Democratic Party officials often trace its origins to the inspiration of the Democratic-Republican Party, founded by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other influential opponents of the Federalists in 1792. That party also inspired the Whigs and modern Republicans. Organizationally, the modern Democratic Party truly arose in the 1830s with the election of Andrew Jackson. Since the nomination of William Jennings Bryan in 1896, the party has generally positioned itself to the left of the Republican Party on economic issues. They have been more liberal on civil rights issues since 1948. On foreign policy, both parties have changed position several times.
The Democratic Party evolved from the Jeffersonian Republican or Democratic-Republican Party organized by Jefferson and Madison in opposition to the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. The party favored republicanism; a weak federal government; states’ rights; agrarian interests (especially Southern planters); strict adherence to the Constitution; and it opposed a national bank, close ties to Great Britain and business and banking interests. The Democratic-Republican Party came to power in the election of 1800
After the War of 1812, the Federalists virtually disappeared and the only national political party left was the Democratic-Republicans. The era of one-party rule in the United States, known as the Era of Good Feelings, lasted from 1816 until the early 1830s, when the Whig Party became a national political group to rival the Democratic-Republicans. However, the Democratic-Republican Party still had its own internal factions. They split over the choice of a successor to President James Monroe and the party faction that supported many of the old Jeffersonian principles, led by Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, became the modern Democratic Party. As Norton explains the transformation in 1828:
Jacksonians believed the people’s will had finally prevailed. Through a lavishly financed coalition of state parties, political leaders, and newspaper editors, a popular movement had elected the president. The Democrats became the nation’s first well-organized national party […] and tight party organization became the hallmark of nineteenth-century American politics.
Opposing factions led by Henry Clay helped form the Whig Party. The Democratic Party had a small yet decisive advantage over the Whigs until the 1850s, when the Whigs fell apart over the issue of slavery. In 1854, angry with the Kansas–Nebraska Act, anti-slavery Democrats left the party and joined Northern Whigs to form the Republican Party.
Behind the platforms issued by state and national parties stood a widely shared political outlook that characterized the Democrats:
The Democrats represented a wide range of views but shared a fundamental commitment to the Jeffersonian concept of an agrarian society. They viewed the central government as the enemy of individual liberty. The 1824 “corrupt bargain” had strengthened their suspicion of Washington politics. […] Jacksonians feared the concentration of economic and political power. They believed that government intervention in the economy benefited special-interest groups and created corporate monopolies that favored the rich. They sought to restore the independence of the individual—the artisan and the ordinary farmer—by ending federal support of banks and corporations and restricting the use of paper currency, which they distrusted. Their definition of the proper role of government tended to be negative, and Jackson’s political power was largely expressed in negative acts. He exercised the veto more than all previous presidents combined. Jackson and his supporters also opposed reform as a movement. Reformers eager to turn their programs into legislation called for a more active government. But Democrats tended to oppose programs like educational reform mid the establishment of a public education system. They believed, for instance, that public schools restricted individual liberty by interfering with parental responsibility and undermined freedom of religion by replacing church schools. Nor did Jackson share reformers’ humanitarian concerns. He had no sympathy for American Indians, initiating the removal of the Cherokees along the Trail of Tears
The Democrats split over the choice of a successor to President James Buchanan along Northern and Southern lines as factions of the party provided two separate candidacies for President in the election of 1860, in which the Republican Party gained ascendancy. The radical pro-slavery Fire-Eaters led a walkout at both the April Democratic convention in Charleston’s Institute Hall and the June convention in Baltimore when the national party would not adopt a resolution supporting the extension of slavery into territories even if the voters of those territories did not want it. These Southern Democrats nominated the pro-slavery incumbent Vice President, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, for President and General Joseph Lane, former Governor of Oregon, for Vice President. The Northern Democrats nominated Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois for President and former Governor of Georgia Herschel V. Johnson for Vice President while some Southern Democrats joined the Constitutional Union Party, backing its nominees (who had both been prominent Whig leaders), John Bell of Tennessee for President and the politician, statesman and educator Edward Everett of Massachusetts for Vice President. This fracturing of the Democrats led to a Republican victory and Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States.
As the American Civil War broke out, Northern Democrats were divided into War Democrats and Peace Democrats. The Confederate States of America, whose political leadership, mindful of the welter prevalent in antebellum American politics and with a pressing need for unity, largely viewed political parties as inimical to good governance and consequently the Confederacy had none or at least none with the wide organization inherent to other American parties. Most War Democrats rallied to Republican President Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans’ National Union Party in the election of 1864, which featured Andrew Johnson on the Republican ticket even though he was a Democrat from the South. Johnson replaced Lincoln in 1865, but he stayed independent of both parties.
