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The Fight for Economic Dignity and Moral Capitalism
Historian Michael Kazin’s splendid new book presents the good, the bad, and the ugly of the world’s oldest political party – the Democrats.
Only three Democratic presidents in U.S. history have been elected to consecutive terms while winning a majority of the popular vote: Andrew Jackson (1828 and 1832); Franklin D. Roosevelt (1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944); and Barack Obama (2008 and 2012). Other Democratic luminaries have won the presidency consecutively with pluralities of the popular vote, including Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton, or had big impacts as one-time winners like Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. But only the trio of Jackson, FDR, and Obama rise to the top level of Democrats who knew what it took to win and had the right mix of politics and policies necessary to garner a majority of American voters.
Although historian Michael Kazin’s new single volume history of the Democrats looks well beyond these three presidents, his incisive account of the entire 200-year history of the party, What It Took to Win, provides a sharp answer for why these three in particular were successful:
Democrats win when they build broad-based coalitions to advance the economic interests of ordinary workers and their families. Democrats lose when they get overly moralistic, fall into factional splits along rural, urban, and educational lines, or when they allow cultural antagonisms to dominate economic concerns.
To get to the good part of how and why Democrats win, Kazin first takes readers through the ugly half of the party’s history. It’s difficult to avert your eyes from the fact that the world’s oldest political party was essentially organized to defend slavery and block abolition, to deny equal rights for black Americans, and to establish racial hierarchy across the land even as it sought to protect the economic interests of white farmers and wage earners against “the money power”.
The Democratic Party embodied actual white supremacy for much of its history, not the amorphous and rhetorical kind loosely thrown around by activists today to describe their opponents. Splits among Democrats over slavery directly led to the Civil War. “Copperhead Democrats” in Congress were traitors to the Union cause during the war. Racist Democrats stopped Reconstruction after the war, launched violent attacks against black people to stop them from exercising their rights, and erected a host of Jim Crow laws to keep black Americans from voting from the late 1800’s through the early 1960’s. Only a fraction of Democrats in the House of Representatives voted in favor of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and every Democrat voted against the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote for freed slaves and all black men.
This is not the glorious history of a real “party of the people” committed to equal rights and liberties for all Americans.
President Andrew Jackson, a slave-owner himself, embodied this early form of racist populism among Democrats. As Jackson thundered against the rechartering of the national “Monster Bank” and railed against financial elites who many Americans felt were getting rich at their expense, he also battled abolitionists as “elitist reformers” and forcibly removed native Americans from their land. As Kazin shows, the earliest version of Democratic success under Jackson was built on a real concern for the economic plight of average farmers and tradesman—but only if they were white.
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the institution of slavery long gone but the realities of Jim Crow very real, Democrats turned their focus to the increasing problems of industrialization and the indignities and depravations facing wage earners in the rapidly increasing cities of the Northeast and Midwest. At this stage, the story of the Democrats begins to resemble the party more as we know it today.
Kazin nicely profiles lesser known Democratic “bosses” like John Kelly and Richard Croker in New York who organized Irish Catholics and later German, Jewish, Italian, Polish, and other immigrants into powerful voting blocs dedicated to the advancement of laborers and the regulation of corporations and financial interests. Corruption may have been rife in these old Democratic machines, but the party delivered for working people and created a lasting form of patronage and economic support that brought millions of workers and immigrants into the party fold.
Absorbing the energy and policy ideas of the populist, progressive, and early feminist movements, Democrats starting with Wilson and culminating with FDR, steadily became genuine champions of labor rights and political reforms of capitalism.
There’s a reason Franklin Roosevelt is still revered as the greatest Democratic president and in the top tier of all presidents along with Abraham Lincoln. In conjunction with important contributions from feminist leaders like his wife Eleanor Roosevelt and labor leaders like Sidney Hillman, FDR built one of the most successful electoral coalitions in U.S. history—and began the process of turning Democrats into an actual multiracial working-class party—while passing some of the most important social welfare legislation and worker protections of the 20th century.
