Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Republicans are horribly unpopular, why haven't Democrats been able to win big?

Republicans are horribly unpopular, why haven't Democrats been able to win big?


The Republican party is completely and utterly dominated by a small faction of political and religious extremists with policies that are incredibly unpopular, such as privatizing social security or criminalizing birth control.

And yet, in spite of this fact, Republicans are still able to win many elections, even outside of their stronghold of the old confederacy. Sometimes, as in the case of Donald Trump, they can even win the presidency.

Some of this reality is due to the extraordinary professionalism of the Republican political class, which has been consistently spinning straw into gold for decades through gerrymandering and voter restriction laws.

The Democrats are the cause of many of their own problems as well, as we'll be discussing in the next several episodes here at Theory of Change. Our guest in the first episode of this series is Michael Kazin. He is a professor of history at Georgetown University and the author of What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party, it’s a look at the party from its very beginning up until the 2020 presidential election.


This episode is available in video as well as audio. The transcript of the audio follows. It is automatically generated and is provided for convenience purposes only.

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here today, Michael. Welcome to Theory of Change.

MICHAEL KAZIN: Thanks for asking me, Matthew.

SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, so, there's your book is a very long one with a very meaty subject, obviously. Why did you decide to focus on this topic?

KAZIN: Well, I've been a Democrat, capital D, small d, for a long, long time since I stopped being a self-proclaimed revolutionary about 50 years ago or so. And I also, I thought that there's really no serious study of the Democrats as an [00:02:00] institution throughout their history, looking at the kind of coalitions that were built, looking at continuities and discontinuities in the ideology of the of the party.

And as a Democrat with a capital D, I also wanted to figure out, what has done wrong, what has done right and how it can do better. Also I should say that my son is a Democratic party operative, has been for a long time since he was in college 15 years ago 16 years ago, and so I've learned a lot from him about how the party works internally and that kind of inspired me to learn more about that. So I think, as a historian, I'm always trying to answer questions about the present by using the past and question about the present is, sort of, piggybacking you off your introduction. What have the Democrats done, right?

What have they done wrong? And what are the roots of that? How do we understand that evolution?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And it's, it is interesting that a lot of people have begun considering this question, very recently.

A spate of new books advising Democrats

SHEFFIELD: Your book is one of several that have come out in the past year or two that kind of looking at well, what's what [00:03:00] is the left need to be doing? How are they doing things wrong or right?

Which is interesting because there weren't a lot of those books for a number of years, as you were saying. And now one of the, the sort of Intentions of a lot of these books that have come out and we'll be talking to some of the other authors, so I don't, I won't make you have to respond to them unless you want to,

KAZIN: But one of the, I just, I just reviewed a book by, two friends of mine called where have all the Democrats gone, which is one of the books you might be talking about by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, it's well, and the thesis of a number of these books has been that the Democratic party needs to focus more on economic issues and, and go away from social issues and yours, your approach is, is different than that. And I think that's why I actually wanted to start this series on the [00:04:00] show here with your book because I think you understand that because you're yours is a more historical focus one than some of these other ones that are more poll-driven or data-driven.

I think you realize that that's not necessarily going to work this idea. So why? In brief, why, why do you say that wouldn't work?

KAZIN: Well, yes and no. I mean, on the one hand, I do think Democrats, in order to become a majority party again, do need sort of economic populist message. They need to, uh, make very clear what they want to do for people and link up with, Movements like labor unions and other movements, which want to, help people across lines of identity, and of course lines of race and gender preference.

I think that's really important. So I do agree with, with some of the popularists, if you can call them that, about that. On the other hand I don't think you can escape what the party already is which is a coalition of. Young leftists[00:05:00] who care very deeply about, about cultural issues and unions, which are struggling to revive and they haven't really revived very much yet.

So, one can't just say, aha, this is what Democrats should do and why don't they do it? One of the, one of the things about being a historian that's useful, I think to this, uh, argument, to this discussion is. Is that you can't like leap beyond what the party is. You have to figure out how to convince people in the party to do things differently to stop attacking one another for what are, basically very small differences.

And you also have to do that within a context of what might be declining empire context where of course Americans more and more are they might be strong partisans, but they don't like parties. And so if you're going to be in the, you're going to be one of the two major parties, you'd have to understand how to deal with that fact, how to get people engaged with a party as a party again.

If you can't do that, then you end up competing with the likes of Donald Trump for media time. And for attention and [00:06:00] for, for glitz, so to speak. So, I mean, that's a, a long answer to your question, but that's sort of more my, my impulses than my answers, if you will.

How the Democratic party got started

SHEFFIELD: Your point about people not being interested in, in the Democratic party as a party or parties generally is, is an important one and. That's why I, I thought it was I think it's, it's relevant the first part of the book where you talk about, the, the origins of the Democratic party as a party because you rightfully note that the Democratic Party is the oldest political party in the world. And those days in the early days of the Democratic Party are, I think, really relevant. Especially now when people are so interested or disinterested in political parties. Can you tell us a little bit about those early days and how the Democratic Party came to be?

