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What Defines the Democratic Party?

The longest running theme in the history of the party might be charges of incoherence and disorganization.

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.

What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party
by Michael Kazin
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 416 pp., $35.00

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. A party of outgroups must maintain balky partnerships on a continuing basis to survive, and no party has managed the messy task more formidably than the “organization whose prominent stalwarts,” as Kazin puts it, “once included both Walt Whitman and Jefferson Davis—and, a century later, both George C. Wallace and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.” The terms of such partnerships could be rankly ignoble, surreally tangled, and frequently both at once. When Mississippi’s Klansman governor, Theodore Bilbo, supported the party’s Roman Catholic, anti-Prohibition presidential candidate, Al Smith, in 1928, he justified it thusly: “I would swallow the Pope and the whole dern Vatican than vote for Herbert Hoover and negro supremacy in the South.”

It’s little wonder that the party of strange bedfellows has also, for so much of its history, consistently suffered charges of incoherence and disorganization—of forever being, in the words of a meme birthed by a West Wing episode, “Dems in disarray.” Ideological warriors have seen in the party’s reflexive pragmatism either a sellout’s cynicism or a coward’s learned helplessness. Kazin quotes the 1872 words of a Wisconsin Democratic activist that, with just a few linguistic updates, might have come from a frustrated liberal’s tweet in 2022, comparing his party to “a good shepherd dog, which receives the lash from his master and curls down at his feet and after the whipping licks the hand that administered the blows.”

From one vantage point, this is all fecklessness; from another, resilience. Democrats’ challenges of internal diversity reflect in outsize form the common challenge of all democratic politics, namely to cobble together—and then sustain—coalitions of groups with disparate and conflicting interests in order to achieve majorities in the electorate and in government. The Progressive Herbert Croly was hardly offering praise when, in 1914, he attributed to the Democratic Party “the vitality of a low organism”—but such vitality is in fact necessary to sustain peaceful contests over political control and the acceptance of inevitable transitions of power. The virtues of that accommodation have taken on new meaning during an era in which Democrats now find themselves in competition with a Republican Party lurching heedlessly toward a politics of transgressive anti-democratic reaction. What it takes the Democrats to win is a question now loaded with new urgency, and frightening stakes.

The Democratic Party’s history is not covered in glory. Organized in the later 1820s around the presidential candidacy of Andrew Jackson, the party explicitly laid claim at the outset to the democratic ethos and commitment to government decentralization that had first animated Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party a generation earlier. Democrats long considered both men their party founders, reflected in the “Jefferson-Jackson Dinners” that traditionally served as state parties’ major annual fundraising events. More recently, they’ve felt inclined to knock the slaveholder of Monticello and the architect of the Trail of Tears off the party mantle, with one state Democratic Party after another renaming its fundraiser over the last decade. Yet there’s no expunging the racist lineage from the party’s history: The nineteenth-century Democratic Party birthed mass democracy—and also served as the country’s leading purveyor of racial subjugation and exterminationist violence. These concurrent truths cut to the core of a very American contradiction.

The party emerged from the factional dissolution of the Democratic-Republican Party, which had governed without meaningful competition for a decade after the War of 1812. Amid an expanding market economy and the continuous westward push of white settlers, an internal cleavage within the party of Jefferson revived the core divisions of the Founding era. On one side were those touting strong federal power (including a national banking system) to fund infrastructure and manage economic growth. On the other, self-described true Jeffersonians reasserted a suspicion of the national government as both the enemy of liberty and, relatedly, a tool of Eastern economic elites. As the faction with less well-heeled adherents, they also pushed against lingering norms of political deference and gentry rule when it came to voting and running for office. When the House decided the outcome of the multicandidate presidential election of 1824 in favor of the nationalist John Quincy Adams, Jackson supporters suspected corrupt machinations at work and cried foul. The ensuing fallout gave organizational focus to the true Jeffersonians, who began laying the electoral groundwork for Jackson’s second presidential bid in 1828 by creating a new kind of political organization.

The architect of this effort, whom Kazin justifiably prioritizes in coverage relative to Jackson himself, was Senator Martin Van Buren. The upstate New York son of a Dutch tavern keeper pioneered both the tactics and the philosophy of mass party politics in factional battles he waged in the Empire State: He secured power for his political operation, the Albany Regency, by placing reliable activists in nearly every county in the state to turn out support. Over the course of the 1820s, Van Buren set out to forge alliances with similar organizations across the country, stitching together a network of locally rooted political operations that reached down the class ladder of white farmers and laborers for their electoral muscle.

