A progressive’s history of the Democratic Party

TWO COMPETING TENDENCIES IN MORAL CAPITALISM

Kazin sees “two different and, at times, competing tendencies” in moral capitalism. “The first,” he writes, “is a harsh critique of concentrated elite power — ’monopoly.’” The second “attacks the oppression of Americans in the workplace, whether by poor working conditions, bad wages, insecure employment, a ban on union organizing, or other indignities.” The tension between these two tendencies has, at times, weakened the Democratic Party and contributed to its losses at the polls.

WHAT IT TOOK TO WIN: A HISTORY OF THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY BY MICHAEL KAZIN (2022) 250 PAGES ★★★★☆

The short-lived Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in 2011 and 2012 brought into high relief the compelling lure of the “moral capitalism” policies the author asserts are central to the historic victories of the Democratic Party. Image: CBS News

THE EVOLVING HISTORY OF THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY

IN THE 19TH CENTURY

In the charged rhetoric of political campaigns, Democratic candidates traditionally paid homage to Thomas Jefferson as the leading light of their party. Somewhat closer to the truth, many historians instead credit Andrew Jackson as the party’s founder. Kazin sets them all straight. It was the country’s eighth president, Martin Van Buren, who assembled the pieces of the coalition that became the Democratic Party. As Jackson’s Secretary of State and then Vice President, Van Buren was the nuts-and-bolts politician who made the general’s victories possible and set the course for the Democratic Party during much of the 19th century. Later, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglasand New York financier August Belmont built on the foundation Van Buren had laid.

IN THE 20TH CENTURY

THE EMERGENCE OF ORGANIZED LABOR

In the 1920s, as Democrats languished under a succession of three lackluster Republican Presidents, four Democratic activists took up the task of rebuilding the party. Four-term New York Governor and 1928 Presidential candidate Al Smith was the best-known. Behind the scenes, three standout women activists, Belle Moskowitz, Frances Perkins, and Eleanor Roosevelt, helped institutionalize the party and focus its commitment on the principles of moral capitalism. The groundwork they laid bore fruit in the 12-year span of Franklin Roosevelt’s transformative Presidency.

TWO STEPS BACKWARD: THE DEMOCRATIC LEADERSHIP COUNCIL

Sadly, the resurgence of the Republican Right in the 1970s, culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan, dramatically undermined Democrats’ self-confidence. Established by activist Al From in 1985, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) led a sharp turn to the right to accommodate the Republican wave by appealing to the “middle class.” Republican success in decimating organized labor in the 1970s and 80s sharply reduced the opposition to the DLC within the Democratic Party.

IN THE 21ST CENTURY

In the deeply polarized politics of the past two decades, Democrats have fared reasonably well electorally. The Presidency has shifted from one party to the other with regularity. But, even when controlling the White House, the party has failed to enact major legislation (other than the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare) that would persuade a large majority of voters the Democratic Party is on their side.

THE POLITICAL CONTEXT OF THE PAST HALF-CENTURY

Kazin focuses tightly on the Democratic Party as an institution, which is understandable and appropriate given the history he set out to tell. But it’s a story that veers out of context. In lamenting the failure of the party to champion the moral capitalism he values over the past half-century, he largely ignores the conservative counter-revolution against the liberal order of 1933–68. Beginning early in the 1970s, Big Business and the men who profited so handsomely from it bankrolled what in time became a massive Right-Wing infrastructure of think tanks, lobbying firms, consulting agencies, and conservative law schools.

TODAY, THERE IS NO “DEMOCRATIC PARTY”

To some degree, every modern mass political party is a coalition. Historically, both the major American parties have necessarily followed this pattern, with right and left wings pulling in opposite directions and disparate forces demanding a focus on their special interests. Today, as the Republican Party drifts ever more tightly into uniformity, with its liberal wing forced out of power, the Democratic Party has devolved into chaos. T0 my mind, there is, properly speaking, no “Democratic Party.” The phrase has become a term of art. What passes for a party is a congeries of single-issue and identity-based interest groups with links of varying durability to the party’s traditional core values championing social democracy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

FOR MORE READING

Two books cast light on the themes Michael Kazin writes about: Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes (Why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election) and Pelosi by Molly Ball (A critical but admiring biography of Nancy Pelosi).

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