I notice that today, the 8th of January, marks the beginning of the American Democratic party in 1828.
While the mythic origins of the party are with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s Democratic-Republican Party, the actual history is much later. The party was gathered largely through the work of Martin Van Buren focused on Andrew Jackson’s election to the presidency; advancing the interests of slave states, supporting a strong executive, and most of all expansionism.
The 8th of January, 1828, the 13th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson launched his presidential campaign. And ever since this has been considered the beginning of the party.
As with the rest of the American project, slavery would be a cancer in the Democratic party through the Civil War and the residual would mark the party for much of the Nineteenth century and well into the Twentieth.
At the dawn of the Twentieth century the party began to embrace progressive issues, and with the election of Franklin Roosevelt advocated a social liberal perspective that has continued largely since. With Lyndon Johnson’s full support of civil rights, the Southern conservative wing departed wholesale for the Republican party. I think it fair to say while the sin of slavery and its aftermath continues a stain on the heart of the entire republic, embracing the civil rights movement the Democratic party gave America a full on rejection of that part of the country’s history. The most important public stance in this regard since the collapse of Reconstruction.
And with consequences. The advance of civil rights throughout the Twentieth century, especially the expansion of the voting franchise to women and ethnic minorities, especially African Americans, continued to shape the evolving Democratic party, both in its size and with its policies.
Today the Democratic party is something of a big tent, certainly much more widely diverse than the increasingly hard right ideology found in the American Republican party, is generally marked by a form of contemporary liberalism. There remains a part of the party devoted to short term business interests over the pressing needs of the ecological crisis. That said, and double underscored, much has been accomplished. Signature social policies advocated by the party and its leadership from the twentieth into the dawn of the twenty-first century include the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society, and the Affordable Care Act.
The Wikipedia article on modern liberalism in the United States briefly describes the contemporary Democratic party’s perspective as “a form of social liberalism found in American politics. It combines ideas of civil liberty and equality with support for social justice and a well-regulated mixed economy. Modern liberalism generally opposes the interests of corporations, opposes cuts to the social safety net, and supports a role for government in reducing inequality, increasing diversity through contemporary means, providing education, ensuring access to healthcare, regulating economic activity, and protecting the natural environment.”
Today the larger tent of the American Democratic party can be typified by the diverse perspectives of Senator Joe Manchin at one end and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the other.
Personally I’m a fair bit closer to AOC than to Senator Manchin. But I am also grateful for the political clout of a big tent, even with the headaches it brings. And frustrations. I am deeply concerned with the sputtering of the advances of personal and social justice and the backlash we see in the rise of what seems to be getting the name “Trumpism.” Unleashed from the moral constraints of conservatism, Trumpism is a reactionary and cruel philosophy having more in common with authoritarian and totalitarian regimes than the world’s democracies, and which has pretty much wholesale captured the Republican party. I find it an endless irony and maybe a caution that Donald Trump hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in his oval office.
I have so many worries for the republic and the world. Most of all I worry whether we can unite enough to meet the pressing ecological catastrophe.
The tensions are strong in the party. As they have been since the beginning of the twentieth century. As Will Rogers said back in the first half of the Twentieth century “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” Whether this party can meet the rising dangers of our times is something of an open question. But, then, maybe that’s always been true. The course of history does only seem obvious in retrospect.
And. My fear is that the hope for a progressive future for our people, for this country, and maybe, maybe for the world lie in the hands of this fractured party. Often short sighted. Frequently corrupt in the broader senses of that world. So human. And. Hard to see how it is up to the task. I have friends who think there’s hope in some further left party. I don’t. They allow people feel superior, but it is at the cost of not being at the table. The Democratic Party is what we have. For good and for ill. These are the cards. Can we play them well? Can they be played well? Real questions.
So. I’m not sure I’m up for three full cheers for the day. But, I certainly can give it two.
Happy birthday, Democrats.