What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party
(Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2022)
As I compose this review, the US Congressional midterms are still some four weeks away. However, two European countries, long seen as the bastions of left-wing, “socialist,” and pro-labor politics, have seen the electoral victory of the far right. Sweden has long been the model “social democratic welfare state.” Strong unions and a pragmatic social-democratic party were purported to have created a regulated capitalist economy that guaranteed its population secure employment, wide-spread home ownership and generous social benefits that protect them against the impact of occasional unemployment. Italy was, for most of the second half of the twentieth century, the home of the largest Communist Party outside the bureaucratic societies. While excluded from national government since the late 1940s, the Italian Communists ruled many cities in the country’s industrial North and were able to insure that “centrist” government regulated the labor market and provided generous welfare benefits.
Today, parties with their historic origins in fascist organizations, the Swedish Democrats and the Brothers of Italy will lead right-wing coalitions. While both parties have shed their street fighting militias in favor of electoral legitimacy, their anti-immigrant, racist, and Queer-phobic policies will provide a fertile environment for their old shock troops to regroup and terrorize working people, immigrant and native-born. The majority of their support comes from the middle classes (small business, low-level supervisors and technicians). However, their pledges to maintain social welfare benefits for “native-born” Italians and Swedes captured the support of a minority of traditionally left-wing voters disgusted with the “establishment left’s” support of neoliberal austerity over the past forty years. As the global capitalist economy slides toward a new recession, austerity will become the goal of these right-populist governments as well.
The victories of the far-right in Europe and the continued appeal of Trumpism will shape the 2022 US elections. For the largest organization of the US left, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the only alternative is electing expanded Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. A minority of DSA activists will continue to present their campaigning for Democrats as “class struggle elections” that spread the message of “socialism” and perhaps prepare for a “dirty break” toward independent working-class politics in some undefined future. However, many more DSA members will defend their support for capital’s second most enthusiastic party as part of a long-term effort to push the Democrats to the left, and eventually transform it into a party of social-democratic reform. Ultimately, most of the organized US left, and large layers of liberal public opinion, will campaign and vote for Democrats, no matter how committed to neoliberalism, as a “lesser evil” that can purportedly slow and eventually stem the shift to the right in the US.
Michael Kazin’s new history of the Democratic Party is an important intervention in this political conjuncture. Kazin, an historian of US populism and labor and former editor of Dissent, is no simple academic. A former leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Kazin is a founding member of DSA’s “North Star” caucus that defends DSA founder Michael Harrington’s “realignment strategy” to transform the Democrats into an “American Labor Party.” What It Took to Win is a historical analysis in support of this strategy, attempting to demonstrate that the Democrats are most successful electorally when they build a broad alliance of working- and middle-class people around a program of universal social reform and equal opportunities (but not necessarily equal outcomes) for people of color, women, and LGBTQ folks.
Kazin does not present a sanitized history of the Democratic Party, which sweeps the party’s history of white supremacist politics under the rug. From its foundation as a nationally organized, electorally competitive mass party under Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren in the 1820s through the 1960s, the Democrats built an alliance between the largely immigrant working class and small business people organized by Northern urban party machines and the planter-landlord rulers of the South. The “glue” for this coalition was anti-Black and anti-Asian racism. In the South, the Democrats were the party of chattel slavery and its geographic expansion, sharecropping, and “Jim Crow” segregation and disenfranchisement. In the North, the Democrats won the support of early nineteenth century farmers through Jackson’s forced removal of Native Americans to make way for “white" settlers. By the 1840s, they forged a new alliance with Northern immigrant workers as “white men” whose rights and privileges were to be defended against both rapacious corporations and the competition of “degraded” people from Asia and Africa.
In the twentieth century, Kazin argues, the Democrats were the most successful electorally and legislatively when they allied with burgeoning social movements and built broad alliances of working people, across racial/ethnic and gender lines. Convincing the leadership of insurgent movements to eschew the utopia of third-party politics and elect liberal Democrats allowed the party to implement realistic reforms that created a “moral capitalism” that provided both economic security to working people and equal rights for people of color, women, and Queer folks in the US. The highpoints of the Democrats' historic successes—points on the road map to a future majority—were the New Deal of the mid-ninteen thirties and the “Great Society” and Civil Rights reforms of the 1960s. The election of Obama and the renewal of social struggles around the Wisconsin Uprising and Occupy opened the possibility of a new period of Democratic hegemony, but this was dashed by the growth of the Tea Party and an aggressive new right in the US.
