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The Democracy

How the nation’s oldest political party learned to think small

What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party by Michael Kazin. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pages.

Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality
by Lily Geismer. PublicAffairs, 448 pages.

For pundits and political consultants, every election carries portents of a realignment between the two major political parties. Even midterm elections, which almost always have the same result—gains for the “out” party—are earth-shaking events, interpreted as a verdict on the president’s leadership. The midterms of 1994 were seen as an especially crippling setback for the Democratic Party, as Republicans took control of Congress and installed gaseous Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House—the first Republican Speaker in forty years. Yet just two years later, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. came out with a book forecasting a new progressive era, with the title They Only Look Dead. In an afterword for the book’s 1997 edition, Dionne wrote that the 1996 reelection of Bill Clinton “confirmed what 1992 hinted at: that the conservative era that began with Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 is over.”

Others had seen hints in 1992 that something else was afoot. That was the year Nixon’s former speechwriter Patrick Buchanan challenged incumbent president George H.W. Bush in the Republican primaries, speaking in New Hampshire of leading a pitchfork rebellion. At the GOP convention in Houston that summer, he gave a strident “culture war” address that Texas columnist Molly Ivins memorably quipped “probably sounded better in the original German.” Yet Buchanan was always more of a pundit than a political leader, and by 1997 he was alarmed by Gingrich’s “collaboration” with Clinton. Buchanan despaired for his party. “The Republican Party is today in a crisis of the soul, unable to decide who and what it is,” he wrote in his syndicated column.

We know now that the extremism and rhetorical incontinence modeled by Buchanan and Gingrich in the 1990s represented the true id—and the long-term future—of the Republican Party. Both men were harbingers of the hardline partisanship of the Bush-Cheney administration in the early 2000s, which by 2016 metastasized into Trumpism, and which now seems to have a fifty-fifty chance of leading the United States into an accelerating slide toward autocracy—or at least the kind of extended, sadistic smite-the-abortionists-and-homosexuals crusade that Buchanan was calling for.

There were some who saw it coming: they looked beyond the partisan pendulum swings. There was no permanent majority in Congress and no lasting partisan realignment. But something fundamental was shifting. A concerted assault on those who favored an expanded, inclusive democracy took hold during the Reagan years. The political system had become friendly to business interests, wealthy cranks, professional liars, and a working alliance between closet racists and open ones. The journalist William Greider described it in his 1992 book Who Will Tell the People?: The Betrayal of American Democracy, which opens with the arresting line: “The decayed condition of American democracy is difficult to grasp, not because the facts are secret, but because the facts are visible everywhere.”

The two parties, in Greider’s view, were collaborating in a slow, grinding debilitation of citizen power and participation. The Republicans were concocting a “rancid populism that is perfectly attuned to the age of political alienation—a message of antipower.” The Democrats were a hollowed-out party, operating “mainly as a mail drop for political money.” Greider reported that when the Democratic National Committee wanted to organize a celebration in 1992, DNC staffers realized the party had no working list of its membership—rich donors, yes, but not party “regulars” serving at the county and precinct levels. While the National Rifle Association claimed to have about 2.5 million dues-paying members at the time, and the AFL-CIO had about 14 million, the Democratic Party was no longer that kind of “active membership” organization. Since then, online fundraising has broadened the donor base for Democratic (and Republican) candidates considerably; still, the participation of most people aligned with the Democratic Party goes no further than casting an occasional vote, often without enthusiasm.

How is it possible that the Republican Party, with each turn of the screw, has made itself more malicious, conspiratorial, gun-crazy, and cultish, and yet still manages to run neck-and-neck with the Democratic Party? The very idea that a corrupt nabob was able to take full control of the supposedly Grand Old Party, and that he got elected president in 2016—you want to shake your fist at the Democrats and yell, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” There exists a real possibility that the GOP will attempt a brazen antidemocratic scheme in the next presidential election in which they use their legislative power in a key state or two to overrule the majority choice of the voters. The possibility is real because so many Republican-leaning legislatures were gerrymandered after the 2010 census, while the Democrats slept. Now in states like Wisconsin and Michigan you can’t get rid of the Republican majority; it’s voter-proof. The possibility is real because the Republicans stacked the U.S. Supreme Court with their loyal lawgivers, and as the Court reconvenes this fall, they will take up “the independent legislature theory” by way of Moore v. Harper, a case out of North Carolina that could allow legislatures to skew election rules, with no judicial oversight. The possibility is real because the Republican Party uses power everywhere it gets it, while the Democrats strike responsible poses and preach moderation and say, “We’re better than that.”