FDR and his New Deal coalition helped lead the country out of the Great Depression and to victory in World War II, while building America’s strong middle class. It’s understandable why nearly everyone from the left to the center yearns to claim the mantle of Franklin Roosevelt—he won by standing for a vision of “moral capitalism” and the dignity of ordinary workers that still resonates and inspires people today.
During the final part of the 20th century, Democrats finally erased the vestiges of their racist past by helping to advance civil rights and equality for black Americans under Lyndon Johnson, along with the support of liberal Republicans. But with their successes in advancing both equality and liberty for all came new political obstacles. The party of activist government on economic and social fronts faced serious challenges with economic stagnation in the 1970s that gave way to the successful limited government politics of Ronald Reagan.
In response to these conservative advances, Bill Clinton successfully negotiated a balance between active government and market capitalism that mixed populist concern for ordinary Americans with economic policies that led to strong growth and low budget deficits.
Following the disastrous war in Iraq and financial crisis of 2008, Barack Obama’s optimistic and hopeful vision of an America that works for everyone drove one of the most successful coalitions in Democratic history uniting professionals and working-class voters of all races into two majority victories. In this chapter of Democratic successes, Obama helped lead the country out of deep recession while his signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, helped to fulfill Democrats’ long-standing push for near-universal health care.
Although Obama’s electoral successes ultimately could not replicate those of FDR, or stop the rise of Donald Trump and the increase in party polarization, he created a winning contemporary model of the Democratic Party as an honest broker committed to the well-being of all people.
This brings us to the stark divisions of politics today and the acute challenges facing President Joe Biden.
Looking across Kazin’s well-constructed historical evidence, there are 3 main strategic and policy cleavages that have determined success or failure for Democrats: the role of government; class and race; and the primacy of cultural vs. economic policies.
Andrew Jackson and the early Democrats favored a hands-off government that sought to protect poor whites from predatory financial interests while upholding racial supremacy. FDR in contrast promoted an active government that advanced the economic interests of all working people—one that acquiesced to the reality of racist Southern Democratic power while beginning the process of creating true equality and economic inclusion for African Americans. Barack Obama also favored an active government that sought to transcend divisions between “red America and blue America” by building a multiracial coalition dedicated to a strong middle class and economic security for all.
In each of these instances, the only thing that really brought most Americans together behind Democrats was their economic agenda—either challenging monopolies and market domination or creating stronger protections and income support for workers. As Kazin rightly argues, this process of bringing competing factions and regions of the country together behind a vision of economic advancement for all workers is the core 200-year mission of Democrats.
So, what are the main lessons for Democrats today?
When Democrats advance equal dignity and rights for everyone—and focus primarily on the economic interests of working people—they win. When Democrats divide themselves and other Americans along regional, class, and ideological lines—or bicker internally over cultural divisions and downplay unifying economic policies—they lose.
According to Kazin, the way to win requires strategic discipline and the direct participation and leadership of working people themselves:
The Democratic Party, as during the heydays of the New Deal and the Great Society, can taste victory consistently only if its activists, candidates, and officeholders debate their differences without one side denouncing or seeking to purge the another…Just as the Republicans could not tout themselves the “Christian party” if they did not have thousands of evangelical churches on their side, so Democrats will not become a “working-class party” or true “party of the people” unless they help build and support strong institutions of ordinary Americans to become potent forces in a broader coalition.
What It Took to Win should be required reading for all Democrats—and the White House, in particular.
Joe Biden must know this history well. The question now is whether he can turn the lessons of the Democratic past and its victories into a new mission for the rest of his presidency—one that focuses on uniting working people of all races behind an economic agenda of opportunity and dignity for everyone.
If he pulls this off, Biden could recover and perhaps become the fourth Democrat in history to win consecutive elections with a majority of the popular vote. If not, Democrats will remain adrift and could easily be cast back into the political wilderness.