As Republicans embraced anti-elitism under Trump, Democrats reacted by embracing the values of the upper-middle class.
The result, according to historian Matt Karp is a party that often – intentionally or unintentionally – distances itself from the working class, which it used to champion. The professional class has made all opposition the “other,” embracing a partisan identity politics that says “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”
But pushback is coming from both the right and the left. Karp discusses how the mainstream media has mischaracterized what Bernie Sanders is trying to do, and then digs deep into his historical research to provide analogies from the past that explain the present moment.
Matt Karp: There’s not really much evidence that the new socialist mini-trend in American politics is actually coming from a deep, structurally significant connection to the working class, but is just the sort of more hyper-liberalized version of this new professional/managerial-class liberalism.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello. I’m Geoff Kabaservice from the Niskanen Center, and welcome to the Vital Center podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the maybe mythical, maybe manifest, muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography and current events. Today I have the honor of talking to Professor Matthew Karp. Matt is an associate professor of history at Princeton University, where he specializes in the U.S. Civil War era and the study of the broader 19th-century world. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 2011 and is the author of This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of U.S. Foreign Policy. He’s currently at work on a book about the emergence of anti-slavery mass politics in the United States, with a particular interest in the radical vision of the Republican Party in the 1850s. Welcome, Matt.
Matt Karp: Hi, Geoff. Happy to be here.
Geoff Kabaservice: Glad to have you here. How have you been faring in this pandemic?
Matt Karp: You know, it’s a strange time. It’s a time out of time, I think, for so many people. And in my case, it has overlapped with the birth of a child…
Geoff Kabaservice: Congratulations!
Matt Karp: …which is already a time out of time. So that’s wonderful, also disorienting in its own way. But yeah, I think in comparative perspective I’ve been incredibly fortunate and I have nothing to complain about, really.
Geoff Kabaservice: Great. To what extent is instruction at Princeton this semester in-person or online?
Matt Karp: We’re online exclusively. I think there was special dispensation for certain studio courses or certain lab type things, and maybe if you really wanted to do a hybrid thing, you could do it because there are some students now that are back. But I’ve been entirely… I think seminar-style instruction, lecture instruction is all online.
Geoff Kabaservice: So tell me something about your background. How did you find your way to your academic subject of interest?
Matt Karp: Yeah, it’s interesting, or it’s interesting to me. I started, in some ways, my book — which is on the relationship between U.S. foreign policy and slavery, slaveholders, the slaveholding class before the Civil War — when I wrote an undergraduate thesis at Amherst College, where I was taking courses with Gordy Levin, the great diplomatic historian, who I think has taught actually a lot of American diplomatic thinkers, in some ways, at Amherst College. So I started with almost an interest in 20th-century foreign policy, and I brought some of those interests — interests in ideological and geopolitical conflict that span the Second World War, Cold War era — to the 19th century to some extent, and that field and undergraduate thesis. And then in graduate school, I worked with some Southern historians and I really came to see the conflict between slavery and anti-slavery as a kind of foundational, ideological, strategic conflict in the 19th-century world.
Matt Karp: And that fueled my first book that, in some ways, is fueling the book project I’m working on now, which is about anti-slavery politics, the emergence of anti-slavery as a mass politics in the 1850s before the Civil War. Those main currents I’ve been working with for some time. The relationship between that and the writing that I’ve done on contemporary politics is still harder for me to suss out. I think, basically, it had to do with Bernie Sanders. Beyond that, I’m not sure whether it’s actually a separate project in some ways, but I’ve enjoyed taking part in the political discourse too in the last four or five years.
Geoff Kabaservice: How much overlap of views is there between your book and books like, let’s say, Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams or Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton?
Matt Karp: Yeah, there’s considerable overlap in subject material, I would say. I think in some ways though, to the extent that listeners are familiar with these books as commentaries on the great question of slavery’s relationship to capitalism, which they are, and I think are primarily understood as such for Beckert and for Johnson… My book is much more about slavery’s relationship to U.S. statecraft and about the power of slaveholders over U.S. foreign policy, the military and naval policy, the way that slaveholders used the state, the outward-looking state, to shape their ends, and how that kind of international ambition or international calculus, both ideological and strategic, shaped antebellum politics and led to the Civil War. So in some sense, it’s much more forthrightly political than these other histories that want to make a contribution to the broader history of capitalism, if you will. I kind of dodged that question. On the other hand, I feel in some ways more satisfied with the claims that I make than that broader controversy, why I’m not fully persuaded by some of the older claims about slavery as the root of American capitalism and so on.
Geoff Kabaservice: What does interest me about this is that a lot of the historians of American intellectual conservatism get their start with books like Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. And these traditionalist conservatives really did present the slaveholding South as kind of Camelot: this sort of enclosed, organic, almost medieval kingdom where people were not concerned with technology. And in fact, Russell Kirk was famously a technophobe; he referred to automobiles as “mechanical Jacobins.” And yet it turns out, in your scholarship and others, that in fact the South was very capitalistic, very technologically oriented, very sophisticated, not other-worldly at all.
Matt Karp: Yeah, that’s an old line of thought, right? Mark Twain said that Walter Scott caused the Civil War by deluding and romancing Southern elites into a dream of a feudal, bygone era. But my picture of slaveholders in that sense very much corresponds to what Johnson and Beckert and others have found about the South’s conscious embrace of a certain kind of modernity that they saw actually as characteristic of the mid-19th-century world: the rising forces of empire, racialized coerced labor well beyond even the Atlantic world, beyond the United States, but globally in the 1850s. And the compatibility of their social system with the needs of global capitalism is something that… They didn’t fear that world that was coming into being in the 19th century as much as they embraced certain aspects of it.
What they didn’t embrace was democracy. What they didn’t embrace was mass politics in the way that it began to emerge in the North in that period, which is what I’m writing about now: how for all of the South’s supposed fear of the world, they weren’t overthrown by the world. They were overthrown by domestic politics.
Geoff Kabaservice: So, speaking of Jacobins… Around 2016, you became known as one of the more politically engaged young academics, writing frequently in Jacobin magazine in support of Senator Bernie Sanders’ insurgent candidacy. And you were a contributing editor at Jacobin, which as I understand is not formally affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America but has a kind of general alignment of views. Is that correct to say?
Matt Karp: Yeah. I mean, I’m a DSA member myself, although largely inactive lately.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay, and in general terms, what do you see as the value of a grounding in academic history when it comes to assessing developments in current politics?