If the normal mechanics of democratic elections are thrown on the scrapheap in 2024, the Republicans will be culpable, but the Democrats will be complicit. The Democratic Party keeps waiting for the Republicans to go too far, assuming it will then reap the benefits. But somehow the party that in its earliest days referred to itself as “the Democracy” has been passive and tentative in defending democracy. They’ve been unwilling to address the structural reasons Republicans hold onto power without majority support from the electorate. The Democrats’ aged leaders have spent their lifetimes focused on getting legislative compromises passed and looking for “business-friendly” microsolutions, thinking they will be rewarded for it. They don’t seem capable of understanding that different times—with a more radicalized, propagandized, and implacable opposition—require different tactics.

The Party Crashes Itself

That’s the breakfast-table rant, anyway. Progressives, populists, and leftists have been arguing this way for a long time. Yet the Democratic Party elders—and their consultants and big funders—loathe and distrust the progressives, populists, and leftists in their ranks. The argument for a pugnacious party defending democracy and the economic interests of workers, fueled by grassroots organizing energy, goes nowhere.

Extremism and rhetorical incontinence represented the true id—and the long-term future—of the Republican Party.

Michael Kazin’s recent study, What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party, gives us a deeper understanding of how difficult it is—and has always been—to move this party. Kazin is the author of The Populist Persuasion and a biography of William Jennings Bryan, among other books. He’s also been the coeditor of Dissent. (Disclosure: I edited a few of his book reviews several years ago when I was working at The American Prospect.) He writes as a lifelong Democratic partisan, having joined the cause at the age of twelve, when he leafletted his New Jersey neighborhood for John F. Kennedy.

Early on, Kazin attempts a rule-of-thumb for Democratic Party success: “When Democrats made a convincing appeal to the economic interests of the many, they usually celebrated victory at the polls.” Yet there is so much riding on that word “convincing” that it’s hard to find the explanatory value. What emerges from the story he tells is something more fundamental and perhaps more complicated. Kazin has given us a history of shifting coalitions, always made up of segments of “the many” that don’t fit together very well. “For most of the 1840s, both Walt Whitman and Jefferson Davis were ardent Democrats,” he writes.

That kind of jarring juxtaposition recurs throughout the book. Most often it’s jarring because of race. Even as the party marched toward liberalism under FDR’s leadership in the 1930s, Democrats depended on white votes in the South, which meant accepting white supremacist views among prominent leaders. When New Deal Democrats were planning the Jefferson Memorial for the Capitol, they set up a five-man Memorial Commission that included John Joseph Boylan of New York City as well as Howard Worth Smith of Virginia. Boylan had come out of the Tammany Hall machine and was a reliable New Dealer. Smith distinguished himself in the 1940s and 1950s as an opponent of free speech and civil rights. “The Southern people have never accepted the colored race as a race of people who had equal intelligence and education and social attainments,” he said in 1957.

From its creation, Kazin writes, “the self-styled ‘party of the people’ was a contradiction in terms”—most of the people in the country were excluded from an electoral system that was set up for white property-holding men. Even as Martin Van Buren pushed in 1826 for changes in New York law to end property requirements, it would be almost another century before women’s suffrage. And even as Black voters began to migrate to the Democratic Party in the 1930s and 1940s, they were moving forward in a party full of segregationists like Smith, South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond, and Alabama governor George Wallace. Ultimately, the civil rights movement was a bridge too far for most white racists in the party—both Thurmond and Wallace eventually split off.

