How to Tell the History of the Democrats

How to Tell the History of the Democrats

What connection does the party of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson have to the party of Barack Obama and Kamala Harris?

Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama arrive to deliver remarks on the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid on April 5, 2022. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Booked is a series of interviews about new books. For this edition, Dissent co-editor Timothy Shenk talks to editor emeritus Michael Kazin, the author of What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party (FSG).

Democrats belong to the oldest mass political party in the world. But what connection does the party of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson have to the party of Barack Obama and Kamala Harris? Michael Kazin explores this question in his latest book, What It Took to Win. We spoke about the party’s evolving ambitions, its relationship with the left, and the historical origins of the predicaments facing Democrats—and the rest of us—today.


Timothy Shenk: Let’s start with a question that I couldn’t help thinking about while I was reading: do Democrats today even want to know about their own history? They used to be very proudly the party of Jefferson and Jackson, and now they very much are not.

Michael Kazin: Well, they don’t hold Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinners anymore. I think they do believe that they’re the party of working people—or at least that they should be. I think that’s true across the spectrum; it’s true for both Joe Manchin and AOC. They feel like their claim to power is, “We represent the great majority of people.”

Shenk: With that in mind, it seems like there are two hinge moments in the making of the modern Democratic Party. One takes place in the 1930s, when Democrats became the party of organized labor; the other takes place in the 1960s, when they became the party of civil rights.

Kazin: Don’t forget about the 1890s. Before then, Democrats wanted a weak federal state, partly because the Southern wing didn’t want the federal government to do anything about slavery and, later, Jim Crow. But in the 1890s, the farmer-labor movement of the Gilded Age really made an impression on the Democrats as a whole. Part of that is because the Democratic machines signed up immigrants, who came in in large numbers and needed a lot from the government because they were not getting more than a small wage from their employers. William Jennings Bryan’s campaigns, especially the first one in 1896, moved the party at least rhetorically toward favoring a stronger federal state in order to help small farmers and workers—albeit only white ones. It was the height of the party’s anti-monopoly history.

Shenk: Do you think it was more or less inevitable that organized labor would sync up with the Democratic Party in the way that it did in the 1930s? Was there ever a world where organized labor splits between the two and lines up with Republicans?

Kazin: Well, it was split between the two before the 1930s. For example, John L. Lewis—the head of the United Mine Workers—had been a Republican. The Depression changed everything. There were all these pissed-off industrial workers of different ethnic backgrounds who felt like the system was not working for them anymore. This was after it worked pretty well for a lot of them in the 1920s, when wages were going up, there was some profit sharing, and there were some company unions that weren’t always terrible. But that all collapsed. Without the Depression, who knows what would have happened?

Shenk: If the attempt to assassinate FDR in 1933 had succeeded, making John Nance Garner president, it’s hard to see the Democrats becoming the party of organized labor.

Kazin: Contingency really matters. History is not just about structural change.

Shenk: So it’s not an accident that Democrats became the party of organized labor, but it probably wasn’t inevitable. Which might be why even though Democrats have a long history of seeing themselves as the party of the working class, there’s an equally long history of many working-class voters saying, “Actually, no, we like these other people more.”

Kazin: If economic policy and economic visions are key to why you win and why you lose in American politics—and I think they usually have been—then you’d expect working-class people to look to their interests. And a high tariff was in your interest during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries if you were a steel worker in Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, or Ohio. During that period, some white workers in the North voted Republican because the South was the heart of the Democratic Party. They knew that for most white workers, as well as nearly all Black workers, wages in that region were low and living standards were poor.

Shenk: What about the civil rights turn in the 1960s? Was it as rooted in the party’s history as its marriage with organized labor in the 1930s, or was it more of a surprise?

Kazin: It was a huge turnaround. I argue in the book that the CIO had a lot to do with the party’s turn to civil rights. It’s not that suddenly FDR was some great racial egalitarian—he wasn’t. He needed to get the mine workers on his side, as well as the auto workers and the steel workers, and all of those unions were interracial, because Black people worked in those places and socialists and communists were involved in organizing those unions. In 1936, the United Mine Workers was the single-largest contributor to the Democratic Party.

Liberal intellectuals made a difference as well. They had been brought up disliking the Democratic Party as a bastion of racists and corrupt machines. But the anti-fascist stance of FDR and the emerging racial pluralism of the party during the 1930s turned most artists and writers into Democrats.

