The Democratic Party: How Did It Get Here?

How the party of unreconstructed white southerners became the party of big government, civil rights, and single-interest groups
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Library of Congress

President Obama's current travails have diverted attention from his and the Democratic Party's substantive agendas and longer-term outlook. Democrats currently believe that demographics will doom the Republicans for years to come, and they rate their own chances high in the 2016 presidential elections and beyond. But beneath the surface, Democrats' problems are at least as serious as Republicans'. 

Presidential second terms are historically unproductive, but the botched rollout of Obamacare threatens to overshadow all else in the months ahead. And that's only the latest stumble for the White House, after alleged NSA, IRS, and Justice Department abuses of power; the aftermath of Benghazi; and disputes over drone strikes. It’s hard to see anything else on the horizon but continuation until 2016 of the partisan polarization and gridlock that have reigned since Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in 2010. Worse, the party could be facing setbacks comparable to that in next year's midterm elections. 

Long-delayed immigration-reform legislation may be enacted. But, otherwise, the period ahead is likely to be marked mainly by a rolling series of fractious federal-budget battles and transparently inadequate budget compromises.

The Obama presidency has more than three years to run, but they may feel like three decades for voters hungry for bipartisan cooperation and problem solving. Democrats, especially those aspiring to higher office, should use the time to rethink their longer-term agenda and approach to governance. Any institution must know where it has been, and why, before it considers where to go. Democrats' modern history has been determined partly by circumstances of the time but also by the character and leadership styles of its presidents and presidential nominees. Several benchmark years were especially important.

The 1932 election of Franklin Roosevelt began a period in the Democrats became the national governing party and their core constituency changed. Since then, Republican presidents have periodically been elected, but the GOP has held majorities in both houses of Congress less frequently. Survey data since that time have indicated consistently that more Americans identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans (although voters identifying themselves as "independents" now are equal to those identifying themselves with either party).

That was a dramatic change. From the late 19th century until 1932, Republicans were the majority party, their hold on the presidency interrupted only when Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft split the GOP vote in 1912, facilitating Democrat Woodrow Wilson's election. Democrats had been the party of unreconstructed Southern whites, Northeast and Midwest urban immigrants, academics, and some Western populists. African Americans, however, were loyal to the party of Lincoln. But millions of additional voters, affected by financial and economic distress, rallied to the FDR/Democratic flag post-1932. Black voters, seeing Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt as their champions, shifted wholesale, never to return to the GOP, even though the New Deal did not challenge segregationist laws and leaders directly.

It is forgotten now, but when FDR took office, totalitarian economic and political models taking hold in Europe and elsewhere held significant popular support. Roosevelt remarked that he "might be the last democratically elected president of the United States." America First, Liberty Lobby, and Communist fellow-traveling groups held massively attended rallies in major American cities.

The New Deal blunted their appeal. Roosevelt's campaign economic proposals had been more conservative than Herbert Hoover’s, but once in office he implemented a series of programs, through trial and error, to drive a financial and economic recovery. They had in common their reliance on the federal government as the central change agent. Perhaps the most dramatic and lasting accomplishment of his first term was Social Security, enacted in 1935, providing for the first time a national safety net for the elderly. FDR initially intended to apply it only to lowest-income Americans but fearing it could not be enacted without broad support, made it universal. As it turned out, the New Deal did not pull the nation out of Depression. World War II did that, and it also further concentrated power in the federal government.

In 1948, many political and media analysts predicted Americans would return to a "normal" pre-depression, pre-war culture and elect moderate Republican Thomas Dewey as president. The Democratic Party was experiencing internal tensions more dramatic even than those in today’s GOP. Southern Democrats wanted to maintain segregationist policies in their states. Northern and Western Democrats were pushing for civil rights. On the party's left flank, former Vice President Henry Wallace was pushing for amicable relations with a Stalinist Soviet Union. President Harry Truman, who had succeeded to office on FDR's 1945 death, was seen as a cornball party hack.

The party's Philadelphia convention that summer marked a never-go-back turning point on civil rights. Truman backed a platform plank that satisfied Southern delegates. Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey introduced a minority plank (unsupported by Truman or a majority of the platform committee) that strongly backed national civil-rights legislation. As a 14-year-old listening on radio in that pre-TV age, I was thrilled by Humphrey's floor speech. So were the convention delegates, who rose in a cheering frenzy and unexpectedly adopted Humphrey's plank. Southern delegations walked out of the convention and formed a "Dixiecrat" ticket led by Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Leftists broke off and nominated Wallace as a Progressive Party candidate.

To the nation's, and the Chicago Tribune’s, surprise, the energy flowing from the new civil-rights stance brought Truman an unexpected victory. Inspired by the plank, I went door to door for Truman, as did others previously reconciled to a Dewey victory. The Democratic Party not only had held the White House but moved beyond New Deal economic populism and drew an uncompromising civil-rights, social-justice line that would define its agenda from that point forward. (On signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson famously predicted Democrats would lose the South for a generation thereafter. He was right, but the process had begun in 1948). The shift also increased Democrats' reliance on federal-government action, which they saw as necessary in the face of resistance by state and local officials to civil-rights laws.

Though Democrats fondly recall President John F. Kennedy, 1964 was a more important year for the party. The Johnson-Humphrey ticket’s huge victory over Senator Barry Goldwater made possible the enactment in 1965 of groundbreaking Medicare, Medicaid, Voting Rights, education, the War on Poverty, and other Great Society legislation. It was yet another huge shift of power to the federal government from the state and local level. Democratic congressional majorities were large enough to pass any legislation Johnson wanted. Nonetheless, seeking lasting consensus behind his proposals, LBJ successfully sought GOP involvement and support in their formulation and passage.

The next big year, 1968, is most remembered by Democrats as the year the Vietnam War tore the party apart and drove LBJ from the White House. The war’s impact is easy to overstate—by Election Day, most Democratic peace voters had come home to Humphrey, their presidential nominee, who lost narrowly to Nixon. The election was most significant because previously Democratic voters, especially in unions and in industrial states, shifted to Nixon or third-party candidate George Wallace. As Humphrey's assistant, I stood next to him on election night when we learned that reliable Democratic precincts in New Jersey and Ohio had not delivered their usual vote and the election thus was lost.

Hubert Humphrey with Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King in 1964 (Library of Congress)

Post-election survey data indicated that these voters—the forerunners of the Reagan Democrats—defected because they thought the Great Society had brought too much big government and too many programs favoring minorities and the poor—"tax eaters not taxpayers," as Nixon put it.

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Ted Van Dyk is the author of Heroes, Hacks, and Fools. He was a Democratic strategist and adviser to presidential campaigns for more than 35 years.

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