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History of the Democratic Party

A quick overview of the history of the Democratic Party! 200+ years was hard to fit into 16 minutes, but we got most of the highlights, from Jefferson and Jackson through FDR and LBJ.

Video transcript

- [Voiceover] Alright, Kim, we have 216 years of Democratic Party history to cover, let's cut the pleasantries and get right to it. Who is this man? - [Voiceover] That is Thomas Jefferson. - [Voiceover] He does not look like the baby-faced boy that he was in this image. Is this his presidential portrait? - [Voiceover] (laughing) I believe so, yes. So, Thomas Jefferson I think is really interesting because he didn't set out to found a party, - [Voiceover] Right. - [Voiceover] Although, he ended up doing so. It was more that he had a competing vision about what the United States should be that was different from the vision that was being promoted by some of the men who were in power early in the nation's history, like Washington, Adams, Alexander Hamilton. - [Voiceover] What is the difference between Jefferson and Hamilton's views on governance and how did this become the Democratic Party? - [Voiceover] Hamilton had an idea that he was going to try to make the government a little bit more centrist, so a strong central government, remember they've just switched to the constitution from the Articles of Confederation. - [Voiceover] What year was that? - [Voiceover] 1787. - [Voiceover] Thank you. - [Voiceover] And Hamilton thinks that there needs to be a strong central government, a national bank, a kind of limited democracy, right? A democracy that is limited to more educated, landed men, and he wants the United States to be a lot like England. - [Voiceover] And Jefferson, and people who felt like Jefferson, like James Madison, were saying, woah, woah, woah, this is not what we rebelled against England for, to become England part two. - [Voiceover] Right. - [Voiceover] Instead what we should have is very expanded democracy, democracy for lots of people, doesn't matter their birth, and much more agrarian, state-focused, small government. - [Voiceover] And this is what we still call the Jeffersonian Ideal. - [Voiceover] Exactly, yeah. Small "r" republic citizens who are mainly farmers. Now, of course, the expanded democracy that Jefferson's thinking about doesn't apply to women or African Americans, Jefferson himself was a slaveholder. But he didn't want to limit governance to only the elite. - [Voiceover] So, the Jeffersonian Ideal is a republic for all landholding citizens. - [Voiceover] Exactly. - [Voiceover] But in 1800 the idea of what citizen meant was very limited and langered. - [Voiceover] So this doesn't really take root until the emergence of Andrew Jackson. In the late 1820's, he finally gets elected in 1832. So Jackson really pushes the idea of democracy for all white men to its farthest conclusion, which means that in this time period he expanded the franchise to any white man regardless of his property, which means that this was the most democracy in the history of the world up until this point. - [Voiceover] Yeah, but let me point out that you did say all white men. - [Voiceover] Exactly. So, Jackson is unabashedly a racist. And his vision of manifest destiny really involves the eradication of all Native Americans. - [Voiceover] I mean, this is a really dark time for American Indian policy. This is when we see something called the Indian Removal Act, that is literally what it's called. Jackson's presidency is also marked by the Cherokee Diaspora, the forced removal of the Cherokee along what's called the Trail of Tears. - [Voiceover] Yep. - [Voiceover] So, okay. So, before Jackson, do we really have the Democratic Party as an institution? - [Voiceover] No. Before this we would've called this the Anti-Federalists or the Democratic Republicans. - [Voiceover] Okay, so Hamilton is a Federalist position. Jefferson is an Anti-Federalist - [Voiceover] Right. - [Voiceover] So, okay. So we have these kicking around but they're not parties in the same way that we would see them now, they're just sort of policy positions? - [Voiceover] Yeah, I would say so. Having a mass political party was really an invention of the Jackson era. So, one did not run for president in the early 1800's, one stood for president as gentlemen around you talked of your virtues. It wasn't a campaign. - [Voiceover] Oh, so you couldn't actually campaign for yourself? - [Voiceover] Right, that was very uncouth. - [Voiceover] I see. - [Voiceover] So Jackson is the real antidote to this. He creates massive democracy. The turnout in this time period is 80, 90 percent, right? So everybody goes to vote. - [Voiceover] So, okay. So, let's talk about this political cartoon. - [Voiceover] Well, it's really just making fun of Andrew Jackson for being incredibly stubborn. He vetoed everything because the position of the Democratic Party, which is founded with Jackson, he vetoes everything because he believes in small government. So, he thinks that the power of the government should be negative, right? The less federal power, the better. Which is interesting for a president, right? - [Voiceover] Right. - [Voiceover] So it's in this time period, from probably this cartoon, that we get the image of the donkey as the