A brief history of the US Democratic Party

On 3 February 2020, registered Democrats gathered in Iowa to choose their nominee for US president. For Democrats, it was the first step in the process of selecting a candidate to take on current president, Donald Trump. Here, Adam I P Smith explores the history of the party and explains why its past system for electing a leader was not so different to today's...

Democratic presidential candidates Birch Bayh, Jimmy Carter, Fred R Harris, Milton Shapp take on the press during the Iowa Democratic Caucus on 11 January 1976. (Photo by NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

The US Democratic Party is the oldest mass political party in the world. In Iowa next week, registered Democrats will caucus in schools and community halls to choose their nominee for president. In many ways the scenes would be familiar to a Democrat from two centuries ago.

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Those early party-builders invented ways to organise a mass electorate, which by the 1830s included virtually all white men. Through a system of ward and county committees, streams of broadsides and posters, and sympathetic newspapers, they built popular partisan loyalty and gave ordinary men a chance to take part in the process of government. Compared to today, campaign meetings in the early 19th century featured longer speeches and a great deal more hard liquor, but in other ways – the roast hogs, the sale of campaign hats and buttons, or the music and ‘hullaballoo’ (to use a 19th-century term) – they were not so different.

Early party-builders invented ways to organize a mass electorate

Historians commonly trace the Democratic party’s origins to the presidential campaigns to elect the rough-hewn Tennessean Andrew Jackson in the 1820s. But those Jacksonians saw themselves as the second generation of Democrats, the first having supported Thomas Jefferson in the 1790s. All these early Democrats saw themselves as, pre-eminently, defenders of the legacy of the American Revolution (which they saw as having struck an epochal blow against centuries of despotism by creating a republic in which all white men were sovereign). The great danger to liberty was the concentration of power – whether in the hands of a king or a bank. But in America, with abundant land dispossessed from Native Americans, ordinary white men could expect to own property. As the master of their own households, they could be truly free. Mistrust of the powerful meant trusting “the people” to govern themselves. Regulations, standing armies and tax-collectors were Old World problems that America could avoid: “the government that governs least governs best,” as Democrats liked to say.

This new republic, in the phrase of an influential Jacksonian newspaper editor, was the “great nation of futurity”. It had inspired the revolution in France, and awoken the hopes of working men throughout the world. Without “the democracy”, as its supporters called the party, this golden beacon of government by the people would perish from the earth. In 1840, one Democrat told party supporters they had “done more, in fifty years, to elevate the moral and political condition of man than has been achieved by any other civil institution since the Christian era”. Naturally, they regarded their opponents as the enemies of popular government: at best misguided ‘old fogies’, at worst, aristocratic revanchists.

It seemed only fitting and proper to Democrats that they dominated state and Federal government between the Revolution and the Civil War. Between 1801 (the year that Jefferson became president) and 1861 (when the South seceded and war broke out), there were only eight years in which a non-Democrat was in the White House.

The most effective line of attack by their opponents has been that Democrats represent the very elites they claim to oppose

So, Democrats have always wanted to see themselves as the party of the people. Over two centuries, a common thread has been the assumption of party leaders that ordinary folk were their natural supporters. For this very reason, the most effective line of attack by their opponents has been that, in fact, Democrats represent the very elites they claim to oppose.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the new Republican Party attacked Democrats as the party of the aristocratic “Slave Power”. Republicans were highly successful at persuading a chunk of Democratic voters in the non-slaveholding North that the Democrats had become corrupted by aristocratic Southern slaveholders whose determination to maintain slavery was undermining the free institutions of the republic. The charges stuck because they contained a large element of truth.

By discrediting them as the party of the Republic’s enemies, the Civil War smashed the Democrats’ national political dominance. For the next half century, they were the party of the defeated South – albeit with important outposts of support among some immigrant groups and workers in the North. While pro-business Republicans championed a strong Federal government, the Democrats were the outsiders, the party of the Gilded Age’s losers.

A map of the presidential election of 1896 is an almost exact mirror image of the map today. Then, the Democrats were the party of the South and middle of the country while the Republicans’ heartlands were the northeast and the west coast. The parties have almost completely swapped geographical position. If you want to know whether a state is likely to vote for Trump in November, look how it voted in the late 19th century: if it was Democrat then, it is likely to be Republican now.

This geographic partisan inversion was a two-stage process. First, in the 1930s, the Democrats made a dramatic come-back under Franklin D Roosevelt, a charismatic leader who defined the party for a generation just as Jackson had done a century earlier. Under Roosevelt, the Democrats dominated national politics by adding to their traditional white southern base northern industrial workers, including African Americans. Democrats were still the party of “the people”, but in place of the old Jefferson-Jackson vision of limited government, Roosevelt’s New Deal offered necessary government support for ordinary folk hit by hard times.

The second part of the partisan inversion came in the aftermath of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, passed by a Democratic Congress and signed into law by a Texan Democrat in the White House, Lyndon B Johnson. In the decades that followed, Democrats steadily lost their hold on the white South. Today, their southern voters are overwhelmingly Latinos and African Americans (with an admixture of white college students and migrants from elsewhere).

The Democratic Party is simultaneously a coalition of some of the most privileged and marginalised

Republicans once attacked Democrats as agents of an elite slave power; in a strange echo of that attack, the post-Civil Rights era Democrats became unpatriotic and elitist “limousine Liberals”. In fact, the party’s secure base among non-white Americans means the Democratic Party is a coalition both of some of the most privileged and of the most marginalised. Go into a hipster coffee shop in Manhattan, or a bar in the hugely deprived African American-dominated South Side of Chicago and in either place, you’d struggle to find a Republican.

The New Deal transformed Democrats’ attitude to the role of the Federal government; the Civil Rights movement revolutionised their attitude to race. But for all that, there is still a discernible Democratic political tradition in the United States, as well as institutional continuity. It is a tradition that from Jefferson and Jackson onwards has at its heart the defence of the common man against vested interests. In 1900, Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan spoke of the “forgotten men whose rights are disregarded [and] interests neglected because of the demands made by combined capital”. This is a political language with which Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa will be very familiar.

Adam I P Smith is the Edward Orsborn Professor of United States politics and political history at the University of Oxford and the Director of the Rothermere American Institute. He also regularly writes and presents documentaries for the BBC. His latest book is The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846–1865 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017). 

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To find out more, visit www.adamipsmith.com