Michael Kazin Asks: What Defines the Democratic Party?Historians in the News
tags: political history, Democratic Party
Sam Rosenfeld is an associate professor of political science at Colgate University and author of The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era.
The political scientist E.E. Schattschneider once tried to convey in global terms the sheer potency and resilience of American political parties. “The Democratic party, for example, is truly venerable,” he noted.
Its history is substantially coterminous with that of the Republic, making it the senior of all but three or four of the governments among the original signatories of the Covenant of the League of Nations. Its vitality is proved by the fact that it survived the Civil War when the Republic itself was torn apart and organizations as viable as the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the Baptist Church were split by the conflict between the North and the South. The Democratic Party is therefore one of the most tenacious governing organizations in the world.
Schattschneider wrote those words in 1942. And here, 80 years later, the battered and battle-worn Democratic vessel still beats on—even holding unified control of the federal government, albeit tenuously, as it had in the year of Schattschneider’s musings. The party’s durability, borne of ruthless adaptability more than consistency of cause, may indeed be its one enduring trait across two centuries of electoral life. “Tenacious” is an apt descriptor for the Democratic Party in much the way it is for a weed, or termites.
The title of Michael Kazin’s very fine new history of the Democrats, What It Took to Win, likewise captures that hard core of pragmatism embedded in what he notes is “the oldest mass party in the world.” By useful contrast, when historian Heather Cox Richardson published a history of the Republican Party in 2014, she called it To Make Men Free. If an edge of zeal, whether in revolution or reaction, has colored the GOP throughout its life, it’s the coalitional instinct that is most deeply imprinted in the Democrats’ DNA. Long the party of religious, regional, and ethnic outgroups, Democrats made a virtue of necessity by turning bargaining and practical-minded teamsmanship—the back scratched, the favor returned—into bedrock ethics of politics. Lyndon Johnson invoked that spirit in his frequent admonitions to fellow pols to “follow the prophet Isaiah … ‘come now, let us reason together.’” And, to lift a different, less high-minded axiom from LBJ, the Democratic Party has always thought it better to have people inside its big tent, pissing out, than to keep them outside, pissing in.
This has not stopped historians of the party trying to identify a current of ideas that runs from its founding to its present. Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown and editor emeritus of Dissent, thinks he has found it in the concept of “moral capitalism.” Democrats since the Age of Jackson, he argues, have “insisted that the economy should benefit the ordinary working person, whether farmer or wage earner, and that governments should institute policies to make that possible”—though for the first century of the party’s existence that commitment was strictly racially circumscribed. Kazin’s exploration of this ideological tenet is rich and nuanced, but he’s too careful a historian not to cover numerous party efforts that don’t really fit the bill, from the starchy laissez-faire of Grover Cleveland to the suburban neoliberalism of Clintonite New Democrats.
More than any consistent program, the clearest through line in Kazin’s account is simply the Democrats’ commitment to muddling through.
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