‘I’m not a member of an organised political party,’ the American comedian Will Rogers declared. ‘I’m a Democrat.’ When Rogers made this remark, in the early 1930s, the party was just emerging from a decade of disorganisation and defeat. Riven by divisions over Prohibition, immigration, religion and the Ku Klux Klan, Democrats had suffered staggering losses in the presidential elections of the 1920s. In 1924, the party’s nominating convention required more than a hundred rounds of voting even to agree on a presidential candidate. Then, with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, there was a remarkable reversal of fortunes. For decades afterwards, the party almost always controlled Congress and the presidency. But the winning political coalition forged by FDR was shattered in the 1960s and 1970s, and under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan American politics took a conservative turn. Democrats are still divided over how to respond.
Today, an air of foreboding hangs over the party. Despite the rapid economic recovery from the pandemic, Joe Biden’s approval rating hovers around 40 per cent, and polls predict disaster for Democratic candidates in November’s midterm elections. Under the circumstances, Democrats ought to be preparing a clear political message and placing a premium on unity. Instead, infighting between ‘moderates’ and ‘progressives’, coupled with Republican intransigence and the narrowness of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, have doomed Biden’s domestic agenda, centred on the now defunct multi-trillion dollar Build Back Better plan. Proposed legislation strengthening the right to vote went nowhere. It isn’t surprising that many of their own supporters appear to be fed up with the Democrats’ inability to get bills through Congress.
In What It Took to Win, Michael Kazin traces the history over the past two centuries of what he calls ‘the oldest mass party in the world’. Kazin has been engaged with Democratic politics since 1960, when, at the age of twelve, he sported a large campaign button for John F. Kennedy. Until recently he was a co-editor of Dissent, which prides itself on being the nation’s oldest democratic socialist magazine. His previous books include The Populist Persuasion (1995), an illuminating analysis which predated the recent emergence of populist movements in the US and abroad; American Dreamers (2011), about the 20th-century left; and a biography of William Jennings Bryan, published in 2006, which attempted to rescue its protagonist from what E.P. Thompson in a different context called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’. (Condescension regarding Bryan emanates from secular urban liberals who know him only from his condemnation of the theory of evolution in the notorious Scopes Trial of 1925, not his efforts in support of small farmers and urban labourers or his opposition to American imperialism.)
Until recently, Democrats celebrated Thomas Jefferson as the party’s founder, though the author of the Declaration of Independence has fallen into disfavour because of his ownership of slaves. But as Kazin makes clear, the party of the early republic that elected Jefferson to two terms as president was an alliance of local notables, not a mass organisation. The Democratic Party’s true father is Martin Van Buren, the son of a tavern-keeper and the only president who grew up speaking a language other than English (Dutch). In the 1820s, Van Buren made the party a powerful electoral machine complete with a network of local newspapers, regular nominating conventions, a ‘spoils system’ whereby party functionaries were rewarded with government jobs, and, in Andrew Jackson, a charismatic leader.
The intense competition between Democrats and their rivals – the Whigs, and then Republicans – galvanised popular participation in politics. Political leaders became folk heroes, with nicknames like the Great Compromiser (Henry Clay), the Godlike Daniel (Daniel Webster), the Great Commoner (Bryan), the Plumed Knight (James G. Blaine) and, most popular of them all, Old Hickory (Jackson). The central event of Jackson’s eight years as president (1829-37) was his war against the Bank of the United States, a private corporation chartered by Congress whose powers made it the closest thing to an American central bank until the creation of the Federal Reserve system in 1913. The Bank War tied the Democratic Party’s destiny to what Kazin calls ‘moral capitalism’, the belief that government should serve the interests of ordinary Americans, not business elites. Kazin draws a straight line from Jackson’s destruction of the Bank to such later Democratic achievements as the progressive income tax and the Wagner Act of 1935, which guaranteed workers the right of collective bargaining.
