What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party

Image of What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party
Release Date: 
February 28, 2022
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by: 

“What It Took to Win challenges the reader to think about and understand not just the history of the Democratic Party but also the politics of America in general. Kazin leaves the reader room to debate the issues raised.”

Michael Kazin sums up What It Took to Win in the first line, “This book tells the story of how the oldest mass party in the world contended for power and what its leaders did with it when they won.” This research began when author fought to understand how the Democrat nominee for president in 1996 lost to an opponent who “had been famous only for being arrogant, flamboyant, and rich.”

Kazin argues that Democrat politicians “insisted that the economy should benefit the ordinary working person,” “first only for white Americans but eventually for everyone.” The party, however, also “defended racial supremacy and instituted brutal policies that devastated the lives of Black Americans and other persons of color.” The party did not lead in the vote for women but it did support the Native American removals.

Yet, the author argues, despite the above and other shortcomings, the Democrats discovered that helping the ordinary people to become “more prosperous” was the only way “capable of uniting Democrats to obtain enough votes to obtain a governing majority.” Kazin defines these policies as Lizabeth Cohen’s “moral capitalism” or a “fair share” for all Americans.

The author claims that this concept began with Thomas Jefferson’s argument against privilege, was behind Andrew Jackson’s successful end of the corrupt Second National Bank of the United States, and became the theme throughout the party’s history. These ideals echo in modern times in the words of Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden.

Kazin begins with the racist Thomas Jefferson, an American leader with seemingly endless contradictions including that he opposed political parties while remembered as founding America’s first such organization. He became president through a system of state representation based in part on counting enslaved men who could not vote, yet he stood for democracy for all of the American electorate at that time, that is for the white male citizens.

The Democratic Party was the invention of Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson’s vice president and later president in his own right.  He succeeded in putting together a machine of “unlikely partners” that included “working class Manhattan radicals and Dixie planters,” the latter the richest Americans and often owning hundreds of slaves.

Such very different men as Walt Whitman and Jefferson Davis were Democrats, sometimes more and sometimes less vaguely embracing such principles as fear of government power, supporting immigration, and an end to debtors’ prisons. The populist public image of Andrew Jackson represented this new type of political party. Van Buren used the ideals of Thomas Jefferson to promote the new party, but ironically he would lose reelection to a candidate, the Whig Party’s William Henry Harrison, who better used the Democrats’ populist tactics.

Ironically, the success of the Democratic Party created its opponents, the Whig, Native American/Know Nothing, and Republican parties. The Democrats and their rivals struggled, rose, and failed over such issues as debt, immigration, slavery, and the war with Mexico. Parties fought to win over changing popular opinions on issues, unlike other partisan times when the party came first.

American history remembers the era up to and ending after Abraham Lincoln as the age of giants like Stephen A. Douglas but it was also a time of the powerful but forgotten king-makers behind them such as New York financier August Belmont. The American Civil War began, in part, from the Democratic Party falling apart.

The last three decades of the 19th century belonged to the two major parties, machine politics on every level (including the Democrats’ Tammany Hall), and the bosses who ran them. Democrats fought to expand the number of white male voters, while the Republicans controlled the Senate by creating ten new states. Ironically, Grover Cleveland, the only Democrat president of the period and the product of machine politics, hated this system of bosses.

William Jennings Bryan built a new-age Democratic Party of labor-oriented populists fighting the power of the rich. This reform regime would even come to include Republicans such as Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. The Democrats would win and would change America, but its members would never fully unite, causing the party to struggle even in victory. Success increasingly depended upon the women now in leadership positions.

The unpopularity of World War II cost the Democratic Party but its control survived through the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. In the last decades, individuals continue to make a difference even in a highly partisan environment

This book has an agenda but unlike some other works passed off as historical scholarship, this work is obvious in its argument and does not try to mislead the reader by ignoring the counter-arguments. The prose is sometimes overtly enthusiastic although What It Took to Win challenges the reader to think about and understand not just the history of the Democratic Party but also the politics of America in general. Kazin leaves the reader room to debate the issues raised. This work is annotated and has illustrations and a bibliography.