(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 16 November 2016.)


In its over 180 years of existence, the Democratic Party has completed a remarkable ideological and geographic transformation. Originally a staunch defender of Southern slavery, the party now wins the support of most nonwhite voters. Once an advocate of rural interests against coastal elites, the party now draws much of its strength from cities and coastal areas.


Ironically, the party had its roots in the so-called Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1800-24), which was formed to oppose the Federalist Party run by Alexander Hamilton. From 1800, the Republicans controlled the presidency anddominated US politics. By the mid-1820s the party splintered into the Jacksonian movement and the short-lived National Republican Party (later succeeded by the Whig Party).


The Party of Indian Removal

In 1828, Andrew Jackson was swept into office with broad support. His supporters argued that they had the popular will and began calling themselves “Democratic” Republicans — and eventually, just “Democrats” to distinguish themselves from their rivals.


The Democratic Party emerged from that split and was formed in 1830, which was also the year President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law to round up Indians  from their homes and send them to concentration camps and on forced marches. The Indian issue was one of the most important in defining the new Democratic Party. Congressional votes at the time showed that voting on Indian affairs was the most consistent predictor of party affiliation.


With the Indians moved out, the Democratic Party turned its sights westward. By the 1840s, the party had embraced the idea of “manifest destiny” — that (white) Americans were divinely entitled to dominate the whole NorthAmerican continent.


The party pressed for the expansion of American institutions across the whole of North America, whether the residents — Indians, Spaniards, Mexicans, Canadians — wanted them or not. The doctrine of “manifest destiny” was mainly a Democratic doctrine.


A massive expansion in the 1840s set the stage for controversy over whether slavery should be expanded to these newly acquired territories. That would eventually lead to the fall of the Whig Party and the rise of the new Republican Party.


Party of Slavery Fractured and Only Dominated the South 

Through the 1850s began, the question over whether slavery should be allowed in new territories and states became the major dividing line in American politics — and the Democratic Party more and more clearly became the most important institutional supporter of slavery.


Their main rivals, the Whigs, were split on the issue between the North and South. A new Northern party organized around opposition to expanding slavery appeared — the Republican Party which was subsequently led by Abraham Lincoln.


Crisis finally arrived with the 1860 election of Republican Abraham Lincoln as president, the subsequent secession of 11 Southern states, and the breakout of the Civil War. The Democratic Party in the north fractured. Main groups within the Democratic Party constantly stoked fears that Lincoln’s policies would lead to miscegenation and racial equality.


In 1864, Lincoln ran for reelection and for pushed a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. The Democrats fought back with the most explicitly and virulently racist campaign by a major party in American history. The amendment was defeated in the House in June because 57 of the chamber’s 72 Democrats opposed it.


Lincoln had expected to lose the presidential election even as late as August. But the fall of Atlanta in early September restored public confidence in Lincoln’s handling of the war. He swept to a landslide victory that November. The ensuing crisis and Civil War led to the passage and ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, and it also positioned the Republican Party as the nation’s governing party. In the next 11 presidential elections, spanning 1868 to 1908, Democrats only managed to win twice. They held the Senate for just four years in that 40-year timespan, and the House of Representatives for 16 years.


But in the South, the Democrats became effectively the only party — a situation that would last for decades.


Their dominance at state and local government levels resulted in constant abuses of the rights of freed blacks. Long into the 20th century, the South remained a one-party region under the control of a reactionary ruling elite.


The Democratic Party Rebuilds Grassroots Support

This happened as racial issues receded from the national debate. But the Democratic Party also began to transform itself. Six episodes describe their transformation.


(1) Free Silver Movement

In 1873, the US abandoned silver coinage and shifted to the gold standard. Many farmers blamed the policy change and the business interests who supported it for their economic hardships. The key fact was deflation. The gross national product deflator fell steadily from 1869 to 1896.


In 1896, Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan attempted to mobilize a national populist coalition against gold-supporting capitalists. Farmers across the South and West began to gravitate toward the Democrats. But Jennings failed when the rural states that backed him weren’t enough for a majority.


