Democratic Party

The Democratic Party is the oldest mass-based party in history. It began as the result of a collaboration between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison of Virginia and Aaron Burr and George Clinton of New York. The four gathered together in upstate New York in 1791.

The party began as an organized apposition to the policies of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton and his followers favored a strong central government, debt, credit, banking and trade policies to further commercial and manufacturing interests. They also favored an expanded military and naval budget plus a more conciliatory policy toward Great Britain.

The Jeffersonians, ironically then called the ‘Republicans’, were for minimalist government, retirement of the national debt, no favoritism in policy toward banks or manufacturing, and discriminatory trade policies that would favor France over Great Britain. They felt that they could make agricultural exports into an instrument of diplomacy.

The Jeffersonians gained power in both the executive and legislative branches in 1801. Jefferson served two terms as President. He was followed by fellow Virginians James Madison and James Monroe. Each also served two terms.

Jefferson was not quite the minimalist as President. He greatly expanded the constitution powers of the Executive through the Louisiana Purchase, built up naval and military strength in anticipation of them through the War of 1812. Madison carried on, instituting protective tariffs and supporting a Charter of a Bank of the United States. Madison also approved internal improvements such as roads, canals, and harbors.

Monroe carried on as with in this vein. By the end of these terms, the Party stood in favor of tariffs, banking and improvements originally supported by Hamilton and his Federalist Party.

Andrew Jackson followed Monroe, and the Democratic Party turned back to its minimalist roots, more or less. Under him, the first emergence of favoritism toward labor arose, along with a mistrust of the commercial and banking interests. He put forth legislation regarding currency and banking that led to speculation and eventually the panic of 1837, which lasted into the 1840’s. The main political rivals of the Democrats at the time were the Whigs.

The Whigs won in 1840, electing William Henry Harrison and the economy began to improve. James K. Polk reclaimed the Presidency in 1845 for the Democrats, running as a strong expansionist. He promised to annex Texas, and extend Oregon to Russian Alaska. He compromised but did add California and New Mexico and other parts of Northern Mexico plus struck a border agreement with Great Britain in terms of Western Canada.

By this time, the Democrats were clearly the dominant political party. They favored Southern Planters and small farmers in the West, and urban and immigrants in the Northeast. They were essentially libertarian in their views; thus they were hostile to causes of social reform, including women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. Some of the prevailing views of the public was that the expansion to the West they favored was to further the ’empire of slavery’.

By the mid-1850’s, the Democrats were the only party that had significant followers in both the North and South. Around them, a whole host of institutions were split over the issue of slavery.

They were also splits within the Democrats, but it had to do more with the definition. Some favored a ‘states rights’ approach whereby each state had the power to accept or reject the legality of slavery. Others took the ‘property’ approach, saying that slaves were the legal property of their owners and this protected under the law in all federal territories. Other prominent Democrats were totally anti-slavery and abandoned the party.

In 1860, the split became more permanent. Each group of the split Democrats ran their own candidates and the Republicans ran Abraham Lincoln. For a number of years after the Civil War, the Democrats were marginalized. Their polities ranged from southern urban to reformist zeal, with no real unifying center.

In 1876, despite probably wining the election, the Democrats struck a deal with the Republicans and, as a direct result, federal troops were withdrawn form the South, which became solidly Democratic. A further result saw African-Americans become totally disenfranchised within a decade.

With this base in the South, Democrats began pursuing reformist policy and elected Grover Cleveland in 1884. Cleveland was dedicated to free trade and civil service reform and opposed to expansion outside the borders. Money supply then became an issue for the Democrats and threatened to split them between North and West/South.

Essentially, they continued to move from issue to issue, framing responses as they went, with no central core. Republicans came to dominate all section of the US except the South until the Great Depression struck in the aftermath of the crash of 1929.

The Democrats seemed to be on all sides of every issue during the 1920’s. Many of these were ethno-cultural in nature, ranging from Prohibition, restriction of immigration, and whether or not to recognize the Ku Klux Klan among others. Other divisions were between North and South, as well as long religious lines. This was exacerbated by the nomination of Al Smith.

