Barack Obama’s 2008 victory was meant to change this. “George Bush has fucked up so bad, he’s made it hard for a white man to run for president,” said Chris Rock in a stand-up special just before that election. With Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, the new president promised to repair a corrupted social contract and revitalize government and American democracy itself, after the excesses of a deregulated financial industry provoked the Great Recession. And yet, two years later, a right-wing Tea Party wave helped deliver the Democrats’ famous shellacking in the 2010 midterms. Six years later, Republicans won full control of government, on the back of a man who represented (and still represents) the antithesis of democratic renewal.
Obama’s Democratic successor assumed office at a time when most Americans looked to government to help them out of a crisis, this time a global pandemic, after four years of an inept Republican. Yet, Joe Biden’s domestic agenda, the most progressive since LBJ’s Great Society, has already faltered, even as Republicans continue to embrace Donald Trump and accept his supporters’ January 6 assault on American democracy.
Republican successes are often the product of a coherent conservative movement, while Democratic triumphs have depended on building and maintaining unwieldy coalitions. The bigger the party tent grows, the more difficult it is to get everyone to agree. What keeps the party together is a compelling fiction about its essential character. Georgetown historian Michael Kazin explores the development of that character in What It Took to Win, a rewarding account of a party whose fate was tied to class, race, and gender but whose formative myths provided the tools to create a dynamic whole.
The Democrats’ icon among the Founding Fathers was once the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson, who “actually detested competitive political parties.” To turn him into the emblem of democratic — and Democratic — principles meant accepting, on faith, that Jefferson’s and the party’s commitment to freedom was absolute. This was no trifling maneuver for an organization that depended on a Southern bastion of white supremacists wholly opposed to Black emancipation.
As Kazin writes,
The contradiction that would bedevil Democrats until the final decades of the twentieth century was thus imbedded in the identities of its putative founders: the party of “the people” could get a chance to govern the nation only if it acquiesced to a realm of unfreedom south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
In those days, the system’s structural biases, especially the three-fifths clause that defined the Electoral College, were vital to the Democrats.
But myths, as Kazin argues, “have power when they stir politicians, activists, and voters to act as if they were true.” Party-building thus proceeded from these fables about Jefferson and the new organization ostensibly made in his image. The Democrats would eventually find a foundational ethic in what Kazin calls “moral capitalism,” which would ultimately help define them as the party of labor in the 20th century.
In the republic’s early days, the party of the people opposed federal government interventionism, believing it served only the elite. This aligned neatly with the creed of white supremacy and its corollary of states’ rights. Even Northern Democrats, who feared job competition if enslaved Black people in the South were freed, could thus “condemn abolitionists as dangerous meddlers with the rights of agrarian property-owners.”
If the third president was the soul, the man who would later become the eighth president, Martin Van Buren, built the body. Defying the animus toward political parties from the likes of James Madison (and, indeed, Jefferson), Van Buren and his allies argued for parties to be “the vigilant watchman over the conduct of those in power.” That role would require grassroots organizations, patronage networks, a press, popular participation through nominating conventions, and other measures that the Democrats were the first in the world to try.
It was Andrew Jackson’s presidential campaign that gave the new party an “opportunity to put these methods to work in the nation as a whole.” As Jill Lepore writes in These Truths, “Jackson’s rise to power marked the birth of American populism,” which, she reminds us, is at its heart, “an argument about numbers.” Jackson, Lepore says, “would make his lack of certain qualities — judiciousness, education, political experience — into strengths.” This outsider brand wouldn’t have worked in earlier elections. But by the time of Jackson’s campaign in 1828, 21 out of 24 states had abolished property qualifications for voting, and a significant majority of states sent popularly elected delegates to the Electoral College. Poor white men were voting for the first time, and with Jackson’s election, the elite monopoly over the presidency was over.
Jackson’s defining moment was his refusal to recharter the Second Bank of the United States, the federally authorized national bank that one Democratic senator likened to “the Whore of Babylon,” serving the Northeastern elite over Midwestern and Southern farmers. Kazin writes, “The economic logic of their position was shaky at best. It assumed the superior virtues of a preindustrial nation of small farmers that was rapidly receding into memory and myth.” But this reactionary impulse made for good populist politics.
