In 1918, Al Smith was elected governor of New York, and early in his first term, he made the decision to appoint Francis Perkins to the state Industrial Commission. The job would make her the highest-paid woman in the history of New York state government and give her the power to make significant progress on behalf of women and children in the workforce. 

Shortly after her confirmation, though, Smith summoned Perkins to his office. “Someone told me youse wasn’t a Democrat,” he said. 

A little flustered, Perkins explained that since women in New York had only just become eligible to vote in 1918, she hadn’t yet registered with any party at all. 

Smith, a beneficiary of the Tammany machine, told her that only members of a “good, well-organized party” could ever accomplish much in politics. And shortly thereafter, Perkins became a Democrat.  

In his new book, What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party, Michael Kazin looks at the party’s long past — from Martin Van Buren to Joe Biden. He describes the role of reformers like Perkins and Jesse Jackson and reactionaries like Richard Russell and Ben Tillman. 

Kazin is clear-eyed about the role that white supremacy and regional dominance in the South played in setting the party’s electoral coalition and institutional priorities. But he makes the persuasive case that all of the Democratic Party’s most notable periods of power building have been animated by a form of “moral capitalism” — a philosophy that ties the growth of the country to the welfare of working people and consumers. His thesis is that Democrats are strongest when voters see and internalize the egalitarian vision of its leaders. 

But there is another theme that comes across in Kazin’s analysis, and it builds on what Smith told Perkins.

Time and again, person-to-person infrastructure in local communities provided the foundation that made Democratic Party victories possible. The good, well-organized part of the party carried the day. 

Political machines like Tammany Hall are remembered as engines of avarice and graft. And ward bosses were, indeed, often just as corrupt as their historic reputations. But Kazin shows that the machines were also instruments of organization that created bonds of solidarity and common purpose with large numbers of voters. 

Their leaders were expected to be present and visible in their local communities. Kazin cites the example of one Tammany leader, George Washington Plunkitt, who described a common day beginning “at two in the morning when [he] was awakened to post bail for a saloonkeeper arrested for not paying his excise tax and ended near midnight at a Jewish wedding reception. Plunkitt spent the intervening hours helping victims of a fire at a tenement house, fixing problems of constituents at their workplaces or finding them jobs, convening a meeting of his district captains to identify every likely voter, and attending a church fair where he ‘kissed the little ones, flattered their mothers and took their fathers out for something down at the corner.’”

And their role extended beyond the political. After a group of union leaders, for instance, ran an insurgent candidate for governor with an explicit appeal to workers in 1886, Tammany responded by opening “clubhouses in every Assembly district—and not only to give partisans a place to talk politics and pick candidates. Gradually, the clubhouses also nurtured something the machine had never possessed before—a culture that mixed politics with wholesome pleasures. They held picnics in city parks, fishing trips on the Hudson River, and athletic meets with events tailored to different ages and both genders.”

In the build up to the Civil War through the decades leading up the 1900s, when New York was among the largest swing states, the ability to deliver an organized constituency often made Tammany a player in national politics, as well as more local races. 

Focused organizing of specific segments of their base also regularly provided Democrats with a way to make up ground after losses and setbacks. 

After Warren Harding carried 37 states and 404 electoral votes in the 1920 presidential election, the suffragist and writer Emily Newell Blair established the Women’s National Democratic Club. By 1922, she and her allies had helped to launch a thousand local chapters and training programs, which taught Democratic women how to organize and turnout the vote. Then after Al Smith lost to Herbert Hoover in 1928, Nellie Tayloe Ross at the Democratic National Committee expanded on those initial efforts. By the next midterm election, there were organized groups of Democratic women in close to 90 percent of the nation’s counties. After he won in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt made the Women’s Division a permanent department of the DNC. 

In the first midterm election after FDR died and Truman became president, Republicans won control of the House of Representatives. In the buildup to 1948, every GOP candidate who featured in polling against Truman was beating him. Clark Clifford, Truman’s political fixer, did see a path to victory, but it was narrow. He wrote a memo to the president arguing that Democrats “cannot win without the active support of organized labor.” So Truman’s campaign made labor its focus. He held a rally on Labor Day in Cadillac Square in Detroit where a quarter of a million people gathered to hear him speak. He embarked on a 31,000-mile whistle stop tour through industrial towns filled with union families. 

And when he surprised pundits to beat Thomas Dewey, Truman told a friend, “Labor did it.” 

Today, none of those organizational underpinnings exist — the machines are ancient history and there is nothing quite like the networks of activists fostered by Nellie Tayloe Ross and Emily Newell Blair. Organized labor no longer has the scale to fill in the gaps. 

So the power we’re able to tap from our base is too often reactive. Our activists might be wholly engaged when the moral failings of the presidencies of George W. Bush and Donald Trump leave them no choice. But there’s no focused conduit for their collective energies or ambitions. And thus the progress we can deliver is situational, limited by the gains we make in a moment that’s sure to slip away. 

In other words, without a good, well-organized party, we can’t accomplish much.  

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