The historian Michael Kazin has produced a fascinating, if disturbing, history of the world’s oldest political party—the Democrats. As he weaves together a tale that runs over 200 years, he argues that the guiding theme of the party has always been its insistence that “the economy should benefit the ordinary working person, whether farmer or wage earner, and that governments should institute policies to make that possible—and to resist those that did not.” Throughout their history, Democrats have pushed through resistance from opponents both familiar and lost to time—Federalists, Whigs, Know-Nothings, and Republicans—in order to ensure a fair shake for the working man.
As long as that man was white. And herein lies the story.
Like Kazin, I am a lifelong Democrat who has worked in countless campaigns and served for years on the Democratic National Committee. Like Kazin, I believe that the core values of the Democratic Party revolve around creation of an economy that benefits the ordinary worker. But I was troubled by having to confront the full history of Democrats’ struggle for the working class, which, until at least the latter half of the 20th century, was consistently undermined by persistent and ugly racism.
The tension between the politics of the white working class and minorities exists today, despite the Democratic Party’s turn toward civil rights and diversity, and the party’s political future depends on resolving that dissonance. Any hope Democrats have of retaining power in the future and preventing a return to Trumpism rests on their ability to bring together African Americans, new immigrants, and blue-collar whites.
The first 150 years of the Democratic Party’s history are full of disturbing episodes that illustrate, in Kazin’s terms, “two key and often interlocking aspects of the party’s ideology from its beginnings into the 1930s: defending racial hierarchy and representing the interests of ordinary white farmers and workers.” For instance, Andrew Jackson, the first modern Democratic president, stayed true to the economic interests of the average worker by fighting and defeating the creation of a national bank. As Kazin tells it, “The battle over the ‘Monster Bank’ in the early 1830s was an epic struggle to counter the sway of high finance and determine what elected officials could and should do to promote or restrain it.” This took place, however, alongside the systematic removal of thousands of Cherokees from their homeland in Georgia and the continued support of the party for slavery.
Over time, the Democratic Party has expanded its definition of who gets to be included in its fight for the average worker. In the run-up to the Civil War, the party warmly welcomed an oncoming wave of Irish immigrants—who made up 40 percent of all U.S. immigrants by 1850—despite suspicion and hostility from “anti-Papist” nativists. But the impact of these new immigrants, who became the base of the northern Democratic Party, had its dark side. The party in 1863 opposed the Emancipation Proclamation in part because new Irish citizens feared that a flood of freed slaves would compete for the jobs that sustained them in big northern cities.
During the Civil War, the Democrats split, with the southerners joining the Confederacy and the remaining Democrats staying to support the Union, but not abolition. By the time the war was winding down, Democrats were a distinct minority, having failed to embrace a changing electorate or unify their fractured identity, which, Kazin writes, encompassed “culturally dissimilar” areas such as the white South, immigrant-filled northern cities, and the populist territories of the Mountain West.
And yet Democrats stayed true to their racist past. Even before the war had been finally won, the Democratic Party platform in 1864, according to Kazin, “welcomed the slave South to rejoin the Union with, evidently, no hard feelings.” In what has been a familiar story in American politics, the Democrats jettisoned their concern for the working man in favor of playing the race card. Kazin writes, “The brief document said nothing at all about such economic issues as banking, the tariff, and the rights of workingmen on which the Democracy had once staked its claim to represent a majority of voters.” In the presidential election of 1868, the Democrats were the race-baiters.
By 1870, Democrats had conceded the end of slavery. And although they had opposed the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution (establishing equal protection under the law), by the time the Fifteenth Amendment came up (protecting the right to vote regardless of race) Democrats in Congress supported it. The “New Departure” was, however, part of a duplicitous game. “Officially,” writes Kazin, “they acquiesced to Black suffrage.” And yet, “at the same time, they made no protest when the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante groups filled with former Confederate soldiers attacked African American voters and the officeholders, Black and white, they had elected.”
Throughout this period, the persistent racism of the Democratic Party moved hand in hand with attacks on the monied classes, on bankers, and on Wall Street. Democrats built one kind of machine in the South and another in the North, both of which excluded Black Americans. Freed slaves began moving north in large numbers in the 1870s, spurring fears that they might compete for jobs; meanwhile, in the South, Jim Crow laws constrained Black voters, who were effectively abandoned by Republicans. The century ended with the three losing campaigns of William Jennings Bryan, a fiery populist who, in Kazin’s words, “sought to curb the power and influence of finance capital. But unlike Old Hickory, he hailed the growth of organized labor.”
By the beginning of the 20th century Reconstruction was dead, African Americans were effectively disenfranchised, and Democrats were in solid control of the South. Schisms in the Republican Party—especially Teddy Roosevelt’s defection to the Bull Moose Party in 1912—allowed Democrats to elect Woodrow Wilson twice and reemerge as a party of economic reform. Under Wilson, southern Democrats guided landmark legislation that reduced tariffs, imposed an income tax on the rich, toughened antitrust laws, guaranteed an eight-hour workday to railway workers, and created the Federal Reserve System. With that last reform, Democrats moved control of the financial system out of the hands of private Wall Street trusts, thus fulfilling their economic promise—at least to white men. At the same time, Wilson, an arch-segregationist, perpetuated his party’s racist agenda by kicking Black citizens out of the civil service and vocally defending the Ku Klux Klan.