The result, by the time of Jackson’s presidency, was something “unique in world history,” according to Kazin: a national political party with a genuinely mass base, an embedded civic presence in communities across the country, a network of newspapers, and a system of regular nominating conventions. The class and status distinctions that set the Democrats apart from the opposition, which eventually coalesced as the Whig Party, were hardly absolute; Democrats’ adherents, after all, included not only farmers, artisans, and middling shopkeepers but also some of the country’s richest citizens in the Southern planter class. But the general sense of a party divide between marginals and notables had grounding in reality. “We find,” wrote one contemporary biographer of Jackson, “nearly all the silver-forked civilization of the country ... united in opposition to General Jackson, who represented the country’s untutored instincts.” On behalf of this untutored common man, the Democrats democratized, eliminating the last property restrictions on white men’s voting eligibility while proliferating the number of elective offices in government, from judges to sheriffs to county clerks. The clumsy scholarly term for the country’s electoral regime by the 1830s—“universal white manhood suffrage”—captures well both the power and stark limits of the Democrats’ mission.

Over the next half century, the party pioneered and then elaborated on an approach to political organizing that paired the material incentives of government jobs and distributive goodies—land grants, corporate charters, subsidized construction projects—with the communal pleasures of torchlight parades and clubhouse socializing. In the growing cities of the postbellum North, infused with new European arrivals, the model reached its apogee in highly disciplined political machines that mobilized activists with patronage and voters with face-to-face attendance to the wants and needs of urban life. (The diary of Tammany Hall district leader George Washington Plunkitt logged two funerals, two court visits, a church fair, and a late-night bail arrangement in one 24-hour period.) Powered by such locally rooted organizations, nineteenth-century parties frequently pushed presidential voter turnout rates above 80 percent, while shaping ordinary Americans’ political worlds and connection to government more comprehensively than at any time before or since. Though the Democrats had no monopoly on such political organizing, they were both its vanguard and master practitioners.

While powerfully evoking this lost organizational world, Kazin doesn’t quite do justice to the substantive coherence of nineteenth-century Democrats’ twinned commitments to white popular democracy and racial subjugation. He is, to be sure, careful to keep the party’s racism, from Jackson onward, at center stage—his account never lapses into the apologetics that marred Sean Wilentz’s mammoth, Jackson-ophilic The Rise of American Democracy (2005). But he treats the racism more as a residual, contradictory shortcoming than a constitutive element of the party’s political project. “When Democrats restricted their egalitarianism to whites only,” he writes, “they still espoused the ideal, even as they betrayed it in practice.”

In fact, the Democrats’ commitment to herrenvolk democracy marked not a betrayal but the clearest embodiment of what the legal scholar Aziz Rana calls “the two faces of American freedom.” A full-throated rejection of political hierarchy required—absent a radical acceptance of multiracial democracy—an equally committed exclusion of racial minorities from the political community. In the Jacksonian era, this meant that the party that expanded suffrage for white men and opposed concentrated political and economic power also proved the most vociferous champion of Indian removal, settler expansion, slavery, and the systematic political and physical exclusion of free African Americans in the new Western states. (By the early 1840s, only five states remained that granted any African Americans the right to vote, while at least 8,000 Native Americans had perished in their forced journey from the Southeast to modern-day Oklahoma.) Such political logic reached its apotheosis in the postbellum South, where demagogues like “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman (responsible for the murder of multiple black South Carolinians as head of a terroristic “rifle club” fighting Reconstruction in the 1870s) syphoned votes away from the populist People’s Party by combining modest agrarian reforms with turbocharged appeals to violent racial domination. The White Man’s Republic could only be forged in blood.

What of “moral capitalism”—the party’s insistence that “that the economy should benefit the ordinary working person”? For much of the nineteenth century, Democrats assumed that the federal government, distant from the people and a font of special privileges, naturally aggrandized the power of economic elites. And so their racially bounded egalitarianism lent itself to anti-statist and laissez-faire positions, from opposition to a national bank and federal funding of internal improvements to a commitment to hard currency. That only began to change with the explosive emergence of the Populists in the 1890s, upending electoral politics in the South and West with a program of expansionary monetary policy, federal regulation of the railroads, and a progressive income tax, among other policies that anticipated modern liberalism. When the Populists fused with the Democrats behind William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 presidential bid, they spent themselves as a third force in American politics, but the lingering effect was to shift Democrats’ trajectory toward active government intervention in the economy.