KAZIN: Well, it really arose at a time when for the first time in world history the United States was a nation which enfranchised [00:07:00] all, all white men.

Who were, of course, white people, the majority of the population at the time. And that was unusual, because that wasn't true in any other nation, even nations that were somewhat democratic, like Great Britain at the time. We had a very small, number of men actually be able to vote.

And on the, on the heels of that Martin Van Buren who is doesn't get enough respect, I think from, from historians began to put together a party based on working class men in the North and planters in the South slaveholders for the most part in the South behind the candidacy of Andrew Jackson, who they saw as this and was this sort of charismatic figure, military hero And originally the party was called the Jackson party, not the Democratic party because it was put together in order to boost the candidacy of, of Andrew Jackson in the 1820 election.

As, as Tocqueville wrote, in his great book, Democracy in America, this was the golden age of, of, of associational life in America, of [00:08:00] community organizations of various kinds, fraternity groups drinking societies immigrant, immigrant groups as well. Tammany Hall gets going at that point which was, the most powerful democratic machine in 19th century, early 20th century in America, in New York City.

And so, the party originally was really an association of, of white men across regions who wanted who agreed on opposition to what they considered to be the most powerful elite in the country at the time. Which were bankers in Philadelphia and New York which were Wall Street investors, Wall Street just beginning to be organized as a powerful institution at the time.

And in some ways, this goes back to the, the famous debate between Jefferson and Hamilton about how much power the central government should have. Democrats originally actually believed very different from now that the central government was run by an elite and the less government power, federal government power that is, the better because they thought that the federal government would always be in the hands of an economic elite.

And so the less power it had, [00:09:00] the better. But I think when you have universal white manhood suffrage you have the environment that's really ready for a mass party to, to form. And we can talk about how that happened. The Democrats did not create a universal white manhood suffrage, but they actually obviously supported it.

And they were very active in signing up immigrants who came to the, to the country almost as soon as they got off the boat from, from Europe, even before they were citizens, they found ways to sign them up. So. Democrats really were responsible, you might argue, not just for building the first mass party in American history, but for really for creating popular American politics the way people understood that in the 19th century.

And really the, the opposition party was formed in opposition to the Democrats specifically called the Whig Party. It's called the Whig Party because the Whigs were the anti-monarchy party in, in England. And the rigs opposed King Jackson the power of so called monarchical tyrannical president Andrew Jackson.

So in that sense Democrats were really created their [00:10:00] own opposition.

Media was integral to early Democratic party organizing

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, one of the other things that they did the early Democrats did that you document very well, is that they created the idea of partisan newspapers as a way of spreading awareness of the party's message and awareness of the candidates.

Can you talk a little bit more about that?

KAZIN: Yeah. Well, most newspapers were partisan. In the 19th century, really up until the early 20th century, believe it or not. I mean, there's still papers around the country with Republican and Democrat in their names, even though they try to show at least that they're not partisan anymore.

And yeah, I mean, one of the things that Van Buren understood very early on when he was actually a power in. A sort of what was called the Republican Party in New York State, which is the biggest state in the country, was, he said, in order to convince people to support our party and to support our policies, we have to start our own newspaper.

It's called the Albany Argus in the capital of New York and Albany. And that became the, the model for Jacksonian slash Democratic [00:11:00] newspapers in every major city in the country. And those newspapers were often supported unofficially by money from the Democratic Party. And some of the editors of those papers went on to be in the Jackson administration and then in the Van Buren administration as well.

So, of course, these newspapers were the media of the day. There was nothing else that would spread it. And, and because congressmen had the right the franking. Privilege to, to send out materials from their office for free some Jacksonian Democrats would send out these newspapers around the country.

So it was really a national machine in that sense.

SHEFFIELD: It was. Yeah. And you mentioned it briefly just a minute ago about the idea of the Democratic party was anti-national government, anti-federal government, um, for a long time or from the very beginning of it. But it's, it's also that, there was this kind of the, the, what has emerged in the present day is kind of the ideological [00:12:00] divisions between the, the parties.

It didn't really exist in the early, in, the first 150 years or so roughly of the United States, you could perhaps say. Roughly. And so there was this, this constant. Interplay between people who had what might be now termed as more, right wing beliefs and more left wing beliefs, but they were always in both of the parties and, and, and that's something that those tensions, especially within the Democratic Party, they kind of, really kind of, I mean, you talk extensively about that, how various factions within the party, we're kind of, we're pushing for really in many ways opposite ideas.

Do you want to expound on that a little bit more?

KAZIN: Certainly there are many factions. I think to be a successful party in a two-party system, you have to have a diverse group at least demographically, if not ideologically. Otherwise you're not going to win the electoral college, [00:13:00] and not going to take over them.

Not going to win the Senate, especially. And of course the house as well. Or control state governments to any great extent. But the Democrats did have an ethos, if not an ideology, which, which bound them together for a long time. And again, it was, opposition to what they saw as governing elites, financial elites especially in the Northeast.

