This article appears in the August 2022 issue of The American Prospect. Order here.
What it took to win: A history of the Democratic Party
The Destroyers: The 25-Year Divide in the Republican Party
Three historic changes in the major parties and their social foundations have shaped American politics as we know it today.
The first, beginning in the mid-20th century, was the racial and regional realignment that has made the Democratic Party home to black Americans and most other people of color, while allowing the Republicans to not only capture most of the southern states, but to get. the majority party of white America.
The second was an independent but related cultural shift in which women, gender-nonconforming people, and the more secular, urban, and educated moved toward the Democrats, while the more religious, rural, and less educated, especially men. , moved to the Republican Party. Through the interplay of these two general processes, the Democrats became the party of racial and cultural transformation, while the Republicans became the party of broad pushback, even as they remained the party of business.
The third change has come as a shock, although perhaps it should have been expected from the results of the first two. It was the collapse of the center-right, the takeover of the Republican Party by its ethno-nationalist right wing, and the resulting uncertainty about whether Republicans could still be counted on to uphold the basic rules of democratic government, such as relinquishing power after defeat. election.
Recent changes are not framed in these terms, but two new books on the parties — historian Michael Kazin’s What It Takes to Win: A History of the Democratic Party and journalist Dana Milbank’s The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of Republican Party – Help us reflect on the amazing transformation that political parties have achieved and seriously called into question the survival of American democracy.
Kazin’s book is a comprehensive history of the Democrats from the birth of the party in the early 19th century to the present day. To win, the idea was that, first, it was necessary to make convincingly argued promises to “make the economy serve ordinary people” and, second, to create effective organizations to recruit candidates, turn out voters, and absorb “the energy of rising social movements.” The party was only able to do these things during the two periods when it had a “permanent majority”, from the late 1820s to the mid-1850s and from the 1930s to the late 1960s.
As Kazin makes clear from the start, the Democrats’ egalitarianism was initially limited: “It took an awfully long time for the self-proclaimed People’s Party to welcome the support of those Americans and fight for the needs of those whose skin was not white. and whose gender was not male. Back in the 20th century, the Democrats were a party of white supremacy that could not win power nationally without the Jim Crow South.
While one elite, the very rich, remained republican, another elite, educated and culturally influential, became democratic.
Nevertheless, Kazin argues, the party gave rise to two different, though not necessarily incompatible, egalitarian tendencies. The first was the anti-monopoly current that dominated the party’s early history; the other was the pro-labor current that became central during the New Deal in the 1930s. The first tendency resisted the concentration of economic power; the other resisted exploitation in the workplace. Each tendency laid the foundation for a majority coalition. The antitrust struggle united Southern and Western agrarians and Catholic immigrants against industrialists, high tariffs, and Wall Street. Pro-labor united working- and middle-class Americans behind policies such as the right to collective bargaining and Social Security.
Antitrust and pro-labor tendencies are still present in the Democratic Party today, but the party is now also a vehicle for egalitarian challenges to combat racial and gender inequality, which include making the economy (and society at large) serve the majority. , indeed a larger and more inclusive majority than before. But the new tendencies are fueling deep-seated anxiety and resentment and have hampered the party’s efforts to win.
Political scientist Eric Schickler’s 2016 book Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism provides the best account of the Democrats’ transition from a white supremacist to a racially egalitarian party. The conventional view of Reconstruction emphasizes the Democrats’ national embrace of civil rights under Lyndon Johnson and looks at the role of the states primarily in the South’s resistance to desegregation. In contrast, Schickler argues that outside the South, beginning in the late 1930s, the Civil Rights Alliance captured the Democratic Party from below. This union had critical support from liberal Democratic leaders in states such as Pennsylvania, who saw opportunities to win over black voters, and from industrial union leadership who needed to organize black factory workers. The Great Migration of African Americans to the North was a critical factor in this process. Afraid of losing the white South, however, the party’s national leaders had to be pressured to change. The 1948 Democratic National Convention featured a local leader, Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey, who spoke on behalf of the liberal-labor-black alliance when he presented a civil rights plan that led to the departure of southern Dixiecrats. This was the beginning of a change that would put Democrats on the side of racial equality for decades to come.
Kazin summarizes the potential significance of this breach: “For the Democrats, the demand for black empowerment was a ‘time bomb’ planted with a long fuse by leftist New Dealers and their union allies in the 1940s. When it exploded in the mid-1960s, it fragmented the party and did much to end the New Deal order that labor, the white South, the urban machine, and liberal activists had built together. Supporters of other marginalized groups planted time bombs with even longer fuses.
Racial realignment took place over decades. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the Democrats in Congress still enjoyed much of the support of southern conservatives and moderates; during the same period, the only presidents the party was able to elect were the southern governors of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who held on to at least some southern states. In 1949, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote that the Democratic Party “is in the anomalous position of being the party of ‘liberalism’ whose achievements are vetoed by a reactionary faction.” The Southern veto had long blocked civil rights measures and limited others. passed not only because of increased strength outside the South, but also because of the support of liberal and moderate Republicans, including Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen. But Southern Democratic powerbrokers held back progressive policies in Congress long after that—and even today Joe Manchin plays that role, at a time when Democrats can’t count on Republicans to come over to support even mildly progressive legislation.
Kazin blames part of the party’s post-1960s decline on Lyndon Johnson, who ignored the “primary lesson” of the New Deal, which was to take measures that would serve the great majority. Instead, Kazin writes, Johnson’s war on poverty, with the exception of Medicare and aid to education, “was seen as benefiting poor and mostly non-white Americans… It was a sincere appeal to the nation’s better angels, but it was ineffective. politics.”
