A Brief History

of the

Democratic Party

by William P. Meyers

President Andrew Jackson, party founder

formatted for the Web in HTML

Copyright 2004 by William Peter Meyers

Non-commercial use permission: This pamphlet or sections of it may be copied freely, in paper or electronic form, by individuals for personal use and by not-for-profit organizations wishing to make the history of the Democratic Party better known, provided the author is attributed and informed of the use. All for-profit and derivative rights are reserved by the author.

For commercial reproduction rights contact:

William Meyers
P.O. Box 1581
Gualala, Ca 95445

Thanks to Jan Edwards, Nat Stern, Alis Valencia, and Jane Ann Morris for feedback and proofreading. Any remaining errors of fact, opinion, grammar, or spelling are the fault of the author.

This being a popular rather than a scholarly work, only unusual or controversial facts are documented in footnotes (in the Web version, they are endnotes - they appear at the end of the entire document but can be accessed through links). Most facts in this pamphlet appear in standard American history texts and biographies; if they seem unusual it is because you have forgotten them or never studied American History. Opinions, are of course, the author's. Basic facts were checked against:

Bailey, Thomas A, The American Pageant: A History of the Republic, Third Edition (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1966)

Morison, Samuel Eliot, The Oxford History of the American People (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965)


The Democratic Party has been the most important party in United States history. It dominated American politics at the national level between 1828 and 1860 and then again between 1932 and 2000. Yet few Americans can state the basic facts about its history, or how it fits into the pattern of American history.

This pamphlet is designed to give its readers a solid overview of the Democratic Party's history. It is not intended to glorify the party, but rather to allow the facts themselves to put the party in a modern ethical perspective. The author hopes it will serve as an effective tool both for those who wish to argue with Democrats and those Democrats who wish to see their party improved upon.

Genocide, Hickory and Slavery:
The Origins of the Party

After the U.S. Constitution came into effect the voters and elected officials, then consisting by law of property-owning white men in most states, divided largely into two parties. The Federalist Party favored a strong national government ruled by a wealthy elite (themselves). The Democratic-Republican Party favored dispersing power more broadly among white male property owners. By 1820 the Federalists had run out of steam and the Democratic-Republican Party had moved towards the center, so that the U.S. essentially had only one political party. In 1824 all four major candidates for the Presidency were Democratic-Republicans.

The Democratic Party, as a party distinct from the Democratic-Republican Party, began with the beliefs and ambitions of one man: Andrew Jackson. Nicknamed Old Hickory, he became the President of the United States from 1829 to 1837. However, had not Jackson's ideas and ambitions appealed to many Americans in the 1820's and 30's, the Democratic Party would never have formed around him.

Andrew Jackson was born in North Carolina in 1767. He became a successful lawyer after working in as a clerk in a law office (he did not attend law school), and was a noted for his horse racing and gambling. Moving to Tennessee, he became wealthy from land speculation, worked slaves on his land, and continuing to practice law. He was elected as the state's first Representative to Congress in 1796. His real break came in 1812 when the United States declared war on the British, hoping to seize Canada, Florida, and more sovereign American Indian land. Jackson first commanded the Tennessee militia, then was made Major-General of American forces in the South.

In the War of 1812 many American Indian tribes sided with the British, being tired of Americans, individually and as represented by both state and national government, stealing their land. Some tribes tried to remain neutral; others fought on the American side. Finding himself desperately short of fighters, Jackson enlisted Cherokee fighters, promising them protection against more land theft. With them his army defeated the Creeks who were fighting on the British side at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. He then marched to New Orleans. The war was already over, America having been defeated in its attempts to grab Canada and Florida. The peace treaty had been signed in Ghent two weeks before Jackson's famous victory at the Battle of New Orleans, January 8, 1815. General Jackson emerged as the leading war hero.

In 1819 the U.S. government purchased Florida from Spain, thus strengthening the cause of the Slave states. Jackson had led U.S. troops into Florida in 1818 in the First Seminole War. He became the first American governor of Florida in 1821. The Spanish system of freeing slaves who had escaped from U.S. plantations came to an end.(1)

Jackson believed he would make a good President and ran for the office for the first time in 1824. The Democratic Party did not exist; it coalesced around the hope of obtaining office by associating with Jackson, and on three major points of agreement. The first was the continued taking of American Indian land, with or without whatever degree of genocide was necessary to carry it off. This plank was popular with both land-speculators and less affluent European-American settlers because it made purchasing land cheap. The second plank was the continuation and extension of slavery, which made life easy and profitable for Jackson and his followers. The third plank was what would now be called an expansionary monetary policy. This allowed white settlers to borrow money to buy stolen Indian land to work with slaves to raise tobacco, cotton, and other profitable crops for market.

