It is the world’s oldest mass political organization, founded by Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren in the early nineteenth century, promoted at first through partisan newspapers and now releasing TikTok fundraising videos. For all its flaws, what contemporaries in the 1800s called “The Democracy” may provide the last line of defense for republican government. Many members of its rival party now spout absurd conspiracy theories and remain in thrall to a former—and perhaps future—president still trying to overturn the 2020 election through unconstitutional means.
Enter Michael Kazin. His new book, What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party, could not be better timed. The underlying questions are simple: Can the Democrats win? And can they save American democracy while doing so?
Topic and author are well matched. Kazin’s scholarly career began with a monograph on the labor movement in nineteenth-century San Francisco. He has also written impressive studies of the American peace movement during World War I and populism on both the Left and the Right in American history. His most influential book was his most unlikely: a biography of the three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan. Bryan’s evangelical Protestantism—he died while campaigning against the teaching of evolution in public schools—has recently overshadowed his pleas for a more equitable economy. Kazin reclaimed this populist Bryan, whose religious convictions informed not just his support for Prohibition but also his impassioned defense of ordinary farmers and workers.
Bryan, the voice of Nebraska’s farmers, and Kazin, the son of prominent New York intellectuals, might seem an unlikely pair. What they shared—and what Kazin believes has informed the Democratic party throughout its history—is belief in a “moral capitalism.” In the nineteenth century, this meant the defense of common people against manipulative banks and financiers. In the twentieth century, moral capitalism meant Social Security, the GI Bill, and Medicare, all devised during Democratic administrations and now, as Kazin writes, “impregnable pillars of state policy.” The Affordable Care Act might join this list, as participation in the program grows and as Republicans abandon their hope of destroying it.
Kazin knows and regrets that moral capitalism did not mean racial equality. The Democratic party at its origin and until the mid-twentieth century was a white man’s enterprise. Many of the party’s leading figures, including Thomas Jefferson (whose Democratic faction preceded the Democratic Party) and Andrew Jackson, were unapologetic slave owners. Jackson brutalized Native Americans to appease land-hungry white settlers. Interestingly, Martin Van Buren, who created the actual organization of the Democratic Party in the 1820s and 1830s, ended his life leading an anti-slavery political party. More typically, however, Democrats, including the many Irish Catholics drawn to the party for its rejection of nativism, only grudgingly supported the abolition of slavery. Most Democrats derided Reconstruction. In the South they drafted laws guaranteeing racial segregation. Woodrow Wilson founded the Federal Trade Commission and pushed through the first graduated income tax. He also mandated segregated lunchrooms in federal buildings.
Much of What It Took to Win detours in interesting ways from textbook narratives. For example, Kazin identifies Frances Perkins and other women advisors to New York governors Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt as central to the foundations of the American social-welfare state. His sketches of Hubert Humphrey, the mayor of Minneapolis, and Adam Clayton Powell, the congressman from Harlem, illuminate how in the 1940s the two men pushed the Democratic Party away from its segregationist history and toward a commitment to racial equality.
Humphrey urged civil and human rights at the Democratic convention in 1948, although the gesture spurred southern Democrats such as South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond toward a short-lived Dixiecrat third party. Black voters became (and remain) a core Democratic constituency. Civil-rights legislation in the 1960s was a bipartisan project, supported by many moderate Republicans such as Nelson Rockefeller, but northern Democrats and one southern Democrat in the Oval Office, Lyndon Johnson, took the lead.
Historians used to occupy more of a bully pulpit in public affairs. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the most prominent mid-twentieth-century historian of the Democratic Party, began his career with a pathbreaking 1945 study of the age of Jackson and then authored three volumes on the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. He famously advised John F. Kennedy and composed a celebratory history of the Kennedy administration. Schlesinger’s journals, published in 2007, confirm his mover-shaker status as they detail lunches at the Century Club in New York and trips to Washington to attend high-level party strategy meetings.
Kazin perches on a different branch of the influence tree. As a college student in the late 1960s, he turned away from the Democratic Party out of disgust with its support for the American war effort in Vietnam. He became active in Students for a Democratic Society, a group disdainful of Schlesinger’s establishment liberalism. Kazin is a longtime editor of Dissent, a magazine of the Left. Very much like Schlesinger, though, Kazin encourages historians to cultivate a public voice. He bemoans putatively radical academics mining “postmodern discourse theories” while crafting prose “only an insomniac could appreciate.”
What It Took to Win hints at Kazin’s presence on the edge of a more diffuse, looser Democratic Party establishment. He teaches at Georgetown and is familiar with Washington D.C.’s political circuits. He met with Congressman Richard Gephardt after the catastrophic Democratic losses in 1994. He played poker, we learn, with Bill Clinton’s aide, George Stephanopoulos. He drafted a historians’ manifesto in support of Barack Obama as he battled Hillary Clinton in 2008. His son managed a successful 2018 Democratic senatorial campaign.