But the story of coalitions forming and fracturing within the party is multidimensional. As Kazin takes us through the beginning of real party-building, led by Van Buren in the 1840s, we see the Democrats’ consistent attempts to speak for the white working man. Andrew Jackson’s presidency pitted the banks and Wall Street interests against the livelihoods of the commoners. Certainly, by the 1870s, Republicans were seeing a class division: “The strength of the Democratic party for years has been the pest houses of the cities where vice breeds,” sniffed Republican senator John Sherman of Ohio.

By the 1890s, a full-blown Populist movement was roiling the prairies. William Jennings Bryan made valiant attempts to remake the Democratic Party as a true “people’s party.” He lost to William McKinley in the presidential election of 1896. Yet despite that, “he seemed to be gesturing toward a future in which politicians would tame capitalism instead of capitalists bridling them,” according to Kazin. As he tried again in 1900, drawing energy from the Populists’ support, he was unable to break the power of the financial and manufacturing interests, which drew solid Republican strength throughout the Northeast and the Upper Midwest. The difficulty Bryan encountered was to turn “the culturally dissimilar and regionally separate centers of Democratic strength in the white South, the Irish-led machines in the urban North, and erstwhile Populists in the mountain West into first an electoral majority and then a governing one.”

That very coalition held together for Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and in his razor-tight reelection in 1916. But just as quickly, with crosscurrents cutting for and against American entry into World War I, it began to fall apart. By 1924, Kazin writes, the Democrats were “a party that was barely on speaking terms with itself.” And then came the Crash and the Great Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1936, “Democrats won the most complete victory in the history of partisan presidential elections.” FDR defeated the Kansan Alf Landon by 24 percent of the popular vote.

Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth

It took a remarkably long time for the Democratic Party to lose the South. FDR’s reelection in 1936 marked the first time most African Americans in the North voted the same way as whites across the South. “African American districts in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that had never backed a Democratic nominee for president before voted for FDR by a landslide of 70 percent,” Kazin writes. “The ‘party of Lincoln’ has rarely been competitive among Black people in the state again.” While this transition was occurring, the Democrats were also racking up solid support from union members. Union membership doubled to eight million in the two years after 1936. By the end of WWII, and on through the AFL-CIO merger in 1955, union membership was at its historical peak, with about 35 percent of wage-earners represented. The New Deal had resulted in a Democratic Party that was “a grand coalition of heterogeneous parts.”

How is it possible that the Republican Party has made itself more malicious, conspiratorial, gun-crazy, and cultish, and yet still manages to run neck-and-neck with the Democratic Party?

In the 1940s, most labor leaders and liberal activists favored civil rights. But Southern Democrats were “the third leg of the partisan stool,” and by 1948, the third leg was getting shaky. Strom Thurmond’s States’ Rights Party took four Southern states from Harry S. Truman, though Truman eked out a victory that he attributed to the strong support of labor unions. Still, when Adlai Stevenson, a lackluster campaigner perceived as a Democratic egghead, lost badly to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, his meager wins were concentrated in the South. Stevenson only carried seven states in 1956; six were in the South, plus Missouri. That is, he won in Alabama and lost in Massachusetts. Even in 1960, John F. Kennedy won by a larger margin in Georgia than he did in Massachusetts.

The writing was on the wall, of course. “For Democrats, the demand for Black empowerment was a ‘time bomb’ with a long fuse planted by left-wing New Dealers and their union allies during the 1940s,” Kazin writes. “When it detonated in the mid-1960s, it fragmented the party and did much to bring an end to the New Deal order that labor, the white South, urban machines, and liberal activists had built together.” The civil rights movement presented Democrats with a dilemma, Kazin says, “from which there was no clear way out: embrace the demands of the Black freedom movement and alienate white southerners—and their sympathizers anywhere in the country—or hew to white supremacy and abandon the Democrats’ moral claim to be the party of all the people.”

But even as the momentous choice was made, the nation was essentially operating with four parties nestled into two, at least when it came to Congressional voting blocs. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the southern Dixiecrats voted with pro-business Republicans, weakening labor unions with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, for example. As part of his Fair Deal, Truman supported a form of national health insurance. The effort was led by a young Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, but as Kazin notes, “he could not convince his colleagues to amend the filibuster rule that effectively gave southerners the power to stop any bill they disliked from coming to a vote.” At the same time, northern Republican moderates would sometimes vote with Democrats. When the Civil Rights Act passed the Senate in 1964, GOP leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois helped assemble the bipartisan coalition that led to a filibuster-breaking 73-27 vote.