Andrew Jackson obtained both the largest number of popular votes in the 1824 election (153,544) and the largest number of electoral votes, but third and fourth placers (William Crawford and Henry Clay) threw their electoral college votes to the second place candidate, John Quincy Adams, who went on to become a quite unpopular president. In 1828 the two ran head-to-head. Jackson won easily.

This split, between the Jackson camp of the Democratic-Republicans and the Adams camp, gave birth to the two new parties. Jackson and his followers became the Democratic Party and Adam's side became the Whig Party.

In simplistic versions of American history Jackson's victory is usually presented as a triumph for democracy over elitism. If you overlook the very real issues of slavery and genocide, there is some truth to this view. Jackson carried every state west of Washington, D.C., and ended a long line of Presidents chosen exclusively from Virginia and Massachusetts. Jackson was genuinely popular among white farmers, including those in the north who did not own slaves. Several states had by then adopted "universal manhood suffrage" which meant that adult European males could all vote, and Jackson did best in those states. The Democrats favored extending the vote to all white males in all states, which was an expansion of democracy.

Jackson promptly fired most federal civil servants and appointed his loyalists to their salaries, thus creating a machine that would reward partisans for their electoral efforts until the civil service was reformed and de-politicized in 1883. Jackson's main achievement in office was the taking by force of remaining Native America Indian lands east of the Mississippi River. This included the lands of the Cherokee, who had played a large role in his victories at Horseshoe Bend and New Orleans.

Jackson left the Presidency in March of 1837, to be replaced by Martin Van Buren, who defeated four Whig candidates. Not only had Old Hickory created the Democratic Party, but his opponents had, by 1836, coalesced into the Whig Party. This new party had no uniting principles except thirst for office. Largely because of an economic depression starting in 1837, the Whigs obtained the presidential office for the first time in 1840, with their own general, William H. (Tippecanoe) Harrison.

In an electoral system every elite needs non-elite votes if it is to control the government. The Democratic Party elite were mostly plantation owners who gained their needed votes mostly from family farmers, especially slave-state farmers. The Whig Party was controlled by the eastern elite, a combination of aristocratic southern plantation owners and northern merchants. It sought votes from urban workers, and both slave state and free-state farmers, but was never very successful at it. From inception to finish the Whigs elected only two Presidents, William H. Harrison (1840) and Zachary Taylor (1848), though the party was quite successful in a number of states and localities.

Slavery and Civil War

Though most of the Native American Indian tribes had been forcibly moved west of the Mississippi River by the Jackson administration, European-Americans were greedy and powerful enough that their thefts would not stop until they reached the Pacific. But a new problem had arisen as early as the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Would new states carved out of the West be slave or free?

The Abolitionists were never able to persuade a majority of people, even in the free (northern) states, to attempt to end slavery in the South prior to the Civil War. But their efforts led to a majority of northerners deciding that slavery was an evil that should be confined to where it already existed. The Whigs were for slavery in the South and against it in the North. The Democratic Party on the whole was pro-slavery, but in the north it had its share of anti-slavery members. The slave owners threat of secession from the U.S. made the abolition of slavery impractical. By 1850 the idea that slavery would neither be abolished nor extended was a well-accepted feature of American political life. Both the Whigs and Democrats at the national level agreed to this position and campaigned on other issues like the Tariff (taxes on imports).

But Kansas had been expropriated from Indian tribes and was about to become a state. Stephen Douglas, a prominent northern Democrat, wanted to be President. The political problem he faced was the fact that he was a northerner, and southern Democrats were in the position to pick the presidential nominee. To ingratiate himself with the slave holders, Douglas proposed that each new state carved out of former American Indian territories would be allowed to vote on whether it would be free or slave. This in effect would throw out the Missouri Compromise.(2) Douglas calculated this tactic would gain him political points in the south, but lose him no support in the north because the remaining territories were not suitable for slavery. In a complicated series of events Douglas's re-opening of the slavery controversy caused the U.S. to spiral into a civil war.

Northern Whigs opposed the change; northern Democrats were split on it. Two new parties emerged. The American Party was structured like a secret society; its main aim was to stop immigration from Ireland and other Catholic countries. It took no position on slavery, favoring it in the south and opposing its extension in the north. Its adherents were mainly Whigs trying to rebuild their party under another name. Because of its rules of secrecy, its members would not comment publicly on its program, so it became known as the Know-Nothing Party.