The Democrats’ electoral coalition of the 1930s began to unravel in the wake of World War II. As the party in the North sought to win the growing African-American population away from the Republicans, southern Dixiecrats went into revolt. Strom Thurmond’s “States Rights Party” of 1948 bolted from the Democrats when the party adopted a mildly pro-Civil Rights platform, winning majorities in South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. Although Truman eked out a victory that year, the Democrats were never again able to rely on the “solid South.” The Democrats’ embrace of desegregation and Black voting rights in the 1960s propelled most white Southerners to the Republicans. At the same time, the “Great Society” program’s tendency to target the poorest sections of the population—who were disproportionately people of color—alienated many Northern white workers, according to Kazin. These workers became the “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s, and were a growing part of the right-wing populist wave that culminated in the victory of Trump in 2016.
Since the 1970s, the Democrats have evolved from the “party of working people” into a coalition of coastal “cosmopolitan elites”—urban college-educated professionals—supported by African-American, Latinx, and immigrant voters. According to Kazin, white workers were already disgruntled over social policies that benefited non-whites, but were driven further from the Democrats after the temporary take-over of the party by anti-war liberals in 1972. While the Democrats quickly returned to their support for the US empire, many of the leaders of the McGovern insurgency, like the Clintons and Kerry, remained and became the key cadre of the party’s neoliberal turn in the late 1980s. These forces, organized through the Democratic Leadership Council, sought to free the party from the influence of “special interests”—unions, civil rights, women’s, and LGBTQ organizations demanding both new redistributive social reforms and aggressive enforcement of anti-discrimination policies. The party’s embrace of “free trade,” economic deregulation, and “welfare reform” fed growing working-class electoral abstention. In an overwhelmingly middle-class electorate, the Democrats can rely only on the urban professionals and managers and the majority of voters of color—a coalition that cannot be the basis for a renewed Democratic hegemony over the Federal government.
For Kazin, recreating their base among working-class voters is the greatest challenge facing the Democrats in their struggle to stem the tide of right-wing populism. Kazin does not, as some on the new social-democratic left have done, argue that the Democrats must abandon “identity politics” and eschew all policies that protect racial minorities, women, and LGBTQ people. However, his program for recreating the “New Deal” coalition of working people – minus the Dixiecrats and long moribund urban machines—emphasizes the centrality of universal programs. As an enthusiastic supporter of Bernie Sanders and the “Squad,” Kazan looks to a party that champions a renewed “moral capitalism” anchored in Medicare for All, free college tuition, and a Green New Deal to promote public and private employment building a new environmentally friendly infrastructure.
Kazin’s book has already won enthusiastic praise from left-liberals and many in DSA. Their enthusiasm reflects not the originality and rigor of his analysis, but their embrace of a “history” that supports their political strategy—shifting the Democrats to the left in order to stop the Republican right. Unfortunately, Kazin’s history fails to adequately grasp two key issues, which make both his analysis and the dominant strategy on the US left today unrealistic and utopian. First, Kazin’s analysis of the two major waves of pro-working-class reform in the twentieth century—the “second New Deal” of 1935–1936 and the Civil Rights reforms and expansion of the welfare state in the 1960s and 1970s—fundamentally misreads the relationship between insurgent mass movements and Democratic party electoral victories. As a result, Kazin is unable to provide an adequate explanation of the shift to the right in the US since the 1980s, and the growth of racism, xenophobia, sexism, and homo- and transphobia among a minority of older, white workers. Second, Kazin consistently ignores the structural dominance of the capitalist class in the Democratic Party—which makes the party impenetrable by the left and labor in the US.