Incidentally, L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a children’s story, is a sophisticated commentary on the battle over free silver. Dorothy in the story represents America, who killed the Wicked Witch of the East (representing eastern business and financial interests) and the Wicked Witch of the West (representing the Republican President McKinley).


Dorothy’s companions are the straw man (symbolizing the farmer), the tin man (symbolizing the workman), and the cowardly lion (symbolizing William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic Party leader). And she travels along the yellow brick road in here silver shoes (silver and gold symbolized their support for bimetallism) to the Emerald Palace (the White House).


The Wicked Witch of the East is killed bywhen a cyclone (symbolizing the free silver movement) that sweeps up Dorothy’s house from Kansas to land on her. The Wicked Witch of the West is killed by a bucket of water (symbolizing monetary easing to bring inflation) that Dorothy pours on her. The allegories are vivid and speak to the political conflicts of the day.


(2) Woodrow Wilson and Progressivism

The Progressive political tradition arose in the US in the early 20th century. It focused on fighting corruption, countering the power of monopolistic trusts, social reform, and the active use of government to try to improve people’s lives.

Originally, there were progressive elements in both the Democratic and Republican parties, withRepublican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson as leading figures. After Wilson won the 1912 presidential election, Democrats enacted various economic and governmental reforms, including an antitrust law and an income tax. The Democratic Party became known as the main home for progressives.


(3) Great Depression

The Great Depression of the 1930s finally restored the Democratic Party to dominance in national politics. It followed a decade of Republican rule, generally pro-business policies, and a booming economy, and led to a landslide Democratic victory in 1932 that swept Franklin D. Roosevelt into office.


Roosevelt enacted the New Deal, perhaps the most sweeping domestic legislative program in American history. His administration dramatically expanded the size of government.The New Deal’s progressive programs included jobs programs, laws expanding union powers, infrastructure development, and the creation of Social Security.


This expansion of the social welfare state and labor unions provided a new and durable organizational base that became increasinglyassociated with the Democratic Party. The beneficiaries of the New Deal became a loyal constituency that allowed the Democratic Party to secure election success for decades.


The Democratic Party Splits

But the expansion of union power created a backlash among business interests in the Republican Party and the conservatives in the Democratic South. The latter were suspicious of union organizing activities. The two gradually joined forces to stop the growth of labor unions in the South with the enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act that affirmed the right to work.


Labor is still a key pillar in the Democratic coalition in states where it still has a presence. But union membership has dropped so much, and unions have been so weakened, that the party now has to look elsewhere for much of its financial support and organizational muscle — to rich donors and social issue interest groups.


The growth of government and the expansion of entitlements were increasingly criticized as eroding personal liberties and negatively impacting family values, in addition to being a drag on economic efficiency. Republican economic values and conservative traditional family values came to be seen as complementary with each other.


The major clashes between Republicans and Democrats would eventually take place on cultural and identity issues against a background of regional economic stagnation. Subsequent developments helped crystalize these issues.


(4) Civil Rights Movement

The Democratic coalition of the mid-20th century was divided between conservative Southerners who supported segregation, and progressive activists trying to end it. Eventually, the supporters of civil rights gained the upper hand and pushed through important civil rights and voting rights laws in the mid-1960s.


Although nearly all Republicans voted in favor of these laws, it was Democratic president Lyndon Johnson who signed them into law and this helped drive more and more black voters to a party that had so long been associated with racial discrimination.


It also set the stage for the gradual migration of voters in the south from Democrats to Republicans, although the Democrats would maintain control of the House for 40 straight years between 1955 and 1994.


During this period, the voting population became ethnically more diverse through immigration (both legal and illegal) and better educated. Identity and culture emerged as a new factor driving political division. University education was secularizing spiritual beliefs and the social norms of the better educated. All of this led to a backlash and triggered a spiritual awakening.


(5) Identity Politics

American politics weren’t always incredibly polarized by religion, but restrictions on school prayer and the expansion of abortion rights helped mobilize the Christian right. Nobel economist Robert Fogel called this the Fourth Great Awakening. These issues weren’t purely partisan at first, but gradually, Democrats and the progressive establishment became known for protecting abortion rights, defending the separation of church and state, and expanding gay rights.


