Review Essay: How the Biggest Party Started Thinking SmallHistorians in the News
tags: welfare state, neoliberalism, Democrats, Democratic Party
What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party by Michael Kazin. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pages.
Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality
by Lily Geismer. PublicAffairs, 448 pages.
FOR PUNDITS AND POLITICAL CONSULTANTS, every election carries portents of a realignment between the two major political parties. Even midterm elections, which almost always have the same result—gains for the “out” party—are earth-shaking events, interpreted as a verdict on the president’s leadership. The midterms of 1994 were seen as an especially crippling setback for the Democratic Party, as Republicans took control of Congress and installed gaseous Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House—the first Republican Speaker in forty years. Yet just two years later, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. came out with a book forecasting a new progressive era, with the title They Only Look Dead. In an afterword for the book’s 1997 edition, Dionne wrote that the 1996 reelection of Bill Clinton “confirmed what 1992 hinted at: that the conservative era that began with Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 is over.”
Others had seen hints in 1992 that something else was afoot. That was the year Nixon’s former speechwriter Patrick Buchanan challenged incumbent president George H.W. Bush in the Republican primaries, speaking in New Hampshire of leading a pitchfork rebellion. At the GOP convention in Houston that summer, he gave a strident “culture war” address that Texas columnist Molly Ivins memorably quipped “probably sounded better in the original German.” Yet Buchanan was always more of a pundit than a political leader, and by 1997 he was alarmed by Gingrich’s “collaboration” with Clinton. Buchanan despaired for his party. “The Republican Party is today in a crisis of the soul, unable to decide who and what it is,” he wrote in his syndicated column.
We know now that the extremism and rhetorical incontinence modeled by Buchanan and Gingrich in the 1990s represented the true id—and the long-term future—of the Republican Party. Both men were harbingers of the hardline partisanship of the Bush-Cheney administration in the early 2000s, which by 2016 metastasized into Trumpism, and which now seems to have a fifty-fifty chance of leading the United States into an accelerating slide toward autocracy—or at least the kind of extended, sadistic smite-the-abortionists-and-homosexuals crusade that Buchanan was calling for.
There were some who saw it coming: they looked beyond the partisan pendulum swings. There was no permanent majority in Congress and no lasting partisan realignment. But something fundamental was shifting. A concerted assault on those who favored an expanded, inclusive democracy took hold during the Reagan years. The political system had become friendly to business interests, wealthy cranks, professional liars, and a working alliance between closet racists and open ones. The journalist William Greider described it in his 1992 book Who Will Tell the People?: The Betrayal of American Democracy, which opens with the arresting line: “The decayed condition of American democracy is difficult to grasp, not because the facts are secret, but because the facts are visible everywhere.”
The two parties, in Greider’s view, were collaborating in a slow, grinding debilitation of citizen power and participation. The Republicans were concocting a “rancid populism that is perfectly attuned to the age of political alienation—a message of antipower.” The Democrats were a hollowed-out party, operating “mainly as a mail drop for political money.” Greider reported that when the Democratic National Committee wanted to organize a celebration in 1992, DNC staffers realized the party had no working list of its membership—rich donors, yes, but not party “regulars” serving at the county and precinct levels. While the National Rifle Association claimed to have about 2.5 million dues-paying members at the time, and the AFL-CIO had about 14 million, the Democratic Party was no longer that kind of “active membership” organization. Since then, online fundraising has broadened the donor base for Democratic (and Republican) candidates considerably; still, the participation of most people aligned with the Democratic Party goes no further than casting an occasional vote, often without enthusiasm.
How is it possible that the Republican Party, with each turn of the screw, has made itself more malicious, conspiratorial, gun-crazy, and cultish, and yet still manages to run neck-and-neck with the Democratic Party? The very idea that a corrupt nabob was able to take full control of the supposedly Grand Old Party, and that he got elected president in 2016—you want to shake your fist at the Democrats and yell, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” There exists a real possibility that the GOP will attempt a brazen antidemocratic scheme in the next presidential election in which they use their legislative power in a key state or two to overrule the majority choice of the voters. The possibility is real because so many Republican-leaning legislatures were gerrymandered after the 2010 census, while the Democrats slept. Now in states like Wisconsin and Michigan you can’t get rid of the Republican majority; it’s voter-proof. The possibility is real because the Republicans stacked the U.S. Supreme Court with their loyal lawgivers, and as the Court reconvenes this fall, they will take up “the independent legislature theory” by way of Moore v. Harper, a case out of North Carolina that could allow legislatures to skew election rules, with no judicial oversight. The possibility is real because the Republican Party uses power everywhere it gets it, while the Democrats strike responsible poses and preach moderation and say, “We’re better than that.”