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How insiders and true believers frame political history

Review of ‘What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party’ by Michael Kazin and ‘The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism’ by Matthew Continetti

Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, left, moves through the crowd shaking hands at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi on Sunday, August 3, 1980. There crowd was estimated at 20,000. (AP Photo/Jack Thornell)

WHAT IT TOOK TO WIN: A History of the Democratic Party

By Michael Kazin. FSG. 396 pp. $35

THE RIGHT: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism

By Matthew Continetti. Basic. 484 pp. $32

There’s something delightfully distinctive about works of political history written by true believers: The blind spots are bigger, the disagreements blunter, the daggers sharper. Insights emerge not just from archives but from experience and, often, from disappointment. Such works can detour into nostalgia, with the authors unable to resist sharing how they wish the story had turned out and how, they dare hope, it still might.

Such is the case with Michael Kazin’s “What It Took to Win,” an electorally minded study of the Democratic Party from the 19th century through today, and Matthew Continetti’s “The Right,” an institutionalist survey of 100 years of the American conservative movement. Kazin, editor emeritus of the journal Dissent, is a longtime thinker on the left; Continetti, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is enmeshed in the right through ties of profession, family and conviction. When Kazin concludes that “the Democracy,” as the party was once known, has won power mainly when it has pursued an egalitarian vision appealing to workers’ interests, he is speaking of a politics he has favored since childhood and a labor-centered project he wishes to revive. When Continetti calls for a “new consensus” on the right that joins constitutional principles with populist impulses, he is seeking to harmonize his loyalty to the conservative establishment he joined long ago with the nationalist fervor that has overrun it.

Neither is an impartial chronicler. Neither pretends to be. It’s almost refreshing.

These works are published separately yet feel bound together. For Kazin, who began researching his book the month Donald Trump became president, Joe Biden’s 2020 victory succeeded in fending off another Trump term but affirmed the difficulties of fashioning a lasting Democratic majority. “As had been true since the downfall of the Great Society,” he writes, “it was easier to say what most Democrats opposed than what they stood for.” Continetti, meanwhile, attributes America’s current challenges to the excesses of liberalism and “an out-of-control egalitarianism,” yet worries whether a “viable conservatism” still exists to resist — and not just troll — the left’s cultural advances.

How the two sides arrived at these conditions is the subject of the authors’ works. How the two sides can transcend these conditions is the work of their subjects.

***

“Since its creation, the Democratic Party has never enjoyed a prolonged period of internal bliss,” Kazin writes. He may be understating matters. In the struggle to reconcile the political needs of party leaders, the electoral demands crucial to winning and wielding power, and the principles the party purports to uphold, nailing the trifecta has proved difficult. Even two out of three is hard.

The party has come closest, Kazin argues, when it has made the case for “moral capitalism,” balancing the right to launch businesses and amass property with true concern for the plight of the wage earner. “When Democrats made a convincing appeal to the economic interests of the many,” Kazin maintains, “they usually celebrated victory at the polls.” He identifies two periods — the Jacksonian era from the 1820s to the 1850s, and the New Deal and its aftermath, from the 1930s to the 1960s — in which Democrats made such a case and won nationwide power.

But in grasping that power, key principles slipped out. “The contradiction that would bedevil Democrats until the final decades of the twentieth century,” Kazin writes, was that “the party of ‘the people’ could get a chance to govern the nation only if it acquiesced to a realm of unfreedom south of the Mason-Dixon line.” White Southerners were the nation’s — and the party’s — most reliable voting bloc, and the price of that reliability was racism and discrimination against Black Americans.

The contradiction was present when Martin Van Buren began building the party. It was there during the crusades against the “money power” by thrice-nominated populist William Jennings Bryan. It endured in the Gilded Age, when Democrats displayed a “cynical blend of racial supremacy and class and ethnic uplift,” Kazin writes. In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the party was so divided that it held competing national conventions and ultimately ran two presidential tickets. (Talk about Democrats in disarray.) Even in the FDR era, Kazin writes, party leaders “resisted defining their party as a multiracial one; they feared alienating the white South and could not imagine retaining a durable majority without it.”