Matt Karp: I have thought about this. I mean, I’ve struggled to make this connection in some ways. I think probably the best formulation I can come up with is that it, in my case anyway, it has something to do with a sense of narrative and a way to make sense of developments over time. I found that with the emergence of the Sanders campaign in late 2015, early 2016, the media — the mainstream media, the liberal media, what you will — sort of lacked a really convincing narrative for what the Bernie movement stood for, where it came from, what its antecedents were. They kept trying to sort of squash Bernie into… the square peg of Bernie into the round hole of Howard Dean or Bill Bradley or Dennis Kucinich or some sort of previous left-wing insurgents who appealed mostly to aging hippies or something, “wine track” voters.
And I felt like, I don’t know… Not that I’m an expert in 20th-century politics, frankly, or even the United States since the Second World War, but I felt like Bernie, both in his demands and in the coalition that he was calling into being pretty early on, was speaking to something else, was speaking to some older currents on the left and in U.S. politics, and pointed the way towards a different future. And so I think by now, that narrative has caught up, and I don’t know if… I’m not trying to say that I was the first person to say that Bernie identified with the Old Left and was more FDR than anti-war protester, even though he was an anti-war protester. So I don’t want to go too far down that road.
But for me, I think placing and trying to understand the Sanders campaign in real time, in the context of fighting these narrative wars, was something that historians are used to doing and have skills at doing. And that sustained me a little bit. And then in the time since — not just week to week, all across the campaign — but trying to make sense of what that first Sanders campaign run meant, what its successes and failures were. The same thing for the second run, essentially. And in a broader sense — maybe this is what we’re going to talk about today — what’s happening to the Democratic Party in these last five to 10 years in relation to the Sanders insurgency, et cetera, but also in relation to its broader history, where it’s come from and where it’s going, what’s changed and what that means for the left.
I have found it useful to be anchored in some sense in this ideological perspective that is the Jacobin worldview, that in some ways gives me strength to… a solid ground to push off from as I explore. But I try not to be too dogmatic about it. I think it’s good to have a porthole with which to see the world, but the world moves around you and you should be able to move with it too. So I’m trying to do that in these last five years, which have seen a lot of victories and defeats for the Jacobin worldview, if you will.
Geoff Kabaservice: You’ve actually responded with remarkably good humor to some of the attempts to dunk on you as a Princeton professor lecturing to the masses about what they ought to believe. I think at some point, you called yourself, what? — “the J. D. Vance of liberal suburbia”?
Matt Karp: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, it’s true. There’s no denying that, and there’s no point in obscuring the modest comfort of North Bethesda that I grew up in and that I was bred in. And the extent to which I think that does inform some of my hypersensitivity to and awareness of the downside of the new Democratic strategy, of winning the suburban professional-managerial class, where I feel like I know that world, I know that world’s values… I, in some ways, can’t… I don’t want to sound like I actually even hate everything about that world, like I’m some sort of class traitor. Because I still inhabit that world in so many ways, even though I live in Brooklyn now — essentially the suburbanized, professional-managerial part of Brooklyn. And I can’t pretend that I’m leading some sort of vanguard in resistance to that world. And yet at the same time, I do think I have a perspective on what its limits are as a vehicle for the construction of, say, social democracy that is worth heeding. I don’t know.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, we all eagerly await the appearance of Montgomery County Elegy.
Matt Karp: That would be beautiful. That would be a beautiful thing.
Geoff Kabaservice: I really did want to talk about a recent article you wrote for Jacobin called “The Politics of a Second Gilded Age,” which struck me as interesting for a lot of reasons: articulating a kind of intra-left debate that I don’t know much about, frankly, but also drawing on some of your, I guess, training and instincts as a historian. So let me just start off by asking you about how you begin it. You said that there were three big winning trends that came out of the 2020 election. One of them was increased participation in the democratic process, given that about two-thirds of eligible voters did cast a ballot. That made 2020 the highest turnout election in 120 years.
Second, you mentioned partisan polarization, and you referenced Liliana Mason, the political scientist, who says that party affiliation has now become a mega-identity. Voters now get meaning and belonging from tribal political affiliations of the sort they used to get from the union hall or the neighborhood club.
And then third, what you called “America’s headlong march toward a party system almost entirely decoupled from the politics of class.” And the 2020 election did, I think, accelerate the long-smoldering dynamic that has seen the parties in effect switching their historic bases, with Republicans winning more and more non-college-educated, working-class votes while Democrats win more of the votes of affluent professionals and managers.
And given your background as a scholar of the 19th century, you mentioned that to you the current political dynamic seems more like the politics of the Gilded Age of the post-Civil War decades than maybe what’s the more popular analogy on the left of the current moment to Europe in the 1930s. Can you just tell me a bit more about how you see this as being like the Gilded Age in some ways?
Matt Karp: I mean, all historical analogies are speculations, suggestions. They’re very easy to pick apart and to dunk on, if you will. That’s the nature of their existence. There are frequently… I’ve said I think before that they serve as this kind of neat little garnish to an op-ed that either a self-promoting historian or a slightly tired and bored columnist grasps for to add a little bit of flavor to a humdrum take. But I also think they’re important. I mean, I don’t know, I’ve defended them for a long time now as a way to think beyond the fugue state of the present that’s always with us and continues to consume us ever more overwhelmingly in the news cycle, the speed and the comprehensiveness of the news cycles.
So yeah, and the analogies that have been in play have not satisfied me at all. Both liberals and leftists, for a variety of reasons — and maybe even centrists too, to the extent that there is such a tribe — have really grabbed ahold of the interwar fascist analogy in terms of Trump and, more broadly, what the politics of resistance to Trump stand for and how to understand the dangers of the moment and what American politics looks like. And I just found… And a sort of a lesser variety of that that you see, also with some regularity, is the moral drama of basically the Civil War era, where the GOP is a new Confederacy in some sense. And I just found that neither of those analogies actually corresponded to my intellectual or visceral sense of what the moment is.
I don’t think we’re on the verge of an apocalyptic civil war or global war against fascism, which is literally the case in both of those analogies, which rely on the kind of moral and narrative momentum of there being an Armageddon showdown with these forces of evil that basically cleanses them from the world. And these are useful in very different ways. For the left wants to see it as, “Okay, we’re rallying the troops and we’re glorifying our own participation in informing a popular front against the dreaded enemy.” And for liberals it’s, “Everybody get in line. You don’t want to be the German KPD fighting the ‘social fascists’ that lets Hitler into power. Everybody’s got to get in line, anyone who’s not fighting with us is literally against us.”
So there’s sort of both a disciplining and an aggrandizing effect in these analogies. And I just don’t think that that corresponds to the actual fabric of what’s happening in American politics, which to me points towards a frustrating extension of the contemporary muddle and gridlock rather than a satisfyingly cathartic encounter with the enemy. And yeah, so the Gilded Age was an attempt to kind of instrumentalize that feeling or put that feeling into an analogy — less so than that I’m committed to this as a one-to-one correspondence with the 1880s.
But this is an era when, as I said, I think that it does capture some of the fact that our politics have a distinctive intensity that was not really there for much of the 20th century, in terms of… The turnout figures testify to that, the intensity of cultural partisan polarization testifies to that. There is a peculiarity of that that is worth noting that sets this era apart from, say, 2004 or 1976 or 1956, even. So I think that’s worth noting.
But that’s why I found the Gilded Age useful, because I think the other part is… And the key part of the article was really the third claim about class, what I call —or political scientists, really, call — class dealignment, where across much of that 20th century order… And maybe this was just a great historic exception, as many have come to view the sort of “short 20th century.” But American politics look like most politics across the industrialized world, where the party of the left-center was supported by the bulk, the vast bulk of the working class. In fact, our politics was basically class-polarized at similar rates to many European countries. Even though the Democrats were never themselves a party of the working class in terms of their leadership and orientation, they were the party that the working class voted for. And this alignment has completely disintegrated. In the last 50 years it’s been a slow process, but then it’s really rapidly accelerated in the last five years.
And that was the kind of point I wanted to make in the piece, is that this is, yes, a product of long-term trends, if you will — globalization, automation, the weakening of unions, the neoliberal turn in macroeconomics, et cetera — that have all sort of applied downward pressure on these working-class alignments to the left and left-center parties and politics. Concerns about immigration and cultural belonging, et cetera. But then it’s gone into hyperdrive in the last five years, if you look at the electoral numbers, if you look at the difference between, say, the Obama coalition and the Biden coalition in 2012 to 2020, where the Democrats are no longer in any really meaningful sense a party of the working class. Nor are the Republicans, I should say. The working class is divided. And this was where the Gilded Age comes in, because in that period… And I would include the Gilded… In academic history we have a journal called the Journal of the Gilded and Progressive Age, or the Journal of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.
It’s a very unwieldy title, but that broad period from 1870 to 1920, if you will, where the parties were fiercely competitive, and they argued about culture and also economics. But there was little class basis and, in some ways, little ideological daylight between them in terms of arrangements of political economy and the relationship between class and power in society, the shape of American government, and the shape of the economy. These things weren’t really in contention, in part I think because the parties did not correspond to basic material interests.
And it was only in the New Deal period… I mean, this is my read of the history that fuels this argument. It was only in the New Deal period when that alignment, or something like that alignment, was achieved in the Roosevelt era, that the left broadly was able to actually achieve some significant structural transformation of the state and the economy that produced really substantive equality, or at least relative equality. And, yes, it had limitations and it was curtailed and it had exclusions. And we all know the sort of sordid history of parts of the New Deal. But it was really meaningful. It showed up in the statistics. It showed on inequality. It showed up at the level of lived experience for so many in the working class. And that was about a certain kind of class alignment that I feel like in our era we’re drifting away from, not towards.
Geoff Kabaservice: You also mention that this specter of class dealignment is treated in different ways by liberal commentators, none of which you seem to approve of. You said that they tend to respond with denial, celebration, or resignation. Can you tell me a little more about that?
Matt Karp: Yeah. I think the denial piece has weakened as people are really starting to process the 2020 results. That was a stronger element after 2016 and to some extent after 2018 or in the initial delight over, say, the Georgia election. The denial narrative is basically like pointing to the half of the working class the Democrats do gain support from and saying, “This is the working class.” You know? And sort of I think ultimately I understand the origin of this complaint, but I think it has been used more dishonesty than honestly: the idea that when anyone says “the working class” they only mean the white working class, and so to talk about the Democrats losing the working class is to obscure the existence of Black workers, Latino workers, Asian workers who still vote Democrat, et cetera.
That’s not true. I mean, some people might have said that, but that’s, you know… Sure, Marco Rubio might say that, but that’s not the basis of my critique. The point is that the working class is divided and the votes show a deepening… the trend of the votes show a deepening division. So I think for the most part the liberals who have been trying to kind of push the idea that class dealignment isn’t a thing have gone quiet or are moving on to a different narrative.
I think the second, more substantive take — which has gotten actually renewed energy in these first weeks of Bidenism, I think — is that this is a good thing, or this is maybe at worst a neutral thing. But actually I think there’s a tendency to argue that it’s a good thing, that it strengthens the Democratic coalition. It provides a base of reliable voters at midterm elections. It is one narrow kind of electoralist argument, which is fair to some extent.
But the more ambitious version of the argument is that it is actually driving the Democratic Party to the left, it’s pushing progressive, it’s making more… The Biden coalition was less working class than the Obama coalition, grant that. But it’s more economically progressive than Obama. So QED, these professionals are pushing the party to the left. Now, I think there are a lot of problems with the logic of that. And in fairness to that argument, there are more details to it. But I think that’s the impulse. And I think there’s —and this is where it does get a little more complicated, especially given… I do take seriously the fact of the comparisons between the Biden stimulus and the Obama stimulus, and the fact that there is a broader movement — not just within the Democratic Party but in the Republican Party, in parties all over Europe — away from the age of austerity that was really regnant 10 years ago.
There is a new kind of macroeconomic common sense and a new acceptance, both from the top-down and from the bottom-up, that it’s normal and good for the government to just cut checks to people. And that’s something that Trump did, that’s something that Mitch McConnell did, that’s something that Biden and Schumer are doing. And so I think that’s a win for the left, for the American people. But I think we shouldn’t overstate the extent to which that is a triumph for left politics or the road to, in effect, a new New Deal in our economy and our politics, which I think is the most excited version of these triumphalist takes.
Geoff Kabaservice: A point you made in your most recent Jacobin piece is that the American Rescue Plan isn’t really grappling with big questions of wealth and power, and therefore it doesn’t really represent a new paradigm of liberalism or progressivism.
Matt Karp: Yeah. My argument is, to put it as simply and as broadly as I can, with the people who say, “No, look, we’re in a new era. And these new progressive suburbanites are actually totally fine with all the left-wing politics you could want.” Basically, my argument is not that they’re going to drive the party to the right, which is how some people kind of glossed the take. And that would be obviously untrue, they’re not driving it to the right. But basically they put a brake on how far this coalition can ever go to the left, you know? Which for some people maybe is a good thing, but I think from a social democratic perspective — even from somebody who’s actually seeking a new New Deal — it’s not a good thing. It’s not that it drives the party to the right, it’s that it puts a limit on what kind of left-wing politics are available that remain in the field of contention.
I mean, yeah, sure, there are a number of suburban progressives who are supporting Medicare for All. And that number seems to be stable in the House, for instance. But it’s clear also that the triumph of Biden and the defeat of Sanders meant that Medicare for All is off the table for the time being as a Democratic Party thing. It was defeated. I mean, we should acknowledge that. It demonstrated… Sanders demonstrated the broad support that Medicare for All has within the Democratic coalition, within the country I think, support that could sustain even propaganda directed against it. But it did not win support within the Democratic Party leadership, or ultimately that support wasn’t strong enough to sort of elect/pick the Democratic leader, the Democratic president. And so that’s not going to happen.
I think other big structural reforms… I don’t expect a big wealth tax to happen. I don’t expect a big, universal, free college program to happen. I don’t expect a job guarantee to happen. I don’t expect, frankly… The $15 minimum wage has already not happened and I don’t expect it to suddenly reanimate. I don’t expect the PRO Act for labor — which is ambitious although still, I think, short of transformative, but an ambitious labor proposal that’s passed the House — I don’t expect that to get through the Senate. I don’t expect this party to prioritize those kinds of structural attempts to change the structure of the economy. And I don’t expect this coalition to be able to deliver those kinds of changes. And so I think while we’re crowing about a relative difference between Biden to Obama, we should be aware of the extent to which we’re watching the ship of an actual New Deal-style realignment sail very, very far away.
Geoff Kabaservice: Matt, you sound as though you are yourself edging toward the third of the reactions you mentioned toward class dealignment, which is resignation.
Matt Karp: Yeah. That’s the most powerful one because the truth is, I don’t have an answer for how to immediately press the eject button on this. Because it does feel like a historic process in a lot of ways. And this is what the sort of more downbeat and terrestrially-minded kind of party operatives, even on the liberal left, will say. It’s like, “Okay, yeah, this is not actually great. It sucks that we’re losing even unionized workers now in places like Ohio and Michigan. It sucks that we’re losing Latino workers in places like Florida and Texas. This is not going to be beneficial to a broader politics to benefit the working class, to rely primarily if not exclusively on, in effect, the kind of charitable instincts of managers, professionals, and upper-middle-class folk.”
That’s a problem. But how do we stop it? How do we stop it? And my argument here is — I don’t have the magic card to play, but the argument in the piece is that we should be aware of two things. This is a broad historic trend, but it’s also something that the Democratic Party has actively chosen. And I think we should bear in mind that they’ve said so explicitly. Chuck Schumer has made this point: “We want to trade one working-class voter in western Pennsylvania for two suburbanites in Philadelphia.” And this has been the choice that left-center parties have made all across the developed world. They maybe perceive themselves as reacting to historical trends, but then they have absolutely cracked the whip on those trends and driven them forward. Trump further accelerated those trends because he was pushing in the opposite direction, as some currents in the Republican Party still want to do ambivalently — to kind of imagine themselves as a working-class, anti-elite party in a primarily cultural sense, but maybe increasingly with some openness towards anti-elite populism in economics too.
But Democrats have absolutely seized that as a chance to claim the mantle as the party of responsibility, sanity, decorum, rational discourse — the values of a highly educated upper-middle class, you know? “Science is real.” What was that ubiquitous yard sign that we all saw in certainly every county? It would be probably the cover of my Montgomery County Elegy. You know, “Love is love. Science is real. All immigrants are welcome. Women’s rights are human rights.” It was a lot of, in effect, you know, liberal common sense mixed with kind of tautologies. But the effect of it is to say anyone who dissents from this brand of politics is not only a sort of a political opponent but lacking in basic moral common sense.
And it’s that kind of professional class othering of all opposition, whether Trumpist or far left or whatever, that I think is actually heightening and encouraging this process that increases this cultural partisanship, this kind of partisan identity politics. It’s different from a racial identity politics or a gender identity politics. It draws on all of those but has fueled its own kind of specific alchemy that says, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” And that includes a huge section, therefore, of the working class that not only are we no longer really trying to appeal to, much less centering in our demands or organizing our real political priorities around, we’re actually outright antagonizing — and proudly so. And that is a trend that, sure, some of these people will then say, “No, of course we want them to vote the right way. But if they don’t, why should I stop myself from calling them fascists?”
And I think that tendency… Not that I want to say that working-class Latinos in Sweetwater, Florida were Nicaraguan immigrants who were put off by Rachel Maddow’s condescension on MSNBC. It doesn’t work in a one-to-one way like that. But the broader transfiguration of the Democratic Party brand and what it stands for, into the party that knows best and isn’t afraid to say so — rather than the party that will give you stuff — is to me a problem. Now, is Biden in some ways himself actually trying to push back against some of this? I think he might be, as a sort of, himself, a cultural relic of this mid-20th-century, class-aligned politics. In that sense, there is a modicum of hope there, that in his own focus on a kind of material politics and his shift away from the neoliberal turn towards this new Keynesian budgetary liberalism, he is much comfortable in that world than in this kind of politics of othering that I think a lot of Democrats increasingly would prefer to play in.
So maybe that’s a cheering sign. My fear, though, is that it’s actually a kind of dead-cat bounce, if you will, of this older 20th-century liberalism; that once Biden himself is removed from the scene and is replaced with this sort of younger generation of Pete Buttigieges and Kamala Harrises and others who are much more comfortable in these newer waters, then the Democrats will lose any residual ability to present themselves as a party of material benefit rather than a party of moral judgment.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s interesting that Biden has not weighed in one way or another on cultural issues like the putative cancellation of Dr. Seuss, for example.
Matt Karp: Right, right. It’s absolutely the Republicans who want to drive that, but there are forces within the Democrats that want to meet them at every turn. And yeah, Biden is not among those, which is in my mind a good thing for now.
Geoff Kabaservice: And so what do you see as the way forward then? If we’re talking about historical analogies, one could point out that the best-known socialist of the early 20th century was Eugene V. Debs, who actually had his own separate Socialist Party, or at least was its frequent presidential candidate. Is that the aisle to go? Or is the proper course to be in a kind of reinvigoration of the labor movement? I mean, what do you see as the way forward for the kind of change you would like to see?
Matt Karp: Yeah, I think third-party-ism is a dead end. It doesn’t work in this era. It’s so hard to make any movement on the ballot. We actually saw that in my own sort of gentrifying district of Brooklyn, where in 2017 Jabari Brisport ran for City Council actually on the Green and Socialist party ticket, and the local DSA chapter got very involved. And he won a remarkable 25% of the vote as a third-party Socialist/Green candidate running against the Democrat, but was still obviously swamped. Then he ran again, in this most recent cycle, for State Senate as a Democrat, won the Democratic Party primary, and is now in Albany. And so electorally it’s a fool’s errand to try to build a third party, I think. It’s not going to get off the ground. We don’t have the organizational capacity to do it. The action, the fight is within the Democratic Party.
That said, I think, and some people see this, some people on the left, I say this… And this is another distinct breed, to continue your intra-left education, Geoff. This is another distinct breed from the Vox-style triumphalists of the progressive suburbanites as the key towards a new progressive order. This is the sort of more DSA-optimist take, which is actually that we’re having real success at the local, municipal, and even state level winning some seats as open socialists — not merely as sort of Warrenite progressives but as actual socialists. Jabari Brisport and Julia Salazar in the state Senate in New York, other city councilors in Chicago and Los Angeles and elsewhere — actual socialists. The expanded Squad in Congress, several of whom — like Cori Bush, I think, is a member of DSA herself. And that this is a path forward for the left: just to burrow within the Democratic Party, but maintaining a socialist identity.
I’m skeptical about that too, unfortunately, because I think it in its own way is actually a kind of — as liberal critics of this view have pointed out, and here I have to agree with them — that it is itself parasitical on the larger trend of cultural progressivism carrying the day, with maybe some economics smuggled in. All of these New Left candidates have largely not been elected by turning Brooklyn’s Black working class into socialists, or St. Louis’s turning the Black North Side of St. Louis into socialists, but basically by gentrifiers like myself voting for the DSA candidate.
It has also largely been won on the backs of class dealignment. And there’s not really much evidence that the new socialist mini-trend in American politics is actually coming from a deep organic or even structurally significant connection to the working class, but is just the sort of more hyper-liberalized version of this new professional/managerial class liberalism. So it on its own cannot be a way forward either. I think it’s great that these candidates are winning. I’d rather have Jabari Brisport in office than his opponent. I campaigned for him, even. But that’s not the answer.
I think the last thing has got to be the thing that you said, the labor movement. It’s got to be, there’s got to be… And maybe there is some way that this new, what I think Vox has called “post-material materialism,” the way in which these wealthy suburban progressives are willing in some ways, some contexts, to vote against their interests most narrowly defined in order to support social equality, some degree of economic equality… If that energy can be directed specifically toward the labor movement and can help give the labor movement a shot in the arm in some way — you saw this, the instrumentalization of this is Joe Biden speaking up on behalf of the Amazon union drive — if that can actually be harnessed and utilized, maybe there’s an end run around this. That then the labor movement itself — which is really the only proven force in human history that has actually succeeded in organizing and giving egalitarian meaning to working class politics — if the labor movement can be revivified in a meaningful way in the private sector as well as the public sector.
The dominance of public sector unions is something that has limited the labor movement — not that teachers’ unions and so on aren’t important, I fully support them. But we need to re-expand this movement into the private sector and to claw back some power from capital at the point of production, essentially. And if that can’t happen, I don’t think there is a future for class politics. So the real question is, how do you make that happen? That’s got to be what happens. And people are working on it, but it’s hard to see that that’s right around the corner.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think unionization is important, and in fact, there’s a certain amount of attention being given to this on the right. Oren Cass at American Compass, for example, has come out in defense of labor unions as intermediate institutions that benefit working people and families and communities. Do you see that as a kind of red flag, or is there something actually that might be worth building on there?
Matt Karp: No, I don’t see that as a red flag. I see it as part of the same trend, the same broader movement away from the apogee of neoliberalism 10, 20, 25 years ago, that even some elements of the right are recognizing the limits of this kind of atomization. So that doesn’t mean that I think that Josh Hawley and Bernie Sanders are ready to walk arm in arm down the Senate and pass a labor bill. Because the distance between some of these, if you will, union-curious intellectuals on the right and actual right-wing donors and politicians is still, in my mind, fairly immense.
And the fact that some people on the right like Hawley or Rubio are willing to say nice things about unions… I don’t think it’s totally meaningless. I don’t think we should completely discount it. But I think we should bear in mind the immense distance between that and actually supporting the politics of an actual labor organization against interests of business and business lobbies on the ground. When that happens, then we may be really seeing some interesting realignment. Until then, I’m saying, “Oh, this is great, let’s hear more of that please,” but I’m not putting too much stock into it.
Ultimately, I think there has to be a politics that, there has to be… The answer can’t be strictly electoral here. I’m mostly interested in electoral politics. That’s what I study. That’s the book I’m working on, on the 19th century. That’s what I’ve been writing about in Jacobin. But I think the struggle for labor has to be conducted on the shop floor in a way that isn’t totally dependent on what happens at the ballot box.
And so maybe we’re seeing signs that the labor movement has found some new ways in. Certainly in the public sector that’s happened. The teacher strikes and so on of the last few years have produced some real victories. And maybe this Amazon movement, maybe some other things that the Teamsters and other unions are doing, can yield some real material benefits. The jury is still out. But that’s what I’m looking towards.
Geoff Kabaservice: And yet there are some tensions even within the progressive end of the Democratic Party in terms of how this might happen. Alec McGillis has got a new book called Fulfillment, which is about the Amazon-ization of the country. And he says that in many ways the Democratic Party right now is the Amazon party. It’s your neighbors in Brooklyn who get all of these packages delivered to them by a mostly brown and black workforce. And that there are obvious tensions between the perspectives of those two ends, I suppose.
Matt Karp: Yeah, absolutely. And that jibes with my analysis of the election returns: that it’s the Amazon customer, not the worker, that seems to be the most jazzed-up part of the Democratic coalition and who the Democrats are catering to both in their rhetoric and self-presentation, but to some extent in their policy too. Now, we’ll see. This is where it will be really interesting to see to what extent Democratic politicians and, if you will, liberal intellectuals are willing to disclaim this identity as the party of Amazon. Right now, many of them are uncomfortable with it. They certainly don’t want to be tarred that way. But what risks are they willing to run, what burdens are they willing to carry in order to avoid that label, if you will?
And it’s complicated, because I do think that there is some support within, significant support… The PRO Act, I think, has 45 sponsors in the Senate. So it’s not the case that mainline Democratic politicians are not willing to support labor because Maria Cantwell of Washington, say, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon. That’s not true. And yet this happened under Obama too.
The Democrats have this weak, this superficially broad but ultimately token support for labor and their actual priorities. They’re unable to get over the top, they’re unable to provide pressure when they need it on certain members, and they’re unable to actually put their eggs in a basket, run real risks in order to win these things for the working class, risk losing in order to win.
And in practice, the result is that the centrality of Amazon is unchallenged. And the fact that you have 45 co-sponsors to an act that never actually gets onto the floor doesn’t mean shit. So I think that may be the perspective of a skeptical worker, and it would be hard for a Democratic Party operative to sort of argue against that.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, there’s a certain kind of conservative who would argue that unions in American history have actually been an anti-socialist force. There’s that famous Werner Sombart quote about all socialist utopias “running aground on the shoals of roast beef and apple pie.” But also, from what little I remember of my training in 19th-century American history, I do remember that Samuel Gompers, the head of the American Federation of Labor, was pretty hostile toward socialists. And his quote, which again I’m probably going to mess up, goes: “Economically, you are unsound; socially you are wrong; industrially, you are an impossibility.” And so I wonder if the labor movement is actually the route for a would-be socialist to take in the here and now.
Matt Karp: Yeah, it’s complicated. I think you saw a modern iteration of some of those tensions in the arguments about Medicare for All, and would that affect union health plans? And the reluctance of a lot of important private-sector unions, especially, to get behind the Sanders campaign, and even the broad… to really put muscle behind the broad, universalistic welfare-state ideas in the air today.
So I don’t want to say that there aren’t both real material and sectoral interests that can collide and that that is a bygone problem. But I think ideologically, the base, deeper tension between say Gompers and the left — I think the CIO in the ‘30s cleared that up a little bit. I think the experience of the New Deal era to some extent showed the way in which a fusion between a broad-minded labor organizing and a pro-labor electoral politics was actually essential in creating the breakthrough.
The Wagner Act made mass unionization possible. And by the same token, the labor organizations of the 1930s helped make the Wagner Act possible. And to me, that kind of symbiosis is the only way that our… I won’t even say socialist, but social democratic goals can be attained. So I’m less hung up on some elemental or existential tension between those two things. I think those are questions that need to be adjudicated and managed with care and with tact. But I think in a broad sense — frankly, this is not my specialty — but my sense of unions today, rank and file, with maybe only a few exceptions, there is an openness towards progressive and left-wing policy in a broad sense.
There is a sense that, “We’re in trouble, and we’re being squeezed, and we’re not hewing to the centrist common sense of some union bureaucracy, that union bureaucracy hashes out with business leadership and the DNC in order to reject all possibility of serious reform.” I don’t have a sense that that force of, say, mid- late 20th-century unionism that also pushed back against radical or socialist politics is so powerful today, or at least is insurmountable today given, in some ways, given the weakness of labor itself.
My feeling is that labor itself is happy at this point to have any allies that it can in an increasingly hostile environment. And if progressive politicians are going to come along and say, “We’re going to make it easier to join a union, we’re going to boost union membership, we’re going to strengthen union power at the negotiating table,” then they will absolutely welcome that. That’s not where the danger lies, in my view.
Geoff Kabaservice: Again, I could be misremembering here, but I seem to remember that the Wagner Act was proceeded by the Norris-La Guardia Act, which was co-sponsored by two Republicans. And the Republican Party used to have a fairly significant pro-labor component to it. And the interest of labor might be well served by supporting pro-labor Republicans here and now.
Matt Karp: True. Again, that that would be a lovely development, Geoff, from my perspective, if we actually saw the emergence of substantively pro-labor Republicans. If there were such a thing, as you can imagine, as a Rubio-Hawley Act of 2026… This stretches the bounds of my imagination, but if that was the act that paved the way for a massive expansion of unionization in the United States, even with a hop, skip, and a jump in between, I would take it in a heartbeat.
Geoff Kabaservice: I do think the Republican Party has acquired this identity as the party of the working class in a fit of absence of mind, and it has these uncomfortable, unfamiliar clothes that it doesn’t really quite know how to wear. And it’s going to be a long time before the party can adjust to the fact that it actually did improve its performance among minority working class members in 2020.
But when I think about one of the issues being put forward, certainly from the Sanders camp and other progressives, it’s for free college for all. And yet the cause that would actually seem to better serve the working class would be vocational training, job placement programs, this sort of program more geared toward the needs of the two-thirds of people who do not actually have college degrees in this country.
Matt Karp: Yeah. I’m agnostic on that. I don’t think that we have to live in the opposition, the antagonism between these two ideas. My view is that that free college for all would lower the boundaries of entry in a significant and substantive way for a lot of non-college-educated Americans and would help produce something like what… Free college for all isn’t a totally utopian scheme. That was basically the state of California in the 1950s and ‘60s, in effect. And it went hand in hand also, in Europe and in other places… Either free or virtually free college attendance, I think, has correlated historically with deepening social equality. So I don’t go all-in on people who say, “Oh, this is a giveaway to the PMC,” or something like that. I don’t think that’s right or the way that we should see it.
That said, I don’t think that that’s the summit of our aspirations either. And I do think that it should be paired with and connected to innovative and really expansive, ambitious policy to support people who aren’t going to get college educations. So whether that’s vocational training… Still my favorite version of this policy is some broad public job guarantee, whose detail would need to be worked out.
And I’m not an economist on this, but I think the essence of giving every American who wants to work a decent-paying job is a really powerful, both synthetic idea and horizon for a social democratic society and something that has broad popular appeal. It at least could if it emerged right, well beyond the educated top third.
Geoff Kabaservice: The people in your circles who talk about these things, are they talking about a revival of Humphrey-Hawkins or something different, do you think?
Matt Karp: I don’t have the policy chops for this, exactly. I think there are versions of full employment, other mechanisms to push full employment, in the mold of Humphrey-Hawkins. There are other people who really push basically public jobs in the manner of a revived WPA. I don’t think I have the details on that and probably shouldn’t talk about it too much, but I think that direction… I think that’s a policy frontier that in some ways has attracted some attention.
But there’s also… I was reading this really interesting article in the New Statesman the other day about the way in which actually that structural welfarist impulse, even as it’s gotten some attention, has largely been pushed aside by basically cash welfarism, by universal basic income, which we’re seeing the government essentially do during COVID. We’re seeing even states and municipalities experiment with this all over the Atlantic world.
And I feel like that’s the direction that a lot of things are going. I would prefer a more substantive, institutionally-driven welfarism that isn’t just concerned with distribution but is concerned with, in effect, the relationship between individuals and the market, and that works to claw back some power and independence and dignity from where people don’t just have a little bit more purchasing power in the market, but are actually able to construct their basic dignity independent from those forces.
Geoff Kabaservice: Matt, there was a passage in your article in Jacobin that I wondered if you could expand upon. You wrote that forging a real class interest “also requires fighting back against a national political order that works to undermine it at every turn. That means a left-wing electoral struggle aimed strategically not just at Republicans, or even at ‘moderates,’ but at the partisan alignment itself — the gargantuan clash of identities that sucks all material politics into the infinity war of blue versus red.” So how would one go about combating this partisan culture, as you call it?
Matt Karp: It’s a delicate dance. And this is the piece of the article that’s really focused —again, to take you under the hood of intra-left conversations — to me, that is aimed at basically the post-Bernie Sanders left. And I’m aware of this temptation in the era of Trump especially — that has become very strong for, say, the Squad and its affiliates — to basically don the mantle of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and to simply accept that “Everything that the Democratic Party does is something that we also stand for — its enemies, its values. We just want more of what they want. We are just even more Democrat than they are.”
And I’m wary of that approach, which I do think differs from the way that Sanders himself navigated a pragmatic alliance with Democratic leaders and the Democratic Party itself — which he absolutely did, and did not gadfly about refusing to pass veterans’ bills because he was an independent socialist.
Absolutely a pragmatic alliance with the party that’s willing to deliver the goods when it is willing to deliver the goods, with an independent sensibility that does look, especially in an era when class politics is disappearing, that does look to class above party and does not concentrate its energy on stoking the kind of very predictable but very viral partisan feuds with predictable, viral enemies in order to generate fundraising and attention and support and energy, but that only deepens this purportedly independent left wing of the Democratic Party with the leadership of the Democratic Party.
And so it’s a delicate act of sort of performance politics. But my sense is that the AOC generation, in effect, is much more comfortable with basically doing that and is less interested in anything like an independent class politics — in pursuing that rhetorically, in positioning itself, is at least as interested in class as party. I think it’s much more, in its current configuration, it seems to be leaning much more into both partisan affiliation and a kind of hyper, a sort of an intensified version of the sort of moralism of the progressive Democratic Party in general.
The Squad wants to fight about Dr. Seuss to some extent, or at least there are some tendencies in there. And I think that would be a huge, catastrophic mistake for the DSA left, for the post-Sanders left, for any left that as it grows has an interest in presenting itself as something distinct from the progressive value machine.
Geoff Kabaservice: And as long as you’re letting me look under the hood of this particular left-wing hoopty, can you tell me if it makes a lot of sense to describe Bernie Sanders as a democratic socialist rather than a social democrat? He has, after all, said that his ideal is Denmark, which is not a democratic-socialist state but is a great example of a functioning social-democratic society.
I can’t think of what exactly Sanders wants to nationalize in terms of industries at this point, however much he might have wanted to nationalize back in his impetuous youth. Does it make sense to actually retain this label, given that its major function seems to be to turn off Latin American voters who have bad memories of what goes on back in Venezuela?
Matt Karp: Yeah, I mean, I would say in defense of Bernie, I still think he is a democratic socialist in aspiration, even if he’s a social democrat in political practice and in rhetoric. Because he is intimately aware, I think — in a pragmatic way that we’ve all always admired about him, even his critics admire about him — that pitching himself as the legatee of FDR and to some extent Denmark rather than Debs and, say, Cuba makes political sense in the United States. And that’s the most important thing to do to build the movement.
I still think, in his bones, Bernie is left of Denmark, but that’s just my sense of his aspiration. You’re right, there’s very little evidence in the platform of Sanders-ism. I think it’s fair to say that Sanders-ism beyond Bernie probably is more social democratic than democratic socialist.
Okay, to what extent am I committed to these labels? I mean, I think there’s been a lot of work done to sort of normalize socialism. The positive side of the ledger is to say, okay, look, they’re going to call you socialist no matter what you do. If you want to increase the corporate tax rate by a half a percent, they’re going to call you socialist. So let’s just accept that label and say, “Well, what does actual socialism mean? It means making sure that people have the right to a house, a job, an education, and a dignified life, regardless of their position in the market.” If that’s what socialism means, sign me up, it sounds pretty good. And there’s been opinion-polling progress in that vein.
I think there are also costs to that in the sense that it, to some extent, has identified… it’s made socialism kind of a niche project of the same kind of PMC group that we’ve been talking about while not really attracting certain ideology-skeptic voters out there — yes, including principally, I think, the Latin Americans. Immigrants from Nicaragua or Venezuela are a classic example of this. But I think there are other more muffled currents in the working class that probably feel the same way about socialism — that it just feels too extreme, or that it feels different or other in some way.
So I think there are costs to that. That said, I’m not ready to junk it just yet. I think there’s still a place to have, to make a distinction between basically political orientation and political aspiration. And to me, even the lesson of really existing social democracy in the ’60s and ’70s suggests its limits as an aspiration. I think it’s desperately needed as an orientation, but I think as an aspiration we saw it break down and collapse under the weight of its enemies and maybe even its own contradictions.
And so I think I still have the personally idealistic view that it is possible to transcend social democracy and enter into something like a democratic socialism. But whether that aspiration should be front and center in left-wing politics today is not something I’m passionate about.
Geoff Kabaservice: I mean, I have no qualifications to psychoanalyze Bernie. But it seems to me that part of what attracts him to the socialist idea is André Malraux’s idea of Marxism not so much as a doctrine but as a will, a will to feel proletariat — but also to feel part of a movement and a revolution, maybe.
And I was actually kind of struck by the affinity between that impulse and your observation that the Civil War was not caused by slavery, it was caused by an anti-slavery movement. And the role that that movement plays in your historical work and understanding seems very important.
Matt Karp: I think that’s dead-on about Bernie, actually. You’re right. And I think it’s probably that movement-ism, even more than a rarefied sense of abstract political economy, that drives the affiliation and the sense of his commitment to socialism.
Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I will say that the book I’m working on about anti-slavery politics in the 1850s and how it in effect moved from the radical fringes of politics in the 1830s as something that only zealots and fanatics cared about and was largely left out of the mainstream debate between Democrats and Whigs, both of whom spurned it from Andrew Jackson to Henry Clay… And then it emerged rather suddenly, in the span of less than a decade, as the dominant form of politics in the North, with millions of voters organized around the politics of, yes, antislavery, anti-slave extension. The formal doctrine was about stopping slavery’s expansion to the West rather than any kind of immediate abolition. But nevertheless, whose moral energy drew on disgust and opposition to slavery and a stated demand that it be ultimately abolished or put on the road to ultimate extinction — on a course of ultimate extinction, as Lincoln said.
And that was a movement. It was a really powerful, transformative reform movement that ultimately became a revolutionary one in the course of the Civil War as it led the most violent and revolutionary process of slave emancipation in the Western hemisphere, only Haiti excepted.
And I think this is still for me the most revolutionary moment in U.S. history. And whether… Now we’re back in trouble again, where I’m kind of contradicting my own earlier statement about the problems with wanting to seek this existential Armageddon with the enemy. I don’t think that that’s in the cards for our situation today. I don’t think a civil war, for all of the periodic cover stories that foresee one, I don’t foresee one.
But I do think for the broader left, I do think the Sanders movement tapped into that, the possibility of something called political revolution, which happened before the social revolution in the 1860s: the realignment of politics in the 1850s around this cause that came about through a fusion of both moral and material politics.
The argument against slavery was really driven by an argument about the disposition of land in the West, the relationship between, in essence, labor and property. Which should be the controlling interest in American government? A small, tiny elite of aristocratic slaveholders — a literal 1%, if you did the math? And some of them did, like William Seward talked about how “There are 300,000 slaveholders in a Republic of 30 million — not 100th of a percent of the population is invested in this property.” It sounds like 1856 Sanders-ism, this kind of populist, anti-oligarchic, material and also deeply moral politics.
I’ve been attacking moralism. I don’t mean to say that politics should be amoral. That kind of fusion in the 1850s provided for a really dramatic and ultimately, I think, clearly emancipatory political revolution that, for me, is still part of my aspiration for where American politics could go in the 21st century. It doesn’t mean that there has to be a civil war.
Geoff Kabaservice: Matt, I know you’ve at least contemplated a three-volume history of the Republican Party’s arc in the 19th century, with its radicalism —
Matt Karp: Where did you hear that? When did I admit that?
Geoff Kabaservice: I can’t remember, but somewhere, I think — its consolidation and then its corruption following the end of Reconstruction and the descent into the Gilded Age. You’ve talked a little bit about your inspiration of the radicalism of the Republican Party. But we actually still do have a Republican Party that traces back to the 1850s. Do you think there’s anything of its original ideals in its DNA as it currently exists? Or do you subscribe more to the Heather Cox Richardson idea that the Republican Party of today is the old Democratic slavocracy of the antebellum period?
Matt Karp: It’s funny… Before Richardson’s turn into a really spectacularly successful pundit, she wrote a history of the Republican Party that actually did argue for some degree of continuity from the 1850s to the present, in the sense… The title of the book was To Make Men Free. Her take might be really more about the difference between Trump and Bush than the difference between Bush and Lincoln.
And there are other historians… I think even Eric Foner’s canonical work on the formation of the Republican Party ideologically in the 1850s, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men… I think the anecdote is almost widely known at this point, but it was Karl Rove’s favorite book, and Foner told me that Rove actually sent him a copy and wanted him to sign it, and dah dah dah. Because from Rove’s perspective — and I don’t think Foner would entirely disagree — there are core elements of that party and its emphasis on the “right to rise,” as Jeb Bush called his super PAC. That’s a quote from Lincoln.
The idea of economic competition, and for the spirit of free enterprise, bringing out the best in an individual, as opposed to the sort of enchainments of slave labor and the fixed social condition of the South, the sort of desire for competition and mobility and individual sort of economic advancement… There are absolutely resonances between that and the party of Reagan and Bush. Harder to see in the Trump era, but clearly if you look at the Republican caucus, it’s still there.
So I don’t want to say that there are no through-lines. But on the whole, I’m strong… I mean, I think that one of my goals in this book is to dethrone that view historically, and to say that the party’s transformational change happened in the Civil War era itself. That the party in its origins in the ’50s and the ’60s was for all of… You can cleverly trace the ideological through-lines, and they’re not hard to see.
But the way that those politics functioned in the context of the ’50s was not primarily to sort of congratulate a complacent economic elite or an establishment but to overthrow that same establishment, which was itself deeply connected with slavery and the profits of slavery, and were aimed absolutely against not just the slave-holding class in the South but the sort of mercantile class in the North, the economic elite of the antebellum republic who were deeply connected with slavery, either materially or even in a deeper sense opposed any kind of politics ruckus that would overthrow the stable economic order of society.
The Democrats out-raised the Republicans in the antebellum elections of the ’50s. In ’56, the Republican candidates could barely throw together a dime. They were stronger in 1860. But this was not a party, in its origins, of the economic elite. And it was a party of sort of confessedly social revolutionary aims to some extent.
And it drew the support of other radicals, from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Frederick Douglass, who identified the struggle against slavery as foundational to the struggle against other forms of profound inequality. It drew the support of large numbers of labor radicals for the same reason, who saw the Homestead Act as something that was not simply a kind of safety valve for urban elites in the East but was actually an empowerment and a form of class politics designed to overthrow the ruling slave-holding class, which was the main opposition for that kind of homestead giveaway policy.
Now, of course, I don’t idealize this movement at all. It also depended on the seizure of indigenous land and a bunch of other horrible things. It kowtowed to American racism in a hundred different ways. The point isn’t to erect the Republican Party of the ’50s as a sort of beau ideal of how all politics should become. But, in my view, the story is one of change not continuity from the ’50s to even the late 19th century, much less the 21st.
Professor Matthew Karp, thank you so much for talking with me today and for being so generous with your time and the benefits of your scholarship and insight.
And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at email@example.com. Thanks as always to our technical director Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.