The newly formed Republican Party was explicitly opposed to the extension of slavery. It included Abolitionists, but on the whole the party favored allowing slavery where it already existed as preferable to the secession of the slave states.(3)

At the same time the question of whether Kansas would be a free or a slave state had to be settled. Both anti-slavery and pro-slavery men rushed into the territory, hoping to be in the majority when statehood came. Both sides set up legislatures claiming be the legitimate government of Kansas, and a local civil war started.(4)

The American Party reached a high-tide in 1855, with 117 members in Congress as opposed to 75 Democrats, 40 Republicans, and a few Whigs and independents.(5) But it fell apart almost immediately, its anti-slavery members merging with the Republicans and its pro-slavery members merging into the Democrats. In 1856, a pivotal year, the Democrat slavery advocate James Buchanan won the presidency with 1,838,169 votes over the Republican John Fremont with 1,342,264 votes. The American Party and Whig remnants nominated Millard Fillmore, who received 874,534 votes.

The Supreme Court was dominated by Democrats, and in 1857 it issued the Dred Scott decision, which stated that a slave entering a state in which slavery was banned remained a slave. This was no change in the law, but it implied that states had no right to declare slavery illegal in their boundaries; slavery would be governed by federal law, and hence all states had become slave states. In addition Democrats wanted to annex Cuba so that its slaves could be sold in the U.S., a move characterized by a Republican congressman as seeking "niggers for the niggerless."(6)

By the time the election of 1860 rolled around there was only one major issue in the presidential election: slavery and its extension into new states. The Democrats split: Douglas was no longer pro-slavery enough for the southern Democrats, who nominated John Breckinridge. Combined Douglas and Breckinridge received considerably more votes than Abraham Lincoln, but the Electoral College system handed Lincoln a resounding victory.

Jefferson Davis, passionate advocate of slavery and states-rights, was a leader of the Democrats in the U.S. Senate; he had also been Secretary of War under President Pierce. When Mississippi withdrew from the U.S. in 1861 he left the Senate and was chosen President of the Confederacy by the Confederate Congress two weeks later.

The Democratic Party was the party of the Confederacy. Yet it did not entirely disappear in the north: in the election of 1864 its candidate General McClellan received 45% of the popular vote (Confederate states did not vote). This may have been a more of a reflection of how unpopular the Civil War was; George Brinton McClellan was the peace (with a continuation of slavery) candidate, and at the time a Northern victory looked unlikely.

The triumph of the north in the Civil War changed many things, but it did not change the Democratic Party. With former Confederacy soldiers not allowed to hold office (as per the 14th Amendment), or even prohibited from voting (Reconstruction Acts of 1867) and newly enfranchised former slaves allowed to vote (15th Amendment), the South was briefly Republican. In fact former slaves had rights only in areas where they were protected by federal soldiers. In the north a few corrupt Democratic urban "machines," dependent on the spoils of office, and pro-slavery northern Copperheads, survived; victory pushed many former northern Democrats into the Republican Party.

The re-emergence of the Democratic Party in the South was engineered by the Ku Klux Klan and allied individuals. By preventing former slaves (not surprisingly, they were all Republicans) from voting, and with the restoration of the right of former Confederate soldiers to vote and hold office, by 1872 the Democratic Party was restored to power in the South.(7) The poor record of Ulysses S. Grant and other Republican politicians strengthened the Democrats in the North. In the disputed Presidential election of 1876, though the Republicans won, they agreed to cease protecting ex-slaves and to withdraw the last federal troops enforcing Reconstruction laws in Louisiana and South Carolina. By 1884 the Democrats were able to regain the Presidency, led by New York governor Grover Cleveland, who ran as a reformer.

The Business of Appearing Popular

The new leaders of the Democratic Party in the South were businessmen: plantation owners (whose slaves had been converted into sharecroppers), merchants, bankers and manufacturers. Keeping the South solidly Democratic was relatively easy: one had only to remind the white voters, of whatever economic status, of the association of blacks with the evil Yankee Republicans. In that respect the Democratic party continued the tradition of "Jacksonian democracy." It talked about representing the "people" or "average voters" while making sure that all legislation carefully looked out for the interests of the upper class.

In the north the Democrats found ways to survive even though belonging to the Democratic Party was treated, for electioneering purposes, as the equivalent of treason by the Republican establishment. The Republican Party managed to alienate immigrant and Catholic voters who tended to be concentrated in cities. The Republicans as a radical reformist party quickly disappeared. The party became subject to Big Business, thus alienating the less prosperous voters in the north. In addition the Democrats had perfected the urban political machine long before the Civil War. By helping immigrants and others to obtain jobs and services, the Democrats insured a loyal vote. This combination of islands of urban support in the north and the Solid South meant that the Democrats could sometimes win the presidency or control of Congress. This is most apparent in the presidential election of 1884, won by the Democrat Grover Cleveland. He carried the Solid South, the border states and even Indiana, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.

