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The Democratic Party is one of the two major United States political parties. The Party is currently (as of 2005) the minority party in both the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives, as well as in governorships and state legislative seats. Of the two major U.S. parties, the Democratic Party is to the left of the Republican Party, though its politics are not as consistently leftist as the traditional social democratic and labor parties in much of the rest of the world.
Its origins lie in the original Republican Party founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1794 (today, this party is usually referred to as the "Democratic-Republican Party" for the sake of convenience; but such usage is anachronistic). After the disintegration of the Federalist Party, the Republicans were the only major party in American politics. The Presidency of Andrew Jackson, however, destroyed the unity of the Party, with the Jacksonians forming the Democratic-Republican faction, opposed by the National Republicans, led by John Quincy Adams. The Jacksonian "Democratic-Republicans" soon became known as simply "Democrats." From 1833 to 1856, the Democratic Party was opposed chiefly by the Whig Party. From 1856 onward its main opposition has come from the modern Republican Party.
Democrats generally support civil rights, progressive taxation, certain gun control measures, reproductive rights, a multilateral foreign policy, environmentalism, public education, the use of social welfare programs to combat unemployment and poverty, and the right of workers to organize in labor unions.
Its 2004 political platform expresses commitment to "a Strong and Respected America," a "Strong, Growing Economy," "Strong, Healthy Families," and a "Strong American Community."
The New Democrat movement of the 1980s and 1990s, however, has moved the Democratic agenda in favor of a more centrist approach. This is a primary complaint of many members of the Green Party, leading some Greens, such as David Cobb, to declare, "The Democratic Party is where progressive politics go to die." Democrats generally challenge the validity of the Green critique, citing the important Democratic role in pushing progressive reforms in many states and localities. The Green response to this is that those progressive programs are not being safeguarded by centrist Democrats, and that the country would be better served with election reform measures which would give more progressive third party candidates the opportunity to win races than they have under the current system.
"A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion" by Thomas Nast
On January 19, 1870, a political cartoon by Thomas Nast appearing in Harper's Weekly titled "A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion" for the first time symbolized the Democratic Party as a donkey. Since then, the donkey has been widely used as a symbol of the Party, though unlike the Republican elephant, the donkey has never been officially adopted as the Party's logo.
In the early 20th century, the traditional symbol of the Democratic Party in Midwestern states such as Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio was the rooster, as opposed to the Republican eagle. This symbol still appears on Kentucky and Indiana ballots.
For the majority of the 20th Century, Missouri Democrats used the Statue of Liberty as their ballot emblem. This meant that when Libertarian candidates received ballot access in Missouri in 1976, they could not use the Statue of Liberty, their national symbol, as the ballot emblem. Missouri Libertarians instead used the Liberty Bell until 1995, when the mule became Missouri's state animal. From 1995 until 2004 there was some confusion on the behalf of voters, as the Democratic ticket was marked with the Statue of Liberty, and it seemed that the Libertarians were using a donkey.
In addition to the physical symbols of the Democratic Party are its emotional symbols. These include persons (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy), programs (Social Security, minimum wage, Medicare) and goals (expanded health insurance availability, greater incomes for average American citizens, a fairer tax structure, a foreign policy more successful in pursuing the twin goals of both peace and strength.)
A Democratic activist over the last four decades, and delegate to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, State Representative Mark B. Cohen of Philadelphia, said "One cannot fully understand Democratic policy proposals unless one understands the past. Year after year, the Democrats took ideas that were considered impractical and converted them into programs considered to be necessities by many Americans. Democratic campaign rhetoric is full of symbolic references to these achievements."
For more information on how American political parties are organized, see Politics of the United States.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) provides national leadership for the United States Democratic Party. It is responsible for developing and promoting the Democratic political platform, as well as coordinating fundraising and election strategy. There are similar committees in every U.S. state and most U.S. counties (though in some states, Party organization lower than state-level is arranged by legislative districts). It can be considered the counterpart of the Republican National Committee (RNC) and their state and local organizations. Its current chairman is Howard Dean.
