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Review: How to fix the Democratic Party? A new book uses history to make its case

A headshot of a man in a dark gray button-down
Michael Kazin brings historical context to an intraparty debate in “What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party.”
(Stephen Voss)
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What it Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party

By Michael Kazin
FSG: 416 pages, $35

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When Joe Biden ran for president against a diverse crowd of younger Democrats in 2020, the septuagenarian candidly acknowledged he was a transitional leader in a party itching for generational change. He was nominated mostly because Democrats saw him as their best bet against President Trump, so Biden’s victory marked an interregnum rather than a turning point in the history of the Democratic Party.

With that choice, Democrats postponed a needed debate about the future of the nation’s oldest party, which hasn’t had a commanding grip on national power since the collapse of its New Deal coalition decades ago.

“For Democrats, the election of 2020 spelled relief instead of deliverance from the dilemma of how to build an enduring new majority,” Georgetown historian Michael Kazin writes in his new book, “What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party.”

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In his sweeping account, Kazin takes a big step back to see a way forward, searching for clues to Democrats’ successes and failures over the last 200 years. It is an illuminating shift of perspective for Democrats now transfixed by internal struggles and dispirited by their grim prospects in this year’s midterm elections.

His conclusion: The party’s most lasting periods of electoral success came when Democrats made a convincing appeal to the economic interests of ordinary working people — an egalitarian ideology he calls moral capitalism.

“Only programs designed to make life more prosperous, or at least more secure, for ordinary people proved capable of uniting Democrats and winning over enough voters to enable the party to create a governing majority that could last for more than one or two election cycles,” he declares.

Jim Tankersley’s “The Riches of This Land” documents the fall of the American working class and finds fault for Trump’s 2016 win in unexpected places.

This is not a new line of argument, but Kazin provides rich historical context for a longstanding debate about Democratic priorities that today can often seem shortsighted and shallow: how to reconcile perceived tensions between populism and identity politics, between courting the white working class and securing equity for people of color.

Kazin, who studies American politics and social movements, brings the care of a scholar to a big subject, but he also has a storyteller’s gift for making it accessible. He paints lively portraits of standout figures — some well known, like Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren; others not so prominent, like 19th century banker August Belmont, the longest-serving Democratic National Committee chair.

"What It Took to Win," by Michael Kazin
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

He is upfront about his own partisan leanings: Now editor emeritus of Dissent magazine, Kazin was active in Students for a Democratic Society as a youth. Beginning in 1960, when he was 12, he volunteered for Democratic presidential candidates in every election but two.

But this book is not a cheerleading history that air-brushes the party’s dark side — unlike the Democratic National Committee website, whose history page begins in 1920, when Democrats began to reach beyond their white male segregationist base. Kazin gives an unsparing account of the party’s earlier history — from Jackson’s forced removal of Native Americans to Democrats’ opposition to rights for Black people — and into the 20th century, when the party was slower than Republicans to support women’s suffrage.

And yet he finds a consistent theme as the party transformed itself over two centuries: The egalitarian tenets of moral capitalism — even imperfectly applied — were the key to electoral victory and drove the party’s two major periods of durable majorities.

The first began in 1829 with Jackson’s two terms as president. The populist’s fight against rechartering the Second Bank of the U.S. helped cement Democrats’ reputation as the party of the people. The second was launched in 1933 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered to a Depression-wracked nation a plan of government relief. He assembled a mighty political coalition of Southern Democrats, labor unions and big-city machines that held sway in American politics for a generation.

On the anniversary of the birth of the Works Progress Administration, it’s worth asking what a post-COVID Federal Writers Project might look like.

That coalition unraveled as Southern Democrats deserted over civil rights laws, labor union clout dwindled and city machines became relics. The white working class became disenchanted in the 1960s, Kazin argues, in part because Great Society programs, unlike the New Deal, came to be seen as benefiting the poor and people of color rather than providing economic relief for struggling people of all races.

President Obama has been faulted for not doing enough to cement his winning coalition for the future. Biden’s victory also failed to be a breakthrough: Many of the swing voters who backed him over Trump did not embrace the rest of the Democratic Party, as its down-ballot losses made clear.

Kazin tries to end on a hopeful note by spotlighting a Nevada union — the Culinary Union Local 226 — to illustrate the values he thinks Democrats need to rebuild. The local is a political powerhouse in Las Vegas, a multicultural machine of sorts that reaches beyond traditional workplace services to give members a sense of community and opportunities to participate in politics.

Building that kind of multiracial working class coalition has proven harder on a national scale. Much of Biden’s economic agenda has been geared to their interests, but Donald Trump’s polarizing brand of populism has given the Republican Party new purchase among working class voters.

Kazin’s engaging history is a welcome turn to broader questions about the Democratic Party’s purpose and strategy, which have been overshadowed of late by Democrats’ legislative preoccupations — how to get around holdout Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema; whether to abolish the Senate filibuster; how to salvage Biden’s social policy agenda.

Those are tactical questions about how to play a weak hand, not a searching inquiry Democrats need if they want to be dealt a stronger one any time soon.

A.J. Baime sought to remedy a great civil rights leader’s erasure in “White Lies: The Double Life of Walter F. White and America’s Darkest Secret.”

Hook is a former national political reporter for The Times.

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