Build the Party Back Better: Democrats need to become the champions of working people--Black people included.

AuthorKamarck, Elaine C.
PositionWhat It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party

What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party

by Michael Kazin

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pp.

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...

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