If You Can’t Change the People, Then Change the People

Transforming the Democratic Party (for its own good)

Ever feel like you’re always late to the party? I feel that way about the Democratic Party.

As a kid growing up in Chicago, I knocked on doors for Harold Washington and Jesse Jackson with my mom. I then apprenticed myself to progressive Democrats to learn electoral organizing by taking responsibility for precincts, door by door. I took a week off from work and volunteered in Pennsylvania for Barack Obama.

But despite this, and having run national issue campaigns for People’s Action and Greenpeace USA, I had never managed a political campaign until this year, when I supported a candidate for our local school board. Just like all across the country, a far-right candidate entered this hyperlocal race, so it felt critical to stand up where I live to this anti-vax, anti-masking, conspiracy-loving candidate. I know many of you in the 15,000 school districts across the country feel the same way.

So we knocked on doors, texted, sent postcards and relational emails, and held GOTV cookouts. Our candidate won the most votes in a three-way race, with the far-right candidate coming in a distant third.

So at least in my city of 80,000 people, democracy still works. But what about in national politics and the Democratic Party?

I had never considered playing a role in the Democratic Party until I read three recent books that, when taken together, suggest how a bold new Democratic Party might emerge, one that once and for all eschews the superglue of white supremacy to fully support the power of a multiracial working class.

At the same time, a friend and ally who is a leader in my local Democratic Party asked me to become a district leader. Now I had to figure out what to do. Thankfully, the authors of these three books have ideas. Big ones.

The history and potential transformation of the Democratic Party is a lot to cover, so this is the first of two articles. First we will take a deep dive into Michael Kazin’s What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party (2022), which tracks the evolution of the Democratic Party from Van Buren to Biden through presidential contests and down ballot machinations.

In the next installment, we will explore Jane Kleeb’s Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again in Rural America (2020) through her electoral and issue campaigning in Nebraska and beyond alongside Chloe Maxmin and Canyon Woodward’s Dirt Road Revival: How To Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends On It (2022). This chronicles Maxmin’s successful campaigns in Maine for state representative and state senate in districts that Democrats had never won.

For everyone who wants a more equitable society in the United States, the question of how to transform the Democratic Party must be central to our organizing project over the next twenty years. The stakes have never been higher. The right has fully stacked the Supreme Court and federal judiciary in their favor, and controls a majority of state legislatures. The MAGA movement, with or without Trump, actively threatens to dismantle our democracy in favor of white authoritarian male rule.

These threats mean we need a long-term agenda that can meet and beat the right, not skip from cycle to cycle. We can’t play checkers while right-wing politicians play chess with the unlimited resources provided by big corporations and the wealthy. And whether we like it or not, the Democratic Party will be central to winning this fight. So understanding its triumphant and troubling history is our only hope of turning it into a vehicle to win the world we need.

The story of how Martin Van Buren and his successors built the infrastructure for a lasting party is the bulk of What It Took to Win. The book delivers on the question posed by Kazin: “How did Van Buren, together with several close friends and a swelling number of political allies, create the institution that became known as the Democratic Party?”

Kazin describes how Van Buren’s party achieved many historical firsts, which contributed directly to its longevity: “The Democrats were the first political body to attract masses of voters, the first to hold nominating conventions on a regular basis, the first to organize a network of partisan newspapers, the first to establish a national committee and a congressional caucus, and the first not merely to acquiesce in the reality of competition among parties of the new type but also to celebrate it.”

The history of women in the Democratic Party is also a story of party organization and innovation. Kazin chronicles how visionaries like Frances Perkins, Eleanor Roosevelt, Emily Newell Blair and others brought suffrage and economic issues to the forefront of the party’s agenda, while advancing party infrastructure in novel ways.

Women “began by adapting an institution that had been a seedbed for several of the key reform campaigns of the Progressive Era: women’s clubs.” In 1910, at least a million women were regularly attending a local gathering where they could hear a lecture, read up on current affairs, and participate in civic improvement efforts that went under the name of “municipal housekeeping.”” The training at this stage, led by Emily Newell Blair who established the Women’s National Democratic Club, would be impressive today: “In ten states, they also created Schools of Democracy, where women spent up to a week imbibing party doctrine and learning how to give a speech and stage a meeting… During 1922 alone, they oversaw the founding of more than a thousand local clubs, while their training schools graduated an untold number of women prepared to spread the Democratic gospel and bring in the vote.”

Yet as ground-breaking as this organizing was, it was nearly always by and for white women to the exclusion of African American, Indigenous and other women of color. While this was accepted at the time as a necessary evil, we should not dismiss it: let’s dig into race and racism, because it’s at the heart of the story of the Democratic Party.

