Walter Mondale (1928–2021) and the decline and fall of Democratic Party liberalism

Former vice president Walter Mondale, who died Monday night at the age of 93, is a political figure indelibly associated with the collapse of American liberalism and the turn by the Democratic Party decisively to the right.

As respectful obituaries in the corporate press noted, he was the last Democratic Party candidate for president to claim to be continuing the legacy of New Deal liberalism—although by 1984, when Mondale was routed by Republican President Ronald Reagan, this continuity was purely rhetorical.

Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale at the Democratic National Convention, 1976 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It is a hallmark of Mondale’s political career that he was closely connected to three critical turning points in the rightward trajectory of the Democratic Party.

Mondale entered politics as an acolyte of Hubert Humphrey in 1948, when Humphrey was leading the purge of Communist Party supporters from the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, as the party was called in Minnesota. It was the embrace of Cold War anti-communism that put liberalism in unbreakable bondage to American imperialism and set its course firmly to the right.

Mondale reached the summit of American politics in 1976, as the running mate of Jimmy Carter on the victorious Democratic Party ticket that ousted Republican Gerald Ford. Carter and Mondale—with Mondale serving as an unusually influential vice president—established the first Democratic administration in a half-century that broke with New Deal liberalism.

In 1984, Mondale headed a presidential ticket that lost 49 out of 50 states to an ultra-right Republican, President Ronald Reagan, winning the fewest electoral votes of any Democratic candidate in history. All subsequent Democratic candidates have disavowed the label “liberal” and advocated openly right-wing, pro-business, pro-corporate economic and social policies.

Mondale was the son of an impoverished Lutheran minister and grew up in a series of small towns in southern Minnesota populated by the descendants of Scandinavian immigrants. He enrolled in Macalester College and later transferred to the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1951.

Before obtaining his degree in political science, however, he had already been schooled by a master of political skullduggery. In 1948, the 20-year-old Mondale was a congressional district campaign manager for the senatorial campaign of Hubert Humphrey, then the mayor of Minneapolis.

The New York Times obituary observes, “Mr. Mondale joined the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and became involved in its internal battle to oust Communists and their sympathizers. Mr. Humphrey, at the time the outspoken mayor of Minneapolis, led that fight. …”

Humphrey’s anti-communist purge marked the demise of two decades of efforts in Minnesota to build an independent political party based on the unions and organizations of small farmers.

The Farmer-Labor Party (FLP) had been established in the 1920s and became so successful that it reduced the Democratic Party to third-party status in the state. The FLP did not, however, represent a genuine break by the unions from the Democratic Party, as both parties continued to support the Roosevelt administration in national politics.

This was reinforced by the role of the Stalinists of the Communist Party USA, who had considerable influence within the FLP. The CP backed Roosevelt in the name of the wartime alliance with the USSR, and in 1944 helped engineer the merger of the FLP with the Democrats.

From a purely electoral standpoint, the Minnesota Democrats were the weaker party in the merger with the FLP. But the American ruling class was preparing its Cold War offensive against the Soviet Union, and the anti-communist purge was the domestic counterpart.

The first critical fight in Minnesota was the purging of the Trotskyists from the trade unions in Minneapolis–St. Paul, where they had enormous influence since leading the general strike movement in 1934 that brought tens of thousands of workers into the Teamsters union. This was carried out by Teamsters and American Federation of Labor (AFL) bureaucrats, backed by the Roosevelt administration, which prosecuted and jailed 18 leaders of the Socialist Workers Party, many of them from the Twin Cities.

The presence of socialists and communists within the merged Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party became the next testing ground for the methods that were ultimately given the name McCarthyism after its most repulsive advocate, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. But Democratic Party liberals played a more decisive role in the witch-hunt, and those from Minnesota, like Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Orville Freeman, took the lead.

Humphrey & Co. perfected the technique of combining liberal rhetoric in domestic policy and hard-line anti-communism in foreign policy, which became the mainstay of the Democratic Party. The predominance of Minnesota liberals in the Democratic Party over the next four decades is extraordinary. Politicians from this state, only 18th of the 50 states in population in 1950, falling to 21st today, were either on the Democratic Party national ticket or significant challengers for the presidential nomination in every election from 1960 to 1984.

Mondale was Humphrey’s protégé and ultimately his political heir. It is another hallmark of his career that his major steps up each rung of the political ladder were due to patronage, not to any particular popular appeal on his part.

In 1958, Mondale, two years out of law school, took a key position in the administration of Governor Freeman, and in 1960, Freeman named Mondale, only 32, to fill a vacancy as state attorney general. Similarly, when his former mentor Humphrey was elected vice president in 1964, a Democratic governor selected Mondale as his replacement. After eight years in the Senate, Mondale was tapped by Jimmy Carter as his running mate, to give the former governor of Georgia a connection to the liberal wing of the party.