What the party did not do in the early twentieth century was become a vehicle for social democracy, powered by organized labor and advocating for the pillars of a modern welfare state, as emerging mass parties in Western Europe did at the time. Kazin doesn’t tackle this comparison explicitly, but his narrative underscores the significance of the United States having democratized so long before industrialization and the conflicts between labor and capital that attended it. In Western Europe, democratization and industrialization proceeded in tandem, fusing class and electoral politics, so that labor parties grew in power as the party systems themselves developed. But in the United States, turn-of-the-century labor and socialist movements ran hard up against well-institutionalized mass parties already long organized along different lines. Kazin points incisively to reformist stirrings in the Democratic Party in the early decades of the twentieth century; squint hard enough at the white ethnic mobilizations for Al Smith’s campaigns or the social activism of Women’s National Democratic Club members like Frances Perkins and Belle Moskowitz in the 1920s, and you can see premonitions of the realignments to come. But they were only stirrings.

It would take the critical juncture afforded by the Great Depression for a transformed Democratic Party to construct the country’s belated, distinctively jerry-rigged welfare-state regime. That regime would, in turn, undergird a decades-spanning run of political domination for the party. At the center of this story was the emergence of an industrial labor movement working hand in glove with the party of Franklin Roosevelt. Kazin personalizes this partnership in vivid capsule accounts of Senator Robert Wagner, the German-born Tammany pol and legislative architect of New Deal labor policy, and Sidney Hillman, the Lithuanian-born socialist and co-founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, who sought to marry labor’s cause to the Democrats’ electoral appeal as the champion of mass consumption–driven growth.

In the annals of political pitches, no one ever matched left-wing Representative Maury Maverick’s definition of New Deal liberalism: “freedom plus groceries.” Here was a brand of “moral capitalism” to broaden a party base and take to the hustings. In the South, the Democrats augmented the ancestral partisan loyalty they enjoyed by carefully structuring New Deal social policies in ways that accommodated Jim Crow, and by pursuing regional development through new federal spending on rural electrification, flood control, and agriculture support. In the industrial North, they offered the union-sanctioned program of a high-growth mixed economy, combining public and private social insurance benefits for an organized workforce in sectors like auto and heavy manufacturing with progressive taxation, active regulation, and Keynesian economic management in fiscal and monetary policy. Powered by these two political-economic projects, the Democratic coalition loomed across mid-century American politics as a seemingly impregnable electoral Death Star.

But the New Deal political order was in fact an unwieldy juggling act with no equilibrium. Its core contradiction, the bargain between an interracial labor-liberal politics in the North and Jim Crow rule in the South—“a marriage,” in political scientist Ira Katznelson’s old quip, “of Sweden and South Africa”—would unwind across a half century of partisan and programmatic realignment. Mr. Freedom-Plus-Groceries himself proved an early harbinger of the national party’s eventual transformation on racial policy, as Maury Maverick’s support for a federal anti-lynching bill cost him renomination in his San Antonio district in 1938. Fellow Texas Representative Lyndon Johnson took Maverick’s loss to heart, and for decades would wield his story as a totem of the perils of ignoring political reality: “There’s nothing more useless than a dead liberal.” Though national Democratic leaders would emulate LBJ’s political caution for many years to come, the die was already cast by the 1940s, as the labor-liberal coalition began to work in tandem with civil rights activists to put ending Jim Crow at the center of the party’s agenda, while Dixie mounted increasingly rearguard resistance.

The crack-up of the New Deal order in the face of pressures both internal and external is a familiar story that Kazin recounts with brisk assurance. Amid the battles over race, culture, and empire that roiled the Democrats’ big tent by the 1960s, an important organizational thread has too often escaped notice: the decline of local Democratic organizations as rooted and robust presences in communities. First the classic urban machines and eventually the volunteer-led, issue-oriented political clubs that had flourished in the early postwar era went into eclipse. The Democratic paroxysm of 1968 and ensuing battles over party reform did nothing to forestall the party’s organizational atrophy, while an embattled and divided labor movement would struggle to pick up the slack as it had in decades past.