And later on also industrially and so, in some ways they're united by their enemies, I think, it's fair to say, and that's one of the things which, which kept them together until, until the Civil War, and then, of course, slavery made it impossible for Southern Democrats and Northern Democrats to get together, because Northern Democrats were very concerned with the rights of white workers in the North and the working class was growing with immigrants from England excuse me, from Ireland and from Germany, especially in the 1830s, 40s and 50s.

And so the Democrats, of course, even, even those who didn't have slaves didn't own people, nevertheless, often wanted to be able to own people. And rising in, in the world if you're a Southern Democrat meant, be able to have in order to own, own, [00:14:00] own slaves at a certain point.

So. That was, that difference was too great in the party to compromise. And so 1860 you have two Democratic tickets. One the vice president of the United States named Breckenridge, running as a Southern Democrat. And Stephen Douglas Senator from Illinois, who famously campaigned against Lincoln earlier for Senate.

As a Northern Democrat and but then it's quite remarkable. If you think about it, that the party stayed together, uh, after that it stayed together. Of course the Northern Democrats stayed in in Congress and we're able to elect governors in places like New York state during the civil war.

They opposed the draft, for example, they wanted the north to win militarily, but they, they opposed the emancipation of slavery. They opposed giving black people the vote. And then they stayed together as also in the late 19th century opposing tariffs helping the big industries for example that was a big, a big issue for, for Democrats.

So, so in some ways the, the Democrats began as the party for the ordinary white man. They expanded [00:15:00] as the party for. The not so ordinary white man, white men who had, who had a lot of property in the South. But then they, they, they kept calling themselves the democracy, in fact, capital T, capital D, because they really believed, I think all Democrats did, that they were the representatives of, the people and the Whigs first and then the Republicans were the party of elitists.

In fact, down till the 18 60s and 70s, some Democrats are still calling the Republicans Federalists. The party of Alexander Hamilton, which was a self consciously elitist party back in 1800. Yeah. So I think Democrats did have these differences, of course, and they continue to have them.

Another time of, just mention another big split in the Democratic Party, the second split after the 1850s happened in the 1890s during the Great Depression when Grover Cleveland was president, Democratic president, very conservative Democratic president. And the depression happened under his watch and he, he crushed a national railroad strike which did make him popular among a lot of working class Democrats.

Of course [00:16:00] he, he had to go to JP Morgan to bail, try to bail the treasury out from the depression cause it wasn't enough money in the federal treasuries to pay off salaries and get the economy out of the depression. And then William James Bryan, the guy who wrote a biography about several years ago runs as this insurgent democratic candidate in 1896.

And he really remakes the party and tries to pull it away from the more conservative influences of people like Grover Cleveland and Richard, Richard Southerners in general.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Although even he had that. Multifaceted aspect himself because he was a Christian fundamentalist as well.

KAZIN: Yeah, yeah. But then, he was, of course, most American Christians really up until the middle of the, of the well, but thank you theories are so we're really evangelical Protestants, that was the default religion of most of most Americans and Catholics and Jews and, and sort of mainline Protestants were, We're seeing it as someone on the margins, even though the mainline process had a lot of power, of course but they didn't have as many people.

So, so [00:17:00] Brian, but he did have a problem again, getting to the divisions of the party. Brian did have a real problem attracting Catholics Eastern Orthodox Jews, some degree, especially those in cities, because he was perceived. It wanted to be perceived in some ways as the candidate of rural America, of small farmers and of course in 1896 he got the support of the Populist Party, the People's Party which was the insurgency of small farmers.

So, again in some ways it's, it's perhaps inevitable that When a party begins to gain power that it grows in its appeal, but that appeal ends up also leading to divisions in the party because people want to take it in different directions to, from their point of view, keep it winning. But those, that, those divisions often end up hurting the party and, and leading to it dividing and losing.

Who is the Democratic party for is never settled

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. One of the persistent themes is in the book is about, who is the party for? And it's a question that is, there is never a, a defined answer to that. Because [00:18:00] that's the nature of political parties is that. I mean, it's for whoever is going to vote for it, basically.

But, but it's more serious than that, of course, because, especially now in the present moment, uh, that the, the, the opposition party to the Democrats is, I mean, Donald Trump is pretty much running as I'm going to literally lock up. My political opponents. I'm going to prosecute people who I think are mean people who did not obey me while I was the president.

I want to execute them, which is what he said about it.

KAZIN: He's called Democrats. He's called Democrats or communists, radical leftists. Anarchists, I forget all the terms he uses to describe, poor Joe Biden is not everyone's idea, not, not many people's idea of an anarchist


or a communist for that matter.

Yeah but, but, but it's a it's an interesting dilemma though, that the Democrats are facing, as I, as I mentioned in the introduction is that they, the, the, the Republican party has policies that. [00:19:00] The things that it wants to do, most people disagree with and, and this is a very common lament that I hear from people, especially who have maybe who support things like single payer healthcare or, some sort of universal healthcare system, they're constantly saying, well, if we just talk about our ideas more than we would win but The history of the Democratic Party shows that that's not necessarily the case, and it never has been.