A pattern would emerge that remained true until the 1970's: overall control of the Democratic Party was held by southern Democrats, who also controlled Congress (if the Democrats controlled it). But to win the Presidency, usually a northern (or Western) Democrat had to run. Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, both southern Vice-Presidents of northern Presidents, were exceptions.

It should be clear that the Democratic Party of the era between the Civil War and the Depression did not consistently stand for anything except the oppression of African-Americans. But more important, it is critical to understand the role of big business, especially of its increasingly common form, the corporation, in politics. Both parties represented Big Business. Yet each party, in order to enjoy the power and spoils of office, needed the votes of farmers and laborers who were being hurt by the rise of big business. The two-party system was not one where every election was contested. In the South only Democrats could be elected to office. In much of the North only Republicans could be elected. Even in states that might swing back and forth from election to election, such as New York State, local areas were mostly solidly Democrat (New York City) or solidly Republican (upstate).

This brings us to the election of 1896, in which the Democratic Party nominated William Jennings Bryan, and seemed, briefly to stand for something. But in order to understand Bryan's role we need to backtrack and understand the rise of the Populist Movement.

It had started in September 1877 in Lampasas County, Texas, as the Farmers Alliance. The problem the farmers confronted was the crop lien system, which amounted to slavery for most farmers in the South, Euro and African-American alike. Under this system, whether a farmer owned his own land, rented, or share-cropped, he lost money every year. The merchants sold goods on credit to farmers, then set prices paid on crops to less than would cover expenses plus interest. Family farmers who started solvent had to mortgage their land to keep farming. The Farmers Alliance sought to break the stranglehold of the furnishing merchants at two ends. They hoped to sell their crops in bulk at better prices, and to buy their goods cooperatively so as to pay lower prices.

Given the near-universal plight of the farmers, their Alliance spread first through Texas and then through other states. But their economic system had limited success. Banks refused to grant them credit so that they could set up their cooperative buying and selling efforts. Merchants combined to crush their efforts. When the Farmers Alliance organized black farmers they were accused of endangering the purity of the White race. In order to gain some leverage over the (Democratic) banks and merchants, they eventually formed the Populist Party. It won many local elections, and threatened to sweep the South until the Democrats resorted to two classic tactics.

The first tactic was simply cheating: stuffing ballot boxes, miscounting, or using force to turn voters away from polling places. It had worked to disenfranchise African-Americans, and it worked to prevent Populist victories. The second tactic was running Democrats who pretended to support Populist goals. These Democrats delivered only wind.(8)

In 1892, running against Republican President Harrison and Democratic former President Cleveland, the Populist candidate General Weaver won in 6 states and received over a million votes. Cleveland won, but the business establishment shuddered at the possibility of losing control of the government.

By 1896 the Democrats were so disgusted with Cleveland that they nominated William Jennings Bryan, an extremely-watered down version of a Populist candidate. Still, had he won the election, it might have created a political sea-change as important as the New Deal. But the Republicans raised $16 million for their candidate, McKinley, to about $1 million of campaign money for the Democrats. Bryan carried the South and the West (except California and Oregon), but failed to carry the border state of Kentucky or a swing state like New York or New Jersey.

The Democratic Party's experiment with economic justice, or Populism, was over with Bryan's second defeat, with similar margins, in 1900. In 1904 the Democratic Presidential nominee, Alton Parker was more conservative and pro-business than the Republican, Theodore Roosevelt. Until 1932 the voters would again have to choose between two parties trying their best to represent the interests of the business class.

He Led Us Into War

Woodrow Wilson would be relegated to a footnote within Democratic Party history had his term of office (1913 - 1920) not coincided with the First World War. No major changes in the Democratic Party took place during his presidency. Wilson was elected in 1912 because the Republicans were divided, the progressive Republicans backing Teddy Roosevelt, who used the pre-existing Progressive Party as his vehicle (popularly called the Bull Moose Party that year). The conservative Republicans nominating William H. Taft. As usual for a Democrat, Wilson swept the south, where African-Americans were prohibited from voting, and won enough other states to become President, despite receiving only 41% of the popular vote.

World War I (France, Russia, England, Italy and later the U.S. against Germany, Austria, and Turkey) was started as a war of aggression by France and czarist Russia. France wanted to annex Alsace-Lorraine and Russia hoped to gain the straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. It should be pointed out that Democracy was not a real issue in the war. All of the major powers in the war except Turkey had mixed forms of government that were mainly elected. If Germany had its Kaiser, England had its King. Germany, Austria, and Turkey were acting in self-defense; Russia was the first to mobilize its army, making negotiated peace impossible; France was first to declare war.(9)

France and Russia started the war, but Germany was well prepared, and pushed the French armies back from Alsace-Lorraine. England, the world's greatest empire and oppressor of non-white people, entered the war as had been planned, on the side of France, using Germany's military success to claim that she was joining a defensive league.