iconic of the Democratic Party. - [Voiceover] Cool. - [Voiceover] Because Jack-son many believed was a Jack-ass. - [Voiceover] Ah. - [Voiceover] So the Democratic Party, as a party of all white men, ends up having a difficult relationship with slavery. Which is the major issue of 19th century America. And the issue of slavery really ends up kinda breaking the Democratic Party apart because in the election of 1860, they actually split into the Northern Democrats and the Southern Democrats and run two different candidates for president. - [Voiceover] Woah, why? I knew that the Whigs were split on slavery, what split the Democrats on slavery? - [Voiceover] Slavery, again. The Southern Democrats really supported the expansion of slavery everywhere. The Northern Democrats were just trying to prevent the Union from breaking up. - [Voiceover] So they were still pro-slavery, but pro-Union? - [Voiceover] Yes. - [Voiceover] And that's why they only carried Missouri? When it says Douglas here, is that Stephen Douglas? - [Voiceover] That is Stephen Douglas, famous foe of Abraham Lincoln. - [Voiceover] Dang. - [Voiceover] And Stephen Douglas actually died I think in 1861. - [Voiceover] Woah! - [Voiceover] Which was a real shock for the Democratic Party because they lost their real, major leader in the North. And so they are the minority party as Abraham Lincoln and the first Republican leads the United States to victory in the Civil War. And so having been kind of the opposition party against the victorious party in war means that the Democrats are in a fairly bad political position, really for most of the rest of the 19th century, right? 'Cause this is the real ascension era of the Republicans as they wave the bloody shirt. - [Voiceover] So the Republican party bled to save the Union. - [Voiceover] Exactly. - [Voiceover] Okay. - [Voiceover] So that's your bloody shirt. - [Voiceover] That's my bloody shirt. - [Voiceover] It's amazing. - [Voiceover] There it is. Little motion blur for you. (laughing) - [Voiceover] Of waving it, okay. I gotcha. - [Voiceover] So, okay. So this rhetorical strategy of saying, hey remember, the Republicans were the ones that saved the Union, that basically makes the Democrats a rump party, right? - [Voiceover] Yeah. For the rest of the 19th century. - [Voiceover] They're in bad shape. But they do have a few moments, especially in the late 19th century, there's a major economic depression. And remember, economic depression is never good for the party that's in power, right? - [Voiceover] Right. Is that here? - [Voiceover] So, in the panic of 1893, there's just major economic trouble. And in this time period, this is an important moment for the Democratic Party. - [Voiceover] Alright, so Kim, who's this fella? - [Voiceover] So this is William Jennings Bryan. - [Voiceover] Oh, I know him. - [Voiceover] And he's one of those guys who ran for president so many times but never actually won. So we don't-- - [Voiceover] Cross of Gold speech guy. - [Voiceover] Exactly, right. So he had this idea that the United States should move off the gold standard and instead allow silver as one of the currencies backing the U.S. dollar. And the idea behind this was that then the money would flood into the economy, and people would get wealthier, and it would end this depression. And that's not how it happened, but what it does do is moves the Democratic Party in a more populist direction, taking care of the smaller people who need more help financially. Right, so a more interventionist, economic policy. And so they want to kinda start helping the little guy with money. And you see this kind of in what we would call the Progressive Era. Which Wilson, who's gonna be the next Democratic president, starting in 1912, he's a big champion of Progressivism. And it's under Wilson's rule that the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, is passed. So this is kind of anti-corruption, anti-monopoly, very pro trying to protect the consumer. So this is where the sort of more liberal aspect of Democratic monetary policy comes from. I don't wanna give the impression that Progressivism and Wilson were 100 percent good things. On one hand, Wilson was the first Southern president, he was a Virginian. Since the Civil War, after this era of waving the bloody shirt, and one of the things that Wilson does is he segregates federal jobs. So many African Americans who were working in the federal government were forced out under Wilson. - [Voiceover] And don't forget that Wilson is the president who screened the pro-KKK film, "Birth of a Nation" at the White House in 1915. - [Voiceover] Yeah. - [Voiceover] Alright, and then World War I happened, and then the stock market crash happened. - [Voiceover] Yeah, and the stock market crash happened under Republican rule, and it's never a good thing when your party's in power, and there's a major economic downturn. - [Voiceover] Right, and that's during the Hoover Administration. - [Voiceover] Exactly, before then. And so it's after this economic crash that Franklin Delano Roosevelt comes into power. And now Roosevelt has this very liberal approach to economics, right? And this is where sort of contemporary, modern American liberalism comes from, which is an idea that government should regulate the economy. You know, they shouldn't