The Enduring Promise of Moral Capitalism | by Michael Kazin
In our May 27, 2021 issue, we published “Ending the Kennedy Romance” by Michael Kazin, a review of the first volume of Frederik Logevall’s biography on JFK. Kazin begins with a question: “Why, nearly six decades after his murder, do Americans still care so much about John Fitzgerald Kennedy and, for the most part, continue to have such great esteem for John Fitzgerald Kennedy?” After all, his presidency hasn’t done much, argues Kazin; Kennedy himself was a smarter operator and charismatic celebrity than a powerful political leader. The superficiality of his heritage, writes Kazin, should prompt “a sober assessment of how the relentless pursuit of world power by politicians like him has too often betrayed the promise of their altruistic oratory.”
Kazin, who teaches at Georgetown, is a historian of social movements and a long-time participant in them. As he told me in an email this week, he spent his teenage years volunteering for Democratic politicians before joining Students for a Democratic Society as an undergraduate student. For Kazin, like many of his generation, the SDS was attractive because it “formulated a critique of Cold War liberalism – and the Vietnam War in particular – and was determined to build an alternative.” He spent a dozen years as an editor for Challenge magazine, to which he still contributes, and often appears in public debates as a bridge between the old “new left” and contemporary left thought and movements.
His next book, What it took to win: a story of the Democratic Party (released 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 of previous centuries – barely progressive icons. Kazin calls this belief “moral capitalism” – “a largely egalitarian economic outlook,” he explained, “first only for white Americans, but ultimately for every citizen. Even when they championed 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 for all and special privileges for no one ”.
Kazin believes that the political and rhetorical force of this moral capitalism, both as an “ideal and as a party policy which it helped to animate”, has been repeatedly demonstrated at the polls. Only “programs designed to make life more prosperous or, at least, safer for ordinary people have been shown to be able to unite Democrats and win enough voters to allow the party to create a ruling majority that could last more than one or two electoral cycles. , “he told me. Party leaders, through various periods of economic downturn and social unrest,” understood that most voters saw no alternative to the markets and wages system, but also believed , precisely enough, that the capitalist order had failed to produce the utilitarian ideal of the greatest good for the greatest number. “
Although Democrats’ decades of open admission to Jim Crow racism ended, Kazin points out that “ensuring equal rights before the law has done little to relieve blacks from the wounds of poverty and de facto segregation.” For Kazin, only the principle of moral capitalism can provide proper and complete redress for the segregation and impoverishment of black people, and it also happens to be the best political strategy: “Putting the political muscle and the government funding behind the Constitution’s vow to promote general welfare. “Has been and remains the best way to unify Democrats and gain enough votes to enable their candidates to create a more caring society,” he said, citing the popularity of Democratic initiatives like Social Security, the draft GI law and Medicare.
Kazin did not always have such an optimistic view of the Democratic Party. The anti-war movement radicalized him in college, leading him to oppose the politicians who led America to war in Southeast Asia. But the same movement that brought him back to Democratic politics, after the SDS “imploded and divided into self-destructive sects,” to work on George McGovern’s “quixotic anti-war campaign” in 1972. (“I solicited every Democratic presidential candidate ever since, “he said – except in 1980, when he” couldn’t stand Jimmy Carter’s multiple failures. “)
I asked Kazin about the relationship between today’s party and social movements, given that many of the main opponents of last summer’s uprisings in response to the murder of George Floyd were Democrats – mayors who deployed police in riot gear to Barack Obama, who persuaded NBA players to end their strike to protest police brutality.
“Every substantial social movement in the United States has established an effective relationship with one of the major political parties,” he replied, adding that they must also retain “an independent identity and freedom of action.” On the other side, Kazin says:
[Democrats] must find ways to show solidarity with the BLM, environmentalists and other important movements, but without alienating too many voters who for some reason are skeptical about them and their demands. Achieving such a balancing act is one of the main functions of a party that aspires not only to win elections, but to bring about significant changes in law and in political culture.
The doctrine of moral capitalism, as Kazin describes it, is broad enough to include and adapt to its adversaries. Unlike the SDS, which has never been able to express what it wanted to change about the state, “America’s democratic socialist alternative is right there in its name,” he said. “There was no one in the Democratic Party in the 1960s like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who calls herself a socialist and has great popularity in left movements, but who has also shown her ability to bring together leaders of the party of the policies that it favors. “
I asked Kazin about the potential pitfalls of focusing on electoral politics given the push from 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 a lasting majority. Otherwise, why would the GOP want fewer people to vote? A future strong Democratic Party faces many other obstacles besides the accessibility of the vote, as he noted: declining union membership, perception of the party as “led by an affluent elite with a university education” , lack of generalized economic prosperity. that was the backdrop for JFK’s presidency, to name a few.
Yet Kazin continues to be optimistic:
For all their flaws and limitations, Democrats remain the only electoral institution in 21st century America capable and willing to help solve the serious problems facing the United States and, to some extent, the rest of the world. humanity as well.