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  • The Politics of a Party Faction:The Liberal-Labor Alliance in the Democratic Party, 1948–1972
  • Daniel Disalvo (bio)

To understand American political parties, one must look beneath their labels. Beneath those labels are factions that have conflicting goals, incentives, and resources. These factions are loosely organized networks that link members of Congress to party activists, pressure groups, policy entrepreneurs, and intellectuals in efforts to control the policymaking process. Factions are engines of political change that develop new ideas, refine them into workable policies, and promote them in government. Because America's big-tent parties are cumbersome instruments, factions help account for changes in public policy, modes of electoral mobilization, and the parties' ideological positions. Factions are thus a fruitful way to see how different elements—elements too often studied in isolation—within a party interact.

The existing literature on American intraparty factions at the national level is small and largely unsystematic. Historians regularly refer to factions in their narrative accounts of different periods, but they use the term colloquially. Of the work that political scientists have done, most of it treats state rather than the national parties.1 This has led a leading scholar to claim that "factionalism does not appear to be a salient characteristic of the American party system."2 Consequently, we know less than we should about factional activity over the course of American political development. More work is needed to distinguish factions from other groupings within the parties and to analyze their strategies, behavior, and effects. This article is a contribution to that effort. [End Page 269]

To make the case that factions are central to understanding American party development, I will provide a theoretical definition of faction along with a detailed case study of the "Liberal-Labor" faction. This faction arose out of the policymaking and electoral context of the late 1940s and became the motor of the post–New Deal Democratic Party between 1948 and 1968.3 By demonstrating that Liberal-Labor was a faction, as defined here, I will examine how it came into being, along with its organizational qualities, agenda, and actions. The objective is to revive factions as a conceptual tool for understanding American parties and to facilitate future comparison with other factions or party subunits that have been treated as such, including Liberal Republicans, southern Democrats, New Politics Democrats, and New Right Republicans.4 On the basis of such comparative analysis, a typology of faction properties and behavior can be developed.

I chose the Liberal-Labor case because it was an archtypical, change-oriented faction. While some factions are bent on preserving the status quo, others try to take over and transform their party. The organizational mechanisms of change factions, their ideological commitments, and the tactical arsenal they employ are distinct from status quo–oriented factions. This article highlights the properties of that type. It shows how the faction linked pressure groups to the party apparatus and took steps to shift the party's policy program to the left. In sum, looking at Liberal-Labor as a faction leads us to interpret familiar history in new ways.

Comprised of leadership from the labor movement, liberal organizations, and affiliated legislators, the Liberal-Labor faction created a policy agenda for the Democratic Party, shifted the distribution of power in Congress, shaped presidential nominations, and provided the party with a campaign apparatus. In Congress, Liberal-Laborites made themselves into a whip system by developing new organizations and communications networks, forging ties to key interest groups, and associating the national party with a set of symbols, images, and interests. In the presidential nomination process, the faction played a role in the selections of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Hubert Humphrey for vice president in 1964 and president in 1968. The faction also partially replaced the formal institutions of the Democratic Party in parts of the country with its auxiliary organizations. Consequently, the Liberal-Labor faction helped formulate new policies, inspire public opinion, and mobilize outside groups to spearhead legislation to secure certain policy outcomes and change the Democratic Party's reputation. [End Page 270]

A Definition of Faction

A rigorous definition of faction is particularly important because the term has so many...


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pp. 269-299
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