When Democrats moved toward a more just position on race — pressed by figures such as Rep. Adam Clayton Powell of New York and Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota — their coalition began to unravel. The landmark domestic legislation of Lyndon Johnson’s administration came to be viewed as providing “benefits to poor and mostly non-white Americans,” Kazin contends, measures that others in the liberal coalition should support out of duty, not true solidarity. “It was a sincere appeal to the better angels of the nation, but it was not effective politics,” he states bluntly. The labor movement, which had supported major Democratic initiatives since the New Deal, struggled to make common cause with the “countercultural tastes” of young, college-educated, anti-Vietnam War activists. The AFL-CIO remained neutral in the 1972 presidential campaign, Kazin notes, “the first time since the 1920s that a body representing most union members failed to endorse the Democratic nominee.”

Kazin has respect for politicians, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who recognize that victory must precede policy. “Ideological ardor, for her, always paled in comparison to doing what she deemed necessary to win power and hold it.” Yet, when he looks back on the late 20th century, Kazin’s preferred presidential candidate is one who did not come close to winning. Dismissive of Jimmy Carter (“an absolutely wretched politician,” he scoffs) and frustrated by Bill Clinton (“even a retrograde liberal nominee might have won that year”), Kazin praises Jesse Jackson for developing “the most ambitious platform for moral capitalism any major candidate had espoused since the heyday of the New Deal.”

But the Democrats could recapture and retain the White House only by preaching the end of big government and privileging opportunity over fairness. Clinton’s election “seemed to prove that the centrists had been right all along,” Kazin admits. Throughout the 1990s, the progressive left had “neither the ideas nor the numbers” to sway the Democratic Party in its direction. Kazin recalls playing poker with Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos in 1996 and asking him how to push Clinton further left. “I wish we had a left to push us,” he replied.

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Barack Obama’s presidency disappointed Kazin, less because of policy shortcomings than because “one of the most inspiring Democratic candidates in history . . . dispirited and demobilized his base.” And Kazin believes that many of the record number of voters who backed Biden in 2020 were rejecting Trump as much as embracing the Democrat. Betting on an emerging majority of voters of color and coastal elites to turn out against your opponent is not a long-term strategy, and will not compensate for muddled ideas. Even in 2020, the author laments, “Democrats still had trouble articulating with force and clarity what kind of economy they believed in and how it would benefit most people who worked for somebody else."

***

Continetti seems less interested in the numbers of politics than in its ideas, and the tension between them is the driving force of “The Right.” If Kazin’s Democratic Party is trapped between the rhetoric of equality and the practicality of centrism, Continetti’s conservative movement is similarly caught in an “endless competition” between populism and elitism, a battle between claims for liberty, however awkwardly defined, and a commitment to institutions, however easily jettisoned.

Over the past century, the conservative establishment coalesced against what it perceived as existential threats: the New Deal at home and communism abroad. Though conservatives proved unable to dislodge the domestic pillars of the FDR era, anticommunism came to serve as a sort of Mos Eisley cantina for the right, bringing together libertarians, cultural traditionalists and cold warriors who aligned themselves with the mid-century Republican Party. “As fears of Communist subversion grew,” Continetti writes, “the American Right began to feel in sync with majority American opinion.” Yet even as Continetti contrasts the Cold War conspiracies of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) with the “cautious, gradual, consensus based, and internationalist” conservatism of President Dwight Eisenhower, it is not a politician but an editor and intellectual who is the protagonist — though not always the hero — of his story.