KAZIN: That's true, and as, we were discussing before, having, having large, powerful intelligent social movements has always been important, important to the Democrats. I mean, arguably, there was sort of a Jackson movement before there was a Democratic Party. Jackson felt he was cheated out of winning the 18 24 election, so called corrupt bargain.

Between Henry Clay, and John Quincy Adams. But then, the People's Party, really does, help to change the Democratic Party Brian doesn't win. [00:20:00] Democratic Party of Wilson and later on of Franklin Roosevelt too is in many ways, a party which is. Trying to institute a lot of the ideas and policies and use a lot of the rhetoric that the populists had helped to infuse in the Democratic Party.

And of course the labor movement, as I write about in the book is so essential to not just helping Democrats win in the thirties, but really changing them from being a party where the white South was really their base into a more of a, a national party and also getting the process of finally getting the Democrats to leave their racist heritage behind.

Because the unions of the CIO in the late 1930s are interracial unions and they, and they're very strong in the Midwestern states, those swing states. There was swing states then, there's swing states still. And they were essential to the Democrats winning in those states.

SHEFFIELD: And yet in the intervening decades the, the power of unions generally has shrunk and we're, we're seeing somewhat of a resurgence of [00:21:00] that current, the present moment with people beginning to do strikes and things like that is that do you, do you see things reversing in that degree and I feel like to some degree, I feel like Democrats.

People on the left may not appreciate how important that unions are for.

KAZIN: I think, I think they are more and more, the problem is. It's been so long since least private sector unions were powerful in this country that most people don't, especially most Democrats, especially most educated Democrats don't know anybody in the union except maybe now in graduate student unions, places like where I teach where they're very strong.

But that's sort of the exception proves the rule, yeah. But look, I think. I do argue and I've also this that I'm also a labor historian. I mean, I think, I think working class institutions are essential to having a more egalitarian America. People have to organize themselves. They can't just look for help from on high, they have to organize themselves.

That's the essence of democracy. But I [00:22:00] think there unions are stirring, certainly and as the UAW won this big victory over the big three automakers the Teamsters won a big victory recently over, over UPS there's a lot of Starbucks workers who are organizing, though they're being stopped from getting a contract, and, and Biden, for all his problems, is the most pro union president in American history.

Even Franklin Roosevelt did not have union leaders to the White House embrace them and said, in effect, Uh, workers should join unions. So it's quite astonishing that, that, Americans would like unions, 70 percent of them in a recent Gallup poll favorable unions don't realize that their president is, is, is really favorable to unions cause he understands how important they are to breaking through Democrats to break through to win more working class votes.

So the problem is, you use are not easy to organize under the labor relations act that have now it's much easier for employers to scare workers to saying, well, if you vote for the union, fine, but then I'm not going [00:23:00] to close down your factory, close down your workshop, whatever. And also.

And the penalties for breaking the labor law for employers are very, very slight, really and can take years to adjudicate violations of the law. So, it's a real problem. The only time unions in American history really grow, they grow in surges. They grow from 3 million members in 1933 to 15 million members in 1945.

From 500, 000 members in late 90s to Two million members by 1920, for example, so I'm sorry, five million members by 1920. So, and that's not happening yet. And if it doesn't happen, Democrats will have to find some other way to appeal to working class voters, I'm afraid.

The left can only win when people demand better

SHEFFIELD: Well, and I mean, and I would say. You're right that they, people have to organize themselves, but I think that unions have not done as good of a job in giving people the tools to do that and helping them understand what they can get out of it. I mean, cause I, I, that to me is kind of the,[00:24:00] the, the fundamentally reactionary position is your life sucks.

And you can't do anything about it. This world is terrible. So just sit back and embrace the s**t. That's basically the position. And so getting people to realize, look, I deserve better than what I have. That ultimately is the dilemma, I think, that the left is facing in any country that people have, more equality based viewpoints.

And I don't, I don't know that that's something that is kind of common in the discourse, in the center to left media. I don't think it's talked about very much.

KAZIN: I think you're right. And I mean, young activists, I wish Most young activists wanted to be union organizers instead of, organizing to do things that are fine, but you know, like, trying to take down, Confederate statues or, [00:25:00] or, change the curriculum.

Being an organizer is tough because you have to talk to people who are not like you, very often. I'm looking at your organizers have always been more educated. than the workers that they're organizing. I'm writing a biography now of Samuel Gompers, actually who was a poor kid, really, an immigrant from London, but he educated himself, he read lots of Marx, um, and he learned reading Marx that, that, only unions can emancipate the, the working class. He stopped being a Marxist when he got to become a national labor leader, but you know, that, that wisdom is still, is still important, I think. So, I mean, I think it is, I don't want, I don't mean to be, down a downer here.

I mean, I think there are, there is a lot of union organizing, DSA, which I have some problems with as an organization, nevertheless, a lot of people in there are very supportive of unions. Bernie Sanders, obviously supportive of unions, the AOC. So progressive Democrats especially are very supportive of unions.

