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The Enduring Promise of Moral Capitalism

Michael Kazin, interviewed by Nawal Arjini

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.


In our May 27, 2021 issue, we published Michael Kazin’s “Ending the Kennedy Romance,” a review of the first volume of Frederik Logevall’s biography of JFK. Kazin begins with a question: “Why, nearly six decades after his murder, do Americans still care so much about and, for the most part, continue to think so highly of John Fitzgerald Kennedy?” After all, his presidency achieved little, Kazin argues; Kennedy himself was more canny operator and charismatic celebrity than powerful political leader. The shallowness of his legacy, Kazin writes, should prompt “a sober evaluation of how the relentless pursuit of global power by politicians like him too often betrayed the promise of their altruistic oratory.”

Kazin, who teaches at Georgetown, is a historian of social movements as well as a longtime participant in them. As he told me in an e-mail this week, he spent his teenage years volunteering for Democratic politicians before joining Students for a Democratic Society as an undergraduate. For Kazin, like many of his generation, SDS was appealing because it “articulated a critique of Cold War liberalism—and the Vietnam War, specifically—and was committed to building an alternative.” He spent a dozen years as an editor for Dissent magazine, to which he still contributes, and often appears in public debates as a bridge between the old “New Left” and contemporary leftist thought and movements.

His forthcoming book, What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party (out next March), argues that despite the party’s changing demographics, a shared political conviction unites the contemporary party with that of Andrew Jackson and the Dixiecrats in the centuries before—hardly progressive icons. Kazin calls this belief “moral capitalism”—“a broadly egalitarian economic vision,” he explained, “first only for white Americans but eventually for every citizen. Even when they defended racial supremacy and instituted brutal policies that devastated the lives of Black Americans and other people of color, Democrats swore by Jefferson’s maxim of ‘equal rights to all and special privileges to none.’”

Kazin believes the political and rhetorical strength of this moral capitalism, as both an “ideal and the party policies it helped to animate,” has been demonstrated time and again at the ballot box. Only “the programs designed to make life more prosperous or, at least, more secure for ordinary people proved capable of uniting Democrats and winning over enough voters to enable the party to create a governing majority that could last for more than one or two election cycles,” he told me. Party leaders, through various periods of economic downturn and social unrest, “understood that most voters saw no alternative to the system of markets and wages but also believed, quite accurately, that the capitalist order failed to produce the utilitarian ideal of the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Though the decades of Democrats’ open avowal of Jim Crow racism have ended, Kazin points out that “securing equal rights under law gave Black people little relief from the injuries of poverty and de facto segregation.” For Kazin, only the principle of moral capitalism can provide proper and comprehensive redress for segregation and Black impoverishment, and it also happens to be the best political strategy: “To put political muscle and government funding behind the Constitution’s vow ‘to promote the general Welfare’ has been and remains the best way to unify Democrats and win their candidates enough votes to make possible the creation of a more caring society,” he says, citing the popularity of Democratic initiatives like Social Security, the GI Bill, and Medicare.

Kazin has not always held such an optimistic view of the Democratic Party. The antiwar movement radicalized him in college, leading him to oppose the politicians who led America into war in Southeast Asia. But the same movement that brought him back to Democratic politics, after SDS “imploded and split into self-destructive sects,” to work on George McGovern’s “quixotic antiwar campaign” in 1972. (“I have canvassed for every Democratic nominee for president since,” he said—except in 1980, when he “couldn’t stomach Jimmy Carter’s multiple failures.”)

I asked Kazin about the relationship between today’s party and social movements, given that many of the most prominent opponents of last summer’s uprisings in response to the murder of George Floyd were Democrats—from the mayors who deployed police in riot gear to Barack Obama, who persuaded NBA players to end their walkout in protest of police brutality.

“Every consequential social movement in the United States has built an effective relationship to one of the major political parties,” he replied, adding that they must also retain “independent identity and freedom of action.” On the other side, Kazin says:

[Democrats] must find ways to show solidarity with BLM, environmentalists, and other sizeable movements but without alienating too many voters who are, for whatever reason, skeptical about them and their demands. Performing such a balancing act successfully is one of the key functions of a party that aspires not just to win elections but to make significant changes in law and political culture.

The doctrine of moral capitalism, as Kazin describes it, is capacious enough to include and adapt to its challengers. Unlike SDS, which never was able to articulate what it wanted to change about the state, the “Democratic Socialists of America’s alternative is right there in its name,” he says. “There was no one in the Democratic Party in the 1960s like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who calls herself a socialist and has a big following in left-wing movements but has also shown an ability to nudge party leaders closer to the policies she favors.”

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I asked Kazin about the potential pitfalls of focusing on electoral politics given the push in states to make voting more difficult. He was unfazed: “Republican efforts to restrict voting rights are a backhanded tribute to Democratic strength,” he wrote, “or at least the party’s potential to build an enduring majority. Why else would the GOP want fewer people to vote?” A strong future Democratic Party faces many other obstacles besides voting accessibility, as he noted: declining union membership, the perception of the party as “run by a college-educated, well-to-do elite,” the absence of the widespread economic prosperity that was the backdrop to JFK’s presidency, to name but a few.

Still, Kazin continues to be hopeful:

For all their faults and limitations, the Democrats remain the only electoral institution in twenty-first-century America able and willing to help solve the serious problems facing the United States and, to a degree, the rest of humanity as well.

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