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The Liberal Party of New York and Independent Labor Politics

A poster with pictures of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Robert Kennedy. A voting ticket sits to the right of the poster as an attempt to encourage Liberal Party voters to vote for candidates.

In 1964, the Liberal Party backed the victorious Democratic ticket: Lyndon Johnson for president, Hubert Humphrey for vice president, and Robert Kennedy for senator. Photo courtesy of Hakes Auctions.

This piece is a response to our recent Call for Submissions: Histories of Labor in the U.S. For our submission guidelines, click here.

Many Americans might be surprised to learn what voters in New York already know: the Empire State has a multiparty political system. Several small parties have shared the ballot with Democrats and Republicans since at least the 1930s. Often organized around clearer ideological principles than the two larger parties, the smaller groups strive to pull them to the left or right. These small organizations are not exactly rivals of the large ones. Instead, using a rare feature of the state’s election law that allows for “fusion voting” or “cross endorsement,” they most often endorse one or another major-party candidate. Giving a seal of approval for sympathetic voters and an extra line on the ballot can garner as many as several hundred thousand votes in a statewide election. If, on the other hand, none of the major candidates are to the minor parties’ liking, they can run their own candidates—siphoning off votes that otherwise might have gone to the Democrats or Republicans. “What this means,” concluded the Buffalo Evening News in one instance in 1952, “is that . . . in any normal election, the refusal of the [Liberal party] to endorse any Democratic candidate is enough practically to guarantee his defeat.”[1]

Indeed, the Liberal party was perhaps the most successful of New York’s minor parties. It wielded real power for more than half a century and provided the template for others to follow. Between 1944 and 2002, the party helped to elect presidents, governors, senators, and several mayors of the nation’s largest city. The sources of both its longevity and its influence lay in its close alliance with the labor movement, especially the garment unions, and practical approach to politics. When the Liberal party finally collapsed, it was because the connection with labor had been lost and the pragmatism had degenerated into cynicism. Just as the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, the Liberal Party had become neither liberal nor a party. Rather, it was a law firm with a ballot line.[2]

A black and white photo shows a crowd of excited men and women pointing to a sound truck with the sign "Register to Vote: Enroll Liberal Party"

A sound truck urges voters to enroll as Liberal Party members. In its early years, the party had a mass following drawn largely from the garment unions. Photo courtesy of the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University.

Drawing financial and popular support from the labor movement, especially the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), the Liberal party helped make New York City a bastion of American social democracy. In the party’s heyday, New York sought to provide the city’s working-class citizens with a decent standard of living by expanding public and cooperative sectors, social welfare programs, and regulation of private enterprise. Features of New York’s social democratic polity included widespread public and cooperative housing projects, rent regulation, municipal hospitals, and health clinics. In addition, it offered free public education from kindergarten through college, cheap mass transit, and even cultural and arts programs. New York’s social democracy had national implications. It informed initiatives such as the 1949 Housing Act, which opponents feared would spread socialistic “New York-style public housing” to other parts of the country.[3]

Nevertheless, scholars have paid the Liberal party little heed. This is perhaps because of the Liberals’ decidedly unromantic and unfashionable anticommunism. Although the party only arose in 1944, its roots were in the decades-long civil war in the American left, and among Jews in particular, sparked by the Russian Revolution. If the Liberals’ premature anti-Stalinism has helped make them unattractive to historians of American radicalism, so has their precarious attempt to balance idealist politics with pragmatic urban political horse trading. Party leaders and loyalists saw backroom deals, occasional compromises with the machine they claimed to despise, and support for imperfect politicians as necessary levers of progressive influence. On occasions when even some party members came to believe that these compromises had gone too far, there were lively, even bitter, contests for the soul of the party. But the established leadership always won out.

Indeed, though it could mobilize a mass base through the unions and district clubs, the Liberal party was a top-down affair. A handful of leaders—especially the ILGWU’s David Dubinsky and Alex Rose of the United Hatters, Cap and Millinery Workers International Union—exercised near complete control over its direction. In the early years, the party was something of a model labor-intellectual alliance. A number of prominent liberal thinkers, including legal scholar Adolf A. Berle Jr., housing reformer Charles Abrams, and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, joined Dubinsky and Rose in the inner circle. That party leaders took intellectuals seriously was in itself an important difference between the Liberal party and the infamous Tammany Hall political machine that dominated the Democratic party in Manhattan. But as the years wore on, the inner circle contracted and ideas seemed to matter less and less. By the mid-1960s, Rose was in almost complete control. By that time, too, favors and jobs began to outweigh ideological considerations in decisions over candidate selection.