The Democratic Party also has fundraising and strategy committees for U.S. House races (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), U.S. Senate races (Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee), gubernatorial races (Democratic Governors Association), and state legislative races (Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee).
The Democratic Party was formed from the Andrew Jackson-led "Democratic-Republican" faction of the old Republican Party (now, referred to as the "Democratic-Republicans" for convenience). Following his defeat in the election of 1824 despite having a plurality of the popular vote, Jackson set about building a political coalition strong enough to defeat President John Quincy Adams in the election of 1828. The coalition that he built was the foundation of the subsequent Democratic Party.
In the 1850s, following the disintegration of the Whig Party, the Southern wing of the Democratic Party became increasingly associated with the expansion of slavery, in opposition to the newly revamped United States Republican Party. Democrats in the Northern states opposed this new trend, and at the 1860 nominating convention the Party split and nominated two candidates (see U.S. presidential election, 1860). As a result, the Democrats went down in defeat – part of the chain of events leading up to the United States Civil War. During the war, Northern Democrats fractured into two factions, War Democrats, who supported the military policies of Republican President Abraham Lincoln, and Copperheads, who strongly opposed them.
After the war, the Democrats were a shattered party. Nevertheless, the party benefited from white Southerners' resentment of Reconstruction and consequent hostility to the Republican Party. Once Reconstruction ended, and the disenfranchisement of blacks was re-established, the region was for several decades known as the "Solid South" because it reliably voted Democratic (although neither major party tried to use federal power against the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation). The Democratic Party was also competitive in the mid-Atlantic and lower Midwest. The presidential elections of the years 1876 to 1892 were close, and the Democrats had control of the House of Representatives for most of this period. The reforming Democratic Governor of New York, Grover Cleveland, won the Presidency in 1884 and 1892. In 1888 he won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote, as also happened to the Democratic candidate in 1876, Samuel J. Tilden, and in 2000 to Al Gore.
In 1896 the Democrats chose populist William Jennings Bryan as their candidate, leading to the defection of many conservative Democrats and a decisive loss to Republican William McKinley. The Democrats did not regain the Presidency until William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican vote and Woodrow Wilson won with a modest plurality in 1912. The Republicans again took the lead in 1920 by championing laissez-faire regulatory policies.
In 1924 at the Democratic national convention, a resolution denouncing the white-supremacist Ku Klux Klan was introduced, there was much debate and the majority of Democratic delegates voted not to condemn the Klan. This resolution later passed during the 1948 national convention as part of a larger resolution endorsing civil rights.
The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression set the stage for a more interventionist government and Franklin Delano Roosevelt won a landslide victory in 1932, campaigning on a platform of "relief, recovery, and reform". (see U.S. presidential election, 1932) After winning re-election in 1936, Roosevelt claimed a mandate and embarked on an ambitious legislative program. He was stymied, however, by an alliance of Republicans and conservative Democrats. Frustrated by the conservative wing of the party, Roosevelt made an attempt to rid himself of it, and in 1938, he actively campaigned against five incumbent conservative Democratic senators. However, Roosevelt's attempt to purge the party of its conservatives failed when all five senators won re-election despite Roosevelt's efforts. (Thirty years later, the party did find itself largely divorced from its southern conservative wing, but with much less satisfaction at the result than Roosevelt might have anticipated.)
Roosevelt's New Deal programs focused on job-creation through public works projects as well as on social welfare programs such as Social Security. His policies soon paid off by uniting a diverse collection of Democratic voters called the New Deal Coalition, which included labor unions, minorities (most significantly, Catholics and Jews), liberals, and the traditional base of Southern whites. This united voter base allowed the Democrats to control the government for much of the next 30 years.