Apart from Wilson, who pursued an ambitious but doomed international agenda, Democrats did not do well in the early part of the 20th century. Al Smith, the first Roman Catholic to win a major party nomination, went down to a landslide defeat in 1928.
Then came the Great Depression, a disaster so cataclysmic that all sorts of voters moved to the Democratic Party—including Black Americans, who began to abandon the party of Lincoln. Only at that point does the Democratic Party begin to resemble the party we know today. Franklin Roosevelt won a landslide presidential election in 1932, a victory remarkable not only for its overwhelming margins but also for its durability, since he managed to hold on to many of those voters despite his ambivalence to civil rights. Though many of the most celebrated New Deal programs effectively excluded Black Americans, some level of economic relief was still available to them, particularly through Democratic machines in urban areas. This helped to create a realignment among Black voters in the North, who were particularly hard hit by the Depression and whose generational loyalty to Republicans had faded.
During this time, the American labor union also grew to become a mainstay of Democratic Party strength—so much so that Kazin calls this chapter “An American Labor Party? 1933–1948.” In a break with the past, Roosevelt’s Democratic National Committee set up four separate departments—the Labor Division, the Youth Division, the Puerto Rican and Spanish Division, and, in what Kazin calls “a modest break with the party’s racist history,” the Colored Division. When a young Hubert Humphrey, then mayor of Minneapolis, gave a stem-winder of a speech to the 1948 Democratic National Convention in favor of a civil rights plank in the platform—and the nominee that year, Harry Truman, was successful—Democrats had finally turned the corner on their racist past.
From then on, the history is a more familiar one. By the 1960s, the Democratic Party was closely aligned with the civil rights movement and the labor movement. For one glorious moment in 1964, the party managed to pull everyone together into a landslide victory, which President Lyndon Johnson used to enfranchise African Americans and finally end the poisonous compromises on civil rights made during Reconstruction.
But then the backlash began. It erupted at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where protesters inside and outside the hall clashed, often violently, over the Vietnam War. The Democratic Party that emerged in 1972, after delegate selection rules broke the power of the “regular” Democratic Party to control the nomination process, was a party of the future: Blacks, women, college kids, and even gay people. But most Americans weren’t ready for it. The Republicans dubbed it the party of “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” As George McGovern went down in a landslide loss to Richard Nixon in 1972, the New York Times columnist James Reston wrote, “The only logical explanation of the Democratic Presidential campaign is that it must have been planned by Republicans.” The Democrats’ “Solid South” had already begun to crumble with the election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, but this transformation picked up speed after 1964, as Republicans began to win open seats and some Democrats switched parties. By the time of George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, the South was again solid—solidly Republican.
So what is the Democratic Party today? Kazin correctly observes that, in 2020, “the coalition that vanquished Donald Trump was also virtually the same one that had narrowly failed to defeat him in 2016. Majorities of college-educated people of all races from large metropolitan areas and of Black and Hispanic working people were enough to carry the popular vote and turn just enough red states blue to win the presidency.”
If this description of a political party were applied to America in 1900, or even 1950, that party would be a sure loser. But the demographic changes seen in 21st-century America make this a competitive coalition—albeit not always a winning one. In 1950, less than 10 percent of Americans had a four-year college degree. Today that number is over 30 percent and growing. The Millennial generation is by far the most diverse one, as well as the most liberal regardless of race, with Millennial whites expressing more left-leaning views than their older counterparts. We know from political science that party identification gets established at a young age and more or less continues throughout one’s lifetime.
But the impact of generational political shifts is glacial. Now that Democrats are more fully the party of equal rights and diversity, they need to figure out a way to hold their diverse base and to cut into a still large white working class. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (in 2008) actually won a majority of working-class whites. (Even though some of the policies they pursued, such as opening trade to China and failing to prosecute bank executives for financial crimes, deepened the alienation felt by that demographic.) In 2020, Joe Biden managed to get a huge turnout from the party’s multicultural urban and suburban base and cut into Trump’s white working-class vote just enough to win. Nonetheless, a small but alarming percentage of Blacks and Latinos defected to Trump, largely because they perceived the Democrats moving left on immigration, crime, and cultural issues. And long term, the diversification of the U.S. population is not guaranteed to advantage Democrats. The African American population is not growing, and Latino Americans are intermarrying quickly, predominantly with whites, and identifying less and less as Hispanic.
So 21st-century Democrats face a very different challenge than they did for most of their history. The broad coalition they forged since the New Deal is badly frayed and the economic appeal of the party is often lost in the culture wars. The job of appealing both to the base and the white working class is easier now, compared to when Bill Clinton broke the Democrats’ losing streak back in 1992, but it still involves a delicate dance between the far left and the center left. Threading that needle is tough but not impossible. Here are a few thoughts.
Simple arithmetic matters.