Mondale accomplished this steady ascent without the slightest indication of independent thought, let alone dissenting opinion. In 1964, he served as head of the credentials committee at the Democratic National Convention, which, on orders from Lyndon Johnson and Humphrey, seated the segregationists from Mississippi and gave only token recognition to the delegation of Mississippi Freedom Democrats.

Mondale entered the Senate in time to vote for the Voting Rights Act and other liberal legislation associated with the “Great Society” policies of the Johnson–Humphrey administration, but did not initiate it. He did not support Eugene McCarthy, his fellow senator from Minnesota, when the latter broke with the Johnson administration over the Vietnam War and challenged Johnson for renomination. Mondale remained an adamant supporter of the war until 1969, when it had become “Nixon’s war” and most Democrats now claimed to be “antiwar.”

In 1976, Mondale fit easily with the shift to the right in the Democratic Party signaled by the victory of Carter in the presidential primaries. He agreed to become Carter’s emissary to the liberals because they were moving in the same direction. Fiscal responsibility, not meeting social needs, had become the watchword: retrenchment, not expansion, of the welfare state.

The Carter–Mondale administration came to shipwreck on twin disasters, one domestic and one foreign. Carter came into direct conflict with a powerful section of the industrial working class, the coal miners. When 111,000 miners struck the industry in 1977 and voted down a contract after more than two months on strike, Carter invoked the Taft-Hartley Law to force them back to work. The miners defied the order, and the administration could not enforce it.

Overseas, the authority of American imperialism was directly challenged by the Iranian Revolution, which overthrew the Shah of Iran, long the most powerful ally of the United States in the Middle East. A series of provocations culminated in the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran by militant students and the 444-day hostage crisis. The economic impact of the Iranian revolt was felt in rising oil prices and gasoline shortages in America.

Mondale was, according to his obituary notices, the first American vice president to serve as, in effect, a deputy president, with significant authority delegated to him and a major role in internal policy deliberations. There is no record of any significant disagreement between Mondale and Carter on major issues or policy actions. He was a right-wing politician in a right-wing administration, which marked a turning point, particularly in domestic policy, towards increasing confrontation with the working class.

Carter’s record was so right-wing that it provoked a challenge to his renomination in 1980 from Senator Edward Kennedy. Mondale firmly defended Carter, campaigned for him throughout the primary contests, and thus played a key role in Carter’s narrow primary victory.

It is noteworthy that the Carter–Mondale administration set in motion the preparations for breaking a strike by the air traffic controllers employed by the Federal Aviation Administration—intended, in part, to offset the humiliation inflicted by the coal miners. Carter had to cede that role to the next administration after Reagan won the 1980 election by a sizeable margin. But everything Reagan did to smash the PATCO strike in 1981 was based on plans already worked out under Carter and Mondale.

Mondale was the presumed frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, and he easily defeated challenges from Senator Gary Hart, former campaign manager for George McGovern, who attacked him from the right, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who criticized him from the left. His campaign was thoroughly undermined, however, by the overall shift to the right in the Democratic Party.

The colorless Mondale, with a wooden grin and a stiff manner, seemed to personify the inability of the Democrats to make any genuine popular appeal to the working class. But it was the reactionary record of the Carter–Mondale administration that made that impossible. Although Reagan was widely hated, particularly for the devastation his policies had caused to industrial workers through factory closures and unionbusting, he won by a landslide, carrying every state but Minnesota.

The election of Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 gave Mondale’s career in public life a final, significant chapter. Clinton named him US ambassador to Japan, where he represented the interests of American imperialism in the capital of its then-greatest economic rival, continuously pressuring the Japanese government to open its markets to American goods. In that period, Clinton pushed through NAFTA in large measure to consolidate a North American trade bloc against Japan—as opposed to the current US–Mexico–Canada deal, worked out by Donald Trump with Democratic support, which targets China more directly.

In 1998, the Clinton administration dispatched Mondale to Jakarta to read the riot act to the crumbling regime of Indonesian dictator Suharto. As the WSWS wrote at the time, “After a one-and-a-half hour meeting with Suharto, Mondale emerged to demand ‘full, demonstrable and vigorous implementation’ of the IMF plan to deregulate the Indonesian economy as the price for a $US38 billion financial bailout.”

The US concern was Suharto’s poor economic management in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, not his long and bloody record of crimes against the Indonesian people and suppression of all democratic rights.

A longtime US stooge, since he took power in a bloody 1965 CIA-backed military coup in which 1 million people were slaughtered, Suharto was clinging desperately to power. While US officials denied that Mondale had delivered a private message from Clinton that Suharto must step down, there were widespread reports that the administration had held closed-door meetings to discuss a “Manila scenario,” referring to the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986.

Barely two months after the Mondale visit, with anti-government riots spreading throughout the country, Suharto took the advice of his imperialist overlords and announced his resignation. This was to be a controlled transition that would preserve Indonesian capitalism and the corrupt ruling elite, and protect American interests. In this, his final major political intervention, Mondale acted as always as a representative of American imperialism, demonstrating once again the role of Democratic Party liberalism.