William F. Buckley, founder of National Review, believed that long-term political influence for the right hinged, as Continetti puts it, on “intellectual ascendancy and mainstream credibility,” so he aimed for both. Continetti revisits Buckley’s greatest hits: how he pushed out the fringe elements of mid-century conservatism; how he helped usher in “fusionism,” the blend of economic and cultural conservatism that Frank Meyer articulated in National Review; and how he “mainstreamed” American conservatism, helping propel the right from Barry Goldwater’s dogmatic defeat toward Ronald Reagan’s encompassing victory.

Yet to his credit, Continetti does not canonize Buckley. He lingers on the editor’s “distrust of the democratic process,” particularly around civil rights. Continetti quotes Buckley’s “infamous” 1957 editorial, “Why the South Must Prevail,” which argued that White discrimination against Black Americans was warranted “because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.” He also notes Buckley’s sympathies for the junior senator from Wisconsin (today, we might call Buckley an anti-anti-McCarthy). In a small-bore yet prophetic detail, Continetti notes that conservative writer Whittaker Chambers refused to blurb Buckley’s 1954 book, “McCarthy and His Enemies,” warning him that the right was moving “away from reality.”

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Continetti contends that the end of the Cold War robbed conservatism of its organizing principle — anticommunism — propelling the movement in more inward-looking and nationalistic directions. But by the author’s own admission, the movement had long been headed there anyway. The New Right, unconcerned with “elite validation,” as Continetti archly puts it, was waging culture wars over busing, abortion and gay rights well before the Reagan presidency. The Great Communicator himself had a “major stumble” in 1980, Continetti acknowledges, when he invoked “states’ rights” during a campaign stop in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights activists had been murdered in 1964. Continetti minimizes the speech, insisting that Reagan’s “heart wasn’t in it,” an excuse that immediately reminded me of Reagan informing the public in 1987 that his “heart and best intentions” told him that he hadn’t traded arms for hostages. It seems the heart has reasons which reason conveniently omits.

Continetti takes issue with leftists who say Trump is the inevitable “end point” of American conservatism. But his own view is not so dissimilar: He calls the former president a “repressed memory” of the right. The “street-corner” populism of the Nixon era, the paleocons led by Patrick Buchanan, Rush Limbaugh’s anti-elite, anti-everything permanent confrontation — all were steps toward birtherism, the wall and MAGA.

***

“What It Took to Win” is expansive, an American history through the prism of the nation’s oldest mass party. “The Right” is contained, the history of a movement with occasional cameos by the broader national story. They are not laments or solutions for a polarized America, yet in their zeal to unite and organize their respective sides, they help explain it.

Kazin worries that professional Democrats are disconnected from people subsisting on small paychecks, but he also fears that recent iterations of the left — Occupy Wall Street protesters, Black Lives Matter activists, Green New Dealers — failed to coalesce around a single issue “that united its parts and inspired its growth.” Continetti looks upon the Jan. 6 rioters and the election fraud truthers and sees nihilism, illiberalism and a cult of personality, as if “all of the unreason and hatred that had been silently growing in the body of the Right burst into the open.”

Forget about easing left-right divides — these two are most concerned with incoherence under their own banners. Continetti, perhaps imagining a redux of Buckley-era fusionism and respectability, calls for de-personalization of the movement (a nice euphemism for de-Trumpification) while incorporating Trumpian policy “modifications” regarding border security, trade policy and hawkishness on China. He envisions a conservatism animated by “the principles that have guided the movement for more than half a century: anti-statism, constitutionalism, patriotism, and antisocialism.” (With authoritarian-minded, postliberal thinkers gathering on the right, Continetti might want to hurry.) Kazin, meanwhile, looks back with longing on the New Deal and the Great Society and calls for Democrats to become a true “working-class party,” a multiethnic coalition, including labor and elites, that can air disagreements without denouncements or purges. “We organize, we vote, and we win,” he concludes.

These authors not only write history; they take solace in it. Their works can illuminate the paths forward for party and movement, though only to a point. History, after all, is not an interested party. But it can be an interesting one.

Carlos Lozada is The Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” Follow him on Twitter and read his recent book reviews, including:

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