When Humphrey ran against Nixon in 1968, he won Texas but not a single state of the Deep South, where an estimated 10 percent of white voters cast Democratic ballots in the presidential race. Southerners were still voting Democratic further down the ballot, though, so the party was able to remain strong in Congress. Even in the 1980s, Reagan needed to win support from conservative Democrats who called themselves “Boll Weevils” to pass major legislation. But by that time, the final shakeout was underway: southern whites migrated to the Republican Party, while that unusual variety of liberal and moderate Republican—once found in New England and parts of the Midwest—was eradicated from the GOP.

You could probably argue that race has been the dominant factor in these transformations. Yet Kazin’s history shows all the ways the Democratic coalitions have morphed, along different divisions: North and South. Coastal and interior. Urban and rural. White-collar and blue-collar. Affluent and poor. Race permeates such divisions, but other things do, too. Ideology, and the magnetism, passion, or demagoguery of presidents, can alter a party’s direction dramatically.

Then, of course, there are the cultural battles, which sometimes distract voters from economic appeals. Public opinion was divided by Woodrow Wilson’s peace treaty ending WWI, and the Democrats were cast out of power in 1920, when Republican Warren G. Harding became president. Democrats themselves argued at their national convention about Prohibition. “As evangelical Protestants, most Southerners hailed it,” Kazin writes, “but urban machines and their voters, voicing the objections of their immigrant and Catholic constituents, derided it as an assault both on tradition and ‘personal liberty.’” You want a party devoted to “the economic interests of the many,” sure—but where do you stand on the battle between the drys and the wets?

From Moral Capitalism . . .

Kazin finds one thread running through Democratic hopes from the beginning all the way through the presidency of Barack Obama: a quest for “moral capitalism.” Party leaders never saw a realistic chance to replace the existing market-based system. But their ideal was to use government to guide the economy toward providing a “fair share” for owners and workers. For this tradition in the Democratic Party, the New Deal is always the standard.

It does not inspire confidence that the Democratic Party spent so much time wholly absorbed in a project to invent a softer Reaganism.

The long-simmering hatred on the right for the reforms of the New Deal—and the flurry of Great Society legislation in the 1960s—finally found voice and power with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. Reagan had eight years to argue relentlessly that government action to humanize the economy was un-American. In Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality, historian Lily Geismer shows how successful Reagan was, portraying the Democratic Party’s conversion to a sort of Reagan-lite politics in the 1990s. She’s written a detailed examination of the rhetoric and policies of the Clinton administration, during which time the party’s Washington establishment fell under the spell of the Democratic Leadership Council, whose motto may as well have been “Reagan was right.”

The DLC built on a Democratic centrism that, in fact, had started to form in the 1970s, led by the class of post-Watergate candidates who were, for a brief moment in time, known as “Atari Democrats.” Colorado senator Gary Hart campaigned by calling for “the end of the New Deal.” When Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas saw President Jimmy Carter lose to Reagan, he warned his fellow Democrats that “the solutions of the thirties will not solve the problems of the eighties.” By 1990, the DLC had made that refrain the opening line of its declaration of principles: “The political ideas and passions of the 1930s and 1960s cannot guide us in the 1990s.” One rising politician who was tuned in to such talk was the young governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. As he prepared in 1990 to run for president in 1992, he agreed to become the head of the DLC.

Geismer’s book is not just another account of the endless ideological arguments between the Democratic Party’s centrist and progressive wings. It is a case study of a particular approach to “moral capitalism,” in which the so-called New Democrats believed they could use market-based approaches that would create “win-win” policies, improving the lives of the poor and reducing inequality. They would do it by harnessing the power of credit. That is, banks were going to do more work to spread prosperity as government did less.