And, and that, and they're pretty vocal about it too, that that has not always been true, but I think they are. But being, but being vocal enough, being vocal is [00:26:00] not enough. And you got to have mass, mass, actions and to make, to make it seem, as you said, that it's possible to change your life with your brothers and sisters, that it's not, it's not dismal.

And there's just not enough of that. It's happening in spots. But in the 1930s, it happened pretty much everywhere. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and I, one of the other, sort of tensions with regard to labor organizing is, is that there are some different imperatives between public sector unions and private sector unions.

And that's, uh, that's something that. Has, I think, that has had an impact in terms of how the Democratic Party operates and what policies that it prioritizes as, as private sector unions have become less powerful and less.

KAZIN: That's definitely right. I think a large proportion of the delegates to the 2020 convention, for example were members of the public safety unions, especially AFSCME and the American Federation of Teachers.

And [00:27:00] some for the SEIU as well, which has some public members. And that, I mean, it is indicative, as you say, that, that the American Federation of Teachers is one of the strongest groups in the Democratic Party. I mean, I'm very supportive of teacher unionism, but the fact that people with college educations, which most teachers have are such an important group in the Democratic Party does send a signal to a lot of folks who don't have college educations.

Tensions between Democratic activists and Democratic voters

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and that's you allude to that in the, in the last chapter of the book which you have called Cosmopolitans in Search of a New Majority. What do you, what do you mean by that, that term when you, when you say it?

KAZIN: Well, I mean that, the, this, the core activists of the Democratic Party are people like me.

Mostly younger than me, thank God, but people like me who have college educations, who, who grew up using the big city or suburbs who are not very religious who are, read the New York Times and listen to NPR and, who get their information from places like that and[00:28:00] they realize, if they're democratic operatives like my son is and, and like a lot of people he works with in the party that they need to, of course, win over a majority.

That's what it means to have a democratic country. Or should mean anyway, but there was a gap between them and a lot of the people that they're trying to reach. And so they're always looking for candidates who will be like John Tester in Montana, for example, has a farm, it's not, or, or some, or people serve in the, in the military.

There's a guy running for the Senate against Josh Hawley in Missouri, for example, now I can't remember his name, but he's, he's, he's, he's in the Marine Corps for 15 years. He was a lawyer in the Marine Corps, but still he was in the Marine Corps. And so connecting with average Americans on the part of Democrats who are not, really representative of average Americans is, is, is a problem, especially without, without a strong, without a strong labor movement you've got, you've got folks who are to a certain extent be missionaries.

You could argue, or at least are trying not to appear that way. And so that, that's a problem. I [00:29:00] mean, look, Nancy Pelosi, who I think was very successful in many ways as a politician is, is symbolic of that, I mean, she comes she's originally grew up in a working class machine in Baltimore, where her father was mayor of Baltimore.

So it was a brother for a short period of time. But then of course she. Married a rich guy and moved out to San Francisco. And San Francisco, of course, as became the, the very emblem of elitist Democrats still is unfortunately. So, so that's a good example of, of cosmopolitans even those who did not grow up cosmopolitan the way the way,

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and it's also that, the idea that the Republican party, has explicitly oligarchical policies, in terms of trying to give money to rich people through tax cuts or subsidies. But they're able to push a populist narrative and they, and they do it. They refashion it every few years. So for people are claiming Trump is this new kind of Republican, which is.

Literally the [00:30:00] same thing that they said about Newt Gingrich in the nineties. He's a different kind of Republican, a populist Republican. Ronald Reagan, especially. And Ronald Reagan. Yeah. Like they, they recycled this every few years and it's, and it's nonsense, but the, the thing that it does have that's powerful is that.

It's refashioning the word populist to be a term about your intellectual approach, your epistemology. And so, by overtly embracing, anti intellectualism and religious fundamentalism, they're able to not only motivate a lot of people for whom that's very important, but they're also able to You know, sort of depressed Democrats who may be more, religiously fundamentalist like many African Americans, like, many, many white Americans in the Midwest and, Hispanic Americans in various areas where they live.

Like that's, that's why you see them pushing for [00:31:00] that so much. Even for Republicans who might be more, Ayn Rand. Militant atheists they see it as a useful way of dividing and conquering.

KAZIN: There aren't many of those Randians left, I don't think, in the party, but at least not publicly.

SHEFFIELD: Well, Elon Musk seems to be one.

KAZIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, well, rather powerful youngness. Like I wrote a whole book about, called The Populist Persuasion, which is about the use of populist language and symbol and imagery in American history. And this goes way back to McCarthyism, really. Talking about, people with one with silver spoons in their mouths and selling the country out Alger Hiss, Dean Acheson, people like that.

And it was very successful. I mean, father Coughlin back in the thirties was first a Democrat and then becomes basically a fascist was talking like that as well. And luckily, as religion is, is always been very important in American politics. Ever since really the beginnings of the country.