The U.S. government maintained a neutral stance in the war at first, but U.S. banks and businesses did not. British naval superiority made it easy to trade with Britain, France, and Russia, but hard to trade with Germany and Austria. In particular the Morgan bank and its allies loaned immense sums of money to Britain, which was used by the British to buy war materials (U.S. exports to Great Britain jumped from $594 million in 1914 to $1.526 billion in 1916). In 1916 Woodrow Wilson, who in the meantime had invaded Mexico, ran for the presidency on the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War." Wilson beat Republican Charles Evans Hughes only because Negroes were still not allowed to vote in the South.

Wilson asked, and Congress granted, a declaration of war in April 1917. America looked more like a dictatorship than Germany, with African-Americans in bondage, anyone who spoke out against the war thrown in jail, and newspapers that wrote against the war suppressed. But with America's aid the war turned against Germany. 49,000 dead American soldiers and $41 billion in taxpayer dollars made the world safe for the repayment of the loans to the Morgan banks. Congress later found that J.P. Morgan & Company had lent the allies $6 billion, and acted as Great Britain's agents in the U.S. to purchase about $3 billion in materials.(10)

Wilson died in office. In the Presidential election of 1920 Republican Warren G. Harding destroyed Democrat James M. Cox. During the 1920's the Democratic Party appeared to be sinking towards oblivion.

The New Deal

Economic cycles marked American history with almost the same regularity as Presidential elections. The down cycle that lasted from 1929 until 1940, known as the Great Depression, was not without precedent. However, the prior establishment of the Federal Reserve, the advances of modern technology, and the increased knowledge of economics were all supposed to have made it possible to minimize the cycle of recessions and booms. During the 1920's, as during the 1990's, many economists proclaimed that the economic cycle was over and a period of permanent growth had been inaugurated.

The effects of the Depression on America's politics were profound. The Democratic Party was transformed (temporarily) from a corrupt political machine delivering power into the hands of businessmen into a more populist, at times even semi-socialist, if still white-supremacist, party. The change involved a sharp struggle within the party itself as New Deal men entered primaries against the traditional Democrat politicians.

In 1928, with the stock market soaring, the economy booming, jazz playing, liquor illegal yet plentiful, and the Republican administration plagued by scandal, the reform-minded Herbert Hoover destroyed Democrat Al Smith in the Presidential contest. Even the Solid South fragmented, with only 6 states going for Smith (it is important to recall that the Democratic Party denied non-white citizens the right to vote in the South). The Democratic Party looked like it was on its last legs.

The stock market crashed on October 29th, 1929. In fact this merely reflected what happens when the Federal Reserve allows speculation to go unchecked. Too much credit had been created; stock prices got out of proportion to profits; when smart men sold their over-priced stocks, prices slid and did not stop sliding until 1932. No longer feeling rich, people stopped spending so much; falling consumption led to falling employment, and on into a downward spiral affecting everyone.

Hoover was caught in the bear trap. He was the world's most famous humanitarian. Like most businessmen of both parties he expected the downturn to be followed by an upturn, as in the normal business cycles.

In the Congressional elections of 1930 the Democrats started recovering from the 1928 elections, but the coming shift in Democratic Party politics was only beginning to appear. The Democrats won control of the House, but many of those elected were still in a pre-New Deal mode. They strengthened their presence in the Senate, but the Republicans still had a majority there. Hoover introduced many bills to help alleviate the Depression, but both conservative, business-is-boss Republicans and Democrats opposed his measures. Congress did pass, and Hoover signed into law, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which would become a pillar of the New Deal. Hoover signed the Norris-La Guardia Act, which effectively legalized labor union organizing in the United States for the first time (it had been opposed by anti-labor Democrats and Republicans alike).

Nothing the government did between 1929 and 1932, however, stemmed the demonstration of how dysfunctional "free markets" can be in a modern, technological, corporate-dominated society. By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt was nominated by the Democrats, the public blamed the Republicans for the troubles, but were not ready to embrace the Socialist or Communist parties. The coalition of southern racists and northern city machine politicians known as the national Democratic Party was resurrected and placed in the presidency and both houses of Congress. But it was undergoing major changes, led by men who had been influenced by Socialist and Populist ideas.

The New Deal program of Roosevelt brought America closer to the advanced European countries in socializing the consequences of an industrial economy. Social Security type programs had long been in place in Germany, France, and England. National, universal health care was introduced in Germany in 1883 and Theodore Roosevelt made national health insurance a plank of the Progressive (Bull Moose) party in 1912. New Deal Democrats did not pass such a plan, so the U.S. remains the only industrialized nation without a universal health care system.