The New Deal Coalition began to fracture as more Democratic leaders voiced support for civil rights, upsetting the party's base of Southern Democrats. When Harry Truman's platform displayed support for civil rights and anti-segregation laws during the 1948 Democratic National Convention, many Southern Democratic delegates split from the party and formed the "Dixiecrats", led by Strom Thurmond (who would later join the Republican party). Over the next few years, many white Democrats in the "Solid South" drifted away from the party. On the other hand, African-Americans, who had traditionally given strong support to the Republican party since its inception as the "anti-slavery party", shifted to the Democratic party due to its New Deal economic opportunities and support for civil rights. The party's dramatic reversal on civil rights issues culminated when Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Republicans began their Southern strategy, which aimed to woo the conservative Southern Democrats. Southern Democrats took notice of the fact that 1964 Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Act (an unusual departure from his previous support for such legislation), and in the 1964 election Goldwater's only electoral victories outside his home state of Arizona were in Southern states. The degree to which the Southern Democrats had abandoned the party became evident in the 1968 Presidential election when every former Confederate state except Texas voted for either Republican Richard Nixon or independent George Wallace, a former Southern Democrat. Defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey's electoral votes came mainly from the Northern states, marking a dramatic shift from the 1948 election 20 years earlier, when the losing Republican candidate's electoral votes were mainly concentrated in the Northern states.
Of the seven U.S. Presidents since Lyndon Johnson, two (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton) have been Democrats; the rest have been Republicans, who have often controlled one or both chambers of the U.S. Congress at the same time. During right-wing Republican President Ronald Reagan's term, conservative Democrats who supported many of Reagan's policies were called "Reagan Democrats". Many of them left the Democratic Party and became Republicans.
The Democratic Leadership Council has in recent years worked to position the Party towards a centrist position. While the Party may retain left-of-center supporters, the Democrats are generally a catch all party with widespread appeal to most opponents of the Republicans. This includes organized labor, educators, environmentalists, supporters of civil rights, progressive taxation proponents, gays, supporters of gun control, pro-choice groups and other opponents of the social conservatism favored by many Republicans.
In the 1990s the Democratic Party re-invigorated itself, in part by moving to the right on economic and social policy. President Bill Clinton implemented a balanced federal budget and welfare reform, traditionally Republican causes. Labor unions, which had been steadily losing membership since the 1960s, found they had also lost political clout inside the Democratic Party: Clinton enacted the NAFTA free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico over the strong objection of the unions.
In the extremely close 2000 Presidential election, some progressives, unhappy with the centrist shift of the Party, instead supported the leftist Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. Many angry Democrats cited this "spoiler effect" as a key cause of Gore's defeat. Some Nader supporters, while agreeing that Nader probably did influence the contested Florida election, counter that Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan won more votes in some states (Wisconsin, Iowa and Oregon) than Bush lost by. Many Greens also criticize the Democrats for calling them "spoilers", and simultaneously not supporting electoral reform such as Instant Runoff Voting. In addition a number of Republicans have highlighted a double standard from Democrats by arguing that if Ross Perot had not run in 1992 and therefore taken away votes from President George H.W. Bush then Bill Clinton would never have been elected. (Other analyses have suggested that Perot had no impact on the electoral vote of any state but Ohio, and that Clinton would have won even without Ohio's electoral votes.) The issue of the "Nader Factor" surfaced again in the 2004 election, when Nader ran as an independent (and, in some states, as the Reform Party candidate), but benefited from financial and get-on-the-state-ballot petition support by some Republicans eager to re-elect President George W. Bush. Unlike the 2000 election, however, transferring all of the Nader votes to John Kerry would not have changed the outcome of the election.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the nation's focus changed to issues of national security and increasing isolation of the United States as the sole remaining and increasingly proactive superpower. Virtually all Congressional Democrats voted with their Republican colleagues to authorize President Bush's 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, but they were split over the 2003 invasion of Iraq and increasingly expressed concerns about both the justification and progress of the War on Terrorism, the jobless recovery, and the domestic effects including challenges to civil liberties and privacy from the USA PATRIOT Act. By 2004, the failure of George W. Bush's administration to find weapons of mass destruction, mounting combat casualties in Iraq, and the lack of any end point for the War on Terror were also issues in the American national elections. John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran and U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, won his Party's nomination by upsetting an anti-war candidate, former Governor of Vermont Howard Dean, in the Iowa caucus and winning the majority of state primary races that followed. However, Kerry lost the 2004 Presidential election to Bush by a narrow margin (albeit a significantly wider one than that in the disputed 2000 Presidential election). Kerry also lost the popular vote, which Gore had won in 2000. The Democratic Party also lost seats in both the House and Senate in that election.
