Can the Democratic Party define itself?


Over the past few decades, Michael Kazin has written a series of books on the history of the American left – which have touched on labor and anti-war movements – as well as lengthy studies of populism and a biography of William Jennings Bryan. The former co-editor of CONTESTATION and history professor at Georgetown, Kazin has now combined many of his interests in his latest book, “What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party.” Kazin’s full account spans the Party’s nearly two hundred years of existence, but he pays particular attention to internal battles over race and workers’ rights, and how these infighting posed challenges, alternatively , unity and Party consciousness. The book also comes at a remarkable time for Democrats. Although the Party currently controls the executive and legislative branches in Washington, it must deal with a possible annihilation of midterm elections in November and a president whose approval rating is down – now at around 40% – as well only to a contentious debate among its moderate supporters. 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 changed the Party forever, the battles over the Democrats’ relationship to organized labor, and why why the modern progressive movement has decided to fit almost entirely into Partying.

People tend to sneer when Republicans call themselves members of Lincoln’s party because the current Republican party is so different from the party led by Abraham Lincoln. But you could say the same of the Democratic Party, so I’m curious why you decided to write the history of the Democratic Party as a cohesive 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 around for two hundred years – some would say even longer, going back to Thomas Jefferson – but I think it really started as a mass party under Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, in the eighteen-twenties. And, for a long time, the Democrats traced their origins there, with the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners, and it was under FDR that the Jefferson Memorial was erected in Washington.

I think there’s a reason Democrats, historically, have seen continuity between the founding years and today. Also, this is probably controversial to some people, but there’s a common thread of rhetoric that Democrats have used, really, since Jefferson, but especially since Jackson – that they’re the common man’s party, or of the ordinary person. At first it was all white, of course, but in some cases by the middle of the 20th century it included people of all races.

There is also, I think, a bit of what I call “moral capitalism” that was true for Jackson, and was true for FDR and, for all his problems, Joe Biden as well. The form it took for each was quite different, but in each case moral capitalism meant defending the interests and needs of ordinary people – small entrepreneurs, small farmers, wage earners – and against big interests: against Wall Street, the big investor, and now, of course, big business like Walmart and Amazon. I think there is a continuity in the rhetoric and the ideology there, even if the meaning of all this rhetoric has changed in a major way.

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Yes, it seems that today the rhetoric has changed, even if some of the underlying policies have not changed. 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 politicians don’t.

Yeah, and I think that’s a problem for Democrats. As the Party became more racially and ethnically diverse, welcoming immigrants, it became more difficult to find out who “the people” were and what their interests were. It was a moral necessity for Democrats to shed their racist past and fight to become the party of all ordinary people, but in doing so they clashed with the importance of race in American history and had to contend with the fact that many white workers might be happy to join unions with black people, but didn’t want the government to push back on Jim Crow regulations, and didn’t want their party to be seen as the party of the racial equality, as opposed to the party of economic autonomy. interest for all workers.

The Democrats have always been diverse, but, in the 19th century, they were a diverse party among white people, including a lot of immigrants at the time, especially Irish immigrants. They also became the party of people like me: university professors, who were often seen as the ideological leaders of the Democratic Party. I think Democrats started to take on an elitist tinge because of that in the 1930s and 1940s when so many liberal intellectuals started being Democrats, and it also made it harder for Democrats to give the impression that they’re the party of the working person.

To what extent do you think the modern Democratic Party as we understand it today is still defined by this period of FDR, both in terms of success and compromise?

The key pieces of legislation that made up the New Deal and are still very popular actually encoded discriminatory provisions within them. 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 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 still exist – 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, by bringing in liberal intellectuals, by bringing in these unions, which included a lot of radicals – the communists and the socialists helped to organize these unions – they started to commit themselves to a perilous path that was bound to end inevitably 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 like Strom Thurmond, people who are openly anti-Semitic like this guy John Rankin from Mississippi, who is the architect of both the TVA and the GI Bill – with members of Congress who were very close to the Communist Party, well, the Party became so broad in that sense, and so popular, at least, for a time, during the Great Depression, that, inevitably, the various groups that made it up were going to make demands on the Party that the leaders could not grant. They could not grant a civil rights bill and support more power for the white South in Congress. These two were against the grain.

And, people don’t realize it, but already in the late 1930s, the solid South stopped being so solid. It was really in the late 1930s that a lot of southerners started thinking about voting Republican. They begin to think of forming their own party. This did not happen until 1948, when Strom Thurmond led the States Rights Party, but there was already much discontent with the liberal leadership of the Democratic Party in the North.

Yes, and, without the Republican Party’s role in the Civil War, the process probably would have happened more quickly, wouldn’t it?

Yes, and because Southern Democrats made sure very few black people could vote. At the same time, these Southern congressmen and senators were delivering for their white constituents. I have this moment in the book with Fritz Hollings, the last Democratic senator from South Carolina, from the 1980s, and he quotes one of his constituents complaining about all the things the government does for other people, and then Hollings lists all the programs this guy takes advantage of: the Small Business Administration, Social Security, the GI Bill and the Army Corps of Engineers who dredge the harbor where he has his boat, as well as the Smithsonian Museum which he goes to visit for free when he comes to Washington. And yet, the perception was that the Party was standing up for people who didn’t deserve this help and didn’t deserve these programs.

You referenced moral capitalism earlier, and you have a line in the book, about that time after World War I when the main center-left parties around the world were trying to define their relationship with business and labor , where you write, “So the social movements that compelled democrats to define the right to organize as a linchpin of moral capitalism had an ironic consequence. Unwittingly, labor has helped make corporate capitalism as imperishable as the two-party system itself. Can you talk about what you mean here?


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