Many ordinary Americans also began to wonder why their communities were filling up with immigrants. The growth of the Hispanic population has been particularly important to presidential-year Democratic math. This has helped California and New Mexico become solidly Democratic states on the presidential level, and tipped swing states Florida and Colorado toward Barack Obama. Democrats believe that the future of their party relies on the strength of their bond with the Hispanic electorate.


The Democratic Party’s social progressivism and search for organized support to make up for the decline of its union base has led it increasingly to embrace a host of diverse social issues and cultural identities, from pro-choice, gay rights, women’s rights, ethnic minorities, to the environment, and to insist on politically correct language by which one cannot even complain about the problem.


But this created demarcations. The well-educated professional elites living in major cities mostly on the two coasts embraced social cultural diversity and identities. But many less educated rural and suburban voters, especially those in the Rust Belt and Appalachia in the heartland of America, shunned them.


Many less educated rural and suburban voters felt increasingly uncomfortable with the social cultural diversity and identities of the Democratic Party and began crossing over to the Republican Party, where they felt more at home among social conservatives. This combination of factors eroded the geographic base of Democratic support in the South, and also among rural and suburban voters in the American heartland.


(6) Economy and Geography

In recent years, the richest states — many of which are in the Northeast or on the West Coast — have tended to vote Democratic. These states just happen to be the home of many successful industries, but that doesn’t mean that the Democratic Party is the party of rich professionals. Its progressive image continues to command loyalty among poor urban voters even when union power has declined precipitously. But their loyalty has been eroding in the heartland of America, especially in places where economic stagnation has been prolonged.


These are areas in dire need of public investment in schools and infrastructure, and they have been neglected since the 1970s. Since John Kennedy, the Rust Belt and Appalachian working class has regarded the Democrats as increasingly being led by East Coast intellectuals. To them Clinton was the epitome of the Democratic Party’s kowtowing to Wall Street.


The Obama presidency also brought some major setbacks for Democrats, who ended up with full control in a mere 11 state legislatures, against 30 for the Republicans. The number of states where Democrats control both the governorship and the state legislature has been cut to 7 — the fewest since the Civil War.


The Democratic Party’s shift to cultural and identity politics based in the coastal cities has increasingly isolated its leadership from the rank and file working class, particularly in America’s heartland where the economy continues to stagnate.


Thirty-one year old J D Vance’s autobiographical Hillbilly Elegy, published in 2016, speaks to the heart and soul of these forgotten people, who have long given up hope and for whom poverty is a culture. Mr. Vance grew up in a decaying steel town in Ohio and offers a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald Trump.


After reading Hillbilly Elegy, you can understand why there was a left wing Bernie Sanders insurgency in the Democratic Party. It failed partly because there was no support from a Democratic Party leadership that was too focused on social and cultural identity issues, and partly because many of the forgotten white underclass had already gravitated to the Republican Party.


The American working class are so disillusioned and distressed that they have become prone to an anti-establishment revolt, which is exactly what happened last week. It took an outsider called Donald Trump, who in 2000 had sought to run as an independent candidate, to find the perfect host body in the Republican Party and became its presidential nominee and president elect in 2016.


Nobel economist Paul Krugman (a democrat and Clinton supporter) has completely failed to comprehend this situation. His “Thoughts for the Horrified” op-ed in the New York Times on 11 November reveals the profound disconnect of an East coast liberal progressive academic with the working class by zeroing  on Trump’s lies.


An investigation of voter estrangement has never felt more urgent. Perhaps the Democratic progressive wing will gain support from within the party now, unifying under a leadership around Elizabeth Warren, Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders. They will probably inherit the Clinton-Obama organization machine and make peace with the cultural elites and the rich.


Or, perhaps, they will try to lead a populist revolt from within the party just as Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan had done before. But they will also need to reconnect with the white underclass that has gone over to the Republican Party. If Trump fails to deliver on his promise to help them, the Democrats might have an opening.


Poverty among the underclass is, however, not as easy a problem to crack once it becomes a culture, as many New Dealers tend to forget. Half a century of Democratic social policy has so far failed to alleviate poverty.



Robert W Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, University of Chicago Press, 2000.

J D Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Harper, 2016.


Photo: Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.


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