Georgetown University American historian Michael Kazin, who has previously written books on labor history and populism (including a biography of William Jennings Bryan), and who has a personal life story of political activism (including at one time membership in SDS), has now given us What it Took To Win: A History of the Democratic Party (Farrar, /Strauss, and Giroux, 2022) to tell "the story of how the oldest mass party in the world contended for power and what its leaders did with it when they won."
His central unifying theme is that Democrats "have insisted that the economy should benefit the ordinary working person, whether farmer or wage earner, and that governments should institute policies to make that possible—and to resist those that do not. ... When Democrats made a convincing appeal to the economic interests of the many, they usually celebrated victory at the polls." Kazin employs the concept of "moral capitalism" (a term borrowed from the work of historian Lizabeth Cohen) to describe both the party's ideals and the policies inspired by those ideals. Unlike socialists. Democrats "understood that most voters saw no alternative to the system of markets and wages, and they did not try to offer one. But they also believed, quite accurately, that the capitalist order failed to produce the utilitarian ideal of the greatest good for the greatest number." The party's most successful periods, when it had durable majorities, were from the late 1820s through the 1850s and from the 1930s through the 1960s, "eras when the Democrats argued persuasively about their commitment to make the economy serve ordinary people."
In Kazin's analysis, the Democratic party's "moral capitalism" has combined two tendencies. The first, which was dominant throughout the 19th century and into the Great Depression, was "a harsh critique of concentrated elite power—'monopoly,' whether of high finance or manufacturing or a corrupt alliance between private wealth and public officials." It envisioned "a society of small proprietors or at least of a government that strictly regulates larger ones and often requires them to redistribute part of their wealth, usually through progressive taxation." This tendency "was able to unite such disparate social forces as Southern planters and Irish Catholic immigrant workers behind a shared animosity toward Northern industrialists, high tariffs, and Wall Street speculators."
The second tendency attacked "the oppression of Americans in the workplace, whether by poor working conditions, bad wages, insecure employment, a ban on union organizing, or other indignities" and sought "to unite wage earners and their sympathizers in every region." This "pro-labor theme largely replaced the anti-monopoly one in the 1930s and defined the party’s message and animated the key members of its coalition through the 1960s."
Fans of American political history will appreciate Kazin's account of the party's successes and failures. He starts from the beginning with Thomas Jefferson's southern based "Democratic-Republicans" and the creation of an actual political party in the 1820s with Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. Unlike later iterations of the Democratic party, antebellum Democrats institutionalized a "populist suspicion" that "an interventionist federal government would always benefit the rich and the well-connected."
The 19th-century Democrats were the world's first mass-based, modern, and democratic party, and Kazin recounts in considerable detail the party's successful outreach to immigrants, welcoming immigrants "from every European nation and religion" (in contrast to, first, the Federalists and, then, the Whigs). But, the Federalists and the Whigs (and their eventual heirs, the Republicans) gradually led the way to the abolition of slavery, an issue which caused a temporary breakup of the Democratic party - and the Union - and led to a period of national Republican dominance after the Civil War.
Throughout the book, Kazin keeps recalling the decisive fact that the Democratic party's populist economics and inclusive politics excluded African-Americans. A mere 17 Democrats in Congress voted for the 13th Amendment in 1865, and no congressional Democrats voted for either the 14th Amendment in 1866 or the 15th Amendment in 1868. During what Mark Twain called the "Gilded Age," the Democrats simultaneously "used illegal and legal means to prevent most Black men from exercising the franchise" in the south, while in northern cities, they "worked just as hard to persuade adult male residents to vote, including countless European immigrants they rushed to naturalize." (This was the era when the Democrats were widely referred to as the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.")
By the transition from the 19th to the 20th century, "bosses both North and South had become rather consistent voices for at least the white victims of Gilded Age capital." In the process, those (like Grover Cleveland) "who clung to the Jacksonian notion that federal power would always benefit the rich and privileged were exposed for doing just that instead of aiding the unemployed and the indebted." This led to what Kazin calls "the most consequential rebuilding of the party since its creation."
A Bryan biographer, Kazin unsurprsingly highlights the significance of William Jennings Bryan's three runs for the White House and his role in modernizing the party, highlighting how Bryan rejected "the skepticism about government intervention in the economy held by each of his party’s standard-bearers from Andrew Jackson to Grover Cleveland." Bryan was also "the chief forerunner of a style of politics inextricably bound up with personality that we now take entirely for granted."
After Bryan, Kazin considers important figures in the 20th-century transformation of the party such as Alfred E. Smith and Robert F. Wagner. And while the white-ruled agrarian south continued to dominate the party, the Democrats for the first time were attracting an "influential new constituency that remains with them still: left-leaning intellectuals from the urban North."