I hesitate to blame the war on poverty. The transition from a white supremacist to a racially egalitarian party was bound to affect the former majority of the Democrats. A different mix of social policies in the mid-1960s might not have made much of a difference, especially given all the damage Democrats took from the Vietnam War. If not for Vietnam, Humphrey would have won the presidency in 1968, or Johnson could have successfully run for re-election; as it turned out, the election of Richard Nixon that year heralded an era of Republican dominance. But neither the metaphorical war on poverty nor the actual war in Vietnam produced a long-term change in party dominance. In the long run, the Democratic Party became a vehicle for both cultural and racial change, and had to bear the brunt of overlapping racial, religious, anti-feminist, and homophobic backlashes. This has been the broader context of the party’s struggles.
During the great cultural shift from the 1970s to the early 2000s, the courts did most of the heavy lifting, but there was no mistaking which political party supported these decisions and was ready to implement them. Yet during the same period, Democrats (and the courts) did little to advance the labor agenda—the party did almost nothing to protect and promote unions while employers waged an intense campaign against them. The old antitrust concerns were also gone. So, no matter what the Democrats say, their “revealed preferences,” to use the economists’ phrase, favored the party’s new egalitarian tendencies over its earlier ones.
Why did the Democratic Party make this choice? A large part of the explanation is that the base of the party changed. The number of industrial workers not only decreased, but turned politically to the right, while the number of people with higher education not only increased, but became more liberal. While one elite, the very rich, remained Republican, the other elite, educated and culturally influential, became Democratic but did not necessarily identify with the unions. The demographic changes were accompanied by an increase in the non-white electorate and gave Democrats a broader base among people of color than just black voters. The gender gap became more important. The “gender gap” in voting used to be thought of as a political difference between Republican-leaning men and Democratic-leaning women; now it’s also a divide between straight and LGBT+ voters. All of these changes have tended to prioritize racial and gender egalitarianism in the Democratic Party, increased the prominence of these issues in American politics, and fueled the resentment, anger, and moral panic that have energized today’s right and transformed Republicans. Party.
THE DAMAGES OF DANA MILBANK chronicles the transformation of the Republican Party over the past 25 years. This is not a story of something as profound as a change in political philosophy or even a change in political views. This is a story instead of losing all restraint in the pursuit of power, a process that began long before Donald Trump.
Contrary to many claims of partisan polarization, change in American politics has not been symmetrical. One side has continued to follow the norms of democratic governance and respect for the truth, while the other has not. “Republicans,” Milbank writes, “have been hacking away at the foundations of democracy and civil society for a quarter of a century” in four ways: “their war on truth, their growing exploitation of racism and white supremacy, their sabotage of institutions and norms of governance, their dehumanization of their opponents, and their incitement to violence. The Destructionists is a journalist’s summary of that history, reminding readers of the long right-wing fabrications and obsessions since the early 1990s, from the supposed assassination of Clinton White House aide Vincent Foster to the big lie of stealing the 2020 election. Newt Gingrich taught Republicans how to win elections by relentlessly using fake scandals, conspiracy stories and demeaning insults to opponents. Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes used the same techniques to transform the right-wing media. Instead of creating something new, Trump simply exploited a pattern of lying and smearing that others had already shown to be successful strategies Free in awakening the base of the national Party.
But if Trump was just the culmination of a long process, why did the process even happen? Milbank does not offer a general explanation, although his narrative makes two relevant points. Discussing Gingrich’s rise to the House leadership, he mentions that Republican leader Bob Michel, whom Gingrich replaced, was a World War II veteran who followed the gentlemanly norms of bipartisan civility and compromise that prevailed in Congress. Demands for national unity during World War II and the Cold War had encouraged partisan self-restraint. Once the Cold War was over, the way was open for partisan aggression.
Both Democrats and Republicans have abandoned the constraints that once held them back, but with radically different effects.
Another pertinent point relates to the rational basis for Republican aggression. Demographic and cultural changes have worked against them. Their party has a base of older white voters seething with rage at a changing America. As Milbank points out, there is a “perfectly logical, if deeply cynical, reason” why “Republicans have become an authoritarian faction fighting against democracy.” Going back to 1992, they have lost the popular vote for president in seven of the last eight elections. The turn to authoritarianism has also had a rational basis, as Republicans now have their own media ecosystem, including Fox, Breitbart, and right-wing talk radio, effectively preventing the mainstream media from confusing the party base with real news.
However, Republican leaders could have chosen differently. Milbank mentions that after Obama’s re-election in 2012, the Republican National Committee issued a posthumous message suggesting the party compete for growing Hispanic and Asian voters by supporting policies such as immigration reform. Instead, the party did the opposite, and it is hard to say that his choice was irrational from the point of view of party self-interest. Not only did Trump get elected; Republicans at the lower levels seem to have received little punishment for extremism. The direction taken by the party expresses powerful impulses among its supporters. These impulses are not new, but they are now public, and the party has doubled down on them under Trump.
Since the mid-20th century, both Democrats and Republicans have abandoned the constraints that once held them back, but with radically different effects. Both parties used to be ideologically heterogeneous and therefore both had internal control. Democrats were constrained not only by the southern veto, but also by culturally conservative Democratic voters, many of whom were working class. As these influences weakened, the party was able to first respond to black civil rights demands and later support the rights of other marginalized groups. The Republicans had the internal control of a moderate and in some ways decidedly liberal faction that kept their party from becoming outright racist and reactionary. When the party abandoned these liberals and moderates, it became a vehicle for more extreme, ethno-nationalist tendencies. Some on the right today truly believe conspiracy stories and lies, while others are simply opportunistic. It doesn’t matter: opportunists are just as dangerous as true believers. The Republican Party is desperate, and we have no way of predicting how deep into the authoritarian abyss it is willing to go.
Paul Starr is the co-founder and contributing editor of The American Prospect and a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University.