And then came the lean years. Democrats faced a resurgent Republican opposition fueled by Reaganite movement conservatism and a sustained period of electoral and ideological strife across the latter decades of the twentieth century. New global trade pressures, the movement of industry to the low-wage South, and a revived, business-backed assault on labor combined to wallop American workers, unraveling the political-economic basis of the party’s electoral success. Democrats were hardly free of agency in these processes, as an ascendant suburban-based faction of New Democrats increasingly touted free trade, deficit cutting, and public-private partnerships as political salvation while challenging the clout of core Democratic constituencies like labor and civil rights groups. (Delaware Senator Joe Biden, a perennial seeker of the party’s center of gravity as it shifted through the years, typified the disposition of the Democratic cutting edge as of the 1980s when he decried liberals for rendering the party “a fossilized shadow of its former self.”)

The core liberal constituencies in the party’s activist base reflected the political coming of age of the identity-based social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The alliance of feminists, civil rights activists, environmentalists, progressive unions, and consumer groups offered a new iteration of the party’s trademark polyglot coalitionism. It harbingered a viable demographic majority for the coming century, when Democrats would be able to win elections by combining college-educated white support with the votes of racial and ethnic minorities. But it was also a coalition lacking a broad-based economic vision at its center.

Kazin’s account of the Democrats’ post-’70s travails blends a critical tone with a reticence to make concrete claims about who was responsible or what alternative paths were plausible—a frustrating combination. Summing up the era, he declares that “the opportunity was lost to forge a new coalition of working- and lower–middle-class people of all races who shared, despite their mutual suspicions, a desire for a more egalitarian economic order.” But when and where exactly was that opportunity missed—what was the pivotal turning point, the fork in the road? Was it the watering-down of the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill in the Carter years? Ted Kennedy’s left-liberal nomination challenge to Carter in 1980? Did Jesse Jackson’s innovative, hard-edged presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988, to which Kazin devotes some richly moving pages, offer the key to a different political world in their articulation of a new kind of multicultural economic populism? Kazin doesn’t say, just as he skirts the edge of agreement with internal Democratic critics concerning the allegedly baleful influence of “identity politics” without quite committing to it.

The irony of the Democrats’ late-century angst over fragmentation and philosophical disarray is that these same decades saw the emergence of the ideological party sorting that would render the party less and less a balky coalition. Southern realignment and the broader ideological shakeout nationwide pulled white conservatives out of the Democratic Party once and for all while driving the exodus of both social moderates and labor-friendly pols from the GOP. The resulting party system pit Democrats against a Republican Party that married business conservatism with the populist politics of resentment. It would be in the twenty-first century that the consequences of this broader polarization—for all its troublesome impact on governance and political culture writ large—began to bear some constructive fruit inside the Democratic Party.

First, a wave of institution-building and partisan activism during George W. Bush’s presidency, consciously emulative of the conservative movement, helped to bolster the party’s discipline and willingness to fight Republicans without actually shaking it up programmatically. Then, catalyzed by the Great Recession, young activists constructed a genuine and robust factional insurgency from the left, culminating in Bernie Sanders’s two presidential runs and the emergence of a bulked-up and media-savvy progressive wing in Congress. Running in parallel but characteristically separate tracks alongside the Sanders left, meanwhile, the explosive protest politics of Black Lives Matter and the civic mobilizations of the Trump-era Resistance also fed into the spirited but fractious progressive dynamism of contemporary Democratic politics. All the while, the institutional advocates of moderation so seemingly ascendent in the Clinton years fell into notable, and continued, abeyance.

Such is the state of the party now led by Joe Biden, in his sixth active decade in national Democratic politics, during a political moment of agonizing uncertainty. Measured in terms of policy ambition and levels of congressional discipline, the Biden era is unquestionably a time of liberal resurgence, and the man himself has once again shifted with his party. That is a story of polarization. “In any other country,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in 2019, “Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party.” There’s truth in that lament, but just as true is the fact that the distance between an AOC and a Biden—indeed, even the distance between an AOC and a Joe Manchin—marks no great chasm by the historical standards of the party of Whitman and Davis, Powell and Wallace, and Sweden and South Africa.