Since then, many Democrats have voiced serious concern over the future of their party, and voiced a variety of strategies for moving forward. Some have said that they need to move further towards the center to regain seats in the House and Senate and possibly win the presidency in 2008. One topic of discussion is the party's policies and rhetoric surrounding reproductive rights, especially abortion. Others, such as commentator Thomas Frank in What's the Matter with Kansas?, have suggested that the Democrats need to re-focus on economic populism, while still others have focused on the party's perceived organizational and tactical shortcomings. These debates have been reflected in the campaign for chair of the Democratic National Commmittee.
Factions of the Democratic Party
It should be noted defining the views of any "faction" of any political party is difficult at best, and that any attempt to apply labels within a single political party is no more effective than the application of broad labels to political parties as a whole. Keeping that in mind, there are several ideological groups widely recognized within the modern-day Democratic Party:
- The Blue Dog Democrats are a congressional grouping of fiscal conservatives and moderates, primarily southerners, willing to compromise with the Republican leadership. They have acted as a unified voting bloc in the past, giving its thirty members some ability to change legislation. The name appears to be both a reference to several well-known Louisiana paintings featuring blue dogs, as well as a reference to the old "yellow dog" Democrats having been "choked blue."
- Clintonistas - Political journalists often speak of the political advisors and allies surrounding Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton as a kind of faction, though such individuals hardly have a unified ideological leaning. Though formally a New Democrat, Hillary Clinton is generally considered more liberal than the DLC.
- "Deaniacs" - Howard Dean, a failed candidate for the party's 2004 presidential nomination, emerged as a major player in the Democratic party and a leading opponent to the powerful New Democrats group. Founded his own group, Democracy for America, which succeeded his failed primary campaign Dean for America.
- Progressive Democrats - Following in the footsteps of the Deaniacs, the supporters of Dennis Kucinich have also started coordinating their efforts, and are building a new Progressive Movement.
- Southern Democrats - Socially conservative southern white Democrats, previously a key element in the Democratic coalition, are increasingly rare, many having been defeated, or opting not to run, in the 1994, 2002, and 2004 elections.
- Organized labor - As a key source of political contributions, volunteers, and field organizing expertise, labor unions hold significant sway in the Democratic Party. Former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt was a leading supporter of labor's agenda in Congress.
- African-American Leadership - African Americans are members of many factions, however there is a Democratic African-American Leadership group which coalesces around the Congressional Black Caucus leadership and is generally considered liberal in outlook. Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson can be considered its most prominent new and old leaders respectively.
- Refer also to: List of Presidents of the United States
Prominent figures of the Democratic Party
Currently notable Democrats
(Years of birth are indicated.)
- Evan Bayh (1955), Senator from Indiana
- Joseph Biden (1942), Senator from Delaware
- Barbara Boxer (1940), Senator from California
- Robert Byrd (1917), Senator from West Virginia
- Wesley Clark (1944), former NATO commander, former presidential candidate
- Hillary Clinton (1947), Senator from New York, former First Lady
- Howard Dean (1948), former Governor of Vermont, former presidential candidate, current chair of the Democratic National Committee
- Russ Feingold (1953), Senator from Wisconsin
- Harold Ford (1970), Representative from Tennessee
- Jennifer Granholm (1959), Governor of Michigan
- Tom Harkin (1939), Senator from Iowa, former presidential candidate
- Daniel Inouye (1924), Senator from Hawaii
- Jesse Jackson (1941), political activist, former presidential candidate
- Ted Kennedy (1932), Senator from Massachusetts, former presidential candidate
- Dennis Kucinich (1946), Representative from Ohio, former presidential candidate
- Joseph Lieberman (1942), Senator from Connecticut
- Barack Obama (1961), Senator from Illinois
- Nancy Pelosi (1940), House Minority Leader, from California
- Bill Richardson