social aspects sometimes overrule some possibly good things of the Democratic Party on election day.

    The following statement which you wrote doesn’t go well with many Kentuckians either:

    Last year, Beshear addressed an LGBTQ-rights rally, where he called for a statewide fairness law and for legislation outlawing so-called “conversion therapy.”

    Beshear seems like a pretty nice guy who can be firm for what he believes in; it’s just that a lot of us have some disagreement on some of those beliefs. So from my perspective, hopefully he will be “one and done”; and we get a VERY socially conservative Christian governor next time.

    • @M.T. Not to be rude but what is it with you and religion??? Surely you cannot believe that your religion (which I suspect is evangelical) is the only true religion?? Or do you?? Again I am not being rude just truly puzzled. Can you explain the concept of “separation of church and state” to me again please? I really feel like I must be missing something.

  2. Back then, I believe party’s message was very simple: Jobs, Respect for Hard Work, and Enfranchisement of Working People. Today, I suspect white rural Kentuckians would say our message is a special “identity” for everyone except them. Sometimes we talk about family farms but hardly anyone remembers what we said. So, I’m thinking we need to brainstorm possible “identities” for rural white people other than “the deplorables.”
    As for Mitch McConnell’s favorite culture war issue, abortion, I wish we would avoid the “abortion on demand” rhetoric, which plays well only in the blue states, and concentrate on what Roe V. Wade actually says including the “viability” concept. My hunch is many Kentuckians, rural and urban, find this concept acceptable. We need to gear up for arguments with the Republicans about its meaning as written. Last year, we let McConnell characterize pro-choice as abortion “even in the ninth month.” That was a tremendous political mistake.

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