A legacy of white supremacy, patriarchy, and xenophobia

For two centuries, Kazin argues, the Democratic Party’s throughline was to insist that the economy benefit working people, farmers and wage earners. From the start, Democrats championed government policies that do this (and fought off those that did not). But they did not advocate for these policies to benefit everyone in society until relatively recently.

Kazin opens his book with a crisp analysis of the roles that white supremacy, patriarchy and xenophobia have played in the Democratic Party. This toxic mix was the glue that held the party together and it did not begin to be addressed until the 1930s. This project remains unfinished today.

Kazin describes how: “It took a hideously long time for the self-proclaimed “party of the people” to welcome the support and fight for the needs of Americans whose skin was not white and whose gender was not male… During the nineteenth century, its leaders carried out the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands, defended slavery and allowed it to expand, did their best to sabotage Reconstruction, and constructed the brutal Jim Crow order that followed.”

Democrats strained to hold their coalitions together in the era of the New Deal, as they “began to emphasize the pro-labor strain of moral capitalism and built a broad new coalition with unions at its core, along with the Solid South and urban machines…The bond was essential to sustaining the New Deal order—the intersection of the ideology, policies, and powerful coalition that began to build the first welfare state in U.S. history.”

So the same policies and aspirations that built the first welfare state in U.S. history also explicitly reinforced white supremacy. Kazin cogently explains how Democrats baked racial discrimination into New Deal policies in order to retain the party’s majority coalition.

But Kazin gets the protagonists wrong when he describes the predictable breakup of the Democratic Party’s fragile coalition as the Civil Rights Movement heated up: “the demand for Black empowerment was a ‘time bomb’ with a long fuse planted by left-wing New Dealers and their union allies during the 1940s. When it detonated in the mid-1960s, it fragmented the party and did much to bring an end to the New Deal order that labor, the white South, urban machines, and liberal activists had built together.”

Let’s be clear: the Civil Rights Movement was not a bomb designed to blow up the Democratic Party. It was a call by African Americans for equality and freedom, and for Democrats to live up to their stated values, that whites perceived as a bomb threat in the house of white supremacy.

From this section on civil rights through the end of the book, Kazin’s analysis and ideas become increasingly problematic. Over and over he frames policies that advance racial justice as problematic and divisive, and policies that benefit the (white) working class as winners for the party. You can hear this lament when he describes how: “With a few exceptions—such as Medicare and the Clean Air Act—the party’s key initiatives increasingly got perceived as efforts to attack historic injuries based on race instead of those faced by all working men and women.”

Kazin’s framing presents us with a false choice. He fails to grasp the point that Heather McGhee outlines in The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (2021): that racism drives inequality for everyone, and so we must overcome it together.

Kazin notes that “Since its creation, the Democratic Party has never enjoyed a prolonged period of internal bliss. Drawn from diverse regions and a variety of classes and ethnic clusters, its partisans have always been engaged in or at risk of descending into battles that, when left unresolved, help the opposition win elections and set the course of national policy.”

It is however the lack of collective courage to confront white supremacy that caused this instability, rather than a failure to maintain a party that caters primarily to whites. Parties built on white supremacy, patriarchy, and genocide must either do the hard work to overcome their legacies, or eat their just desserts.

Kazin says he wants the Democratic Party to “forge a new coalition of working- and lower-middle-class people of all races” who can share, he says, ”despite their mutual suspicions, a desire for a more egalitarian economic order.”

But pining for a fragile majority coalition that hasn’t resolved its stance on white supremacy is simply a continuation of two centuries of party strategy. Some call this waffling. Whatever you call it, it isn’t working.

Moral capitalism?

Kazin identifies the ideology of the Democratic Party as “moral capitalism,” a term borrowed from Lizabeth Cohen who coined it to describe “a form of political economy … that promised everyone, owner or worker, a fair share.” This approach combines what Kazin calls a harsh critique of concentrated elite power–”monopoly”–with an attack on the oppression of Americans in the workplace.

Kazin describes the role of major social movements in pushing the Democratic Party to forge a more moral capitalism: “In both North and South, bosses had to confront social movements from the left—labor in one region, populism in the other—that set forth a more thoroughgoing vision of moral capitalism, one that promised economic security and political power to that same plebeian majority. To defeat or co-opt those challengers, party leaders began to move away, in deed if not in rhetoric, from the Jacksonian doctrine that the government that worked best for ordinary men was a government that governed least.”

