Right in time for the 2004 campaign: a sprawling, capable history of a party that, like its opposition (see Lewis Gould’s Grand Old Party, above), has long had trouble deciding just what its politics are.
Baltimore Sun columnist Witcover (No Way to Pick a President, 1999, etc.), a seasoned newsman, knows a human-interest story when he sees it, and his account of the Dems’ long history is full of juicy tidbits, from Thomas Jefferson to William Jefferson Clinton—against whom the current crop of presidential hopefuls seems decidedly colorless. Witcover has a little trouble deciding just when Democratic history begins, and he locates the party’s origins in several strains, often conflicting, within the federalist-antifederalist debates of the early Republic. Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton grumbled that the proto-Democrats of 1800 were set to “lead a Revolution after the manner of Bonaparte” and were “hostile to the system” of “general [centralized] government”—which puts them about where the Republicans are today. When Jefferson famously said that “we are all republicans, we are all federalists,” Witcover remarks, he was speaking not so much to a spirit of unity as to “a general erosion of firm ideological positions” following George Washington’s quasi-aristocratic reign; that erosion bred a provisional sort of politics, which perhaps explains why later generations of 19th-century activists could call themselves Democrats and be here proslavery, there ardent abolitionists, here all for civil war on behalf of either North or South, there champions of peace. Much of the long-standing equation of Democratic with “mob” rule, Witcover writes, traces to the era of Andrew Jackson, who was convinced that “mercantile considerations were a peril to the country”; whence, too, the equally long-standing notion that Democrats are anti-business. And so on to the present, where the Democratic Party, as two hundred years ago, represents an uneasy alliance, with some, Witcover writes in conclusion, arguing that it should “return to its roots,” others that it eschew “the old confrontational class warfare in favor of a new, enlightened and pragmatic partnership between toilers and entrepreneurs in an era of massive technological and informational change.”
We’ll see, come 2004. In the meanwhile, a useful primer.