But as Kazin acknowledges, during the Jacksonian era and for at least a century afterwards, Democrats adhered to another principle: white supremacy. In the years leading up to the Civil War, northern Democrats welcomed immigrants to the US but persistently sought to restrict the rights of free Black Americans. Their southern counterparts were slavery’s staunchest defenders. In an often quoted letter, Van Buren explained that the party he created rested on an alliance between the well-to-do planters of the South and the ‘plain Republicans’ – farmers, artisans, factory workers – of the North. In such a coalition, ideological consistency was impossible. Generally, Democrats favoured states’ rights and limited government, but when it came to capturing fugitive slaves and opening new land in the South to slavery they supported a vigorous exercise of national power, including the forced removal of tens of thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands. Of course, in a sprawling, heterogeneous country major political parties will always be coalitions of diverse interests and outlooks. By uniting people from all parts of the nation in a common endeavour, mid-19th-century parties helped hold together a society fractured over the issue of slavery. It is more than a coincidence that when the Democratic Party broke into two sectional factions in 1860 the dissolution of the Union soon followed.
During the Civil War, northern and southern Democrats faced each other on the battlefield. But even while fighting for the Union, most northern Democrats strenuously opposed emancipation. And in the postwar era of Reconstruction, the party was reunited by its opposition, often violent, to Republican-sponsored laws and constitutional amendments that attempted to make equal citizens of the four million former slaves. One can at least credit the Democrats with candour. In the presidential election of 1868, the party distributed campaign material emblazoned with the motto ‘This Is a White Man’s Country; Let White Men Rule.’ After Reconstruction ended, southern Democrats moved to make the slogan a reality, creating, with the acquiescence of the North, a new system of racial inequality – Jim Crow – that nullified southern Blacks’ civil and political rights. The elimination of Black voting produced the Solid South, long a fixture of American politics. Between 1880 and 1924, the Republican presidential candidate only once carried a state of the old Confederacy (Tennessee in 1920). This didn’t matter in most elections, since the Civil War had made Republicans the ‘natural’ majority party in the North, where most of the voting population lived. But Kazin doesn’t sufficiently emphasise the fact that the disfranchisement of Black southerners – a significant component of the American working class – skewed the entire political system to the right, to the detriment not only of African Americans but also of the ‘ordinary’ whites the Democratic Party claimed to represent.
Kazin sees Bryan’s unsuccessful campaigns for president – in 1896, 1900 and 1908 – as harbingers of a fundamental shift in Democratic politics. In his first run Bryan was endorsed by the insurgent People’s Party – the original Populists – and subscribed to their belief that significant social change required using public authority to redistribute private wealth and to regulate the banks and industrial corporations that now dominated the American economy. Bryan’s radicalism appealed to farmers, but he failed to make inroads among industrial workers or a middle class alarmed by his repudiation of the gold standard. (In one of the most celebrated political speeches in American history, Bryan warned against ‘crucify[ing] mankind upon a cross of gold’.) His next two campaigns also ended in defeat. Woodrow Wilson, who strengthened antitrust legislation, instituted an income tax on wealthy Americans, subjected banks to regulation and expanded the rights of labour, carried the party forward in the direction Bryan had laid out. However, neither Bryan nor Wilson, the first post-Civil War president born in the South, evinced any interest in racial justice.
Today, when the parties have in effect switched identities with regard to race, it is worth recalling how long Democrats took the Jim Crow system for granted. As late as 1952, the party’s presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, chose an arch-segregationist as his vice presidential running mate: Senator John Sparkman of Alabama, who regularly voted against civil rights bills. There was no protest from the liberal academics and writers who idolised Stevenson. Even FDR, fearful of alienating the white South, failed to object when Congress, where southern Democrats controlled key committees, allowed states to set the rules for popular programmes such as Social Security, federal home mortgages and the G.I. Bill, leading to gross inequities for African Americans. Social Security, the centrepiece of Roosevelt’s New Deal, initially excluded agricultural and domestic labourers, the vast majority of the Black working class.
Slowly, however, the migration that began during the First World War of Blacks from the South, where most could not vote, to northern cities, where they could, reshaped the map of party politics. Desperately in need of even the limited New Deal benefits available to them, Black voters in the 1930s began to shift their allegiance from the party of Lincoln to the Democrats, a transition completed in 1964 when the Republicans nominated Senator Barry Goldwater, who had voted against that year’s landmark Civil Rights Act, as their presidential candidate. Since then, Blacks have been the Democratic Party’s most loyal supporters. As Kazin points out, a new Democratic coalition came into being, uniting urban African Americans, small farmers, industrial workers and liberal reformers, many of them activist women such as Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s labour secretary and a pioneer in promoting legislation to improve conditions for female factory workers.