Historically, it has been independent, massive, and disruptive social movements that have won concrete gains for working people in the US and other capitalist societies. A broad range of scholars1 have demonstrated that the “second New Deal” – the National Labor Relations, Social Security, and Fair Labor Standards Acts—was a direct response to the militant movements of unemployed and industrial workers between 1931 and 1937. These struggles, often led by anti-capitalist radicals hostile to the Democratic Party, engaged in a variety of illegal direct action—mass marches of the unemployed, resistance to evictions and the termination of utilities to the poor, city-wide general strikes, mass picketing, and a wave of factory occupations from 1936 to 1937. The same is true for the wave of Civil Rights legislation and the expansion of social services in the 1960s and 1970s.2 The Black liberation struggle was the driving force of social struggles in this period. Beginning with mass campaigns of civil disobedience in the South, through spontaneous urban uprisings, to the growth of organizations like the Black Panthers and the Revolutionary Union Movements, the African-American freedom struggle inspired and created a template for other independent mass struggles—the movement against the imperialist war in Vietnam, the women’s and gay liberation movements, and the wave of unofficial (wildcat) strikes that shook US industry between 1965 and 1975. It was this wave of unrest that compelled the Federal government, under Democrats and Republicans, to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, expand social programs for the unemployed and working poor, end open discrimination against women and queer people, and establish new agencies to regulate the economy (Occupational Health and Safety Administration, Environmental Protection Administration, etc.)
Democratic (and Republican) administrations and their Congressional supporters did not enact these reforms out of a commitment to a utopian “moral capitalism,” but in order to defuse unrest and restore social stability. The decision of the official leaderships of these movements to channel them into the Democratic Party facilitated this effort, derailing these struggles and opening the way to the right and the roll-back of popular gains. The leadership of the new industrial unions, gathered together in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), created the Labor Non-Partisan League to undermine independent labor parties across the industrial Midwest and channel worker insurgency behind Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936. Rather than continuing the second New Deal policies, Roosevelt’s second term saw the end of pro-labor reforms, sharp cuts in job programs as the economy entered a recession, and Roosevelt’s “neutrality” in the “Little Steel” strike, which saw New Deal governors in Ohio and Pennsylvania unleash the police and National Guard against the steel workers’ struggle for union recognition. Undeterred, the leadership of both labor federations surrendered the right to strike during World War II and doubled down on support for the Democrats. The end of the war saw a growing backlash against labor, culminating in the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act and the bipartisan purge of radicals from the labor movement. A similar pattern can be seen as the Civil Rights movement went from “Protest to Politics” after 1965—or as Kim Moody has aptly described it, from “militancy to accommodation.”3 As the Black movement was effectively integrated into the Democratic electoral coalition by the 1970s, not only did Civil Rights and labor reform grind to a halt, but the door was opened to the rolling back of most of these gains by the 1990s.
The “barren marriage” of labor and other social movements and the Democratic Party has not only failed to deliver gains for working and oppressed people, but has encouraged the shift to the right and the growth of reactionary politics among a minority of working people. As the socialist left, union leaders, and the middle-class leaders of the NGO-dominated organizations of women, people of color, and queer folk embrace the Democrats, they find themselves supporting candidates who either oppose their political agenda or who cannot be held to account once elected. As popular disappointment with the Democrats in power deepens, more and more working people stop voting—not out of a radical rejection of the limits of electoral politics in a capitalist state, but out of profound demoralization. “Lesser-evilism”—the argument that we must elect Democrats, no matter how reactionary, to stop the Republicans—encourages the left, unions, and movements to fold their tents and give up their independent organizing in order to guarantee Democratic victories. As the Democrats’ policies fail to reduce, or—as they have since the 1990s—exacerbate social inequality and insecurity, the only alternative is provided by a right which targets people of color, immigrants, and queer folks rather than the capitalists and their system.
It is the decline and disorganization of collective, solidaristic movements and organizations, facilitated through their official leaderships’ subordination to the Democrats since the 1930s, that provides the fertile environment for the growth of racism and other reactionary ideas among a significant minority of workers. The working class under capitalism has a contradictory lived experience.4 On the one hand, workers are brought together as collective producers of goods and services for capital. This collective experience is the basis for independent class organization and struggle, which requires directly confronting racialized and gendered divisions amongst workers, and promotes working-class radicalism. On the other hand, workers are also individualized sellers of their capacity to work, competing with one another for jobs, housing, etc. This experience of labor market competition provides the basis for the growth of racism, sexism, and homo- and transphobia among workers, as different groups of workers attempt to defend and advance their position at the expense of other groups of workers. The decline of mass, solidaristic struggle and organization, in particular class-against-class organizations like militant unions, has been the breeding ground for support of a minority of older, white workers for the Republican right from Reagan through Trump.
