After more than two centuries of sometimes stormy, always intriguing history, the Democratic Party of the United States survives as the oldest political organization in the world. In Party of the People, veteran political chronicler Jules Witcover traces the Democratic Party’s evolution, from its roots in the agrarian, individualistic concepts of Thomas Jefferson to its emergence as today’s progressive party of social change and economic justice. Witcover describes the Democrats' dramatic struggle to deÞne themselves and shares with us half a century of personal observation of the party through its most turbulent times.
First called, oddly enough, the Republican Party but later known as the Democratic-Republican Party and eventually the Democratic Party, this creature of Jefferson and James Madison evolved from an early ideological and personal struggle with the commerce-minded Alexander Hamilton. Seasoned by the populism of Andrew Jackson, the party was nearly undone by the “peculiar institution” of slavery in the South, which led to the birth of the rival Republican Party and to the Civil War. Half a century later, America emerged from World War I under Democrat Woodrow Wilson as a reluctant international player, and from World War II under Franklin Roosevelt as a liberal bastion and global superpower.
In the civil rights revolution, the party shed much of its racist past, but subsequent white middle-class resentments and the divisive Vietnam War opened the door to a rival conservatism that effectively demon-ized Democratic liberalism. Defensively, the party under Bill Clinton sought safer centrist ground and seemed on the brink of establishing a “third way," until the disastrous 2000 electoral college defeat of Al Gore left the Democrats shaken and splintered. As the new century emerges, they are debating whether to return to their liberal roots, setting themselves clearly apart from the Republicans, or press on with the centrist pursuit of a broader, less liberal constituency.
In Party of the People (a perfect companion to Grand Old Party by Lewis L. Gould, a history of the Republicans published simultaneously by Random House), Jules Witcover offers a rich and comprehensive popular history of the ideas, struggles, and key Þgures that have deÞned the Democratic Party over the past two hundred years and are now
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Given the Democratic Party's fundamental role in shaping the United States, a history of the Democrats, "the world's oldest existing party," demands a virtual history of American government. In Jules Witcover's massive Party of the People: A History of the Democrats he attempts to capture the party's long evolution in a single volume. Though Witcover is sometimes burdened by the need to condense complex political events into textbook summaries, the book is authoritative and often useful as a first resource for political history.
From the start, Witcover draws from "the two disciplines of contemplative history and contemporary or ‘instant' history" to varying degrees of success. Party of the People is best when "instant" history holds sway, most notably in discussions of the Clinton and Gore presidential runs, where Witcover includes snippets of controversial speeches and press conferences. Earlier chapters, however, neglect primary source material under the pressure to summarize. Witcover's coverage of Andrew Jackson, for example, lacks direct citations that would bolster "Old Hickory's" reputation as a charismatic figure. While comprehensive at the federal executive level, the book is uneven in its treatment of the other levels and branches of government. Also, Witcover tends to underplay the role of slavery in the early history of the Democrats, especially in his explanations of Jefferson's "agrarian" virtue.
The book ends just as President George W. Bush has launched the war in Iraq and the Democratic candidates are lining up for the 2004 election. Looking ahead, Witcover sees the Democratic Party in a period of "identity crisis and dilemma." But, despite the contentious atmosphere between the liberal Campaign for America's Future and the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, he finds a common thread that connects modern Democrats to their founder, Thomas Jefferson: the "commitment to social and economic justice." While not perfect, Party of the People's treatment of the Democratic Party's quest for justice offers a valuable reference for students and educators. --Patrick O'KelleyFrom the Back Cover:
“Party of the People is a fine popular history of the world’s oldest political party written by an astute veteran observer of American politics.”
-Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
“Lively and well-written, Party of the People delves into the lives of the great leaders who framed the Democratic Party's ideals and provides cogent insight into the state of the Party today. Told with a veteran journalist's talent for pace and detail, Party of the People is an engrossing, dynamic account that should be required reading for anyone interested in American politics.”
-Congressman Richard A. Gephardt, Former House Democratic Leader
"The story of the Democratic Party is the story of America's willingness to work together toward a better future for all. In Party of the People, Jules Witcover tells this tale with clarity, insight, and elegance. His luminous and unblinking history captures the moments when the party's vision have pushed our country forward as well as those times when the Democrats fell short of their own ideals. Most impressively, Witcover has captured the essence of American politics and its unique amalgam of altruism and pragmatism. This is an invaluable work of political history."
-Senator Thomas Daschle
“They call journalism the first draft of history. What do you call history written by a journalist? In this case, you call it splendid! This book has all the virtues of a solid history book and the pleasures of journalism. It's readable and reliable and as exciting as the campaigns it covers." -Rick Shenkman, editor of the History News Network, George Mason University
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