In The New York Review of Books’s September 21 issue, Osita Nwanevu reads What It Took to Win, Michael Kazin’s history of the Democratic Party, alongside Left Behind, the historian Lily Geismer’s critical assessment of the last forty years of the Democrats’ attempts to address inequality. Following Kazin’s chronicle from Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson to William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR to Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden, Nwanevu asks whether the party’s commitment to what Kazin calls “moral capitalism” has resulted in “an economic worldview shaped by a remarkable naiveté about the very forces it attempted to harness.”
Below, alongside Nwanevu’s review, we have collected essays from our archives by Michael Kazin, Paul Krugman, Robin Wells, Tony Judt, Ronald Steele, C. Vann Woodward, and I.F. Stone about the world’s oldest active political party.
In his latest book, Michael Kazin argues that the Democrats have long sought to build a “moral capitalism.” Have they ever succeeded?
“To put political muscle and government funding behind the Constitution’s vow ‘to promote the general Welfare’ has been and remains the best way to unify Democrats and win.”
“In the end, Obama’s response to the financial crisis was both lopsided and inadequate: Wall Street received a lavish bailout, with remarkably few strings attached, while workers and homeowners were let down by radically underpowered plans for stimulus and debt relief.”
“The new master narrative—the way we think of our world—has abandoned the social for the economic…. Like its nineteenth-century predecessors, this story combines a claim about improvement (‘growth is good’) with an assumption about inevitability: globalization—or, for Robert Reich, ‘supercapitalism’—is a natural process, not a product of arbitrary human decisions.”
“Certainly the most colorful, arguably the most exasperating, probably the most absurd—and yet in some ways perhaps the most guileless and inherently well-meaning—of our presidential candidates, William Jennings Bryan framed and dramatized issues that are quite contemporary.”
“How did blacks generally fare in the New Deal programs for which the racial and moral issues were presumably sacrificed? Their fortunes varied somewhat according to the program, but in nearly all there was pervasive discrimination.”
“If one were trying to explain the American two-party system to a visitor from a different political planet, the simplest way to begin would be to say that both American parties were capitalist parties. The difference between them has been that generally the Republicans have represented the interests of the big property-owners; the Democrats, the small. But both are equally devoted to private property.”