Social Security was passed by a bipartisan vote in both houses of Congress. In fact the Republican Party's progressive wing grew during the New Deal. But a number of other New Deal programs were rejected by a majority of Republicans in congress, for instance the Wages and Hours bill of 1938 and the Tennessee Valley Act of 1933.(11)

Labor unions, finally legalized under Hoover, were encouraged under the New Deal. The Wagner Act of 1935 created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) which allowed working people to organize as they had long sought. The C.I.O., created in 1935, enrolled millions of workers in new unions within a single year.

There was a key difference between the old Farmers Alliance/Populist program and the New Deal. The New Deal worked on the top-down paradigm: experts were to distribute benefits to the needy. The programs were funded by taxation. The Populists had sought instead to change the economic system so that families and communities would own their farms and factories and receive fair prices for their products. The New Deal system left large corporations in control but alleviated the harm they did by giving economic support to their victims.

While the Democratic Party as a whole did change in many ways during the New Deal, much remained the unchanged. It continued its strong support for racism. It continued its long-standing commitment to American nationalism and international aggression. The Democratic Party committed itself to a national welfare state and systems of bureaucratic regulatory control on businesses.

The party become dependent on unionized and other working class voters. It also developed a core of true-believers in the New Deal, including some politicians who would continue careers in the House of Representative and U.S. Senate for decades. Also important to the party's dominance, much of corporate America mostly found that Big Government, by spending big money on corporate products and subsidies, was not such a bad idea.

World War II and the End of the New Deal

World War II cemented the Democratic Party's hold on American politics. People like to win a war. More influential was the booming of the economy, including a return to full employment. Republicans claimed the economy was just going through its normal business cycle, but few Americans bought that argument. Corporations made war profits; many Republican businessmen joined the Democratic Party's gravy train.

As soon as the war started to revive the economy the reforming impulse of the New Deal was over. Congress and President Roosevelt left programs like Social Security in place, but concentrated on war. The conduct and outcome of the war was to transform America. The U.S.A. emerged as the greatest economic and military power in the world. Well before Pearl Harbor acted as the immediate cause of the U.S. entering the war Roosevelt had ordered the production of 50,000 military aircraft a year and a major expansion of the U.S. military. Once the war began there was full employment in the military or in war industries.

War against Nazi Germany and Japan by the United States was ripe with irony. Japan in the 1800's had only asked to be left alone. Forced at gunpoint to trade with America, it responded by setting up a modern industrial economy, a democratic government modeled after western governments,(12) and a modern military. It continued to follow the model of America and European powers by exerting economic influence and sometimes military influence on neighboring states. To Americans while it was morally uplifting for the United States to grab the Philippines, Hawaii, or sections of China, it was a heinous crime when Japan made similar grabs, especially of territory already grabbed by the U.S.

Some Republicans at the time (before Pearl Harbor when it became unpatriotic to be critical) liked to point out the similarities between Roosevelt and the Democratic Party and Hitler and the Nazi Party. Both the Democratic Party and the Nazi Party were racist. Both greatly enlarged the powers of government over the economy and brought about full employment (except the Nazis were considerably better at it than the Democrats). Both re-armed their nations for the purpose of going to war. Both Roosevelt and Hitler used the radio as a primary means of communicating with their constituents. Both died in office.

In conducting the war the Democratic Party showed its usual lack of shame. Despite the Geneva Convention making the targeting of civilians a war crime, targeting German and Japanese civilians became a central war policy of the United States. The fire bombings of Dresden, Tokyo, and numerous other cities is well-documented.

In addition the Democratic Party must be credited with the creation of atomic weapons and their only known use. Republicans of that era would not have been willing to spend so much taxpayer money on such a massive government program. No other country was making progress developing atomic weapons. Democratic President Harry Truman used atomic weapons on the non-military targets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during a period of time when the Japanese were trying to negotiate a peace treaty.(13)

The Democratic Party As a World Power
(1946 to 1968)

The defeat of Germany and Japan still left the USA with a rival, however: communism, centered in the USSR. Since the Bolshevik coup in 1918, despite being invaded by Nazi Germany during the war, the Soviet economy had expanded, on average, faster than that of the U.S. Almost every nation in the world had a communist party, including the U.S. With the exception of the Americas, much of the world lay in ruins from the war.

The Democratic Party of the 1950s was large and complex. At the national level it depended on the racist Solid South for votes, with African Americans unable to vote or to work in any but menial jobs. It retained New Deal social programs and the loyalty of most middle class and working class Americans. The labor unions that had grown during the New Deal were a major source of campaign funds, enabling Democrats to win elections in traditionally Republican states. The party was vehemently anti-communist and locked into the military-industrial complex. It was the party of the status quo. Republican war hero General Ike Eisenhower may have presided as President, but the country was Democratic.