Personifying these shifts, presidential candidates such as William Jennings Bryan and then Bernie Sanders a hundred years later had major impacts on the Democratic Party’s platforms despite losing almost half a dozen presidential contests between them.“ Bryan’s early support for such progressive measures as the direct election of senators, a graduated income tax, public ownership of the railroads, federal insurance for bank deposits, and a more flexible monetary system enabled Democrats to shift their image from a party that gazed backward toward its antebellum glories to one that allied with many of the reform movements that matured in the early twentieth century—and sought to turn their wishes into law.”

This led the Democratic Party down the road of restraining and regulating corporate power, but Kazin notes that this form of moral capitalism does not include redistributing the wealth, a contradiction that lives inside the party to this day. He colorfully described how the Democrats “aimed to put rings in the noses of corporate hogs, not to cut off their limbs and dole the meat out in equal portions to ordinary people.”

In the end moral capitalism is just capitalism that pays just enough attention to minimizing risk to maximize profits without getting a pitchfork stuck in its back.

Transforming the Democratic Party (for its own good)

Kazin points to the the “Great Recession” of 2008 – a financial crisis blatantly caused by greedy corporations and their elected servants – and a resurgence of left-wing movements as spawning “a generation of Democratic candidates who thought they had the clue to forging a new partisan majority: mobilize working people of all races and national backgrounds behind a vision of a generous welfare state that would also preserve the health of the planet.”

This is a step in the right direction, but Kazin stops before calling for targeted universalism that would lift all working people’s boats while making sure that the people on the frontlines of the fossil fuel industry had their boats lifted first and most toward greater equity and equality. The Democratic Party of our era still can’t find its voice to describe how racial justice benefits everyone.

One glaring problem in this framing is that the left-wing movements that rose in opposition to the financial industry in 2007 (who also predicted the subprime crisis and tried to get federal regulators to do something about it) may not be as committed to moral capitalism as Kazin thinks they are. The financial crisis destroyed many people’s beliefs in capitalism and turned people toward democratic socialism.

Groups like People’s Action and the Working Families Party have adopted long-term agendas that understand that capitalism is not going away today or tomorrow, but it’s also not set in stone: the future is ours to shape. They also recognize that white supremacy is inherent to capitalism, not an appendix that can be cut off or left to wither while corporate profits still thrive.

The difference here is between forces on the left that see themselves working toward overcoming racial capitalism and those that seek accommodation with capitalism’s inherent white supremacy in order to get or maintain power. The former builds long-term agendas that have radical implications for the present – leading to electoral and issue campaigns that aim toward structural reforms that shift power over time – while the latter maintains what the late Barbara Ehrenreich called “not just an economy but a culture of extreme inequality” in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2011) by seeking power from one election cycle to the next without a plan for structural change.

Kazin points to a lack of power and organization on the broad left as the reason why the Democratic Party did such a bad job in standing up for working people in the 1990s, and wishes that it had coalesced then and now to be the force that steers the party once again toward the north star of moral capitalism. He desperately wants something to fill the void left by organized labor and the Black freedom movement, both of which Democratic elected officials followed the right-wing script to attack and help dismantle.

Kazin is missing the growing bottom-up unity and strategy on the left that is articulated in Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections (2022). He is not tuned into the 365 days a year campaign and electoral organizing on the ground that is powering today’s left. The most effective social movement organizations organizing right now are using all of the tools at their disposal to win movement co-governance, defined by Mark and Paul Engler as: “Sometimes used alongside other terms such as “movement governance,” “collaborative governance,” or “inside-outside politics,” co-governance refers to a set of practices through which social movements and elected officials can coordinate and strategize together on the exercise of state power.”

This strategy goes directly against Kazin’s argument that: “The job of a political party in a democratic system is to win elections and then pressure officeholders to carry out policies their voters desire. In contrast, social movements exist to articulate alternative policies and make strong moral pleas for a single issue or more. Their job is not to win over a majority, but to persuade the minority who identify with them to change the way power works.” Instead, social movement organizations are both trying to win majorities in elections and build strategic constituencies that can change the way power works and win the battle of big ideas at the same time. They can do both, and they need a vehicle for their ambitions–a Democratic Party reconstructed from the bottom-up that can facilitate movement co-governance.

So what’s the plan to transform the Democratic Party? We will explore the answer to that question in the next review in this series. Two books, Harvest the Vote and Dirt Road Revival, provide inspiration and examples of how we can transform the Democratic Party from the bottom up through community organizing.


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

First published in Social Policy: Organizing for Social & Economic Justice, Fall 2022, Volume 52, #3. Reprinting with permission is welcomed

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