One of the two major political parties in the US is the Democratic Party. With its roots being traced back to the late 18th Century Democratic Party has arguably been the most important party in US history. The Democratic Party dominated US politics at the national level between 1828 and 1860 and again from 1932 to 1968, and a majority of American voters still identify as Democrats today even though the Party has lost ground in many areas of the country over the past 50 years. Here is a brief overview of the history of the Democratic Party.
Before the Democratic Party
After the U.S. Constitution came into effect in 1789, the voters and elected officials divided into two rival political factions. The first such group was the Federalist Party, which favored a strong and active federal government ruled by a wealthy elite. The second group was the Democratic-Republican Party, which advocated dispersing power more broadly among white male property owners. By the time of the 1824 Presidential Election, the Federalists Party mostly collapsed, leaving the Democratic-Republican Party as the only remaining political party in the US.
During the 1820s new states entered the union, voting laws were relaxed, and several states passed legislation that provided for the direct election of presidential electors by voters. These changes split the Democratic-Republicans into factions, each of which nominated a candidate in the presidential election of 1824. The party’s congressional caucus chose William H. Crawford of Georgia, but Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, the leaders of the party’s two most significant factions also sought the presidency. House Speaker Henry Clay was nominated by the Kentucky and Tennessee legislatures. Jackson won a majority of the popular and electoral vote, but no candidate received the necessary majority in the electoral college. When the election went to the House of Representatives, Clay threw his support to Adams, who won the House vote and subsequently appointed Clay secretary of state.
Despite Adams’s victory, differences between the Adams and the Jackson factions persisted. Adams’s supporters, representing Eastern interests and progressive economic and social policies, called themselves the National Republicans. Jackson, whose strength was in the South and West, referred to his followers as Democrats. The Jacksonian branch advocated economic populism, social conservatism, and rural values. Jackson defeated Adams in the 1828 presidential election by a landslide and soon began to implement his right-wing agenda (which was in many ways similar to the modern-day “Tea-Party” movement in the Republican Party). In 1832 in Baltimore, Maryland, the Democrats nominated Jackson for a second term as President, drafted a party platform, and established a rule that required party presidential and vice presidential nominees to receive the votes of at least two-thirds of the national convention delegates, thus establishing the Convention System, which nominated all Presidential candidates between 1832 and 1976.
Growth & Decline of the Democratic Party
From 1828 to 1856 the Democrats won all Presidential elections except 1840 and 1848 and controlled Congress with substantial majorities. As the 1840s and 1850s progressed, the Democratic Party suffered internal strains over the issue of extending slavery to the Western territories. Southern Democrats wanted to allow slavery in all the areas of the country, while Northern Democrats proposed that each territory should decide the question for itself through a public vote. The issue split the Democrats at their 1860 presidential convention, where Southern Democrats nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge, and Northern Democrats nominated Senator Stephen Douglas. The 1860 election also included John Bell, the nominee of the Constitutional Union Party, and Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate. With the Democrats split, Lincoln was elected president with only about 40 percent of the national vote.
The election of 1860 is regarded by most political observers as the first of the country’s three “critical” elections—contests that produced sharp yet enduring changes in party loyalties across the country. It established the Democratic and Republican parties, which represented the right and left of the political spectrum respectively. In federal elections from the 1870s to the 1890s, the parties were evenly split except in the South, where the Democrats dominated because most whites blamed the Republican Party for both the American Civil War and Reconstruction. The two parties controlled Congress for almost equal periods through the rest of the 19th century, though the Democratic Party held the presidency only during the two terms of Grover Cleveland (1885–89 and 1893–97).
A Shift Towards Progressivism
The Democratic Party began to move to the left during the 1896 Presidential Election with the nomination of former Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan. In contrast to prior Democratic nominees, Bryan advocated a progressive platform meant to counter the growing power of economic elites and return some semblance of stability to the common man. Even though Bryan ultimately lost to Republican William McKinley, his nomination resulted in a permanent realignment of both political parties on economic policy. The progressive trend within the Democratic Party continued under President Woodrow Wilson (1913-21). Wilson championed various liberal economic reforms, such as federal banking regulation, child labor laws, the break up of business monopolies, and pure food and drug regulations.
Peak of the Modern Democratic Party
The stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent start of the Great Depression was the primary catalyst for the Democratic Party revival of the mid-20th Century. Led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democrats not only regained the presidency but also replaced the Republicans as the majority party. Through his political skills and his sweeping New Deal social programs, Roosevelt forged a broad coalition including small farmers, some ethnic minorities, organized labor, urban dwellers, liberals, intellectuals, and reformers that enabled the Democratic Party to retain the presidency until 1952 and to control both houses of Congress for most of the period from the 1930s to the mid-1990s. Roosevelt was reelected in 1936, 1940, and 1944 and was the only president to be elected to more than two terms. Upon his death in 1945, Roosevelt was succeeded by Vice President Harry S. Truman, who was narrowly elected in 1948. The only Republican President during this period was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former Supreme Allied Commander during World War II and a largely liberal Republican.
Despite having overwhelming control over the American political system, the Democratic Party began to witness divisions regarding the issue of civil rights during the 1930s. Northern Democrats mostly favored federal civil rights reforms, whereas Southern Democrats expressed violent opposition to such proposals. As the 1950s progressed, many Southern Democrats Senators such as future President Lyndon Johnson (TX), Estes Kefauver (TN), Claude Pepper (FL), and Ralph Yarborough (TX) began to embrace the idea of civil rights and sought to push the Democratic Party to take a firm stance in favor of the issue. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson took charge on civil rights and pushed Congress to pass the previously-stalled Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. These efforts led to another realignment in American politics that resulted in the Republican Party gaining ground with Southern Whites and the Democratic Party cementing its support amongst minority voters and liberal voters in the Northeast and West Coast.
The New Democratic Party
By the late 1960s, the extended period of Democratic Party domination was coming to an end. With the party split over issues such as the Vietnam War, civil rights, and the proper role of government, Republican candidate Richard Nixon was able to defeat Vice President Hubert Humphrey and independent segregationist candidate George Wallace by a comfortable margin. Despite retaining control over both houses of Congress until 1994, the Democratic Party lost 6 out of the 9 Presidential elections between 1968 and 2004. To regain support at the Presidential level and capitalize on public dissatisfaction (particularly in the Northeast and West Coast) at the continuing rightward drift of the Republican Party, the Democratic Party started to move towards the political center during the late 1980s and 1990s. Under the leadership of President Bill Clinton (1993-2001), the Democratic Party adopted neo-liberal economic policies such as free trade advocacy, support for targeted tax cuts, and fiscal conservatism. Additionally, the Democratic Party during this period began to move towards the left on social issues such as gay rights, abortion, and the role of religion to gain ground in the mostly secular Northeast and West Coast. Even though these policies endeared the Democratic Party to numerous voting groups, they negatively impacted Democratic chances in the Appalachian and Ozarks regions in the South, parts of the Midwest, and in the Great Plains states.
Future of the Democratic Party
In the 2016 Presidential Election, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million but ended up losing the electoral vote by a close margin. These results reveal that the Democratic Party is regaining its status as the nations majority party, albeit with an entirely different coalition of voters. Additionally, Clinton performed strongly in several typically-Republican states such as Texas, Utah, Georgia, Arizona, and North Carolina. Perhaps these results indicate a new trend that will allow the Democratic Party to gain control of the Southwest and some of the more cosmopolitan Southern states.