Can The Democratic Party Define Itself?

In the past several decades, Michael Kazin has written a series of books on the history of the American left—which have touched on labor and antiwar movements—as well as long studies of populism and a biography of William Jennings Bryan. The former co-editor of Dissent and a professor of history at Georgetown, Kazin has now combined many of his interests into his latest book, “What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party.” Kazin’s comprehensive narrative spans the Party’s nearly two-hundred-year existence, but he pays particular attention to internal battles over race and workers’ rights, and how this infighting has posed challenges to, alternately, the Party’s unity and conscience. The book arrives at a notable time for Democrats, too. Although the Party currently controls the executive and legislative branches in Washington, it must contend with a possible November wipeout in the midterm elections, and a President with declining approval ratings—now at around forty per cent—as well as a contentious debate between its moderate and progressive wings.

I recently spoke by phone with Kazin. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how the New Deal era permanently changed the Party, the battles over the Democrats’ relationship to organized labor, and why the modern progressive movement decided to embed itself almost entirely within the Party.

People tend to snicker when Republicans call themselves members of the party of Lincoln because the current Republican Party is so different from the party that Abraham Lincoln led. But you could say the same thing about the Democratic Party, so I’m curious why you decided to write the history of the Democratic Party as one coherent entity.

First of all, I think institutions really matter and historians don’t write enough about them. Here you have a political party that has been in existence for two hundred years—some would argue even longer, going back to Thomas Jefferson—but I think it really begins as a mass party under Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, in the eighteen-twenties. And, for a long time, Democrats traced their origins back there, with the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinners, and it was under F.D.R. that the Jefferson Memorial was put up in Washington.

I think there’s a reason why Democrats, historically, have seen continuity between the founding years and today. Also, it’s probably controversial for some people, but there is a common strand of rhetoric that Democrats have used, really, since Jefferson, but especially since Jackson—that they’re the party of the ordinary man, or the ordinary person. At first, it was only white people, of course, but, in some cases, by the middle of the twentieth century, it included people of all races.

There’s also, I think, a strand of what I call “moral capitalism” that was true for Jackson, and was true for F.D.R., and, for all of his problems, for Joe Biden as well. The form it took for each of them was quite different, but in each case moral capitalism meant standing for the interests and needs of ordinary people—small-business people, small farmers, wage earners—and against the big interests: against Wall Street, the big investor, and now, of course, big corporations like Walmart and Amazon. I think there’s continuity there in rhetoric and ideology, even though the meaning of all that rhetoric has changed in major ways.

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Yes, it seems like today the rhetoric has changed, even if some of the underlying policies have not. When you talk about speaking for the common man or railing against corporations, that rhetoric seems more likely to come from Republicans now, even if the policies do not.

Yeah, and I think it’s a problem for Democrats. As the Party became more diverse racially and ethnically, welcoming immigrants, it did become more difficult to find who “the people” were, and what their interests were. It was a moral necessity for Democrats to shed their racist past and struggle to become the party of all ordinary people, but in so doing they ran into the importance of race in American history and had to confront the fact that a lot of white working people were maybe happy to join unions with Black people, but didn’t want the government to push back Jim Crow regulations, and didn’t want their party to be seen as the party of racial equality, as opposed to the party of economic self-interest for all working people.

Democrats were always diverse, but, in the nineteenth century, they were a diverse party among whites, including lots of immigrants back then—especially Irish immigrants. They also became the party of people like me: college professors, who were often seen as the leaders of the Democratic Party ideologically. I think that the Democrats began to pick up an élitist tinge because of this in the nineteen-thirties and forties, when so many liberal intellectuals began to be Democrats, and that has also made it more difficult for the Democrats to appear as if they’re the party of the working person.

How much do you think that the modern Democratic Party as we think of it today is still defined by that period of F.D.R., both in terms of its successes and compromises?

The key pieces of legislation that made up the New Deal and are still very popular really encoded within them discriminatory provisions. Neither Social Security nor the Wagner Act covered agricultural workers or domestic workers; these were jobs that a majority of African Americans had in the South and also a majority of Mexican Americans had in the Southwest.

The New Deal is still very popular, even among most Republicans. That is, the programs that were passed and the ones that are still in existence—not the job-creation ones, certainly, but the welfare ones, like Social Security, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. But, at the same time, the Democrats, as they brought in liberal intellectuals, as they brought in these unions, which included a lot of radicals—communists and socialists helped organize those unions—they began to head down a perilous road that was going to, inevitably, end up in a kind of fragmentation. When you have a party that is so broad, that includes some of the most vicious racists in America—people such as Strom Thurmond, people who are openly anti-Semitic such as this guy John Rankin, from Mississippi, who is the architect of both the T.V.A. and the G.I. Bill—together with congresspeople who were very close to the Communist Party, well, the Party became so broad in that sense, and so popular, at least, for a while, during the Great Depression, that, inevitably, the different groups in it were going to make demands on the Party, which the leaders could not grant. They couldn’t grant a civil-rights bill and support for more power for the white South in Congress. Those two were at cross-purposes.

And, people don’t realize this, but already by the late nineteen-thirties the solid South stopped being so solid. It was really in the late nineteen-thirties that a lot of Southerners began to think about voting for Republicans. They begin to think about forming their own party. It didn’t happen until 1948, when Strom Thurmond led the States’ Rights Party, but already there was a lot of unhappiness with the liberal leadership of the Democratic Party in the North.

Yes, and, if not for the role of the Republican Party in the Civil War, the process would probably have happened more quickly, right?

Yes, and because the Democrats in the South made sure that very few Black people could vote. At the same time, these Southern congressmen and senators were delivering for their white constituents. I’ve got this moment in the book with Fritz Hollings, the last Democratic senator from South Carolina, from the nineteen-eighties, and he quotes this constituent of his who is grousing about all of the things the government is doing for other people, and then Hollings lists all the programs that this guy is getting the benefits from: the Small Business Administration, Social Security, the G.I. Bill, and the Army Corps of Engineers dredging the harbor where he has his boat, as well as the Smithsonian Museum that he goes to visit for free when he comes to Washington. And yet the perception was that the Party was standing for people who did not deserve this help, and did not deserve these programs.

You referred to moral capitalism earlier, and you have a line in the book, during this time after the First World War when the major left-of-center parties in the world were trying to define their relationship to business and labor, where you write, “The social movements that compelled Democrats to define the right to a union as a linchpin of moral capitalism thus had an ironic consequence. Without intending to, labor helped make corporate capitalism seem as imperishable as the two-party system itself.” Can you talk about what you mean here?

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