The Party began anew with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, the worst days of the Great Depression. He had an old-line Protestant background, and came from a prominent New York family. Through his vision, he was able to unite anti-prohibitionists, Catholics, Jews, Urban Progressives to the East and Midwest and bring them together with the lily-white Southern Democrats.

His vision was to bring the country the reforms needed to bring the country back. Through the legislation he promoted and passed, the Democratic Party became a party that was inherently pro-government intervention in society. The Democrats came to be a party that believed it must do all it could, through government, to make the lives of citizens better. As such, they also became more anti- than pro- business.

With the advent of World War II, the Democrats sponsored very active interventions in the economy. Government, labor, and business found themselves in a sometimes uneasy partnership in the resilient war economy. Roosevelt also broke with tradition in other ways.

Due to the war, Roosevelt passed by executive order a mandate against racial discrimination in the hiring policies of Federal contractors. African Americans responded by giving the Democrats their strongest support. By the 1940’s, for the first time, the majority of African-Americans voters were cast for Democrats.

When the war ended, Harry S. Truman continued the interventionist policies began under Roosevelt. He created the Marshall Plan, the IMF, and the Truman Doctrine. His Achilles Heel proved to be in Asia, with the Communist revolution in China, and the advent of the Korean War.

There was also something of a failure to focus on domestic issues. African-American gains were not consolidated, and prosperity was fleeting for many. When corruption began to arise, voters turned to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952.

The democrats responded by working in a strongly bi-partisan manner with Eisenhower. They were able to keep social issues on the agenda, while working to promote federal aid to education, nuclear energy, and the construction of the interstate road system that truly opened the country. They also passed limited civil rights legislation.

With the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 the Democrats strengthened their position as the liberal, interventionist ‘peoples’ party. Kennedy sponsored sweeping civil rights legislation, passed a tax cut to stimulate the economy and acted as a strong protector of labor when he took on ‘big business’ in the form of the steel industry.

With his assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson became President and was then elected in his own right in 1964. He consolidated the gains made by the Party under Kennedy and took them even further, with the Voting Rights Act, War on Poverty, Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1966. The Party had been transformed from one supporting white supremacy to one promising full inclusion.

At the same time, the Democrats promoted more and more interaction. They seemed to feel that government had a responsibility to take care of the people, that the people were incapable of taking care of themselves, particularly in the face of ‘Big Business’ and the Republicans. More and more youthful idealists were attracted to the Paty and the new politics. And the Vietnam War brought Johnson down.

In the face of this new idealism, former stalwarts like labor unions, the lower middle class, Catholics, and white Southerners began to drift away from the Democrats, feeling alienated from the increasingly liberal views. The Nixon election in 1968 kept this going and the election of the populist Ronald Reagan made the split deeper.

The Party began to come down on many sides of issues, led by the liberals on one side and the moderate wing on the other. Republicans exploited this, casting the Democrats as ‘tax and spend’ liberals who ‘know better than you do what is good for you.’ Aspects of the social welfare system begun by Democrats began to erode and they seemed not to be able to settle on a core, unifying philosophy. Their approach to issues has been criticised as almost solidly in response to Republican initiatives.

With the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, the Democrats seemed ready to return to their unified, activist role in the past. However, when Clinton‘s health care initiative failed and the Democrats in the legislature were dealt a resounding defeat in 1994, the Democrats appeared to lose their heart and will to lead.

Currently in George W. Bush‘s second term as Republican President, the Democrats are a party looking for a soul, a reason to be, a set of philosophies to rally around. In general, they have become out of touch, a party of ‘opposers’ rather than a party of new ideas and approaches. Their approach is to sit back and criticize and obstruct and feel it is their duty to do so. It is widely viewed that new leadership within the Democratic Party is needed – the contest for leadership will throw up new personalities and challenges and may redefine the democrats once more.


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