Jackson was also shamelessly partisan in his administration of public services, appointing party loyalists to such vital institutions as the post office to replace perceived opponents. This would become the norm for many years. Kazin writes,
Such blatant awarding of the spoils of office violated the Founding Fathers’ ideal of politics as a public-spirited endeavor. […] But however deplorable partisan patronage might be, it helped establish the Jackson party as an institution with roots in nearly every corner of the nation.
Justifiably, we frown at the spoils system as corrupt, especially because today it’s dictated by the size of campaign donations. But I’m sympathetic to Kazin’s point here: at a time when suffrage was only just expanding, partisan patronage that rewarded grassroots organizers was arguably the most effective way to politicize the nation, pushing up voter turnout and other forms of political participation, thereby strengthening democracy. The most evocative of Kazin’s accounts of Democrats’ patronage-driven machine politics is Tammany Hall, which was led by recent Irish immigrants and dominated New York for over a century and a half.
Yet, the bigger the party became, the more conspicuous the disease at the core of the project: no matter its size, this club was whites only.
The Democratic DNA changed in the early 20th century. The Populists, who called for the railroads and telegraph to be nationalized, merged with the Democrats around William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 presidential campaign. Doing so, they introduced the genetic material for embracing an active federal government role in the economy, which would find expression in the 1930s during the Great Depression. The emergence of an industrial labor movement was the defining event in this period, with the Democrats becoming “the closest thing the United States would ever have to a party dependent on the support of organized labor.”
Women’s suffrage and political participation also realigned American politics in the first half of the 20th century. After securing the franchise, women campaigned less for women’s rights than for such issues as public ownership of waterpower, job safety, a minimum wage, and higher taxes on the wealthy. They formed and integrated women’s clubs into local party machines, registered and mobilized voters, and publicized Democratic achievements and positions through the powerful new medium of radio.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal gathered and converted these forces into a new social contract, the closest the United States came to a welfare state. Union membership, now the Democratic backbone, ballooned. After a gloomy 1920s of successive electoral defeats, the Democrats would now enjoy a lasting majority. But although unions were organizing and speaking for wage earners of all races, the Roosevelt administration deliberately excluded Black people from the full benefits of the New Deal in order to retain the South. It would take three decades to exorcise that devil.
The labor and women’s movements are where Kazin is most engaged with his material. One senses his delight in writing about the activities of these campaigners and proponents like Sidney Hillman, Robert Wagner, Frances Perkins, and Eleanor Roosevelt; entities like the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (which would unify again in 1955 to form today’s AFL-CIO); and the internal conflicts between new and traditional Democratic forces — CIO, quipped one evangelical minister, stood for “Christ is Out.”
For large stretches of the book, however, Kazin offers just a panorama of developments rather than going behind the scenes to give us the sights and sounds. At an aerial view, a party history can easily become a parallel history of the United States, over ground covered by Lepore and many others. Robert Caro’s volumes on Lyndon Johnson offer richer accounts of events on the streets as well as the smoky backrooms of party politicking, particularly in midcentury.
There are also some strange omissions. While discussing Lincoln at length, his assassination gets no mention, even though it provided abolitionists a martyr and created, in Lepore’s words, “a religion of emancipation.” The 13th Amendment ending slavery was ratified as the nation mourned his death.
It would also have been worthwhile to tell readers of the Compromise of 1877, which settled a disputed 1876 presidential contest between the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden (whom Kazin discusses in some depth). In return for accepting Hayes as the victor, Southern Democrats negotiated a Republican pledge to remove all federal troops from the South, consolidating Democratic control over the region. Hayes made good on the deal two months into his presidency. Reconstruction thus ended with one-party rule in the South but also an accommodation in the two-party system that the scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue enabled democratic continuity. In How Democracies Die, they describe the Compromise of 1877 as an “original sin” that “permitted the de-democratization of the South and the consolidation of Jim Crow. Racial exclusion contributed directly to the partisan civility and cooperation that came to characterize twentieth-century American politics.” By the 1920s, when Democrats lost much of the West and industrial North, their rule of the South ensured the two-party system’s survival.