And, and so if you can make the Democrats sound like the anti religious party then you can have a lot of success, even at a time when fewer and fewer [00:32:00] Americans really are very religious that's one thing Democrats probably have on their side, actually in the abortion debate and debate about LGBTQ rights as well as that, more and more people, especially young people just.

Religion is a nice idea, but it's not, it's not a serious faith in their lives, I think. And so it's no longer possible to say it's no longer possible to use, that, that kind of populist religiosity against Democrats as much as it used to be.

How Republicans use religion to divide and depress Democratic voters

SHEFFIELD: Well, but it's still, I mean, if you look at the I mean, the surveys have shown that, the fastest growing demographic group in America, which is Hispanic Protestants were overwhelmingly evangelical.

KAZIN: Pentecostals, yeah, yeah,

SHEFFIELD: yeah. Yeah. And they're, they're majority Republican now.

KAZIN: No, it's true. It's true.

SHEFFIELD: So, and, and, and, and, and that is, it's eating, starting to eat away also. And also in some of the Democratic Party's efforts with black men in particular, but and, and getting people disinterested in the Democratic Party and, that's why you do see so much [00:33:00] of the focus on, especially recently on, on, transgender people and, these manufactured grooming allegations and, and I think a lot of people, they see that the right is doing this flagrant work flagrant manipulation on the left and, and their response is to say, well, we need to just walk away from those issues and those people that they're attacking. I don't think they realize that the right wing is going to seize upon anything like just the fact that you oppose them as a political party means that you're a communist, regardless of what you say.

Like that's the, that's the part I feel like a lot of the more, popularistic, I guess you would, you'd call them and they don't seem to get, it's the, you, you can run away from these issues all you want. It's still not going to make them stop.

KAZIN: Also, as I said, in this review of as I mentioned before of a book by Tashira and Judas I mean, young people are [00:34:00] obviously.

Given the ways, the future of the democratic party, if it has a future I think it does, but as they are the Republican party and you can't run away from issues they care about. You can't just say, oh, well, you shouldn't talk about that. Talk about this. You can say strategically, we should talk about differently.

But you can't tell people they should not care about transgender rights. You can't tell people they should not care about, about policing. You can't tell people they should not care about obviously abortion. That's of course a winner right now for Democrats. And, and so.

You have to find ways, again, it's a coalition, you have to find ways to make everyone in the party happy enough so that they will support the same candidates and work really hard for them. But there's no, you can't escape it. You can't find the perfect agenda. As you said, it's not, it's not about making sure that you get the polling majority for every race.

It's about keeping the party together, which can, which can, become an organization which actually can elect people. And then once elects people can actually govern and change the society in good ways. That's your theory of change there. [00:35:00] So, I think that's, and look, people on the left.

Are, are guilty themselves of, of just being moralist and pure and purist. And how come you didn't call that, that person? They, they want to be called. They, how could you have done that? You have to call people, you have to use the term Latin X. You can't call people Latinos or Hispanics, even though 97 percent of Hispanics and Latinos want to be called Latinos and Hispanics, so, each side of this division has its problems keeping, keeping their minds on what will produce a successful party. Yeah.

How 'fusionism' built the Republican coalition and a version of it could help Democrats

SHEFFIELD: Well, and one model for moving forward, I think, is to look at the way that the right built their movement as well. So. Not only did they, so they didn't really have much of a social movement.

What they started from was an activist movement. Yeah. And they did it through developing a concept which they called fusionism. And do you, do you want to talk about that? What that was for people who don't know that term? Sure.[00:36:00] And what it meant for them.

KAZIN: Yeah. In the mid 1950s, William F. Buckley Jr. started National Review Magazine, a very small magazine at first, but then it became the most influential magazine on the right. And Actually an ex communist named Frank Meyer put forth the idea that the different parts, the different kinds of conservatives in America needed to unite.

They needed to fuse their energies against liberalism, basically. Against liberalism and pro communism, as they saw it. The three parts were economic libertarians some of whom were, reading and trying to proselytize in favor of the ideas of Ayn Rand some of whom were just sort of Chamber of Commerce, national association of manufacturers entrepreneurs who didn't like unions, didn't like regulation, didn't like corporate taxation.

The other, the other one were religious conservatives from, all religions, really, but especially Christian Protestant conservatives and Catholic conservatives. The other one were people who were primarily interested in the Cold War, who wanted a stronger military, wanted to, not just to contain the Soviet [00:37:00] Union which was the official liberal document official liberal doctrine at the time, but to overthrow the captive nations run by communist parties. So, Meijer and National Review became a Meijer helped National Review to become a place where these three groups came together. They wrote for the, they wrote for National Review, they wrote for other magazines as well, and they, they got behind the candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1960 when he didn't decide to run for president, and then in 1964 when he did.

And that was the, the coming out party, so to speak, of the of the conservative movement as a, political force in the country. Hope that's, hope that's accurate. As a former conservative, you would be able to correct me.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and it's, and it's, it's, it's also that they, that the concept is to tell them, if you're a member of any of these three different factions, You need to understand that overall, you're headed in the same direction as the other two.