The Democrats benefited from white Southerners’ resentment of Reconstruction after the war and consequent hostility to the Republican Party. After Redeemers ended Reconstruction in the 1870s and following the often extremely violent disenfranchisement of African Americans led by such white supremacist Democratic politicians as Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina in the 1880s and 1890s, the South, voting Democratic, became known as the “Solid South”. Although Republicans won all but two presidential elections, the Democrats remained competitive. The party was dominated by pro-business Bourbon Democrats led by Samuel J. Tilden and Grover Cleveland, who represented mercantile, banking and railroad interests; opposed imperialism and overseas expansion; fought for the gold standard; opposed bimetallism; and crusaded against corruption, high taxes and tariffs. Cleveland was elected to non-consecutive presidential terms in 1884 and 1892.
Agrarian Democrats demanding free silver overthrew the Bourbon Democrats in 1896 and nominated William Jennings Bryan for the presidency (a nomination repeated by Democrats in 1900 and 1908). Bryan waged a vigorous campaign attacking Eastern moneyed interests, but he lost to Republican William McKinley.
The Democrats took control of the House in 1910 and elected Woodrow Wilson as President in 1912 (when the Republicans split) and 1916. Wilson effectively led Congress to put to rest the issues of tariffs, money and antitrust, which had dominated politics for 40 years, with new progressive laws. He failed to pass the Versailles Treaty (which involved joining the League of Nations). The weak party was deeply divided by issues such as the KKK and prohibition in the 1920s. However it did organize new ethnic voters in Northern cities.
The Great Depression in 1929 that occurred under Republican President Herbert Hoover and the Republican Congress set the stage for a more liberal government as the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives nearly uninterrupted from 1930 until 1994 and won most presidential elections until 1968. Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected to the presidency in 1932, came forth with government programs called the New Deal. New Deal liberalism meant the regulation of business (especially finance and banking) and the promotion of labor unions as well as federal spending to aid to the unemployed, help distressed farmers and undertake large-scale public works projects. It marked the start of the American welfare state. The opponents, who stressed opposition to unions, support for business and low taxes, started calling themselves “conservatives”.
Until the 1980s, the Democratic Party was a coalition of two parties divided by the Mason–Dixon line: liberal Democrats in the North and culturally conservative voters in the South, who though benefitting from many of the New Deal public works projects opposed increasing civil rights initiatives advocated by Northeastern liberals. The polarization grew stronger after Roosevelt died. Southern Democrats formed a key part of the bipartisan conservative coalition in an alliance with most of the Midwestern Republicans. The economically activist philosophy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which has strongly influenced American liberalism, shaped much of the party’s economic agenda after 1932. From the 1930s to the mid-1960s, the liberal New Deal coalition usually controlled the presidency while the conservative coalition usually controlled Congress.
Issues facing parties and the United States after World War II included the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement. Republicans attracted conservatives and white Southerners from the Democratic coalition with their use of the Southern strategy and resistance to New Deal and Great Society liberalism. African Americans had traditionally supported the Republican Party because of its anti-slavery civil rights policies. However they began supporting Democrats following the ascent of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, the New Deal, the integration of the military and embrace of proposed civil rights legislation by President Harry Truman in 1947–1948 and the postwar Civil Rights movement. The Democratic Party’s main base of support shifted to the Northeast, marking a dramatic reversal of history.
The election of President John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts in 1960 was a partial reflection of this shift. In the campaign, Kennedy attracted a new generation of younger voters. In his agenda dubbed the New Frontier, Kennedy introduced a host of social programs and public works projects, along with enhanced support of the space program, proposing a manned spacecraft trip to the moon by the end of the decade. He pushed for civil rights initiatives and proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but with his assassination in November 1963 was not able to see its passage.
Kennedy’s successor Lyndon B. Johnson was able to persuade the largely conservative Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and with a more progressive Congress in 1965 passed much of the Great Society, which consisted of an array of social programs designed to help the poor. Kennedy and Johnson’s advocacy of civil rights further solidified black support for the Democrats, but had the effect of alienating Southern whites who would eventually gravitate towards the Republican party, particularly after the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980. The United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s was another divisive issue that further fractured the fault lines of the Democrats’ coalition. After the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, President Johnson committed a large contingency of combat troops to Vietnam, but the escalation failed to drive the Viet Cong from South Vietnam, resulting in an increasing quagmire, which by 1968 had become the subject of widespread anti-war protests in the United States and elsewhere. With increasing casualties and nightly news reports bringing home troubling images from Vietnam, the costly military engagement became increasingly unpopular, alienating many of the kinds of young voters that the Democrats had attracted the early 1960s. The protests that year along with assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Democratic presidential candidate Senator Robert F. Kennedy (younger brother of John F. Kennedy) climaxed in turbulence at the hotly contested Democratic National Convention that summer in Chicago (which amongst the ensuing turmoil inside and outside of the convention hall nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey) in a series of events that proved to mark a significant turning point in the decline of the Democratic party’s broad coalition.
Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon was able to capitalize on the Democrat’s confusion that year and won the 1968 election to become the 37th president and would win again in 1972 against Democratic nominee George McGovern, who like Robert F. Kennedy reached out to the younger anti-war and counterculture voters, but unlike Kennedy was not able to appeal to the party’s more traditional white working class constituencies. During Nixon’s second term, his presidency was rocked by the Watergate scandal, which forced him to resign in 1974, being succeeded by vice president Gerald Ford, who served a brief tenure. Watergate offered the Democrats an opportunity to recoup and their nominee Jimmy Carter won the 1976 presidential election. With the initial support of evangelical Christian voters in the South, Carter was temporarily able to reunite the disparate factions within the party, but inflation and the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979–1980 took their toll, resulting in a landslide victory for Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan in 1980, which shifted the tectonic plates of the political landscape in favor of the Republicans for years to come.
With the ascendancy of the Republicans under Ronald Reagan, the Democrats searched for ways to respond yet were unable to succeed by running traditional candidates, such as former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale, who lost to Reagan in the 1984 presidential election. Many Democrats attached their hopes to the future star of Gary Hart, who had challenged Mondale in the 1984 primaries running on a theme of “New Ideas”; and in the subsequent 1988 primaries became the de facto front-runner and virtual “shoe-in” for the Democratic presidential nomination before his campaign was ended by a sex scandal. The party nevertheless began to seek out a younger generation of leaders, who like Hart had been inspired by the pragmatic idealism of John F. Kennedy.
Arkansas governor Bill Clinton was one such figure, who was elected President in 1992 as the Democratic nominee. He labeled himself and governed as a “New Democrat”. The party adopted a centrist economic yet socially progressive agenda, with the voter base after Reagan having shifted considerably to the right. In an effort to appeal to both liberals and fiscal conservatives, Democrats began to advocate for a balanced budget and market economytempered by government intervention (mixed economy), along with a continued emphasis on social justice and affirmative action. The economic policy adopted by the Democratic Party, including the former Clinton administration, has been referred to as “Third Way”. The Democrats lost control of Congress in the election of 1994 to the Republican Party. Re-elected in 1996, Clinton was the first Democratic President since Franklin D. Roosevelt to be elected to two terms.
In the wake of the 2001 World Trade Center terrorist attacks and with growing concern over global warming, some of the party’s key issues in the early 21st century have included the methods of how to combat terrorism while preserving human rights, homeland security, expanding access to health care, labor rights, environmentalism and the preservation of liberal government programs. Following twelve years of Republican congressional rule, the Democrats regained majority control of both the House and the Senate in the 2006 elections. Barack Obama won the Democratic Party’s nomination and was elected as the first African American president in 2008. The Democrats gained control of both chambers of Congress in the wake of the 2007 economic recession. The Democratic Party under the Obama presidency moved forward reforms including an Economic Stimulus package, the Dodd-Frankfinancial reform act and the Affordable Care Act. In the 2010 elections, the Democratic Party lost control of the House and lost its majority in state legislatures and state governorships. In the 2012 elections, President Obama was re-elected, but the party kept its minority in the House of Representatives and in 2014 the party lost control of the Senate for the first time since 2006. After the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the Democratic Party transitioned into the role of an opposition party and currently hold neither the presidency nor a majority in the House or Senate.
According to a Pew Research poll, the Democratic Party has become more socially liberal and secular compared to how it was in 1987. Based on a poll conducted in 2014, Gallup found that 30% of Americans identified as Democrats, 23% as Republicans and 45% as independents. In the same poll, a survey of registered voters stated that 47% identified as Democrats or leaned towards the party—the same poll found that 40% of registered voters identified as Republicans or leaned towards the Republican party.
In 2018, Democratic congressional candidate Tom Malinowski described the party:
We’re now the party of fiscal responsibility in America. We didn’t just add $2 trillion to the national debt for that tax cut that Warren Buffett didn’t want … We’re the party of law enforcement in America; we don’t vilify the Federal Bureau of Investigation every single day. We’re the party of family values. We don’t . . . take kids from their parents at the border. We’re the party of patriotism in America that wants to defend this country against our foreign adversaries.— Tom Malinowski in July 2018