Though Simon’s politics have mostly been forgotten, his message is more relevant than ever.

By Camden Burd 

On April 7, 1988, Senator Paul Simon of Illinois called a press conference to announce that he was suspending his campaign for the Democratic Presidential bid. Donning his thick-rimmed glasses and iconic bow-tie, Simon addressed the media after a disastrous showing in the Wisconsin primaries. “I said at the beginning of the campaign that I am concerned that the Democratic party has simply become a clone of the Republican party,” Simon said from the dais. His anxieties about the direction of the Democratic party were not new in 1988. For several years he worried that his party would misread the electoral success of the Republicans and embrace a sort of watered-down conservativism. As he stood on the stage with family and friends, Simon continued, “I still have that concern.” Simon’s tune is a timely one. As Democrats prepare for the midterm election season, they are forced to take positions on issues of inflation, education, reproductive rights, racial justice, and healthcare. They are forced to grapple with the question, “What Does the Democratic Party really stand-for?” Simon’s position was clear: compassion.

Over the course of his career, Simon held a deep conviction that the Democratic Party must be one of “greater compassion.” It was a belief that had been established early in his life, but that became more pressing as the twentieth-century came to a close. Born in Eugene, Oregon in 1928, Simon eventually settled in southern Illinois, on the outskirts of St. Louis, Missouri. He found work as a journalist and soon began publishing a small newspaper in Troy, Illinois. Writing a local paper for small, rural community undoubtedly shaped his politics. He saw the town’s residents, up close. In his 1999 autobiography, P.S., Simon outlined how life in rural Illinois shaped his sense of community. “People in a small town want to read in their weekly newspaper the stories about a family visiting their friends in New Orleans, about a birth, about an automobile accident, about the myriad of small things that never make the metropolitan newspaper but are the lifeblood of a community of 1,200.” These interactions shaped his politics as well. “Slowly I began to look at the needs of the community.” He wrote editorials advocating for a city sewer system, a public library, and warning lights at an unmarked railroad crossing where a man had been killed. Things that mattered to residents of Troy.


After two decades in state politics, Simon was introduced to the national scene when he was elected to represent IL-24 in 1974, a district at the southern reaches of Illinois. His constituents included farmers, coal miners, as well as Southern Illinois University faculty and staff, a distinctly culturally conservative district. He regularly condemned the region’s historic sympathies for the Confederacy as well as its embrace of segregation throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As early as 1962, Simon was writing editorials such “How Southern is Southern Illinois: A Legislator Candidly Views the Foibles and Virtues of His Electorate,” in a small ,regional journal, Focus Midwest. “Illinois was settled from south to the north,” he wrote in the first sentence of the journal. He correctly pointed out that abolition was mostly a northern Illinois movement and, as Simon argued out, “the southern part of Illinois still reflects these attitudes.” The racist history lingered and its effects were visible by the 1960s. Simon continued, “We still have some segregated schools. Illegal of course, but they’re just as segregated as in any southern state we hold up with scorn.” He pointed racist housing practices, hiring discrimination, and a long-standing practice of stores, restaurants, and shops refusing to serve African Americans. Simon was a fierce civil rights advocate and happily criticized those who held racist ideas in the region. Despite the cultural-values-chasm that often existed between his constituents and himself, Simon’s priorities were clear – work-place protections for miners, civil rights protections, livable wages, improved literacy rates, expanded access to education, and a Federally-sponsored, jobs-guarantee program.

The last program, a staple of his political program for over two decades, grew from his experiences in the rural Midwest. As deindustrialization and the decline in mining depressed the region, Simon believed that the government had a role to play in helping to ease the suffering. Modeled after the Works Progress Administration, Simon believed that the jobs program would offset the harshest realities associated with deindustrialization of the American Midwest. Instead of crumbling infrastructure, emptied main streets, and depressed local economies, a jobs-guarantee would enable local residents to maintain roads and sidewalks, upkeep homes, improve parks, and contribute to cultural-enrichment programs—projects that would keep Midwestern communities alive and allow families to thrive in their neighborhoods.

Simon found his voice as the 1980s progressed, writing in direct response to the conservative turn in American politics. He was bothered by the arguments and overt racist language politicians used to defund welfare programs. He worried about the weakening of labor unions and fundamentally opposed the conservative consensus that the key to a growing economy meant privileging the economic concerns of the wealthy over workers. In 1982 he wrote The Once and Future Democrats: Strategies for Change—a book that laid out his path for Democrats in the wake of the Republican Revolution. “The Republican program substitutes nostalgia for hope, a dream of a yesterday that never really was, for a vision of what this nation and this world might become.” Simon feared that Democrats would misinterpret the meaning of the election and abandon its legislative priorities. If the party “ceases to be the advocate for social justice, the Democratic party might as well forget politics, for it will have lost its reason for existence.”

Simon’s politics often carried an underlying moral conviction. He was open to discussing faith and religion and wrote on the topic regularly. The son and brother of a Lutheran ministers, his religious background had always been central to his politics. But his Christianity was one of love and grace, not punishment. “The words of Jesus about helping the hungry, the naked, those in prison, and others desperate seem to me to ring true,” he wrote in his autobiography. “But when people in the name of any religion claim to have the sole possession of truth, they have crossed the line from faith to arrogance.” These ideas help us to understand his outright opposition to the politicking of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority—a political movement that he believed “was wrapped in the veneer of theology and the cloak of Protestant fundamentalism.” This group, he argued, seemed to forget some of the key teachings of Jesus Christ. “There is selective picking and choosing in the Moral Majority’s ideas of the proper role of government, and compassion for the poor and desperate of this nation and the world is not evidenced in their positions.” Simon had no patience for any politics, or faith, that sought to justify or explain-away human suffering. Compassion, he believed, was the central element of his faith and, therefore, his politics.

Ultimately, Simon hoped for a party that demonstrated “a sense of concern” for all Americans. One that sought to ease suffering and lift-up those stuck on the bottom of the economic ladder. It was a vision he ran on when he was elected to the Senate in 1984. Even after Bill Clinton’s presidential win in 1992, Simon remained hesitant about the administration’s direction. In 1994, he published We Can Do Better, a series of open letters directed at the President. In the text, he celebrated the distinct rhetorical break from the “Reagan-era worship of rugged individualism,” but still pushed Clinton to do more to help those in need. He wanted to reverse the most harmful aspects of the Reagan Presidency. The Illinois Senator also expressed concern for the administration’s policies on education, welfare reform, and its rhetoric on crime. “Bringing this nation together will take more than gestures, however, more than an appearance at a church or a neighborhood or a town meeting,” he wrote. It required real bills that helped real people in real need.

Simon’s presidential failures of 1988 reflected the mood of the nation in that moment. He was a tax-and-spend Democrat who was thoroughly committed to a balanced budget. It was a position born of a concern for those who suffered most from rising interest rates and inflation—the middle and lower classes. However, his insistence to discuss budgets during a Democratic primary season seemed misplaced for the moment. His politics, not different from his aesthetic, read as old-fashioned, a liberal from some bygone era. Though Simon’s politics have mostly been forgotten, his message is more relevant than ever. Doing so might lead to electoral success. More importantly, it might even provide very real material benefits to those in need.

Camden Burd is an assistant professor of history at Eastern Illinois University. He has published on topics related to the environmental and political history of the American Midwest.