Of course, during the 1960s, American liberalism tore itself apart over such issues as the Vietnam War and racial conflict. Many members of a party founded on Cold War anticommunism supported the Johnson administration’s policy in Vietnam as a means of containing Soviet and Chinese aggression. Others, however, came to view opposition to the war as a litmus test for true liberalism. Union politics further magnified disputes over the war. Thus, after Dubinsky retired from the presidency of the ILGWU in 1966, the union gradually removed its cash and mass base from the party. Although differences over the Vietnam War played a role in this decision, so did the determination of Dubinsky’s successor, Louis Stulberg, to consolidate his position by doing everything the opposite of his predecessor. Stulberg distanced the union from the Liberal party since the party was Dubinsky’s project.

Likewise, changing urban demographics challenged New York’s traditional brand of social democratic liberalism and undermined the party’s base. Increasingly polarized racial politics around such issues as rising crime and the location of new public housing projects created divisions within the party and drove a wedge between it and its traditional working and middle-class Jewish supporters. Meanwhile, despite some efforts to organize clubs in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods and union locals, the party proved unable to attract a mass following among rising populations of African Americans and Latinos. Finally, the New York City fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s and a national conservative trend inaugurated a period of austerity that made the Liberal party’s tradition of social democratic liberalism appear outmoded.

As its own brand of social democratic liberalism fell out of step with both ascendant identity liberalism and free market neo-liberalism, the party seemed to degenerate. It came to resemble a patronage club in which everyone was angling for appointed office. If the dour Rose had been the party’s undisputed boss, at least he seemed to remember its original social democratic raison d’etre. After his death in 1976, his successor, the flamboyant Raymond Harding, made fewer bones about being a political operator. By the end in 2002, the party was little more than a cynical patronage machine, more open than ever to charges of corruption. The party had outlived the social and political conditions that gave rise to it. It had failed to adapt to a new era.

So what are the stakes of a history of the Liberal party of New York? On the one hand, as the recent democratic socialist insurgency among Democrats, and the continued existence of New York’s Working Families and Conservative parties demonstrate, the issues of principle and strategy raised by the Liberal party are not dead. Moreover, the Liberal party’s history illuminates the ways in which the ghost of American socialism has long animated certain corners of American liberalism. It also rescues anticommunist liberalism and social democracy from undeserved association with rightwing reaction, and the left from unnecessary association with foreign tyrannies. With its base in the immigrant and second-generation working and middle classes, the Liberal party illustrates the ethnic component of American political movements. It also represents a model of a successful political mobilization of organized labor in alliance with radical-liberal intellectuals. On the other hand, the history of the Liberal party also provides a cautionary tale for political movements of all stripes. The party ultimately failed to maintain a balance between idealism and pragmatism. Its practice of trading support for jobs and influence, combined with the exclusivity of its inner circle, eventually transformed it into the kind of political organization it professed to oppose. Finally, its success depended not only on the continued vitality of a particular base, but also on the perceived viability of its brand of liberalism. When both of these conditions disappeared, the party lost not only its influence but also its direction.

Daniel Soyer is a Professor of History at Fordham University. His most recent book is Left in the Center: The Liberal Party of New York and the Rise and Fall of American Social Democracy (Ithaca, 2021)

[1] “Down Commies, Up Liberals,” Buffalo Evening News, Dec. 10, 1952, Scrapbook 26, Series XVI, Liberal Party Records, New York Public Library.

[2] For the first time that the quip about the Liberal Party being neither liberal nor a party shows up in the New York Times, see Frank Lynn, “Green and Dyson Exchange Accusations,” New York Times, Aug. 20, 1986, p. B4.

[3] For the classic history of New York social democracy, see Joshua Freeman, Working Class New York: Life and Labor since World War II (2000). On the fear of New York–style public housing, see Samuel Zipp, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (2010), 272.