And so you should, you should support them and at least, close your mouth and [00:38:00] don't complain about it.

KAZIN: You've got a common enemy. You've got a common enemy. That's, that's the key. United by a common enemy. Communism abroad, liberalism at home.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And, and, and I think that that's, that ultimately is, is the, the Something like that has to be, be done on the American left in the 21st century that people need to understand that, when the overall, the, the, the thing that you're trying to do is, get rid of injustice. And injustice has many different facets. And you need to understand that there, they are linked.

Like there's that there's that fable of the, and out of ancient India of the blind men and the elephant. Each man thinks that when they discover the elephant, and they can't see it, of course, so they each think that the essence of the elephant is the leg or the ear or, the trunk or whatever, and it's only by understanding that these things are all actually part of the same thing.

And so if you are [00:39:00] interested in, whether it's worker organizing or women's rights or, regulation of businesses or, any, any of these, or, police reform or racial injustice, that that's, you need to get sight of the larger. The larger picture because it's, it's, it's too easy to focus on just one thing and think that that's the answer because it's not,

KAZIN: Of course, Democrats do have a common enemy now it's Donald Trump. But that's Democratic activists. That's so far, according to the polls, not enough to get Biden reelected or to. Keep control of the Senate and we control the House, so.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and, and also there is the idea of, having a vision of the future. Like, you don't, like that, when you, when you look at, particularly large democratic victories in American history, it's always been, that's been one of the biggest components is.

There is a, a, a [00:40:00] vision of something that we're moving toward that's bigger than just the one


KAZIN: No, I agree. The only, the only thing Democrats have now is, is a green economy, I think which is a common vision. Everything else, there's nothing, there's no substance to anything else. But as we know, a green economy is not easy.

Because there's a lot of entrenched interests who oppose it and it's very expensive. so. Well, I mean, I think, look not to be nostalgic here, but the four freedom speech that FDR gave in 1944 is still, a good common vision, I, I should remember all everyone has freedom from religion of religion, of course, at a time when there was a lot of world war two, of course the Holocaust was taking place though.

Most Americans didn't know that. That's freedom from fear. Freedom to have, healthcare be able to pay for it, freedom of housing, freedom to have the job, basically he called it, he called it the economic bill of rights. And building on the Bill of Rights, which is about, of course, individual freedom to a kind of collective idea of freedom, which, of course, every individual can benefit from.

I mean, it's [00:41:00] really an American version of social democracy, which is, my politics. And a politics which I think, Most, Democrats, whether they know the term or not, do support actually but they, but they don't, they aren't capable for all kinds of reasons. We're putting that together into a coherent package.

And in the book, I call this moral capitalism but at least more recent iterations of it. And that's not a good term either. No, they're not going to use that term. But the term itself matters, but, but not as much as people who hang on the substance. And agreeing to, agreeing to commit themselves to whatever their other ideas to, to agree on that substance.

SHEFFIELD: Mm hmm. And Oh, yeah. I would say also, I mean, one of the other challenges faced by the American left Is, is the fact that, because the American right is not really conservative, it's more reactionary that means that it has really no there are almost no especially in the social sciences or humanities, there [00:42:00] are almost no conservatives just simply because they can't hack it their ideas, like, like if your, if your idea of science is that humans, were created by God, Like, if that's your idea of science, well, you're not going to have, you're never going to have a job in, in, in a biology faculty.

And if your idea, of history is, God created Adam and Eve and, and the world is 7, 000 years old, and I, and the Bible is literally true. Like, if that's your idea of history, then obviously, You're not going to make it in in the history department. And, and like, there are people that I've known who were, when I was Mormon, that they were explicitly discouraged from getting into the academic fields of, ancient history or biblical archeology or things like that, because, and they were told that if you go into these fields, your testimony will not survive.

They never back that up to, to wonder, well, maybe [00:43:00] the testimony is not true. They never,

KAZIN: we just, we just, we disagree a little bit about this, but I'm not sure how much we want to go down this road. But I think there are, serious conservative thinkers political theorists not scientists, maybe, but political theorists and even historians.

But the problem is they tend to want to celebrate the past. They tend to want to lionize figures in the past rather than as most historians do liberals and leftists just examine them, try to understand the past empathetically, but, but not act as if mm-hmm, , things, things were, were much better back then.

I mean, make America great again is not Mm-Hmm, , a coherent. Historical approach.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah.

Because America or like that David Barton guy. my point being though, that

How the left's dominance in academia harms its ability to reach the masses

SHEFFIELD: because these are more reactionary rather than conservative views they're not in academia. And so the right in the American right thinks it's very envious of not having, academic.

Outposts, if you will, but you know, in a lot of ways, it's disadvantageous to the left in the United [00:44:00] States being so closely linked to colleges and universities,

KAZIN: I would say, look, only something like 35 percent of Americans, 30 year old Americans have college degrees and despite so much attention to what's going on in colleges, in the media and everywhere else.


