In recent years, the history of conservatism has received far more attention than that of liberalism or the Democratic Party. This is, it should be said, a recent phenomenon. In the 1990s, in response to the Republican capture of Congress and Bill Clinton’s announcement that “the era of big government is over,” scholars began to wonder if conservatism ought to be taken seriously. Perhaps they were wrong, they concluded, to dismiss it (as Lionel Trilling famously did) as a series of “irritable mental gestures.” There followed a panoply of books and articles on the subject, so many that one might ask why more has not been written about the Democrats. The truth is that there seemed little need, for much of the twentieth century, for historical accounts of the political left. Political history was normally written as the history of Democratic administrations, with conservatives portrayed as mere speed bumps on the road of progress.
It is no secret that the Democratic Party has become taciturn about its past, if not embarrassed or even ashamed. Though its official website brags about a 200-year history of fighting for equality, the Democratic National Committee’s History page starts with the 1920s passage of the 19th Amendment. Gone are the Jefferson-Jackson Day celebrations that paid homage to the party’s founding figureheads. In fact, it is now the Republicans, not Democrats, who proudly claim the mantle of “Jacksonians.” Confusing matters still further, the 30 years between the present and Bill Clinton’s two-term presidency have seen huge drops in his popularity, whereas Jimmy Carter’s reputation has been transformed from that of a complete failure to an adored icon. Likewise, at least since the beginning of the Trump years, younger Democrats began to sour on Barack Obama, with more turning to two-time loser Bernie Sanders for guidance.
A Working Man’s Party
If one were to ask how the Democratic Party got here, they would be hard-pressed to find resources in the history section of their local bookstore. While those interested in the GOP are spoiled for choice, with What It Took to Win, Michael Kazin has written the first history of the Democratic Party in almost twenty years.
Beginning with the collapse of the first party system, Kazin focuses primarily on how the party changed since its founding in the 1830s by Martin Van Buren. Though the Jeffersonian Democratic Republicans provided some inspiration for Van Buren, they never amounted to what we would consider today to be an actual political party. Rather, it was in Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, that Van Buren found his champion and the vessel for political dominance. But Jackson was not a mere pawn or figurehead. He helped shape the Democratic Party’s mythos, ideals, and policies for the bulk of the 19th century. Envisioning themselves as the defenders of “the humbler members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers” against the corrupting forces of “money power,” Jackson and his party helped foster the seeds of genuinely democratic principles.
Despite the hard limits to this Jacksonian democratic ethos, Kazin nevertheless contends that the party has consistently stood for a “moral capitalism,” in which the economic system would be made to work for the benefit of ordinary people. In other words, while the modern Democratic Party is no longer the party of Jacksonian Democrats, the two are not foreign to one another.
Originally an awkward coalition of Southern grandees and Northern laborers (including Irish immigrants), the party split over what Southerners saw as an insufficient commitment to slavery on the part of the North. Nevertheless, it weathered the Civil War and its unfortunate (outside of the South) association with the Confederacy. Up until the 1890s it had defined moral capitalism as essentially laissez-faire. Government interference in the economy, whether in the form of chartered banks, protective tariffs, or internal improvements such as roads or canals, was regarded as a means of benefiting the elite at the expense of everyone else.
Starting with the candidacy of William Jennings Bryan in 1896 (and again in 1900 and 1908), Democrats changed their tune, embracing government action as a means of promoting the general welfare. In the 1930s the party cemented an alliance with organized labor that allowed it to dominate U.S. politics for a generation. Finally, in the 1960s, Democrats moved to identify themselves fully with the cause of racial equality, even though it meant losing the support of the so-called “solid South.” Though it was hamstrung by racism, sexism, and xenophobia, the Democratic Party Kazin describes is one of adaption, mutilation, and evolution, which often learned more from defeats than from successes.
The last two chapters are at least as much a cri de coeur of the author as they are a history of the party since 1968. Kazin frequently injects himself into the narrative, as he proudly announces that he actively campaigned for Democratic candidates in every presidential election of his lifetime except for 1968 (when he refused to back Hubert Humphrey over the latter’s stance on the Vietnam War) and 2000 (when he instead supported Ralph Nader–a decision he now regrets).
With his eye to the present moment, the Democrats, he argues, have lost much of their willingness to stand for “moral capitalism.” Faced with a sharp decline in the power of organized labor, party leaders opted to pursue the votes of white suburbanites rather than try to build a coalition of the poor and working classes. Neither Obama nor Biden was capable of putting forward a compelling vision of a more just society, despite the rise of inspirational popular movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. Joining those who critique “woke capitalism,” Kazin claims that the party’s focus on abortion rights and marriage equality has diverted it from advancing economic equality and challenging the greed of large corporations. Unsurprisingly, Kazin sees the path to winning in economic and class war, not cultural conflict.