From 1960 until 1968 the Democrats controlled Congress and the Presidency. Lyndon Johnson involved the U.S. in a hot war against communism in Vietnam. At the same time, after long years of agitation, ranging from demonstrations to civil disobedience to armed rebellion, civil rights, including the right to vote, were extended to African-Americans in the southern, formerly slave, states.

Until the 1960s southern African-Americans had been aligned with the Republican Party (the 1952 Mississippi delegation to the Republican National Convention, for instance, was all black(14)). Almost all newly registered black voters joined the Democratic Party during the 1960s. While there was roughly as much support for civil rights among Republicans as among Democrats (given that the Democratic Party was still dominated in the South by racists like George Wallace), it was President Lyndon Johnson who finally got a meaningful civil rights act enacted and enforced. More important, the Republican Party was so weak, especially in the South, that it had little to offer in the way of power and patronage. Finally, the Republican Party's policies were favorable to those who were already wealthy or middle class; poor folk of any race seemed unwelcome.

Lyndon Johnson also led the last administration that fought for the extension of the New Deal. His War on Poverty included a number of landmark measures designed to break the cycles of poverty in the United States. Unfortunately the cost of these programs, combined with the costs of the Vietnam War, proved to be a severe burden on the U.S. economy, contributing to the stagnation and inflation (stagflation) of the 1970s.

The critical strategic move was made by Richard Nixon, former vice-president under Eisenhower and successful Republican candidate for President in 1968. Nixon, though not wishing to exclude or disenfranchise African Americans, saw an opportunity for quickly growing the Republican Party. If it had not been for the legacy of slavery, the Civil War, and Jim Crow, the political parties might have long before divided the country on class lines or clearer liberal versus conservative lines. Nixon reasoned that middle class to upper class Southern white people no longer had to stay in the Democratic Party to retain a racist society. In fact, not only were their economic interests aligned with the Republicans, but they might not want to sit in the same room with a bunch of black politicians or voters.

Called simply the Southern Strategy, Nixon's approach created a viable Republican Party in the South for the first time since Reconstruction. Over the course of the next 30 years this would lead to the creation of a Republican majority in the U.S. as a whole, which would in turn profoundly affect the Democratic Party.

The Transition to Corporate Domination and Loss of Power
(1969 to 2002)

Corporate (that is rich people's) dominance of the Democratic Party goes back to the time of Andrew Jackson, but in the post-New Deal era corporate interests had been balanced by the Party's need to gain votes from people whose Depression experiences had made them very cynical about the corporate agenda. In the 1970's the Democratic Party would abandon these New Deal pretenses. (Many individual Democrats, included elected ones, did not agree with this shift, but they did not control the party at the national level.)

The Democratic Party in 1968 had two obvious strategic options. It could continue to be the servant of the Southern business elites and expand to serve the business elites nationwide, or it could take the legacy of the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and become the representative of working class and middle class Americans.

For years it tried to continue to do both. Sometimes political parties act as unified wholes, but usually they contain factions with conflicting interests.

The struggle for control of the party was obvious in the 1968 presidential nomination process, which resulted in Hubert Humphrey heading the national ticket. Hubert had been Vice-President under Johnson. He did not deviate from the classic post-World War II formula: anti-communist, for big labor unions (as long as they caused big businesses little trouble), willing to maintain New Deal social programs, but unwilling to expand them, tied closely to the military and the corporations that supplied it. A revolt was brewing in the party by its "left wing," reinforced by newly enrolled African-American voters in the south. The left wing wanted to move the country more towards a social model, withdraw from Vietnam, and negotiate peacefully with the communist nations. But the left had no strong candidate inside the party to run against Humphrey, nor was it able to elect many of its members to lower office. Richard Nixon, former Republican Vice-President, defeated Humphrey and became the new President.

In 1972 the anti-war, anti-elite faction seemed to gain ascendance as George McGovern won the nomination for President. But George Wallace, also a Democrat, continued to lead the segregationist, racist faction of the party. Meanwhile, the establishment, whose candidate Edmund Muskie had been defeated in primary elections by McGovern, ensured their later victory within the party by failing to rally behind McGovern. Richard Nixon crushed McGovern in the election despite his continuing the highly unpopular war in Vietnam.

The establishment won the contest for the direction of the party in the late 1970s. The party would try to maintain its representing-the-people image left over from the New Deal, but it would be funded increasingly by corporate contributors. Instead of maintaining a political machine that had actual people organizing voters, it would use its fundraising power to move to television dominated campaigns. The Democrats were used to holding power and extracting donations in the 1970's; it did not occur to them how this strategy might cripple their ambitions in later decades if the donations shifted to the Republicans.