control the economy, but they should try to mediate some of these major swings that the economy could make. And also that government has a responsibility for the welfare of its people. So, FDR implements the New Deal. Which is a really sweeping set of social programs designed to try to get people out of their depression, and guarantee a certain standard of living for all Americans. - [Voiceover] What are some of those programs from the New Deal that we still have today? - [Voiceover] Social Security I think would be one of the biggest ones. That's a living wage for the elderly, or the disabled. And the FDIC, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which backs banks, for example. But what's interesting about this, is that we often think of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party kind of having opposite stances on things. But the Democratic Party in this time period kinda had a liberal Northern wing, and then a Southern conservative wing, so there are two kind of parts of the Democratic Party. - [Voiceover] Sure, so let's look at this map here, what is this Solid South thing? - [Voiceover] So this is the Solid South, and the Solid South is the Democratic, pro-Jim Crow South. So there's the Democratic Party in the South, which is much smaller government, really wanted to make sure that African Americans were prevented from having political power in the South. So it's interesting because African Americans after FDR really join the Democratic party, but in the South, most of them can't vote. - [Voiceover] Right. It's a very uncomfortable alliance. So, Kim, sorry, I thought that this part of the country, the Northeast, was still pretty solidly Republican at this time. - [Voiceover] I would say that FDR puts together kind of a New Deal Coalition of labor unions, ethnic and religious minorities, sort of the workers of the United States, who want a more interventionist government economy. - [Voiceover] Okay. - [Voiceover] But don't necessarily want the moralizing aspect that goes along with say, the Progressive Era, right? The Progressives passed prohibition, for example, right? They thought it was morally bad to drink. And one of the first things FDR does when he gets into office is to repeal prohibition saying, you know, what America needs now is a drink. Right? So it doesn't have this moral aspect, but it does have economic control. - [Voiceover] Okay. - [Voiceover] But the party continues to kinda move to the left on social issues, and in the mid 1960's, Lyndon Johnson start to pass civil rights legislation, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and also pretty sweeping social programs, which are called the Great Society. So these is things like Head Start and lots of welfare programs. And in this time period, along with the Civil Rights Movement, you know, the Democratic Party really coalesces around this group in the North who are more pro-civil rights. So this period from FDR's election through Lyndon Johnson's administration is really kind of the Democratic heyday in the United States. Save for Eisenhower, there is no other Republican president that's elected during this time period, so this is 30 plus years of Democratic ascendancy. But it kinda comes apart in 1968. - [Voiceover] So what happens in 1968? - [Voiceover] Well, there's a lot of social unrest. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, many summer riots. And many whites in the South who had, you know, followed this Democratic Coalition here, began to feel that the Civil Rights Movement and the commitment of the Democratic Party to civil rights had gone too far, basically. And there was the problem of Vietnam. The Vietnam War, which both parties were really strongly anti-Communist in this time period, so many of the sort of young people, who might otherwise have supported the Democratic Party, began to feel that the Democratic Party too was part of this war machine that was just sending the United States citizens to fight a war that they believed they had nothing to do with. - [Voiceover] So we're seeing this demographic shift. - [Voiceover] Exactly. So this Solid South, which had been voting Democratic because they had really complete political hegemony, right, 'cause African Americans couldn't vote, now that African Americans can vote, many of those whites end up switching to the Republican Party. - [Voiceover] Interesting. Alright, so Johnson decides he's not even gonna run again. - [Voiceover] Right. 'Cause he knows he can't win because the Vietnam War has just tarnished him in the sight of most Americans. - [Voiceover] Right. - [Voiceover] So, with the Democrats really split apart, in complete disarray, the Republicans take back the White House. - [Voiceover] So, okay. So Kim, that takes us up to about 1968 and the election of Nixon. And there's a lot of history of the Democratic Party. 216 years, right? - [Voiceover] Yep, it is the oldest, voter-based political party in the world. - [Voiceover] So, we can't fit the entire history into one video. - [Voiceover] No, there's too much. - [Voiceover] So, next time when we come back, we're gonna talk about the new Democrats under President Clinton, we're gonna talk about the Obama Administration, and the policy and the plank of the Democratic Party going forward. - [Voiceover] So stay tuned.