Opposing Progressivism, Preserving Tradition
While the left has enjoyed little introspection and serious study, the right cannot seem to escape examination. It has been the subject of several hostile histories, which often focus on questions of origin and evolution, seeking to expose Conservatism’s sinister birth pangs. For example, Heather Cox Richardson links the ashes of the Confederacy with the Goldwater-Reagan revolution, while Nancy MacLean argues that John C. Calhoun is the libertarian right’s intellectual forefather. Randall Balmer sees opposition to racial integration, not abortion, as the religious right’s launching pad. Regardless of their differences, the resounding message of these historians is that conservatives have a dark past and an even darker vision for America’s future. In these histories of conservativism, it is also common to offer sinister explanations for the right’s success, putting the blame on everything from the influence of dark money to the stoking of racial animus, with plenty of dirty political maneuvering.
Enter Continetti’s The Right, which attempts to place some grandeur along with the gross and gonzo in attempting to tell the story of American conservatism.
Whereas most histories of conservatism begin with the backlash to the New Deal, strikingly, for Continetti, the story begins in the 1920s. In doing so, he portrays early conservatism as a reaction against the Progressive Era. This, however, elides the Progressive origins of many of the so-called “conservative” issues of the 1920s. Prohibition was a long-held goal of most Progressives, as was immigration restriction. Herbert Hoover was one of the most influential figures of the decade, first as Secretary of Commerce, then as President, and he had been a supporter of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, and openly rejected laissez-faire. The conservative American Liberty League, founded in the early 1930s by Democrats opposed to the New Deal, actually grew out of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment.
There’s a reason most histories of American conservatism start in 1945; simply put, there was no conservative movement to speak of in the 1920s and 1930s. There were plenty of groups and individuals who identified themselves as “on the Right,” but they had little in common with one another, and no desire to work together. The Agrarians, New Humanists, and Neo-Scholastics who published in Seward Collins’ American Review had nothing at all to do with the American Liberty League or the free-market economists who gravitated to the University of Chicago. And that doesn’t begin to cover the topics he discusses, which include crypto-fascists such as the Silver Shirts, populist demagogues like Father Charles Coughlin and Huey Long, and even anti-Stalinist Marxists such as Sidney Hook and Max Eastman.
The benefit of starting in the 1920s, however, is that it allows Continetti to take the reader back to a time–the last for half a century–when conservatism was truly popular. The Great Depression changed all that, and between 1930 and 1945 it came to be associated with little more than the defense of the wealthy.
A major emphasis of The Right is the intellectual variety of conservatism. Although Continetti shows ample evidence of a vibrant tradition, this diversity made it impossible in the 1920s and 1930s to speak of a genuine movement. For Continetti, it was the specter of Communism that served to bring together the disparate strains of the right. From evangelicals fearful of the U.S.S.R.’s godless regime, to libertarian economists skeptical of command economies, to warhawks mindful of Russia’s eagerness to expand its influence, Communism united the right. This is why the Cold War was so important for creating a true “conservative movement”: Communism represented a common enemy that could bring together anti-Communists (many of whom were former leftists), libertarians, and traditionalists.
Another important theme is the relationship between conservatism and populism. Since conservatism was never really popular from the time of FDR until the 1970s, there was always the temptation by conservatives to make common cause with populists. Thus, Robert A. Taft refused to criticize Joe McCarthy, William F. Buckley wrote in support of racist Southerners, and Barry Goldwater spoke approvingly of George Wallace. For Continetti, this populist impulse was understandable, but consistently disastrous, as it chained conservatism to truly despicable individuals and causes. The conservative defense of segregation in the 1950s, for example, made it difficult for Richard Nixon, nearly twenty years later, to find conservative Supreme Court nominees who had not been tainted by that defense.
The conservative-populist dilemma seemed to be solved during the period 1965-1980. Crime was on the rise, the country seemed to be losing the Cold War, the Supreme Court was banning prayer in schools and legalizing abortion, and from the universities and in the streets the New Left was displaying open contempt for the United States. Witnessing all developments, a large segment of the American public–particularly working-class and middle-class Catholics and Evangelical Protestants–became disenchanted with liberal social policy. They formed the backbone of the so-called New Right, which was populist without the overtly racist baggage of previous populist movements. The ranks of conservatism were also enriched by the arrival of two new sets of intellectuals. First were the neoconservatives, anticommunist former liberals who objected to the detente strategy of Nixon, Ford, and Carter, and who questioned the effectiveness of the welfare state. The second were the supply-siders, who advanced the radical idea that total tax revenue could be increased by reducing income tax rates.