The Clintons were especially enamored of ventures they’d learned about in which “microcredit” was used with apparent success by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. A group of bankers at the ShoreBank in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood had started to experiment with small, targeted loans that bigger banks had no interest in making. Geismer approaches the work that ShoreBank did, and the efforts of the Clintons to bring microlending to Arkansas and other economically disadvantaged areas, with relentless focus and serious purpose. In a wholly non-polemical style, she demonstrates the consistent overselling of “the power of credit,” especially as Bill Clinton made it a central part of his claim that Democrats could “end welfare as we know it.” With his talk of giving poor people the tools to become entrepreneurs, Clinton’s framing “directed blame for poverty away from the forces of capitalist restructuring and the policies of his administration and instead treated it as a psychological and individual problem.”

Geismer looks at housing and education policies during the Clinton years, as well. But in each case, the New Democratic message seemed to be: expect great things from the market economy and smaller interventions from government. Of course, this did not put a dent in inequality. As Geismer writes, “The best way to solve the vexing problems of poverty, racism, and disinvestment is not by providing market-based microsolutions. Macroproblems need macrosolutions.”

. . . to Moral Hazard

Returning to the Clinton-DLC projects of the 1990s is like surveying the wreckage of an old broken-down industry. (The DLC finally closed down in 2011.) As with a humming factory built when hopes were high that it would be part of an emerging sector, it must have seemed like “reinventing government” had great promise at the time. Either way, a huge chunk of resources went into building the DLC, and hammering its messages through, especially via the talented salesman Bill Clinton. Yet so much of the politics of that era accepted Republican assumptions that welfare spending, crime, and the “improvement” of the poor were the front-and-center challenges of the day—as opposed to, for example, reining in the excesses of the wealthy, strengthening unions, or maybe not deregulating finance in ways that would lead to an implosion of the mortgage industry and the near meltdown, in 2008, of the entire economy. You can talk about the power of credit—what we got out of the modernization and “creativity” of the financial sector as unloosed by Republicans and Democrats was a crushing load of personal debt and a wave of foreclosures that swamps any good that was ever done by all the Clintons’ devotion to microlending.

You have to ask whether these people just completely misunderstood American capitalism.

You have to ask whether these people just completely misunderstood American capitalism as it exists in the real world. It does not inspire confidence that the Democratic Party spent so much time, under Clinton and again under Obama, wholly absorbed in a project to invent a softer Reaganism, thinking the voters would reward them for being “smarter” or “nicer” as they sought to end “welfare dependency” and spoke in reasonable, even tones as the “adults in the room.” They would reduce the budget deficits! They saw their future as the better policy party, where better policy meant fostering entrepreneurialism, market-based solutions, and self-employment through the savvy use of credit. They would tinker with the health care system, but only in ways sanctioned by the big players. They would repair the damage when the big bankers got out of control.

Democrats lost the South because Republicans cynically inflamed racism, yes. But many wounds have been self-inflicted, and many treatments shunned. It was in the labor movement where you’d hear the slogan “Black and white, unite and fight!”—yet the Democrats lost interest in supporting unions with better labor laws, pushing for industry-killing trade laws instead. To keep at least a few rural states in the Democratic coalition, the party needed to tap into authentic American economic populism, but that language was horrifying to Democratic funders and consultants. Young people on the left are expected to vote for Democrats as the default option, but they aren’t embraced by the party. In fact, the entire left wing of the party—rallied by Jesse Jackson in the late 1980s and Bernie Sanders in recent years—is expected to sit quietly on the back benches. The party’s fondest hopes always seem pinned on attracting more fickle suburban independents, who are presumed to fear the left every bit as much as they are made nervous by the right.

The Democrats had eight years of a Clinton administration and eight years of Obama. It seemed never to occur to them that the wheels really could fall off the democratic jalopy, that a “win at all costs” Republican Party would manipulate the undemocratic features of our creaky constitutional machinery. The Democrats spent crucial years misunderstanding actually existing capitalism, underestimating their opponents’ ruthless tactics and rancid populism, and neglecting to build new coalitions across race and class boundaries in the places where it mattered most. They became the party that asked not what it could do for you, but what you could do for it—by way of a donation. They never got close to a serious effort against inequality and the concentration of wealth; they failed to protect reproductive rights, labor rights, and voting rights. The era of big government was over, said Bill Clinton. It was time to think small.