Some on the social-democratic left might acknowledge that the historical track record of the Democrats’ relationship with mass struggles is less than stellar. But they will respond that the left must redouble its efforts to “realign” the Democrats to the left. This strategy ignores the structural dominance of capitalists in the Democratic Party. As Kim Moody5 argues, the Democratic (and Republican) Parties lack any formal membership and organizational structures. During the Progressive Era, reforms in party organization and election law to limit popular participation in political life created the modern party structure. The construction of the primary system, presented as a democratic reform to limit the power of “party bosses,” effectively destroyed any semblance of an active membership of either party. No longer would party activists have any role in shaping the party’s program and selecting its candidates. Instead, candidates were chosen by self-selected, atomized voters who choose among nominees who are unaccountable to their “base.” While disorganizing the party’s supporters, the primary system also created another arena in which capitalist funding became decisive, as literally billions poured into primary contests to guarantee the reelection of pro-capitalist incumbents.
The Democratic Party’s “tyranny of structurelessness”6 reached new heights with the post-1972 “McGovern reforms.” Not only did these “reforms” create a cadre of appointed “super-delegates” who could veto any primary victories of insurgent candidates, but they facilitated the transformation of the Democrats into a fund-raising cartel. While urban machines and southern “courthouse cliques” were conduits of funds from urban real estate developers, immigrant capitalists, and southern planters to the party, the Democrats’ reliance on direct capitalist funding deepened in the mid to late 1970s. As the capitalist world economy went into recession in 1974–1975, the result of falling profits since the mid-1960s, capitalists around the world abandoned Keynesian “demand management” and the welfare state for neoliberal deregulation and austerity. Not only did the wave of reforms come to an abrupt end, but the role of corporate funding of both parties increased radically.
Since the 1980s, the Democratic Party apparatus is a series of “campaign committees” at the Federal, state, and local levels which are staffed by a cadre of media experts and professional lobbyists who funnel funds from corporations and individual capitalists to Democratic elected officials and candidates. It is this thoroughly informal and unaccountable apparatus that chooses the party’s candidates, determines its program and effectively disciplines elected officials with the threat of losing the funding they will need for “constituent services” and reelection campaigns. Put simply, attempts to remake the Democratic party into a party of social-democratic reform are utopian.
What is the way out of the demoralizing cycle of Democratic party politics that brings few gains for working and oppressed people and facilitates the growth of the populist right? First and foremost, the socialist left must prioritize rebuilding independent organizations to promote a broad range of social struggles. We cannot repeat DSA’s failure to prioritize building the largest social movement in US history—the Black Lives Matter uprising of the summer of 2020—in order to reelect Biden and a Democratic majority in Congress. It will be, as it has been historically, militant struggles in workplaces and the streets that will build working-class and popular organization, power, and radicalism. These movements will be crucial to the reorganization of various “infrastructures of resistance” (rank-and-file groupings in work places, independent organizations of people of color, women, and queer folk, etc.) and a “militant minority” of working people who will promote struggles today and prepare for an independent, radical working-class party in the future.
France Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (New York: Random House, 1971); Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York; Random House, 1979); Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class (London: Verso, 1986); Michael Goldfield, “Worker Insurgency, Radical Organization, and New Deal Labor Legislation” American Political Science Review 83, 4 (1989), pp. 1257-1281; Rhonda F. Levine, Class Struggle and the New Deal: Industrial Labor, Industrial Capital, and the State (Lawrence KS: University of Kansas Press, 1988)
In addition to the sources cited above, see Michael Goldfield, Color of Politics: Race and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: New Press, 1997); Robert Brenner, Aaron Brenner and Calvin Winslow, Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1960s (London: Verso, 2010) and Kim Moody, Breaking the Impasse: Electoral Politics, Mass Action & the New Socialist Movement in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2022).
Moody, Breaking the Impasse, Chapter 4.
Johanna Brenner and Robert Brenner, “Reagan, the Right and the Working Class” Verso Blog (15 November 2016—originally published in Against the Current, 1981) [https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2939-reagan-the-right-and-the-working-class]
On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), Part III; and Breaking the Impasse, Chapters 1-4.
Jo Freeman, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” The Second Wave, 2, 1 (1972) [https://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm]