Democratic Party, U.S.
Democratic Party, U.S.
The Democratic Party is the oldest, continuously existing political party in the world. It is one of the two major political parties in the two-party system of the United States of America, and has nominated and helped to elect such internationally famous presidents as Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy.
The Democratic Party, previously named the Democratic-Republican Party, traces its origins to the Anti-Federalists. The Anti-Federalists initially opposed the ratification of the U.S. Constitution during the 1780s because of their concern that it would create an excessively powerful national government dominated by bankers and threaten states’ rights. After the Constitution was ratified, the Anti-Federalists emphasized a strict interpretation of the Constitution so that states’ rights and civil liberties would be protected from the new national government. Led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the Anti-Federalists formally named and organized the Democratic-Republican Party in 1798. The Democratic-Republican Party often opposed the Federalist Party. Founded by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, the Federalist Party favored a stronger national government, limited states’ rights, a national bank, a pro-British foreign policy, a tight money supply, and high tariffs to encourage the development of American manufacturing. These Federalist policies dominated the presidencies of George Washington (1789–1797) and John Adams (1797–1801).
From the election of Jefferson as president in 1800 until the election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, in 1860, most presidents during this era were Democrats. The Democratic-Republican Party officially renamed itself the Democratic Party in 1844. The Democratic Party experienced a sharp increase in membership and electoral strength during and shortly after the presidency of Andrew Jackson (1829–1837). The so-called Jacksonian Democrats claimed that the Democratic Party was “the party of the common man.” They asserted that their policies and ideas, such as less federal regulation of the economy, lower tariffs, stronger states’ rights, opposition to the national bank, and stronger voting rights for poor white men, benefited the common man by increasing his political and economic power against the Whig Party and northern business interests.
Although the Democratic Party succeeded in attracting more voters who were Irish or German immigrants, urban laborers, and frontier settlers from 1828 until 1860, most of its voting strength remained in the South. Consequently, the Democratic Party became severely divided and weakened by the issues of slavery and the South’s secession from the United States in 1861. While most Southern Democrats favored secession and the creation of the Confederacy, most Northern Democrats either favored accommodation and compromise with the Confederacy or supported the Union war effort led by President Lincoln (1861–1865).
REPUBLICAN DOMINANCE: 1860–1932
Established during the late 1850s from remnants of the Federalist and Whig parties, the Republican Party emerged as the new, second major party in the United States. It elected all but two presidents, usually controlled Congress, and dominated American national politics and domestic and foreign policies from 1860 until 1932 when Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, was elected president. Even during brief periods when the Democratic Party elected presidents Grover Cleveland (1885–1889, 1893–1897) and Woodrow Wilson (1913–1921) and occasionally controlled Congress, it was often divided between its multiethnic, urban northern wing and its mostly rural, white, Protestant, southern wing. The party’s southern wing dominated Democratic membership in Congress and decisions at Democratic national conventions.
In an effort to co-opt the anti–big business, agrarian economic protest movement known as Populism, the Democratic Party nominated William Jennings Bryan for president in 1896. Bryan was the Populist Party’s presidential nominee in 1892. However, many conservative Democrats and northern laborers perceived Bryan as a dangerous rural, economic radical. Many of them voted Republican in 1896 resulting in a long-term Republican realignment within the two-party system.
Although Woodrow Wilson was elected with only 45 percent of the popular vote in 1912, Wilson managed to unite most Democrats in Congress concerning his foreign policy in World War I and his domestic policies of improving child welfare and labor conditions, reforming the banking system, and supporting women’s suffrage. During the 1920s, however, the Democratic Party became more divided over such cultural issues as the national prohibition of alcohol, restrictive immigration laws, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Catholic faith of Al Smith, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1928. Consequently, the Republicans easily won the presidential elections of 1920, 1924, and 1928.
The Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash of 1929, resulted in high unemployment, deflation, bank failures, and widespread economic suffering. The Democrats became more united on economic issues and blamed Republican policies for causing or worsening the Great Depression. Attracting the votes of many alienated Republicans and independents, the Democratic Party easily won control of the presidency and Congress with Franklin D. Roosevelt as its presidential nominee in 1932. Collectively known as the New Deal, Roosevelt’s most popular economic and social welfare policies included the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Social Security Act of 1935, legal rights for labor unions, agricultural price supports, rural electrification, and stricter federal regulations on banks and the stock market.
In the 1936 federal elections, Roosevelt was reelected with 62 percent of the popular vote, carried all but two states in the Electoral College, and helped the Democratic Party to increase its majorities in Congress. For the first time since 1856, most voters were Democrats. The 1932 and 1936 elections were a realignment of the two-party system establishing a long-term Democratic majority among voters. This enabled the Democratic Party to win most presidential elections, usually control Congress, and dominate foreign and domestic policymaking until 1968.
President Harry S. Truman, Roosevelt’s Democratic successor, won the 1948 presidential election despite the defection of some anti–civil rights southern Democrats led by Governor J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Commonly known as the Dixiecrats, the States Rights Democratic Party nominated Thurmond for president in 1948. The Dixiecrats opposed Truman’s civil rights bill, his desegregation of the military, and the increasing support of northern Democrats for federal civil rights policies that would protect African Americans from racial discrimination and end racial segregation.
For the next twenty years, the Democratic Party was increasingly divided over the issue of federal civil rights for African Americans. The narrowness of Democrat John F. Kennedy’s victory in the 1960 presidential election was partially caused by the unpopularity of his pro–civil rights positions among southern Democrats. Likewise, despite his landslide victory in the 1964 election, Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s successor and a southern Democrat, failed to carry most states in the Deep South because of his support for civil rights.
By the late 1960s, the Democratic Party was bitterly divided over civil rights, the anti-poverty programs of the Great Society, the Vietnam War, and the selection of its presidential nominee for the 1968 election. In 1968, events such as the assassination of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, the violence and disunity of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the unpopularity of Johnson and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey among antiwar Democrats plagued the Democratic Party. Humphrey, the Democratic nominee, narrowly lost the 1968 presidential election to Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon as most white voters supported either Nixon or George C. Wallace, an anti–civil rights southern Democrat.
From 1968 until 1992, the Republican Party won five of the six presidential elections and controlled the Senate from 1981 until 1987. Historians attribute the narrow Democratic victory of James E. Carter in the 1976 presidential election to economic problems and the damaging effects of the Watergate scandals on the Republican Party. During this period, many middle-class white voters negatively perceived the Democratic Party, especially in presidential elections, as favoring excessive welfare spending and high taxes, weak on crime control, and ineffective in cold war foreign and defense policies.
In 1992 William J. Clinton, a Democrat, was elected president with 43 percent of the popular vote after defeating Republican president George H. W. Bush and Ross Perot, an independent candidate. Clinton portrayed himself as a moderate who was tough on crime and welfare dependency and would reduce the high budget deficit. The end of the cold war and the Persian Gulf War in 1991 had reduced the Republican advantage on foreign and defense policy issues. In 1996 Clinton became the first Democratic president since Roosevelt to be reelected to a second term. With a Republican Congress, Clinton achieved moderate, compromised results in welfare reform and deficit reduction but unsuccessfully opposed his impeachment.
Al Gore, Clinton’s vice president, received approximately 550,000 more votes than George W. Bush, his Republican opponent, in the 2000 presidential election. But Bush won this election when the Supreme Court ruled that he had legitimately received all of Florida’s Electoral College votes. Despite growing public criticism of his policies in the Iraq War, Bush was reelected in 2004 after defeating John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee. Confronting a two-term Republican president and a Republican Congress, the Democratic Party began to discuss how to improve its voter appeal and reconsider its ideas and policy positions in order to win future presidential and congressional elections. In 2006 Democrats regained control of Congress.
SEE ALSO Civil Rights; Clinton, Bill; Dixiecrats; Great Society, The; Johnson, Lyndon B.; Kennedy, John F.; Populism; Roosevelt, Franklin D.
Goldman, Ralph M. 1979. Search for Consensus: The Story of the Democratic Party. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Savage, Sean J. 2004. JFK, LBJ, and the Democratic Party. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Sean J. Savage