Central to what came to be called the New Deal coalition were the militant labour unions that emerged in the 1930s and were closely tied at local and national levels to the Democratic Party. Kazin understands that political success requires organisation as well as popular policies and charismatic leaders. This makes his book surprisingly sympathetic to the Irish-dominated political machines such as New York City’s Tammany Hall. The machines got out the vote. So did the industrial unions. Unlike Tammany, unions also pushed Roosevelt and congressional Democrats to the left. Without the pressure they brought, the so-called Second New Deal of the mid-1930s would have been far less radical. Left-leaning unions – autoworkers, hospital workers, steelworkers – would also play a significant role in the civil rights movement. The unions’ precipitous decline over the past two generations has produced a gaping hole in the political landscape that Democrats have not been able to fill. Despite an upsurge of labour militancy, exemplified by the recent victory of New York City Amazon workers in a union recognition election, many of labour’s recent successes have taken place among highly educated groups such as museum curators and adjunct faculty in colleges and universities. This reflects both the changing nature of contemporary work and a broader realignment within the Democratic Party away from its earlier industrial base.
The Second World War, when the government condemned Nazi race theory yet accommodated segregation at home, laid bare the contradictions inherent in the Democratic coalition. The war gave rise to the modern civil rights movement, as well as a cadre of Democratic leaders, Black and white, anxious to dismantle segregation. In 1947, the Truman administration produced a report, To Secure These Rights, which revealed the deep inequalities confronting Blacks in every area of American life. The following year, the Democratic nominating convention adopted a civil rights plank in its platform, inspiring a walkout by southern delegates and the formation of a States’ Rights Party, whose presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, carried four Deep South states. The Democrats’ embrace of Black rights, Kazin notes, was a ‘time bomb’. When the bomb detonated two decades later it blew apart the New Deal coalition. Under pressure from the civil rights movement, Lyndon Johnson secured the passage of laws that dismantled the Jim Crow system, restored the right to vote in the South and expanded the social safety net to include the previously neglected. Johnson, on signing the Civil Rights Act, supposedly declared: ‘I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party.’ He probably never said those words, but Republicans soon devised a ‘southern strategy’ that fed on white resentment over the civil rights revolution. The strategy’s appeal proved to be national. Racial backlash would pay political dividends for Nixon, Reagan and eventually Trump, as well as scores of local Republican candidates. Today, when people speak of the Solid South, it is Republicans they have in mind.
Further cracks quickly appeared in the Democratic coalition, sparked by the Vietnam War, second wave feminism and an immigration law that remade the nation’s racial and ethnic composition by opening the door to newcomers from Latin America, the Caribbean, East and South Asia, and Africa. The Democrats’ problems were compounded by the difficulty of devising a response to the massive job losses caused by deindustrialisation. The party experienced what Kazin calls ‘a quarter century of frustration and internal division’. ‘The opportunity was lost,’ he writes, ‘to forge a new coalition of working and lower-middle-class people of all races.’ Many Democratic leaders concluded that the path to success lay in embracing a milder version of Reaganism. When in 1996 Bill Clinton declared that ‘the era of big government is over,’ he was both channelling Reagan and repudiating the Democratic Party’s modern tradition of viewing the federal government as an active agent in promoting a more equitable capitalism.
Like many progressives, Kazin sees Obama’s presidency as another missed opportunity. Coming into office on a wave of enthusiasm, especially among Blacks and the young, Obama ‘committed one of the cardinal errors in politics: he dispirited and demobilised his base.’ The financial crisis that began in 2008 put economic inequality squarely on the political agenda. Activists who hoped to empower the ‘99 per cent’ looked not to the Democratic Party, however, but to Occupy Wall Street, a movement outside the party system. Obama resisted demands to restructure the banking system, infuriating those who believed that Wall Street should pay a price for its role in the financial collapse. The result was political disaster. In 2010, Republican voters were mobilised by the extreme right-wing Tea Party, while large numbers of Democrats stayed at home. The Republicans gained control of Congress and significantly increased their power in state legislatures. They quickly took advantage of the opportunity to redraw election district lines after the decennial US census, locking in a partisan advantage in elections for local and state officials as well as the House of Representatives. In some states extreme gerrymandering dating from 2010 still constitutes a nearly impregnable barrier to Democratic political success.
