The Democratic Party is the oldest American political party, dating back to the earliest years of the United States. Originally lead by Thomas Jefferson, they advocated a decentralized form of government (i.e. the ‘Anti-Federalists’) and had their strongest base of support in Southern states. They opposed the Federalists (lead by John Adams) who wanted a more centralized authority and had their strongest support in the Northern states. While the United States still has this sort of two party system, a series of political realignments over time has meant that the nature of American political conflict has changed considerably.
In response to the hardships of the Great Depression, Roosevelt initiated a series of economic reform programs, collectively referred to as “the New Deal“. These programs expanded the role of the federal government in economic matters, both for the purpose of greater stabilization of the economy and to better defend the poorest of America’s citizens. The fundamental idea behind the New Deal—that a government has a responsibility to act on behalf of all its citizens—has formed the basis of Democratic ideals ever since.
Other fundamental moment in the formation of the modern Democratic Party was the Civil Rights Movement (i.e. the opposition to racial discrimination in the United States). While it started before him and achieved important goals after him, it was under Kennedy that civil rights rose to prominence as a national political issue and the Democratic Party initiated it’s most dramatic shift toward a unified opposition to discrimination in all its forms. While the details are of course more complicated (e.g. key legislation was enacted under Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson), the promise of these sorts of social reforms, combined with his personal charisma, made Kennedy a revered figure among Americans in general and Democrats in particular.
The Democratic Party’s subsequent accomplishments in the area of civil rights ultimately lead to the reversal of the historical geographical distribution of the two original factions. Beginning in the mid-1960s, white voters in Southern states opposed to civil rights legislation and supporters of racial discrimination, shifted their support over time to the Republican Party. First Richard Nixon, then Ronald Reagan, exploited this shift as part of their ‘Southern Strategy‘. Combined with the more subtle effects of conservative opposition to the principles of the New Deal, this realignment drew the battle lines for American political conflict in the present day.
Geographically speaking, the situation is now almost completely reversed. The Democrats currently have their strongest support in the Northeastern states and on the West Coast (Washington, Oregon, and California). For the most part, Democrats tend to be stronger in urban areas, while Republicans are stronger in rural ones. (For a demonstration of this, see this map, which breaks down the results of the 2004 presidential election by voting district.) These historical and geographic shifts can help explain the Democratic Party’s current positions economic and social issues.
People who live in cities tend to be more familiar with public, government provided services, for example, basic services like public transportation and sanitation, which allow a modern city to function. As a result, they tend to have more faith in government-provided services in other areas. Rural voters in America, on the other hand, have less day-to-day interaction with public services, and tend to be more distrustful of them, considering them a form of ‘interference’. On economic issues, Democrats favor policies which provide such services, like guaranteed health insurance coverage (because thousands of Americans lack access to proper medical care) and social security (which guarantees a minimal income to support elderly people after they can no longer work). Republicans claim to oppose such services on principle, arguing that the ‘free market’ can resolve these problems on its own, conveniently forgetting both that it was the failure of such mechanisms which lead to the creation of these sorts of programs in the first place, as well as neglecting to apply these principles to those programs and policies from which they themselves benefit (e.g. agricultural subsidies). Disagreements on economic issues within the Democratic Party tend to focus of minor differences in the proper means to reach these goals, rather than the importance of the ends themselves.
Democratic positions on social issues can also be explained in demographic terms. In American, racial and ethnic minority populations (e.g. African-Americans, Hispanics) tend to be concentrated in urban areas. Since the 1960s, the Democrats have been the party which opposes discrimination against these and other traditionally marginalized groups (e.g. women, homosexuals). In this, the Democrats have been largely successful, on a number of levels. Openly racist or otherwise bigoted remarks have become socially taboo, and can cost a politician an election. Discriminatory laws have been widely repealed. A few exceptions remain (e.g. homosexuals marriages are not legally recognized, the rights of Spanish-speaking American citizens are threatened by efforts supposedly directed against ‘illegal immigrants’, etc.), but for the most part, Democrats are engaged in preserving the gains they have made over the last 45 years.