The post-World War I period was disastrous for the party, seemingly perpetually mired in minority status and internally divided between southern and western white evangelical Protestants who backed Prohibition and the largely Catholic “wets” from New York and other big Eastern cities. But in the new post-19th-amendment world, "a largely unheralded band of white female Democrats blazed a path to future victories by advocating reforms to improve the lives of working-class people." This group comprised "erstwhile social workers like Frances Perkins and Belle Moscowitz, trade unionists such as Rose Schneiderman and Mary Dreier, popular journalists like Emily Newell Blair, the tiny number of Democratic women who held public office, and one future first lady" (Eleanor Roosevelt). In this same period, the Democrats belatedly developed "a national organization that did business all year long instead of coming to life before each campaign and going dormant once voters had their say."
Meanwhile, the New Deal represented the first crack in the established racial party patterns as for the first time, northern African-Americans switched to the Democratic party. At the same time, the New Deal made the Democrats "the closest thing the United States would ever have to a party dependent on the support of organized labor." And it was organized Labor, which Harry Truman famously credited for his upset victory in 1948. Kazin highlights the symbolic significance of the fact that "every Democratic nominee for president from Truman in 1948 to Lyndon Johnson in 1964 kicked off his fall campaign with a Labor Day speech to a big union crowd gathered in Cadillac Square."
1948 was also the year that Hubert Humphrey's oratory got the Democrats to include a civil rights pledge in he party's platform - causing the "Dixiecrat" walkout. The party's transformation was slow. At its 1956 convention, John F. Kennedy narrated a film about the party's history that was silent about its racism and praised Andrew Johnson, and for most of his presidency, "JFK was largely a bystander in the bourgeoning struggle against Jim Crow." The decisive change came, of course, with his successor, Lyndon Johnson, who (with Republican help) passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and, as he famously said, “delivered the South to the Republican Party for your lifetime and mine.”
Kazin emphasizes how Johnson's War on Poverty "had forgotten a primary lesson of the New Deal." Whereas FDR had enacted measures that Democrats "could credibly claim served the needs of the great majority,"most of LBJ's measures (except for Medicare and aid to education) were "viewed as benefits to poor and mostly non-white Americans."Kazin describes this as "a sincere appeal to the better angels of the nation, but it was not effective politics." And then, of course, came Vietnam, which effectively "destroyed the Cold War consensus that had united Democrats across regional and ideological lines since the years when Harry Truman governed in the White House while Joseph Stalin ruled from the Kremlin." The result (in the words of historian Nelson Lichtenstein) was that the Democratic nomination contest in 1968 “was the last moment in the twentieth century when the most decisive issues facing the nation would be fought out within the house of American liberalism.”
Kazin takes the reader through the familiar saga of the party's past half-century. The FDR-era of mass prosperity and diminished inequality ended. Desperate voters "searched the political landscape for figures who could offer effective remedies, if not permanent solutions. But no Democratic faction satisfied their demand; stymied by internal conflict, the party as a whole never seriously tried. Instead, most of its leaders, elected and otherwise, either acquiesced to or promoted austere budgeting and market-based solutions, elements of the policy agenda later known as 'neoliberalism'.” Meanwhile the party increasingly came to be seen as the party of educated liberals and of threats to traditional values held by many preciously Democratic constituents.
Kazin is very critical of Carter, "the most right-wing president since Calvin Coolidge," and somewhat critical of the more recent Democratic presidents, Clinton and Obama. The Clinton-era 1994 midterm defeat effectively ended "the party’s dominance over the legislative branch in spectacular fashion." While Clinton's own reelection stalled the right's political progress, by the end of his term "the party once known for fighting for the interests of wage earners and small farmers against big business now seemed intent on rolling back nearly any regulations that made CEOs unhappy." Obama was, of course, the first African-American president, a symbol of the moral transformation of the former party of white supremacy, but he also represented the rise of "cosmopolitan academics." Kazin's verdict on Obama: "One of the most inspiring Democratic candidates in history thus committed one of the cardinal errors in politics: he dispirited and demobilized his base."
Then came Donald Trump, whose election "accelerated the leftward shift among Democrats that had been building over the previous decade." But, Kazin concludes, "Democratic activists could not perceive their institution as akin to a social movement. The job of a political party in a democratic system is to win elections and then pressure officeholders to carry out policies their voters desire. In contrast, social movements exist to articulate alternative policies and make strong moral pleas for a single issue or more. Their job is not to win over a majority, but to persuade the minority who identify with them to change the way power works."
A particularly good point to ponder against the party's present trajectory!