LHRU Book Review: 'What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party'

Cover of "What it Took To Win" by Michael Kazin

Michael Kazin, What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022)

Reviewed by James C Pearce, College of the Marshall Islands.

Picture this: two white men around their late forties or early fifties watching the same election-ad. One is at a diner in rural Iowa, the other a dive bar just outside of Columbus, Ohio. The candidate’s father was a small business owner and their grandparents were immigrants who could barely speak English. This same candidate is a veteran who supports expanding America’s healthcare programmes, better infrastructure, education, social security and getting big money out of politics.

But in Iowa and Ohio those two viewers did not care. Why? The candidate had a ‘D’ next to their name.

Red state Democrats are often faced with yard signs reading ‘Jo and the Ho got to Go’ (referring to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris) as they try reconnecting with lost voters. In their former strongholds, Democrats are being physically thrown out of barbershops and bars. These places are Trump country now and the reasons for this massive defection have become familiar — the erosion of manufacturing and energy jobs, the withdrawal of private-sector labour unions, an explosion of technology and expanding cultural divisions.

Michael Kazin’s book is, therefore, timely and essential reading for Democrats ahead of 2022 and 2024.

Kazin argues that Democrats’ past success comes from appealing to the economic interests of a broad majority of the American people, developing and offering a philosophy that Kazin calls “moral capitalism”: a system that mixes entrepreneurial freedom with the welfare of workers and consumers. That same Democratic Party, the world’s oldest mass political organisation, once championed the rights of the white working man whilst vigorously protecting or advancing the causes of slavery, segregation, and Indian removal.

Kazin’s well researched book notes how the party has always been something of an electoral juggernaut relying on different factions of American society and promoting those ‘bridge area’ economic issues. In the New-Deal era, it meant championing Northern labour rights and Southern economic development. Until FDR, the Democrats advocated minimal economic intervention. Few Democrats would recognise such a party today, but it was Martin Van Buren’s notion of the people and their economic interests that guided the Democrats until the New-Deal era, when breaking up the monopolies finally became their issue.

Kazin meticulously explores how focusing on cultural issues has always been a losing strategy for Democrats. A few months out from the mid-terms, alarm bells should be ringing. Republicans intend to focus on Critical Race Theory, gender identity and parental rights, which helped flip the governor’s mansion in Virginia last year. Senator Rick Scott (Florida) also released a GOP plan for government, which focuses on similar issues as well as immigration and completing the border wall.

Kazin contends that when Democrats focus too much on cultural issues, they appear threatening to voters’ traditional beliefs and way of life. Kazin argues that LBJ’s Great Society programme in fact worked against the Democrats because Americans saw it was not designed to help the struggling poor of all races. Barack Obama is praised by Kazin for steering clear of culture war issues throughout, yet one could not help remembering a line repeated for years by Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s Real Time: ‘Democrats do not brag about their achievements enough’. The 2010 mid-term ‘shellacking’ came about, in part, because House members found the former president too polarising – even though he had just given them healthcare, saved the auto industry and kept the economy afloat. In 2022, Democrats seem doomed to make the same mistake of not mentioning Biden’s impressive economic record.

Another lesson is that of factionalism. Thomas Jefferson rejected this and would have objected to ‘squad’ member Rep. Rashida Talib giving a response to her own party’s State of the Union address – or Senator Bernie Sanders (Vermont) promising to support a primary challenge to Senators Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) and Joe Manchin (West Virginia). Both senators won in red states precisely because they were moderates and appealed to a broad majority of voters, including Republicans who voted for Trump, Mitt Romney and John McCain. Manchin received some flack last year for saying that the American electorate is generally centre right on CNN. When we consider the electoral college, Senate representation by population and House districts, he is right.

Kazin also argues that Democrats have fared better when they are focused on winning and power. Between 1932 and 1968, the party lost presidential elections just twice (to Dwight D. Eisenhower). Focusing on their coalition worked not just at the presidential level but held them the Senate for decades. Today’s Congressional Democrats do not look like a party serious about winning in 2022. Rather, they are relieved that their losses will be limited by the new congressional maps. Moreover, in Pennsylvania where Democrats have their easiest Senate seat pick-up opportunity Rep. Conor Lamb lags in the party’s primary. The DNC would have endorsed Lamb instantly in bygone eras, a candidate who flipped and won re-election in Pennsylvania’s most Republican district.

