In the 1930s and 1940s, the American Left was divided into three sections:
First, the extreme Left (Reds) – made up mostly of members of the Communist Party USA.
Second, the mainstream Left (Pinks) – made up mostly of socialists, some of them anti-Communist, others pro-Communist (fellow travelers).
Third, the moderate Left – made up of liberals, almost all of them Democrats, e.g., Walter Reuther, Hubert Humphrey, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Back then, the extreme Left influenced the mainstream Left, and the mainstream Left influenced the moderate Left. In other words, Communists influenced socialists, and socialists influenced liberal Democrats. Indirectly, then, Communists influenced Democrats.
When the Cold War began just after World War II, and the friendly relations that had existed during the war between the USA and the USSR quickly dissolved, liberal Democrats decided that they must erect a “wall of separation” between themselves and everybody further to the left. And so liberals became ardently anti-Communist and anti-Soviet, and they drove Communists and their fellow travelers out of labor unions. The previous attitude of “no enemies to the left” gave way to an attitude of “everybody to the left is an enemy.”
This “wall of separation” not only allowed liberalism to avoid any Red or Pink taint; it also allowed liberals to form political and cultural alliances with centrists, those average Americans who were neither left nor right, neither liberals nor conservatives.
This liberal-centrist alliance characterized the Democratic Party. It was typified in such personalities as Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. It enabled liberalism (that is, moderate leftism) to present itself as a 100 percent American thing. Liberals could plausibly present themselves as being just as patriotic as the most flag-waving rightists; and they could persuade themselves that their patriotism was more intelligent, hence more effective, than what seemed to them the rather mindless patriotism of those on the right.
And this liberal-centrist alliance was well suited to the minds and hearts of American Catholics. Because of their religion, Catholics were ardently opposed not just to Communism, but to any kind of atheistic leftism; and because of their socio-economic status (they were overwhelmingly of working-class or lower-middle-class status) they supported moderately left social policies. A liberal-centrist Democratic Party was just their cup of tea. The Democratic Party of those days might almost have been called a Catholic party.
The peak moment of this liberal-centrist alliance arrived in November 1964 when Lyndon Johnson was elected president in a landslide victory. This was a few months after enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [a law which, by the way, just a few weeks ago was given an absurd construction by the U.S. Supreme Court, which now tells us that the law affords civil rights protections to homosexuals and transgenders], and a few months prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But then came the Vietnam War. The more radical sections of the American Left, which had been kept on the other side of the “wall of separation” for about twenty years, began hammering at the wall. The radical Left was, from the beginning, opposed to serious American involvement in Vietnam, while the moderate Left (liberal Democrats) were supporters of American involvement.
As the months and years passed, liberal support for the war grew softer and softer; more and more, radical leftists and moderate leftists came to agree in their antipathy to the war. This leftist anti-war consensus became perfectly plain in 1968, when two liberals, Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy, sought the Democratic nomination for president as anti-war candidates. The wall of separation was crumbling. (Ironically, it was Hubert Humphrey, one of the architects of the wall, who became the actual Democratic nominee in 1968.)
In the meantime, American leftism had changed. By the middle 1960s, the radical Left was no longer mostly made up of members of the Communist Party, for the old-school Communism of the Soviet Union and its satellites no longer had much attraction for American radicals, who were youthful and imbued with a spirit of revolution. Other forms of Communism were attractive to these people, for instance, the Communism of Mao in China or the Communism of Castro in Cuba. These forms seemed to be genuinely revolutionary, in contrast to the dull bureaucratic Communism of the USSR.
As the 1960s passed into the 1970s, support for the war in Vietnam almost totally vanished among liberals. Such support as remained was found chiefly among conservatives, e.g., President Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Eventually, even they gave up.
The wall of separation was gone. Among liberals, the thought now was this: “For years we were wrong about Vietnam. But the radicals were right. We should have listened to them. Further, if they were right about Vietnam, maybe they’re right about other things too. We should give them a seat at the table.”
Since about 1970, then, radical leftists and their ideas have steadily filtered into the Democratic Party. More and more the party, influenced by mainstream leftists, who are in turn influenced by radical leftists, has embraced radical beliefs and values. The party’s center of gravity has shifted to the left.
And so the party has gradually but very emphatically embraced radical ideas as to the rightness of abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism. With the rise of Bernie Sanders, it moved in the direction of embracing the idea that America should become “socialist,” meaning that the federal government should be given enormous powers to direct the national economy in both production and distribution. Radical leftists are now not only in the party; they are on the verge of a complete takeover.
Where does all this leave Catholics, once so happy with the party of FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and (the pre-Vietnam) LBJ? The average Catholic has been drifting – slowly, uncertainly – in a Republican direction. Will Catholics be able to make the GOP what the Democratic Party once was, an almost-Catholic party? That remains to be seen.