Holding the barest of congressional majorities while facing the likelihood of electoral doom in the 2022 midterms, the party has opted to shoot the moon legislatively in the short time it has. After muscling through a gigantic stimulus package, party leaders turned to an infrastructure spending bill and a separate smorgasbord of welfare-state and climate legislation. The headaches have not abated since. Passing an entire governing agenda in a few mammoth legislative packages—necessitated by the certainty of uniform GOP opposition and the need to evade filibusters that a handful of party members refuse to abolish outright—does not come naturally for a party steeped in the dead arts of ad hoc dealmaking and bipartisan logrolls. The party’s minimal majority puts its collective fate in the vice grip of the Senate caucus’s two pivotal moderate members, Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, while old pathologies of coalitionism—like a reluctance to set priorities or to say no to any particular constituency—hamstring the rest of the party’s ability to strike a deal with them. None of the legislation that the party has actually been able to pass, meanwhile, has borne any discernible political benefit, as evidenced by Biden’s gloomy poll numbers and the party’s poor showing in off-year elections. As a prescription for political success, “freedom plus groceries” is proving a tall order in a time of Covid, inflation, and the unyielding grimness of legislative math.

Electoral math provides its own grim tidings for Democrats’ short- and long-term prospects, all the more so given their failure to pass structural political reforms like a ban on partisan gerrymandering or the admittance of new states. The ongoing sorting of the parties by education and geography has magnified the GOP’s advantages in the Electoral College, the House, and especially the Senate. And so Democrats find themselves in a crazy-making state of precarity: currently in control of the federal government, routinely capable of plurality and majority performances in national popular votes, but also in plausible, imminent danger of being shut out of national power for many years to come.

What It Took to Win is a rich but accessible book. Kazin shows great instincts throughout for discerning which specific cases to zoom in on and which historical actors to foreground, all in service of his core argument. And he ends his narrative in a tone of sober uncertainty that, at least as it concerns the party’s trajectory, nicely matches the moment. “For Democrats,” he writes, “the election of 2020 spelled relief instead of deliverance from the dilemma of how to build an enduring new majority.” Their grip on power is tenuous, their economic vision remains muddled, and their professionalized party apparatus lacks organic and ongoing connections to working people and their communities. The party’s commitment to social democracy as its twenty-first–century incarnation of “moral capitalism” remains as yet unfulfilled.

In another sense, though, Kazin’s resolute focus on the party’s internal dynamics in the closing pages of the book strikes a strangely discordant note. The greatest challenge facing the political system writ large, after all, is surely not the Democratic Party’s foibles but rather the trajectory of this country’s second major political party, as it hurtles rapidly toward an openly anti-democratic political project. Kazin gives the system-threatening anti-democratic turn of the Trump-era Republican Party one single mention, in the book’s penultimate sentence. But it is precisely that turn that renders Democrats’ current electoral precarity also a potential matter of American democratic precarity. And it puts me in a mind to see in the party’s legacy something valuable beyond questions of program.

E.E. Schattschneider wrote his tribute to the Democratic Party’s organizational tenacity in a book chapter titled “In Defense of Political Parties.” A belief in the value of political parties—in the conviction that, as Schattschneider put it, “democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties”—is still common, perhaps idiosyncratically so, among political scientists. I’ve struggled in the classroom to explain that conviction to skeptical students. Parties turn a potential chaos of atomized governance into something coordinated and coherent—and, thus, comprehensible to voters. At the voting booth, parties simplify those voters’ choices, which is another way of saying they empower voters to make a choice, and to do so in effectual coordination with others. And all the while, the scrappy coalitional work of party-making—the legislative jostling and bargaining, the ground-level tasks of cajoling, begging, and sometimes inspiring voters to turn out, the whole messy enterprise of staying in the tent, pissing out—helps to inculcate democratic norms of participation and win-some-lose-some forbearance.

For all its manifest lapses, the Democratic Party has been the longest-standing practitioner of that particular game on the planet. And the terrifying paradox of our moment is that the stakes of the game turn existential precisely by the opponent’s inclination to stop playing it. The Democrats’ history contains multitudes. They’ve taken their turns in the American political story variously as great villains, saps, egalitarians, sellouts, hacks, idealists, and dealmakers. Teetering on a precipice, they now perform an old role infused with ominous new significance: democrats.

This article was published in the March 2022 print edition with the headline “Big Tent Blues.”