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The modern Democratic Party is the descendant of the Democratic-Republican Party, an early-nineteenth-century political organization led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Also known as the Jeffersonian Republican Party, the Democratic-Republican Party began as an antifederalist group, opposed to strong, centralized government. The party was officially established at a national nominating convention in 1832. It dropped the Republican portion of its name in 1840.
Despite destructive struggles and philosophical shifts, the Democratic Party remains a dominant political force in the United States. The Democrats compete for office with the Republicans, their counterparts in the United States's de facto two-party system though third-party candidates and independents have experienced increasing success at both the state and federal levels, with Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler and Navy Seal, being the most visible example. He won the gubernatorial race as a member of the state's Reform Party.
The Democratic Party of the late 1990s supports liberal government policies in social and economic matters. The early party disapproved of federal involvement. Jefferson, Madison, and James Monroe—Virginians who were each elected president of the United States—favored limited powers for the national government.
The fundamental change in Democratic philosophy was the result of fluid coalitions and historical circumstance. The master coalition builder and founder of the modern Democratic Party was Andrew Jackson, a populist president who was portrayed as a donkey by political satirists. Jackson transformed presidential politics by expanding party involvement. (The donkey later became the symbol for the Democratic Party.)
The transformation began after Jackson's first unsuccessful bid for the White House. In the 1824 presidential election, Jackson won the popular vote but failed to win a majority in the Electoral College. The U.S. Constitution requires the House of Representatives to select the president under these circumstances. When the House chose John Quincy Adams, Jackson was incensed—and began a four-year campaign to win the next presidential election.
With help from political adviser and future president Martin Van Buren, Jackson won the presidency in 1828.
Jackson had benefited from growth in the nation's population and from laws that increased the number of U.S. citizens eligible to vote. In the 1824 presidential election, about 365,000 votes had been counted. In the 1828 election, over 1 million votes were cast, an
|Democratic National Convention Sites, 1832 to 2004|
|aAn earlier convention, held in Charleston, South Carolina, had resulted in a split ticket in the party. The official nomination was made at the Baltimore convention.|
|source: Democratic Nation Convention website.|
|1868||New York City|
|1900||Kansas City, MO|
|1924||New York City|
|1976||New York City|
|1980||New York City|
|1992||New York City|
increase that clearly helped Jackson, the socalled people's president.
In reaching his goal, Jackson laid the groundwork for a strong party system. He set up an efficient Democratic political organization by forming committees at the local, district, and state levels; holding rallies and conventions; generating publicity; registering new voters; and getting people to the polls.Jackson also backed the newly created convention system for nominating presidential candidates and was himself nominated for reelection at the 1832 Democratic convention. The original purpose of conventions was to allow local input in the political process. In Jackson's time, conventions were forums for debate and deal making.
As the Democratic Party changed in form and purpose, alliances became more difficult. Relations between southern and northern Democrats were increasingly strained. Southern states sought the reduction of tariffs, or taxes on imports, whereas northern states favored tariffs to safeguard their manufactured goods. Some southern Democrats suggested that individual states could nullify federal tariff laws.
Even more troublesome was the issue of States' Rights and Slavery. The regional split within the party widened over the designation of new territories as free or slave states. The breaking point was the 1860 national convention. The Democrats were divided—the southern faction favored John C. Breckinridge, and the northerners selected stephen a. douglas. Although Douglas advocated limited national control, or popular sovereignty, the southern delegates were not appeased. Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln capitalized on the dissension in the Democratic Party and won the election.
Following Lincoln's election came a twenty-four-year spell with no Democrat in the White House. After the Civil War, Democrats were denounced in the North because they had not supported legislation to finance the war or to enlist new soldiers. Meanwhile, the South became solidly Democratic in response to the Republicans' unpopular Reconstruction policies.
During the nineteenth century, the Democrats also created powerful urban political machines such as New York City's Tammany Hall. In these systems, people were offered political jobs or money in exchange for voter loyalty. Immigrants tended to support the Democratic Party and machine politics as a way to gain a foothold in their new country. Unfortunately, the machines became sources of corruption and graft.
In 1884, Democratic nominee grover cleveland, of New York, was elected president with a pledge to end political patronage and support for the gold standard. Again, factionalism undermined Democratic strength. William Jennings Bryan, a powerful Democratic orator, supported free coinage of silver currency. He tapped into the discontent of southern and western farmers who sought government assistance. He also drew support from the labor movement. With Bryan as the unsuccessful Democratic presidential nominee in 1896, 1900, and 1908, the party's original position on limited government was all but abandoned.
Factionalism was the party's strength as well as its weakness. On the one hand, it gave minority interests a chance to be heard. However, successful coalitions among the different interests were difficult to achieve. The traditional Democratic alliance consisted of labor supporters, immigrants, farmers, urban interests, and southern populists. Later, African Americans and northern liberals joined the coalition.
After Bryan's losses, the Democrats were determined to regain the White House. In 1912, former Princeton University President woodrow wilson won the nomination on the forty-sixth ballot of the Democratic convention. A liberal reformer, Wilson defeated Republican William Howard Taft and third-party candidate Theodore Roosevelt. Wilson's accomplishments as president included lowering tariffs, establishing the Federal Trade Commission, backing antitrust legislation, and leading the country during World War I. However, the Republicans regained the presidency in 1920 with a huge victory by warren g. harding.