In the short term, it was not clear that the Republican Party would be capable of benefiting from this new alignment, since neither Nixon nor Ford saw themselves as conservatives, and the GOP looked as though it might collapse in the wake of Watergate. The scandal, however, and the feckless presidencies of Ford and Jimmy Carter, opened the door to Ronald Reagan. Continetti, although he clearly respects Reagan, convincingly demonstrates that the relationship between the conservative movement and the fortieth president is more complicated than is often remembered in right-wing hagiography. For all his popularity among conservatives in the 1960s and 1970s, his sunny optimism stood in stark contrast to the Right’s traditional pessimism. While writers such as Albert Jay Nock and Whittaker Chambers had predicted the imminent decline of Western Civilization, Reagan spoke of “morning in America” and promised a vision of hope for the country’s future. Hammering this sanguine vision home, in his farewell address, Reagan called the United States “a shining city on a hill,” and believed firmly that its light had not diminished. Also, while he scored tangible victories during his first term, it is often forgotten today that conservatives were among his sharpest critics.
Most importantly, Continetti demonstrates how the movement that Reagan championed fell apart almost immediately after he left office. Perhaps Reagan’s signal achievement–ending the Cold War–dissolved the glue that had held together the various conservative intellectual factions since the 1940s. The New World Order of George H.W. Bush, and his acceptance of tax increases, led to a revolt by a group that called themselves paleoconservatives, to distinguish themselves from the neocons. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton managed to become the focus of irrational rage on the Right in a changing media landscape (Fox News made its appearance in 1996), even while he coopted some of its most important issues.
For a moment it seemed as though the 9/11 attacks, by providing a new enemy in the form of radical Islamism, might lay the foundation for a new fusionism, but it was not to be. Libertarians objected to George W. Bush’s efforts at domestic surveillance, while paleocons criticized his foreign policy, and the religious right seemed unable to change the cultural tide against same-sex marriage. By 2008, Bush had been all but written out of the movement when Barack Obama emerged as the new focus of Right’s contempt. The Tea Party offered hope for the movement, but it was ultimately more populist than conservative, and far more interested in issues such as crime, illegal immigration, and the plight of the white working class than in religious faith and free markets. It was also arguably stronger than previous populist movements, thanks in large part to talk radio, cable and satellite television, and social media. To a demoralized and divided conservative movement, it seemed like a way back into power. Though several political figures tried to ride the wave, only Donald J. Trump did so effectively.
The Power of Coalitions
What neither Continetti nor Kazin seems to take into account is how different the present moment is, not only in the balance between the two parties (which could be compared to the late 19th century), but also in the extent of their ideological polarization. In such a climate, neither party is willing to embrace bold new initiatives. For one, they are unlikely to make much headway, thanks to partisan gridlock. More importantly, though, any new direction risks alienating key interest groups whose support is necessary for victory. Republicans in private may complain about Trump but fear the hold he has over the white working class and lower middle class. At the same time, the GOP still needs its wealthy donor base, so it dares not embrace populism too thoroughly. Even though Hispanics and Black men are drifting towards the GOP, the party of Lincoln continues to play footsie with white nationalists and platform racists. Furthermore, after decades of proclaiming their fidelity to the constitution, a significant subsection of the Republican Party is eager to reelect a man who brought the nation to the brink in his attempt to overturn the 2020 election.
Democrats, meanwhile, have shown that they can win elections by appealing to college-educated suburban voters, but there seems to be little hope of enlisting those voters in the sort of class-based politics that Kazin supports. Despite proclaiming themselves ‘the party of the working class,’ the Democrats have started to alienate more traditional demographics through their reliance on identity politics and an emphasis on “wokeness.” Despite being aware of this, Kazin seems to think that the Democrats can “have it all,” holding together a coalition of working people, minorities, and wealthy white progressives. But at the time of this writing, a radical district attorney has been recalled in ultra-liberal San Francisco, with the recall effort winning in nearly every minority district in the city. Indeed, this is consistent with poll data showing Black and Hispanic voters moving to the GOP in record numbers. For all the attention given to Defund the Police, it turns out that large numbers of actual minority voters are against doing so. Furthermore, like the Republicans, the Democrats continue to air their dirty laundry in the public square, with moderates continually pledging with the radicals to ease up, and progressives openly wishing they could be rid of the centrists in their party. While it is clear they need each other to win, it has become obvious that they cannot stand one another.
If there is a key lesson to draw from the history of these two parties, it would be that success comes through coalition-building. Charisma, whether it be from Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama, can only take a movement so far. In a democratic republic like the United States, the unification of disparate groups and unlikely bedfellows has always been the surest way to secure victory at the ballot box. As Kazin and Continetti’s histories note, the challenge has always been negotiating these alliances, patrolling their borders, and making peace where possible.
Both books serve as reminders that a pyrrhic victory is still a victory.