A growing number of feminists became Democrats, too, beginning in the 1920s. Few prominent white women in the party took a clear stand for civil rights, but they were mostly from New York, and they were used to working with Black people, so it was more difficult for them to stand for a policy of not alienating the white South. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was part of that group, tried to push her husband to take a more forthright stand for civil rights. He didn’t do it. The New Deal coalition only made a few gestures at anti-racism but didn’t actually make the transition until the 1960s.

In 1938, Roosevelt did back primary campaigns against Dixiecrats, but the candidates he supported failed in almost every case. Still, Democrats could see that he was trying to change the party to make it more pro-labor and more friendly to Black voters, a majority of whom voted for the Democrats in 1936 for the first time in history.

Shenk: When I teach the making of the New Deal coalition, it’s difficult to come up with good primary sources because there was no one saying, “Here’s how we should remake the Democratic Party: let’s put the KKK and Black Communists together.” It was such a strange alliance, and as far as I know basically nobody saw it coming ahead of time. So I end up using a memo that two Democratic operatives wrote for Harry Truman in the run-up to the 1948 campaign explaining how he could put FDR’s majority back together. It describes the Democratic Party of 1948 as a party of the South and the West united by their hatred of Wall Street. They argue it had been that way from Jefferson to Jackson to Bryan to FDR, and it was the only way to hold the Democratic coalition together.

What’s striking to me about this interpretation is that it doesn’t at all fit with the story you would get if you just took today’s red-blue map and projected it backward. They’re not saying that a progressive wing of the party in the Northeast has to deal with a bunch of reactionaries in the South and West. They’re saying that there’s a democratic—or maybe just populist—tradition that Democrats must tap into if they want to win.

Kazin: All political historians have to take seriously the fact that we’ve got only two major parties in a big, complicated country. Both are made up of coalitions of people who in other countries would be in different parties. For that reason, you have to find the lowest common denominator, which sometimes is almost impossible to do. It was impossible in the 1890s, so the party split. It was impossible again in the 1920s, when there were proto–New Dealers like Frances Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt and then there were people like [New York Governor and 1928 Democratic presidential nominee] Al Smith, who became bitter about how the party changed.

Shenk: I am persuaded that there’s a strong case for seeing the Democratic Party’s lineage as the party of working men. But if I were going to write a usable past for the Democratic Party as it is today, I think you could portray them as a party of herrenvolk diversity in the nineteenth century that grew into the multiracial coalition we have today. They were the party that said “live and let live” on slavery in the antebellum period, and the party that welcomed Catholics and other European immigrants into their coalition—basically, the party that said white men were stronger together. And you see a variation of this down to the 1950s, when Adlai Stevenson has to explain why Northern liberals should make common cause with Jim Crow and says that Democrats are “the party of everyone.”

This strain within the party was used to defending what strikes us today as a warped kind of diversity. In the postwar years, a new generation came along that used this emphasis on diversity for very different purposes. But you could argue that there’s been a long-running debate in the party: are we the party of the ordinary working stiff, or are we “the party of everyone”?

Kazin: That all-white form of diversity is hardly one Democrats today would salute. But Democrats used to say, even in the 1920s, “We’re the only national party. Republicans are a sectoral party, just as they were in the 1870s.” And if it weren’t for Vietnam in 1968 and then the economic woes of the 1970s, Democrats might’ve been able to keep the New Deal coalition going.

Shenk: So you think Vietnam really was the crucible of the New Deal order?

Kazin: Sure. Alongside the oil crisis of 1973 and stagflation. Most Americans didn’t know who Keynes was, but they knew that the government was supposed to be keeping the economy stable, and it didn’t do that.

Shenk: But if you wanted to make the case that reactionaries broke the New Deal coalition, you would say that it was really 1968 when the wheels came off the bus.

Kazin: But they came back on the bus. Jimmy Carter got elected in 1976, if barely.

Shenk: With a lot of support from the South.

Kazin: Of course. But he was a terrible politician. He didn’t keep labor on his side. He had no idea how to talk about a better economy in a way that didn’t seem like he was berating people (in his gentle way, but nevertheless). He was facing serious problems that he didn’t create. That’s true for every president, but he had no way to get out of them. At the same time, the labor movement was declining, and the New Deal coalition was dividing over things like busing. It’s not as if he could’ve kept the whole thing together just by supporting labor law reform and backing a strong version of the Humphrey-Hawkins full-employment bill. He should’ve done those things, but that was not going to solve the problem.

Shenk: That’s what’s so frustrating about looking at these debates from the 1960s and ’70s with the benefit of hindsight. You see that Republicans were desperate to put together a majority, and too many Democrats and liberals and leftists of various stripes took theirs for granted. And we’ve been living with the consequences.