The problem with this strategy became apparent during the Reagan and Bush administrations (1981 to 1993). The more right-wing, ideological faction of the business community was determined to push the country to the right. This would include dismantling the few remaining New Deal programs, drastically cutting welfare, and deregulating industries. The political center of gravity in the nation moved to the right, without any real fight or plan by the Democrats, and the Democratic Party moved to the right in the electoral arena. This rightward move is best illustrated by three changes in national policy ushered in by the Democratic Clinton-Gore administration (1983 to 2000).

On issues of War and Peace, while Republican strategists were driving the political direction of the country, it was Democratic politicians who did the dirty work. Clinton was the main culprit. He consciously sought opportunities to end the "Vietnam Syndrome" so that U.S. troops could be sent to fight for U.S. (corporate) interests. The ideal opportunity came in Yugoslavia. Americans knew little about Yugoslavia, which was a socialist nation that had maintained political independence from Russia. American business and intelligence operatives had stirred-up ethnic hatreds that had been dormant since World War II, resulting in a breakup of Yugoslavia into ethnic regions. To complete the process President Clinton found pretexts to bomb and then invade Yugoslavia. This unprovoked act of war, which included war crimes like the purposeful bombing of civilian infrastructure, proved that the peace wing of the Democratic Party was dead, as long as it was a Democratic President waging war. As to the war against Iraq and support for Israeli occupation of Palestine that Clinton inherited, he simply continued those policies.

The second great change of the Clinton administration is often referred to as world trade, but it was much more than that. It is true that historically the Democrats had favored low tariffs or "free trade" because they represented slave owners who wanted cheap manufactured imports and no impeding of their sales of cotton to manufacturers in Great Britain. But agreements like NAFTA (North American Free Trade Association) and the creation of the WTO (World Trade Organization) went far beyond the question of exactly how much would a foreign manufacturer have to pay in customs taxes to get a product into the United States. NAFTA and the WTO were explicitly designed by international corporations to put them, not the voters of a country, in charge of national legal systems. NAFTA and WTO create legal structures that can overrule city, county, and state laws, even laws passed by Congress and signed into law by the President. This was done to destroy labor, environmental, health and safety regulations. The WTO has been slowly and gently placing this harness on the United States and other nations. There can be no doubt that the world and U.S. are being subjected to a new form of undemocratic governance.

The third great change of the Clinton administration was the dismantling of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. In Orwellian fashion this was called "welfare reform."

The Democratic Party Today

The Democratic Party as an institution is nothing if not flexible and primarily interested in its own survival. From the local candidate backed by development money telling the voters she's an environmentalist to the top of the party hierarchy, the goal is to win office and use it to promote the economic (or occasionally non-economic) interests of those that paid for it to be won. Being out of power at the national level for 4 years (as is the case in 2004) has its advantages and disadvantages. Everything that goes wrong can be blamed on the party in power. People whose gravy train has suffered have to decide whether to switch parties or dig deep into their shallowing pockets to get their friends back into power.

Various strategies emerge in an attempt to regain power; these emerged most visibly in the race for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency. Should the party stand for New-Dealish type populism, or should it pose itself as merely culturally different from the Republicans and President Bush? Should Democrats be for peace, or would being more hawkish garner the most votes? For a while it looked like an anti-war or New Deal style candidate, either Howard Dean or John Edwards, might win enough Democratic primaries to become the nominee. But the corporate-owned media (almost all of the media in the U.S.) and the party bureaucracy pushed John Kerry, the Senator from Massachusetts, as the safe, corporate-friendly, defense-industry friendly, Man Who Could Beat Bush.

Which would be a victory for the Democratic Party gravy train, but not for the people of the United States.


1. Landers, Jane, Black Society in Spanish Florida (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), pp. 235, 246-248.

2. Smith, Theodore Clarke, Parties and Slavery 1850-1859, Vol. 18 of The American Nation, A History (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1906), pp. 95-97.

3. Ibid., pp. 94-120.

4. Ibid., pp. 149-160, 209-222

5. Ibid., p. 145.

6. Ibid., p. 242

7. Bailey, Thomas A, The American Pageant, 3rd. Ed., pp. 477-478.

8. Goodwyn, Lawrence, The Populist Moment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), read the whole book.

9. Hammerton, J.A., Ed., Universal World History (New York: Wise & Co., 1939), pp. 2731-2735.

10. Myers, Gustavus, History of the Great American Fortunes (New York: The Modern Library, 1936), p. 642.

11. Rossiter, Clinton, Parties and Politics in America (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1966), pp. 124-125.

12. Storry, Richard, A History of Modern Japan (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1972), pp. 112-120

13. Ibid., pp. 229-236.

14. Apple, R.W., Jr., New York Times, nytimes.com/2004/08/30/politics/campaign/30apple.html

ISBN 1-886625-08-5