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Hope in the Desert: Democratic Party Blues

In 'What It Took to Win,' Michael Kazin traces the history over the past two centuries of what he calls ‘the oldest mass party in the world’.

‘I’m  not a member of an organised political party,’ the American comedian Will Rogers declared. ‘I’m a Democrat.’ When Rogers made this remark, in the early 1930s, the party was just emerging from a decade of disorganisation and defeat. Riven by divisions over Prohibition, immigration, religion and the Ku Klux Klan, Democrats had suffered staggering losses in the presidential elections of the 1920s. In 1924, the party’s nominating convention required more than a hundred rounds of voting even to agree on a presidential candidate. Then, with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, there was a remarkable reversal of fortunes. For decades afterwards, the party almost always controlled Congress and the presidency. But the winning political coalition forged by FDR was shattered in the 1960s and 1970s, and under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan American politics took a conservative turn. Democrats are still divided over how to respond.

Today, an air of foreboding hangs over the party. Despite the rapid economic recovery from the pandemic, Joe Biden’s approval rating hovers around 40 per cent, and polls predict disaster for Democratic candidates in November’s midterm elections. Under the circumstances, Democrats ought to be preparing a clear political message and placing a premium on unity. Instead, infighting between ‘moderates’ and ‘progressives’, coupled with Republican intransigence and the narrowness of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, have doomed Biden’s domestic agenda, centred on the now defunct multi-trillion dollar Build Back Better plan. Proposed legislation strengthening the right to vote went nowhere. It isn’t surprising that many of their own supporters appear to be fed up with the Democrats’ inability to get bills through Congress.

In What It Took to Win, Michael Kazin traces the history over the past two centuries of what he calls ‘the oldest mass party in the world’. Kazin has been engaged with Democratic politics since 1960, when, at the age of twelve, he sported a large campaign button for John F. Kennedy. Until recently he was a co-editor of Dissent, which prides itself on being the nation’s oldest democratic socialist magazine. His previous books include The Populist Persuasion (1995), an illuminating analysis which predated the recent emergence of populist movements in the US and abroad; American Dreamers (2011), about the 20th-century left; and a biography of William Jennings Bryan, published in 2006, which attempted to rescue its protagonist from what E.P. Thompson in a different context called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’. (Condescension regarding Bryan emanates from secular urban liberals who know him only from his condemnation of the theory of evolution in the notorious Scopes Trial of 1925, not his efforts in support of small farmers and urban labourers or his opposition to American imperialism.)