In today’s divided and dysfunctional Congress, one can feel nostalgic for an era of partisan civility. But reading this account of the compromise, I was reminded of Israel Shahak’s response to Christopher Hitchens’s question about Israeli politics — that there were “some encouraging signs of polarization.” Bipartisan cooperation can sometimes come at too steep a price.
The party leadership realized this by the second half of the 20th century, a time when Southern Democrats still dominated congressional committees and commanded major vote banks. The re-democratization of the South would break the Democrats there, forecasted famously by Lyndon B. Johnson as he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, declaring that his party had just lost the South for a generation.
It took time for the party to become internally democratic too. In 1960, a young senator from Massachusetts won the nomination that LBJ believed was his by virtue of being the de facto party boss. It was because John F. Kennedy campaigned in and won several primaries, which in turn shaped delegates’ perceptions of his electability over that of Johnson, who refused to contest a single primary. Robert Kennedy pursued the 1968 nomination through the same approach as his brother. His assassination immediately after winning the California Primary returned the center of gravity to party backrooms. The Democrats were bitterly divided between those who opposed LBJ’s Vietnam War (who had supported Kennedy) and those who still defended it. In Hubert Humphrey’s nomination, party bosses and delegates opted for continuity.
But the internal divisions were manifest in the violent drama outside the convention hall, as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s police charged young protesters with batons and hosed them. After Humphrey’s loss to Richard Nixon, the party formed a commission headed by George McGovern to rethink the nomination process. From 1972, binding primaries would determine the presidential nominee (in both parties).
But the party of labor would never recover from the conflicts of the ’60s, notwithstanding the unhappy Carter interregnum. Ronald Reagan’s assault on unions accelerated a process that began with the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which restricted union recruiting and was passed by a coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans that overcame Harry Truman’s veto. The New Democrats that emerged at the end of that freewheeling decade, and took back the White House in 1992, appeared as friendly to Wall Street and almost as hostile to an activist federal government as their opponents. Kazin doesn’t say this explicitly, but one can deduce from his narrative that the death of unions deprived the Democrats not only of a grassroots base but also of a critical source of funding. Wall Street banks filled the breach.
Kazin, a declared Democrat who, for “most of the past six decades, through thick and thin, [has] done what [he] could to advance the partisan cause,” seeks a path back to that golden age when his party spoke clearly for the economic interests of “the ordinary working person.” He writes, “To put political muscle and government funding behind the Constitution’s vow ‘to promote the general Welfare’ has been and remains the best way to unify Democrats and win their candidates enough votes to make possible the creation of a more caring society.”
This strikes me as a tad sentimental. Although the major progressive reforms and institutions like Social Security, Medicaid, and Obamacare remain popular and have survived Republican bids to dilute or dismantle them, it hasn’t stopped those same Republicans from winning office, appointing judges who are willing to nullify important parts of these programs, and preventing Democratic majorities from achieving legislative success. This includes blocking structural reforms like ending the filibuster and partisan gerrymandering, which would produce more responsive and representative government. And anyone who believes that voters will put their welfare first may be disabused by Arlie Russell Hochschild’s superb Strangers in Their Own Land, where the author tries to understand the “Great Paradox” of a destitute community in Louisiana that needs federal help more any other, and yet whose members viscerally reject and vote against it. They do so, Hochschild finds, out of a sense of honor in surviving hardship without the humiliation of government assistance.
That said, there is no doubt that the Democrats need to present a coherent progressive economic vision to complement the energy that Black Lives Matter, environmental activists, and LGBTQ-plus rights advocates have brought to the party. The absence of that vision enabled insurgents like Bernie Sanders to almost win the presidential nomination twice and, above all, Trump’s shocking 2016 victory. The revival of labor drives Joe Biden’s economic agenda. Once the epitome of Democratic centrism, he scored important progressive victories in his first year. But his is a party that, as it once accommodated both Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and George Wallace, today accommodates both Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin. Sanders and Manchin don’t represent as wide a gulf as the former two, but unifying the conservative and left-wing factions long enough to produce a lasting Biden legacy seems frustratingly elusive.
While the Democrats retain control of government, it is tempting to apply the standards of an insurgency: Republicans win by not losing; Democrats lose by not winning. What it took to win is one thing. In a broken estate, to make change out of victory is another.
Shehryar Fazli is an author and political analyst who divides his time between Canada and Pakistan.