SHEFFIELD: well, and then the colleges themselves, are inherently anti progressive in like they're inherently conservative and how they're run like they are. Yeah, they're constantly, begging billionaires for money. They are constantly oppressing their, their employee employees. They're constantly ripping off their students.

And I'm, I don't want to hear a professor, so I can say this,

KAZIN: but I'm not, I'm not defending it. I mean, it used to be, it used to be, you could go to. You could go to University of California, Berkeley, basically for free. And now it's expensive. And because, because state, state universities are not really state universities anymore.

They're, they're private universities which get, 20 percent or less of their funding from the state government. [00:45:00]

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And so, and, and so, I mean, irrespective of, of the people that are involved with it, it's just simply. There are different incentives for being a professor to become a professor.

You have to do things that in some ways are, I mean, like, writing a dissertation obviously is about the least populous thing you could do. It's not something that, I think anybody who's written a dissertation, when they're in the middle of writing it, you tell people that you're writing it, a lot of people's reaction unless they come are in that environment themselves is to be like, okay, well, let's talk about something else.

They don't, and so, it's, it, it does, it's made the, the democratic party become more overly reliant on polling because they don't have touch with. The, the regular average person whether it's, just in terms of who runs the place or where they live, I mean, there's this extreme, mid Atlantic bias in left wing [00:46:00] institutions in the country.

I mean, there, there's a lot of issues and I, and I don't, I don't know that a lot of the leadership seems to be aware of these things as far as I know.

KAZIN: I think, I mean, they, they understand they need to win national elections and so.

SHEFFIELD: No, they understand that, but they don't understand why it's hard for them, I think.

KAZIN: Yeah, maybe not. Maybe not.

SHEFFIELD: And anyway, so,

Are progressive third parties capable of making change?

SHEFFIELD: one of the other things that you talk about toward the end of the book, is that, you do talk about the temptation of third parties in the United States, and that's become especially more tempting, I think, to a lot of people who have more self described socialist viewpoints, whether they actually are a socialist or not, that's another question.

But you know, a lot of people have come to say that, well, the democratic party is not for me. I want to be a socialist, or I want to be independent or green or whatever what would you say to somebody who has that perspective?

KAZIN: I'd say one of the two parties is going to win. And. If you really would [00:47:00] rather support a reactionary party that is going to nominate Donald Trump, again, who doesn't believe in democracy, then fine. Vote for a third party.

Otherwise, um, lesser evil is much less evil than the Republicans. And, Joe Biden is an old guy. I wish he were younger. I wish he were more dynamic. But he has some good policies and he's going to be the nominee. So, as in the famous line of the Rolling Stones song, which Donald Trump likes to play at his rallies you can't always get what you want, but you sometimes get what you need.

And we don't need another term for Donald Trump. That's for damn sure. So, third parties can float ideas sometimes. The People's Party did that, the Progressive Party of Theodore Roosevelt did that in 1912. I can mention other, other third parties, which have been interesting, but they But they don't win.

And they're not going to win given our political system and the way it's organized. And, and so, if you if there is a difference between the two parties, which I think there's a huge difference between the two [00:48:00] parties there's not always been, but there is now then, if you're on the left.

You don't vote for Democrats. You are sabotaging what you really care about in American life.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and yeah, I think that's, that's a good point. And a lot of people also need to understand that the right wing is also pushing you to go and vote for these other parties. Like they are explicitly going and fund a lot of these third party, hopeless ventures with that in mind.

KAZIN: Yep. Yep. It's true.

SHEFFIELD: All right. So we've been talking today with Michael Kazin.

He's the author of What It Took to Win, A History of the Democratic Party. And then you are on at least for now on Twitter over at M Kazin, K A Z I N for those who are listening. So thanks for being here, Michael.

KAZIN: Appreciate it. Great conversation.

SHEFFIELD: All right, so that is the program for today. I appreciate everybody for joining us. All right. So that's the program for today. I appreciate everybody joining us for the conversation. And if you want to get more [00:49:00] episodes, just go to theoryofchange.show, and you can get the full video, audio, and transcript of all the episodes.

Some of the content is available only for paid subscribers, but most of it is available in its entirety. And then if you go to flux. community, you can also check out some of the other podcasts that I am involved in. I've got two other ones, one called Doom Scroll, and another one called So this just happened Doomscroll is a look at the news from a comedic and Doomscroll is a satirical look at the news hosted by my comedian friend, Lisa Curry and I, and our one guest every week.

And then I've also got, so this just happened, which is a. look at the news, news and culture that I am hosting with my friend Kelly Holloway, who is a writer at The Nation. So I hope you guys can check those out as well. Thank you very much. And if you want to support the show you can subscribe at theoryofchange.show on Substack, and you [00:50:00] can also do it over on Patreon. Go to patreon.com/discoverflux. Appreciate that very much. And especially those who are making this possible. Couldn't do it without you and appreciate it. Thanks for watching or listening, and I'll see you next time. [00:51:00]

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Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? Join Matthew Sheffield and his guests as they explore larger trends and intersections in politics, religion, technology, and media.