Reports of the party’s demise may be exaggerated. The Democratic presidential candidate has won the popular vote in seven of the last eight elections (though thanks to the funhouse American electoral system this has translated into just five presidential terms). Yet according to polls a majority plans to vote Republican in this year’s midterm elections. Equally worrying in terms of the Democrats’ long-term political health was the narrowness of Biden’s victory in 2020. Key components of the current Democratic coalition – Hispanics, Blacks, white women – gave Trump a higher percentage of their votes than they had four years earlier. Particularly alarming was the increase in Trump’s support among Hispanics. Democrats were so overjoyed at defeating Trump that for a time they failed to notice that the election returns called into question the demographic determinism which in recent years has led many Democrats to assume that the growth of what is now the country’s largest racial minority will soon translate into an enduring majority for the party. Counterintuitively, Biden’s victory hinged on his success in attracting increased support, especially in suburban districts, from that much maligned group, white men.
Today, the Democratic Party commands the allegiance of affluent voters in economically thriving metropolitan areas; members of racial minorities, most of them working class; and a majority of women. Meanwhile, the Republicans have succeeded in solidifying their position in rural and small-town America, much of it still suffering from long-term economic decline. Individual elements of the Democratic agenda remain popular – including, in a remarkable turnaround, Obamacare, enacted in 2010 over unanimous Republican opposition. But the stark fact remains that a party that long prided itself on speaking for ordinary Americans has lost the loyalty of white working-class voters. Matters are made worse by the structure of the political system itself, including an electoral college and Senate that privilege rural voters over urban, new laws in Republican states that erect barriers to voting by minorities and the poor, and a Supreme Court which for the foreseeable future will be under the control of conservative partisans.
As the midterms approach, a variety of strategies are being devised for improving the Democrats’ fortunes. But the cure depends on the diagnosis. Is the party too progressive or too corporate? Too tied to ‘identity politics’ or too nostalgic for the New Deal? Some diagnosticians advise Democrats to concentrate on wooing suburban moderates; others recommend doubling down on the existing base with a massive effort to register members of minority groups. Kazin urges the party to heed what he sees as a lesson of history. The Democrats have succeeded, he writes, when they have enacted policies, such as Medicare in the 1960s, that demonstrably serve all segments of the working and middle class, so that they are not seen by white voters as primarily benefiting racial minorities. Universal programmes, Kazin believes, will generate universal support.
Forging a new electoral majority by mobilising working people across lines of race, ethnicity and geography is, however, easier said than done. Especially when large numbers of white workers embrace their own version of identity politics, which places the blame for the crisis of economically declining communities not on corporations that have shifted employment to low-wage sites overseas but on immigration, while condemning changes in the racial and gender landscape and taking aim at an array of often imaginary culture war targets including secularists undermining religion and teachers indoctrinating students with ‘politically correct’ ideas about the history of racism.
Kazin does see some cause for optimism. He singles out what happened in 2020 in the swing state of Nevada, where the largely Hispanic Culinary Workers Union (whose members include not only kitchen labourers but workers of every description in the giant hotels of Las Vegas) mobilised voters effectively and carried the state for Biden. These workers did not have to choose between class and ethnicity – the identities reinforced one another. Whether Democratic success in Nevada offers a model for other states remains to be seen. Las Vegas is one of the most unionised cities in the country, partly because it is a one-industry town (tourism) whose many thousands of hotel desk clerks, bartenders, maids and construction workers can’t be replaced by outsourcing.
If Republicans regain control of Congress this year, Democrats will surely see another divisive internal debate. Whatever the outcome, Kazin’s account of the party’s history should be essential reading for anyone hoping to chart its future.