This week in American Politics has been quite the week. The daily news cycle has left behind and forgotten all about abusive over-policing tragedies and sociopathic gunmen responding to them and dove head-first in to the national political conventions of the Democratic and the Republican Parties. This is an official start of the 2016 General Election, which will culminate with one party controlling the White House. All week long, we’ve heard how the Democrats, lead by Secretary Hillary Clinton and Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, have ruined and will ruin America. Now, we’ll hear how the Republicans, with Donald Trump and Indiana Governor Mike Pence, are a danger to America and the rest of the world. With the back and forth and in-fighting between each party, it’s hard for normal people to tell which side is right… or which side is… left?
Thought I was going to say wrong? As if one side actually has the definite truth. Well, as a wise man once told me, “you’ll find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly from a certain point of view.” And it’s that point of view that has caused several self-professed Democrats to levee criticism at Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine as not being “progressive enough” or not even really Democrats to begin with. Similar criticism has been given to Donald Trump in consideration of his history supporting abortion rights and government-backed social programs. But it’s like some have forgotten what makes the “Democrat” in the Democratic Party and vice versa. I can’t help but to wonder do they know what actually is a Democrat? Or what is a Republican for that matter? How is the Party of Abraham Lincoln now the Party of Donald Trump? Why is the Democratic Party, the party that fought for the expansion of slavery now the party that fights for every social and civil right humanity desires?
To understand how these political parties became the parties we know today, you have to look back how our nation began. Believe it or not, we were not always like this. Our first President, George Washington never affiliated himself with a political party. But from the very beginning, we were a nation wanting to determine how best to run a new democratic state. Coming from an more authoritarian monarchy of Great Britain, many felt such centralized control was doom to tyranny. They were called Anti-Federalist or Democratic Republicans. Others, who were called the Federalist, believed that having centralized authority could be provide order and rule of law. Throughout President Washington’s first term, the division between the two sides was minimal. However, by his second term, Vice President John Adams and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton lead the charge for for the Federalist while Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson and then Congressman James Madison opposed them in the Democratic-Republican Party. If you know your history, you might know what happened next. After John Adams lost re-election to Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton lost his life to Jefferson’s Vice President, Aaron Burr, the Federalist begin to lose power and relevancy. From 1801 to 1829, the Democratic-Republicans held power throughout Congress and the Presidency. But because of a pretty nasty election(even for today’s standards) in 1824, Andrew Jackson, who was defeated in his bid for the White House that year, was renominated by a new opposing party in 1828, the Democratic Party.
When the Democratic Party helped get Andrew Jackson elected President in 1828, it must be noted that this was not the Democratic Party that we know today, nor was it anything like the former Federalist Party before. This Democratic Party was the heir to the former Democratic-Republican Party, and like it’s predecessor, it opposed a strong federal government and supported individual economic interest. This interest, of course included the enslavement of African-Americans. For almost 30 years, the Democratic Party was opposed by another party that supported a strong federal government, the Whig Party. And they collapsed over their inability to address the issue of slavery. This lead to the formation of yet another party that would strongly oppose slavery as it would support a strong federal government, the Republican Party.
By 1860, the two political parties we have today were now a part of American politics. The Democratic Party was the party that supported business and economic interest and the Republican Party prioritized expanding the role of the federal government. Today, those two parties have categorically switched philosophies from where they were when Abraham Lincoln was elected. What happened? What started the party switch? Believe it or not, it was slavery itself. With the Democratic Party, lead mostly by southern states, wanting to preserve their right to practice it and the Northern-backed Republicans wanting to preserve the union and stop the expansion of slavery, the two sides fought in our Civil War. This was a war that was only ended when President Lincoln used the power of the federal government to out industrialize the Southern states. We built railroads to move troops, added states and manpower, which created more jobs to sustain the war effort. As a result of this sustained build-up, the typically Democratic-friendly businessmen and industrialist heavily profited from this expansion of the federal government lead by a Republican administration. Now, with the Civil War ended, Democrats begin to support the expanding federal government because it was good for business and the Republicans supported the strength of that federal government. And while the Republicans did support the Civil Rights of freed African-Americans, that begin to change in 1876 when Republican Rutherford Hayes agreed to end Reconstruction in the south, which largely protected the interest(and lives) of African-Americans after the Civil War. The Republican Party begin to emphasize less about social and civil rights and be more concerned about the business interest that it was started to gain support from.
The Democratic Party was on a different path. Secluded mostly to southern states after the war, the Democrats were still a party of business interest and against Civil Rights of African-Americans, but this begin to change in response to the surging business support that both the Democratic and Republican Parties enjoyed. In 1896, to try to go back to their roots of being a party for the “common man”, Nebraskan Congressman, William Jennings Bryan was able to defeat business-friendly President Grover Cleveland for the Democratic Nomination, which would effectively be the end of the Democratic Party’s staunch support from big business. This left the Republican Party as the only party supportive of economic freedom. Over the next 30 years, the Democrats would continue to be the party that was anti or against the Trust(or corporate interest) in America, supported workers rights and unionism. The Republicans, for the most part opposed them and continued to elect pro-business Presidents like William McKinley, William Taft, Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover. By the end of this period, the Party’s hands-off approach to business would contribute to the Great Depression and the election of Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party’s support of government spending.
Throughout the early 20th Century, the two parties had effectively switch philosophies on an economic basis, however, on social issues the parties remained largely consistent. But with President Roosevelt’s support of federal government investment to help lift the country out of the Great Depression, this included lifting all Americans, including African-Americans. These policies were supported by President’s John Kennedy(who’s father served in the Roosevelt Administration) and his successor Lyndon Johnson. And it was here where the parties and their voters really begin to switch. When President Johnson, a southern Democrat, with ties to the traditional Democratic Party, pushed for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he turned away from the older Democratic Party of the south and embraced civil rights. In turn, the older mostly southern Democrats(northern Democrats were already supportive of civil rights) turned away from him and largely abandoned the Democratic Party, joining the Democratic base that resisted the passage of the Civil Rights Act as well. They joined the Republican Party, which, by now, solidly supported the role of a “limited government” and economic conservatism, along additional conservative values of being pro-life and the promotion of “family values”. African-Americans, now being fully integrated in American politics would back the political party that back their economic and social interest, the Democratic Party.
And now, here we are today. As divided within each party as we are against each party. But I am a Democrat. I support men and women’s choice in family planning. I support immediate redress for gun violence that has plagued our communities. I support the civil rights of individuals to marry who they like, to pee where they want, to protest how they wish and to pray to what faith they follow. I expect the government to guarantee those rights. That is what makes the the Democratic Party the Democratic Party. A few years ago, I attended a forum, with a Republican colleague for a group of students and first time voters. A closing question we were given asked the difference between Democrats and Republicans. My Republican colleague responded by saying Democrats trust the government while Republicans trust people more. That was a fair opinion, which has some validity. But I had to remind her and the class, it isn’t simply the government we trust. It was the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln that reminded us that America is a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”. We, the people are the government. And as a Democrat, I believe in the full participation of all those people. Just as President Lincoln did. That made him a Republican. And that is what makes me a Democrat.