There are still more voters without college degrees than with them, there are still more white people than people of color, and there are still more conservatives than there are liberals in the electorate. In 1992, Clinton ran in a country where self-identified conservatives outnumbered liberals by more than two to one (43 percent conservative to 17 percent liberal). Founders of the Democratic Leadership Council (including me) viewed Clinton’s neoliberal swing to the center as the only way to save liberalism. By 2020, conservatives still outnumbered liberals, but not as much—conservatives were 36 percent, liberals 25 percent. So while progress has been made, what this means operationally is that Republicans can more easily get away with running a “base” strategy than can Democrats. They simply need fewer moderate voters to get to 51 percent.
Beware the culture wars.
Until the electorate changes, Democratic presidents will be beholden to the moderates in their coalition, who can be vulnerable to race-baiting scare tactics from Republicans. There’s a straight line from Willie Horton, the Black rapist and murderer who featured so prominently in George H. W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, to critical race theory, which the GOP dragged out of obscure corners of academia in the most recent Virginia gubernatorial campaign to scare parents into thinking schools would teach white children to feel guilty. One way to try to counter the Republican disinformation machine is to take on issues clearly and forcefully. Biden did this during the campaign when he said, early and often, “I am not a socialist.” And the other way is to be careful with language—hence my next point.
Find a Democratic Frank Luntz.
Frank Luntz is the Republican wordsmith who is famous for, among other things, marketing estate taxes as “death taxes.” Compare that to the phrase “Defund the police,” which Luntz might have labeled as a “tough-on-crime initiative,” in that it frees police from the burden of moving drug addicts from subway stairs so they can actually solve crimes. Instead, “Defund the police” has become a cudgel with which to beat the Democrats. In November, Minneapolis (George Floyd’s city) rejected a defunding proposal and the mayoral candidate who supported it. Even the city’s African American voters—75 percent—overwhelmingly opposed reducing the size of the police force.
Another such labeling disaster happened when Democrats turned Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda into one combined bill, which promptly became known as the “$3.5 trillion” package—thus shifting the conversation from the contents to the price tag. Democratic labeling is all too often guilty of turning good policy into bad politics.
Focus on controlling economic power.
Democrats need to take on Wall Street, the financialization of the economy, and increasingly monopolistic corporations. As Paul Glastris has argued in this magazine, the government needs to use some long-dormant powers it already has in order to “unwind monopolies.” And as my colleague Bill Galston points out, the growth of monopoly power is directly correlated with less market power for labor. When Democrats take on entrenched economic power, it allows them to transcend the constant undercurrent of racism that is so deadly to our politics.
Biden has laid out a regulatory agenda to do some of this, but Democrats increasingly represent a small, wealthy base in high-income, high-cost-of-living states, which makes them tone-deaf to the needs of the struggling middle class elsewhere. The latest example is the Senate Democrats’ insistence on raising the current federal deduction for state and local taxes (known as the SALT cap) from $10,000 to $80,000. A cap this high benefits very rich people and has the potential to undercut all the Democratic messaging on the economy.
Pay attention to how the government runs.
President George W. Bush suffered greatly from the mess that was the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. President Obama suffered from the crashing of the health care websites. But since Democrats have been the party of government ever since Roosevelt created the modern government, every administrative failure hurts them more than it hurts Republicans. For the current Democratic administration, this means paying attention to the nitty-gritty of implementation—getting the infrastructure money out the door quickly and with no scandals; ramping up personnel at the border to address the backlog of immigration cases; and pushing COVID-19 vaccines and medications.
Build a 21st-century labor movement.
As Kazin points out, historically the strength of the Democratic Party reflected the strength of the American labor movement. But in recent decades, union membership has fallen to all-time lows. The causes are many: changes in the global economy; the flight of manufacturing to foreign countries; and a history of corruption, racism, and sexism among union leadership. It’s time for a new union movement—one that can help workers develop the skills needed in the new economy, shrink the massive inequality that has emerged in the 21st century, and include workers in the growing “gig” economy.
Don’t count on Donald Trump to save the Democrats.
As the Virginia governor’s race showed, the Republican Party without Donald Trump is a force to be reckoned with. The winner, Republican Glenn Youngkin, showed other Republicans how to hold the Trump vote without having Trump in the forefront of the race. Democrats need to be worried—the suburban vote is not a lock. Take away Trump and his insults, his bullying, and his lying, and there’s a Republican Party that appeals to enough suburbanites to thwart Democratic victories.
If some of these things sound like small-bore strategies, it’s because they are. Politically we are a closely divided country. Small changes—in the white working-class vote, in Black turnout, in the votes of suburban women—can have big effects on the winner-take-all systems that determine power in the Electoral College and in Congress.
And all of those constituencies need to support one another, rather than focus on their own interests or on ideological purity. Kazin’s book ends with a tribute to members of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which organized workers on the Las Vegas strip. Building on that story, his final advice is sound: “The Democratic Party, as during the heydays of the New Deal and the Great Society, can taste victory consistently only if its activists, candidates, and officeholders debate their differences without one side denouncing or seeking to purge another.” Amen.