However, even where specific social issues do not play prominent role, many people support the Democratic Party out of a sense of identity, either because they identify with a specific marginalized group, because they identify with the opposition to discrimination as such, or, most often, both. The role of identity in Democratic politics means that the factions which make up the Democratic Party are both more diverse and, simultaneously, more unified, than the factions which make up the Republican Party (see Alex’s “Explaining the GOP” for details). While the Democrats are made up of more factions, there is also more overlap among those factions (e.g. ‘African-American women’, ‘Hispanic union members’, etc.). This means that while there are more groups, their interests correspond much more often than they conflict. This sort of overlap, combined with the nature of the consensus within the Democratic Party on economic goals, as well as widespread opposition to the policies and practices of the Bush Administration, means that the Democratic Party is now strongly unified.
As result of this unity, the conflict within the Democratic Party over who should be the nominee for the general election to the presidency has taken on a different character. The two leading candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama, largely agree on the main issues at stake (I can treat there specific differences on specific issues in a later post). Instead, much speculation has focused on differences in identity. It is the first time a woman has been a leading candidate, the first time an African-American has been a leading candidate, and it’s the first time (with John Edwards withdrawal earlier this week) that none of the leading candidates for the nomination has been a white male. However, so far, the nomination process at the state level has shown little correlation of voting along strictly demographic lines. Obama has won Iowa and South Carolina, while Clinton has won New Hampshire and Nevada. Iowa and New Hampshire are two states where the overwhelming majority of residents are white, while Nevada and South Carolina are both states with sizeable minority populations.
The primary difference between the two Democratic candidates so far has not based on issues or identity, but strategy. In the United States, neither political party holds an clear majority. There are a large number of moderate, or ‘swing’ voters. In order to win in the general election, a successful candidate (from either party) typically must gain the support of a large portion of these moderates. Clinton and Obama have very different strategies to appeal to members of this group.
Obama is an idealist. He argues that he can reconcile with independents and (moderate) Republicans, and end the partisan conflict which characterizes recent American political history, at the same time promising important economic reform (e.g. universal health care). His critics would claim that this is naive. On the other hand, Clinton’s is a pragmatist. Her attempts to appeal to moderates will most likely focus on taking more centrist positions on key issues. Her critics argue that these compromises may go too far (e.g. like her votes in support of the Iraq War). The conflict between Clinton and Obama supporters has been largely dependent on which of these strategies Democrats think will be the most successful in the general election.
For the general election, the Democratic Party’s prospects look very good. President Bush himself is held in widespread contempt. Years of Bush Administration mismanagement have discredited the Republican Party (especially its more extreme policies) in the eyes of the general public. It is very likely that this opposition to President Bush, even though he is legally prohibited from running for a third term, will reflect on his party in general. After years of poor electoral performance, Democrats are highly motivated and have had a record-high number of voters involved in the nomination process so far. (Republicans, on the other hand, have had record-low turnout.) The Democrats already hold the majority of seats in the legislature (both the Senate and the House of Representatives) and are projected to gain even more seats. In polls which present voters with hypothetical scenarios for the general election (“If the election were held today, would vote for ‘Obama or McCain?’, ‘Clinton or Romney?’, ‘Clinton or McCain?’ and so on), the Democrats currently lead in all possible combinations. Such polls are not very reliable, especially this early, but are yet another good sign for the Democratic Party.
As for the Democratic Party nomination, the next major contest will occur on Tuesday, February 5th. This is also called ‘Super Tuesday’, because 22 states hold their primaries or caucuses all on the same day, including very large, influential states such as California, New York, and Illinois. Right now, Clinton is slightly ahead of Obama in the polls, but several variables could still affect the outcome. John Edwards’ recent withdrawal means that his supporters in those states will choose one of the two remaining candidates. Also, earlier polls have been unreliable in predicting how many people will actually vote (i.e. the ‘turnout’). So far in the nomination process, high turnout has favored Obama, and the polls have consistently underestimated his level of support. These sorts of variables, combined with dynamics unprecedented in American political history, make the Democratic nomination process both impossible to predict and fascinating to watch.