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.

The two presidents most responsible for these realignments are Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) and John F. Kennedy (1961-1963).

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. 



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  1. Alex


    A truly excellent summary and overview.

    However regarding Bush’s poll ratings as an indication of GOP prospects in 2008, I would only point out that the public disapproval for Bush is only outdone by an even greater disapproval for the Democrat controlled Congress:


    As they say – we shall see…

    Another issue you discussed was the role of “identity” politics within the the Democratic party. Do you view this as a positive or negative aspect of current politics?

    Identity politics has often been used successfully as a tactic against Republicans (e.g. the subtle or sometimes unsubtle suggestions that Republican policies are motivated by racism, sexism, or contempt for the poor). But it seems as if identity politics has a cost which the Democrats are beignning to feel. Notice how some supporters of Clinton and Obama have traded intimations of sexism and racism, and the acrimony this has caused. To think of some recent incidents there was the fall out among some African-Americans regarding Clinton’s civil rights remarks, and most recently some members of the National Organization of Women characterized Edward Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama as a “betrayal” of women.

    Would you agree with me that ideally the race or gender of the Presidential candidate should be a non-issue as far as whether we should vote for them? What’s important should be the ideas and values that will guide a candidate’s leadership, and what foreign and domestic policy directions they will take the country towards. Those are the issues one can have an honest debate about. But focusing on the candidates class, race, or gender in making political decisions seems like a recipe for a very arbitrary and divisive form of politics.

  2. An interesting thing to note about Congressional approval ratings is that while Americans tend to disapprove of Congress in general, they don’t tend to extend this judgment to their representatives in particular. For example ‘Congress is a bunch of rogues and scoundrels, but my congressman is a fine, upstanding person.’ It’s analogous to the relationship between national polls and state-by-state polls for the presidential election. The general polls are a good indication of general sentiment, but the ‘local’ polls are a better indication of electoral performance. (Electoral-vote.com has a good rundown of the prospects for the Congressional elections.)

  3. On identity politics: I agree that policy /should/ take precedence over all other considerations when determining who to support in an election. But non-policy ‘externalities’ do, in fact, come into play. (‘Religious affiliation’ or ‘number of divorces’ would be examples of the sort of ‘externalities’ which influence Republican voters.)

    The important thing to notice about the current Democratic rivalry is that’s much more complicated than ‘men v. women’ or ‘white v. black’. These sorts of simplistic narratives that certain reporters or supporters might try to frame are contradicted by the electoral performance so far. To give just one example, in Nevada, Obama took the lion’s share of the rural (predominantly white) districts, while Clinton won Clark County (i.e. Las Vegas). That’s the exact opposite of what happened in South Carolina.

    As far as I can tell, ‘identity politics’ in the Democratic party is much more complicated than simple ‘us/them’ distinctions, because of the overlapping I mentioned in my paper, regional variations and so forth. I don’t have the link on hand, but I’ve also read about how the ethnicity/gender proportions one hears reported in polls are incomplete, because they don’t factor in other variables. For example, did Clinton win Clark County because she had the support of Hispanic voters, or did she have the support of lower income residents of Nevada overall, many of whom happen to be Hispanic? OR Why did racial divisions play such a strong role in South Carolina, but not elsewhere? Figuring that out would require the sort of statistical analysis that doesn’t make a good sound bite.

    I think (and hope) that issues will become more prominent in the general election, where the contrasts are more readily apparent.

  4. Alex


    Thank you for your thoughtful replies.

    1) I agree that attitudes about home senators and congressmen may diverge from views about Congress in General. My only point was that if we use the method of looking at people’s attitudes toward the current Republican President as some predictor for the outcome of the 2008 election, then its fair to present the fuller context here, viz. that the only part of the Government controlled by the Democrats (since 2006) has a lower approval rating than Bush.

    2) I also wanted to mention that according to a composite average of the major polls, if Clinton and McCain were the nominees, and the elction were held today, McCain would be president. This has all the hypothetical match-ups.


    Of course as you say this is all fairly meaningless in February.

    3) I am glad we seem to basically agree about the negative aspects of identity politics. I agree that it exists on both sides – I would view it as wrong for example for Republicans not to vote for Romney simply because he is a Mormon. But whereas GOP’s voters concern for “externalities” – however unjustified – seem to be more related to concerns about the personal values, beliefs, and conduct of the candidates (as in the examples you chose), some segment of Democrats seems to focus on externalities like race and sex. (e.g. “we should vote for Hillary so we can have the first woman president.”)

    4) There will no doubt be many interesting things to discuss and analyze after tomorrow’s Super Tuesday elections!

  5. Alberto

    Alex, fabulous article. Do you have a direct blog. Do you write professionally for anyone?

  6. Alex


    Well many thanks for the compliment! I don’t have a regular column or blog on contemporary political issues, though I occasionally write.

  7. Alberto

    Can I contact you……


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