Democrats also appear to be losing ground among a core group of its coalition: Latinos. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Arizona) recently argued it is because Latinos work hard at trying to assimilate and become Americans, yet Democrats treat them as a fragile minority group and prefer to lecture them about terms like ‘LatinX’. Polling shows as much as 98% of Latinos hate the term and find it ignorant of the Spanish language.

My main criticism is that Kazin lacks any real analysis of the Democrats’ two Achilles heels: rural areas and the rustbelt. Another red state Democratic Senator Jon Tester (Montana) recently warned his party faces extinction in rural areas, especially with its current messaging. It was not long ago when Montana and North Dakota sent two Democrats to the Senate with well over 50% of the vote. Nowadays, Democrats are not even showing up and it costs them dearly. To put a fine point on it, Hilary Clinton’s rural outreach office in the 2016 election was based in Brooklyn!

At the end of Kazin’s book, I concluded that the party’s best chances of greater electoral success are by listening to its red state members like Manchin, Tester and Sinema. They know how to win and have their finger on the pulse of the American heartlands that Democrats long ago abandoned and need to carry to stay in power. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D- Massachusetts) has some fantastic ideas about worker and consumer rights but her home state (Oklahoma) is not the place to market them. The squabbles between Manchin and Sanders show the Democrats need both men to be a party that appeals to the majority of Americans’ economic interests.

Kazin’s fine book offers lessons for British Labour too, concerning factionalism, cultural issues, winning power and economic achievement. Kazin blasts the Democrats’ 1972 nominee George McGovern for not championing his ambitious economic plans enough, though concedes it would have made little difference. Echoes of Jeremy Corbyn are hard to ignore here as are those about winning power. Corbyn and his Parliamentary Labour Party never looked thrilled about the prospect of governing, nor did most voters see them as serious contenders for government. Free internet and university were nice ideas, but the problem is most Britons do not attend university or see the cost of broadband as burdensome.

Still, McGovern was a leftist senator from South Dakota, which regularly voted Republicans for president. Corbyn was loathed in blue England.

Labour also needs a coalition of the left and centre to win in a general but may only achieve power in 2024 with the help of the Liberal Democrats. Labour’s two biggest election wins in 1997 and 1945 came with Liberal support; the Beveridge Report and Paddy Ashdown agreeing to stand down in certain seats – although the Lib Dems still campaigned heavily in some areas. History has also shown that Labour leaders from the party’s centre benefit the Lib Dems, as swing voters fear the hard left getting into government.

Labour could also learn the lessons from Democrats’ 2018, 2020 and 2022 messaging. Governor Gretchen Whitmer (Michigan) won on a slogan of ‘fix the damn roads.’ Senator Doug Jones (Alabama) spoke about ‘kitchen table issues’ in 2017, whereas Senator Sherrod Brown (Ohio) went on a listening tour entitled ‘the dignity of work’ ahead of 2020. The world most voters live in is not of ideology and policy but potholes, electric bills and saving enough for retirement. Democrats are failing to mention that Biden lifted millions of children out of poverty in his first six months and has created more jobs than any president in history.

Further, most Democrats and Labour MPs support raising the minimum wage but the problem is nobody wants to earn it. Democrats and Labour need to be more serious about supporting aspiration and not demonising wealth. Somebody ought to tell Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that America’s richest already do pay substantial amounts of tax. Most of America’s rich also live in the big blue states with huge local taxes.

The working poor and those ‘just about managing’ see little in a Democratic agenda that speaks to kitchen table issues or the dignity of work – even if current policy objectives would actually help those people. The same was true of many voters in the ‘Red Wall’.

In sum, Kazin’s new book is as daunting for the left as it is useful. Democrats and Labour may need to lose another election to learn how to communicate with the electorate and really get serious about winning.

James C. Pearce is a World History Lecturer at the College of the Marshall Islands. He did his PhD with Dr Jonathan Davis at Anglia Ruskin University, which was then published as a monograph: The Use of History in Putin's Russia (Wilmington, DE: Vernon Press, 2020). James has taught Russian and European history at the University of Liverpool and spent eight years in Moscow teaching and freelance writing. He is currently writing a history of Russia's Golden Ring Cities to be published with Lynne Rienner in 2025.