There are political leaders who shape American government, and there are scholars who study it, assess its dynamics, and teach the rest of us about it. Dr. Don Fowler, who spoke to Heathwood’s A.P. Government and Politics students on October 25, is that rare person who’s had a major impact in both of those roles, not only serving as Chair of the Democratic National Committee but also building a distinguished academic career as a professor of government at the University of South Carolina.
Dr. Fowler spoke to the class about the history and characteristics of the United States’ two political parties, noting that we are unusual among Western democracies for having just two parties and for the length of time each of our current parties has been in existence. The Democratic Party is, he said, the oldest continually existing party in the world, while the Republican Party has been its rival for a remarkable century and a half, since the Civil War era.
While many Americans might characterize today’s political climate as highly polarized, Dr. Fowler called both American parties comparatively moderate and noted that, compared to many other nations, Americans all across the political spectrum tend to share common values, a common faith in our government, and a common appreciation of the general benefits of our market-based economy, so that even when political tensions run high, the two parties don’t typically pull our civic or economic life in radically different directions.
If those sound more like the words of a scholar than of a party leader, Dr. Fowler’s first-hand experience of the political process became particularly evident when he was asked by a student what he thinks of the Democratic Party’s practice of having both delegates and superdelegates to its nominating conventions. As it happens, Dr. Fowler is not only a current superdelegate, he also helped create the superdelegate system in the early 1980s. So he was able to walk the class first-hand through the thought process of the committee that determined that having a limited number of superdelegates would help stabilize the party and its platform, keeping it from moving too quickly or radically in one direction or another. However, he noted, once again demonstrating the balanced perspective of a professor, the current ratio of superdelegates to delegates has likely become too high.
Dr. Fowler got his start in politics in middle school, when he first ran for—and won—class office. He went on to serve as President of the student body at Wofford, where he also played basketball and had his jersey retired. After earning a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Kentucky, he began teaching at USC in 1964, where he remains an adjunct professor. He served as Chair of the S.C. Democratic Party from 1971-1980 and as Chair of the DNC from 1995-1997. He also owns a communications agency and is a retired colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.