Kazin: I agree. The 1968 Democratic Party platform was basically a blueprint for a social democracy: housing and healthcare for everybody. But Humphrey didn’t even talk about it, because all he could do was defend the war, which was all that people cared about. I wish I’d voted for Humphrey. I wasn’t old enough to vote yet. But we New Leftists should have put our disgust for the war-making Democrats aside long enough to keep Richard Nixon out of the White House.

Shenk: You could argue that the stakes are lower today, but a similar dynamic is going on in progressive circles. There are moral causes including racial justice and immigration, and if you can’t get a majority behind them reliably, well, so much the worse for the majority.

Kazin: If Donald Trump didn’t teach you that Democrats, as bad as they sometimes are, are better than the Republicans, I don’t know what will. But I don’t think the issues that progressives and moderates in the party argue about should be deal-breakers the way the Vietnam War was. Three and a half million people died in that war. Nothing Democrats are doing is remotely like that. If Joe Biden were to do to a country what Putin is doing to Ukraine, then I could not support the Democrats, if they were supporting him. The party would be split.

What Trump did has not split his party, at least enough, even after January 6. The problem for leftists, and this has always been a problem, is that you have to build your movement based on moral appeals and serious determination to push certain issues forward, but you also have to form alliances whenever possible with a governing party, or else you’re not going to turn your desires into law. And you have to build institutions to be able to do that. It’s a matter of strategy. The Democratic Party is the only party that will invite progressives into its fold and even maybe do anything that progressives want done—if progressives push them in a smart way.

Shenk: You’ve written a history of the Democratic Party, and you’ve also written a history of the American left. One way that you’ve tried to reconcile the tension between those two groups is to say that the fortunes of the left are linked to the Democratic Party. The Great Society, the New Deal—those are significant moments not just for the Democrats but for the left. Even if both sides have disagreements in theory, when you win, it’s better for everyone.

Kazin: You put it very well.

Shenk: But it doesn’t feel that way right now. Democrats have control over two of the branches of government—the narrowest possible control, but still, control—and it’s coincided with what feels like a backlash that’s taken some of the wind out of left movements that flourished in the Trump years. In retrospect, 2020 looks like a victory that set both Democrats and the left up for some big disappointments.

Kazin: If you win narrow majorities, you’re not going to accomplish big things. That’s just a truism of politics. It was foolish for Democrats, whether progressive or otherwise, to believe that somehow Manchin or Sinema were going to be for this broad agenda—ending the filibuster and everything else. Nobody expected Democrats to control the Senate in the first place. You have to prepare the ground for later victories. Leftists did that, I would argue, in the early twentieth century and the 1890s, to some degree; they did it in the 1920s and even the 1950s, when the Black freedom movement really got going in a major way. To me, the best thing that happened on the left—beginning with Bernie in 2016—is that leftists ran as Democrats. The third party mirage was for the most part thrown away. That was true in the ’30s, too.

Shenk: Like the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party.

Kazin: There were two Communist congressmen in the ’30s, even though they didn’t admit they were members.

Republicans are almost certainly going to win back the House and probably the Senate, the way things look now. So what do progressives do about that? What do leftists do? Do they say, “We tried, forget about it,” or do they say, “It’s hard to win majorities. How do we do that?”

The key is to help working-class people build institutions—across racial lines, across immigrant and native-born lines, like the Culinary Workers Local 226 in Nevada did.

If you don’t do that, the most progressive politicians in the world are only going to be able to accomplish so much. If we believe in democracy, people have to organize themselves to make demands. Without the CIO and the AFL, without the Townsend Plan [for Social Security], without [populist Louisiana Governor and Senator] Huey Long even, the New Deal would not have been the New Deal. You’ve got to build movements, and you’ve got to be part of a major party.

Shenk: With institutions as the middle ground between the two. It feels like there are Democrats on one side, there’s populism on the other, and what we’re missing is those institutions that can be a bridge.

Kazin: Social media—which is an institution, just not the kind of institution where you go to build trust with people—makes it hard.

Shenk: You find your tribe. You don’t expand it.

Kazin: People don’t feel they have to talk to one another. Because it’s all about mobilization. That’s a big debate in the Democratic Party, mobilization vs. persuasion, and clearly, to me, the answer is both. You persuade as long as you can, and then when election comes near, you have to mobilize. You can’t do one or the other, because you don’t win that way.


Michael Kazin is editor emeritus of Dissent and the author of What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party (FSG).

Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.


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