The Republicans prevailed for the next decade. Finally, in 1932, the Democratic Party triumphed at the polls with the election of New York's franklin d. roosevelt. Roosevelt introduced his sweeping New Deal to pull the nation out of the Great Depression. Ambitious government programs helped put many businesses and millions of people back on their feet. The Roosevelt administration openly embraced social Welfare programs and economic regulation. Elected president in 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944, Roosevelt was the only president in U.S. history to win four terms in office, before the constitutional limitation of two consecutive terms was put in place in 1951 with the ratification of the Twenty-Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He also steered the nation through most of World War II.
After Roosevelt's death in 1945, Vice President Harry S. Truman assumed office. In 1948, after Truman had supported key Civil Rights legislation, a cadre of southern Democrats rebelled by joining the Dixiecrat Party, a group advocating states' rights and Segregation. The Dixiecrats eventually disbanded, and some southern Democrats switched to the Republican Party. This shift began in earnest with the election of dwight d. eisenhower in 1952 and peaked with the election of ronald reagan in 1980 and 1984.
In 1960, Democratic nominee john f. kennedy became the first Roman Catholic to hold the Oval Office. Kennedy's administration, called the New Frontier, established the Peace Corps; weathered the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which it convinced the Soviet Union to dismantle long-range nuclear missile sites in Cuba and return the missiles to Russia; and lent support to Integration efforts in the South. After Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Vice President lyndon b. johnson was sworn in as president. He later defeated Republican barry m. goldwater for the chief executive position in the 1964 general election.
Johnson strongly supported civil rights, a position that further eroded the Democrats' base of southern whites and northern labor and ethnic voters. Johnson's policies for U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia made him unpopular at home and abroad. In 1968, after Johnson declined a reelection bid, the Democrats held a tumultuous convention in Chicago that tarnished the image of party leaders and Chicago police. As protesters and police officers clashed on the streets, convention delegates nominated Minnesota's hubert h. humphrey, despite a groundswell of support for Vietnam War critic eugene mccarthy. Humphrey lost the general election to Republican richard m. nixon.
In 1976, Governor jimmy carter, of Georgia, reclaimed the White House and the South for Democrats. Carter served one term, losing the 1980 election to Republican Reagan. Another southern Democrat, Governor bill clinton, of Arkansas, won the presidency in 1992 and again in 1996, becoming the first Democratic president to win reelection since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Under Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party was led to what many believed to be a centrist position. After the failure of his health care plan in the early part of his term, Clinton backed welfare reform and ran a budget surplus through most of his presidency. At the same time, Clinton did not shrink from all liberal positions, vetoing Republican efforts to ban partial-birth Abortion and to reform Bankruptcy laws to help creditors, among other things, and allowing the government to be shut down for a long period rather than give in to Republican spending cuts.
The Impeachment of Clinton in 1999 furthered the partisan divide in the country. Led by a Republican Congress, the impeachment was backed by a majority of Republicans and opposed by a majority of Democrats. Despite the embarrassment to Clinton, the impeachment did not seem to hurt the Democrats in the same way Watergate hurt the Republicans—the Democrats actually picked up seats in the House and the Senate in both the 1998 and 2000 elections.
Just how evenly the country was split between the Republicans and Democrats was illustrated by the 2000 election. Democratic presidential candidate al gore won the popular vote by over 500,000 votes; however, the Electoral College was another story. A disputed ballot count in Florida kept the election from being officially decided for over a month after Election Day. When it was over, george w. bush had become president of the United States by a mere 537 votes, according to the Florida statewide official tally. Bush beat Al Gore in the Electoral College 271-266, one of the closest results in U.S. history.
Ironically, considering that they won the popular vote for president and picked up seats in both the House and Senate, the 2000 election paradoxically left the Democrats in their weakest position since the Eisenhower administration. In addition to the presidency, the Republicans controlled the House and the Senate by slim majorities. In the Senate, that majority consisted of one seat.
However, the decision by Republican Senator Jim Jeffords, of Vermont, to become an independent in 2001 gave the Senate majority to the Democrats for the first time since 1994. Using their majority, the Democrats were able to frustrate President Bush on some of his proposed policies, though they were too weak to pass legislation on their own. The Republicans strengthened their position after the 2002 election, regaining control of the Senate and increasing the number of seats they controlled in the House. But they still did not have enough votes to stop a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, thus giving the Democrats a measure of power.
Some party activists felt at the end of the 2002 campaign that the Democratic Party had lost its way with the centrist policies advocated by former President Clinton and others—they saw the way back to power to take the party in a more liberal direction and to delineate more strongly their differences with Republicans. Others saw this as political suicide, pointing out that Clinton was the only successful Democratic candidate in the past quarter century. Whom the Democrats nominate for the 2004 presidential election was seen as an important determinant of what direction the Democratic Party goes from here, in an era when much of Middle America appears politically ambivalent, fluctuating across party lines.
Judis, John B., and Teixeira, Ruy. 2002. The Emerging Democratic Majority. New York: Scribner.
Wilson, James Q. 2004. American Government: Institutions and Policies. 9th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.