The Democratic Party is currently known for its progressive stance and pro-big government ideology, but two hundred years ago it had a completely different ideology based on racism and white supremacy. The evolution of the Democratic Party can be summed up in two stages: the Southern Democrats and the Northern Democrats.
The Southern Democrats were the Democratic Party in its early stages, primarily pre-Civil War. The party started with the general Andrew Jackson, who gained support from the American public because of his decisive victories over the British in the War of 1812. Because Jackson was in favor of slavery and white supremacy, his opponents, primarily Northern Americans, started to call him a “jackass.” Jackson embraced that and started putting donkeys in the Democratic Party’s propaganda. This made the donkey the symbol of the Democratic Party, which is still used today. When Andrew Jackson ran for president, he won by a landslide vote. This made his supporters say that Jackson was the “popular will of the country”, which resulted in Jackson’s party being called the Democratic Party.
In his presidency, he passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, displacing several Native American tribes, including the Choctaw and Creeks in the Deep South. The fleeing of the Native American tribes became known as the Trail of Tears for the 4,000 Native Americans who died during the journey. The Indian Removal Act was one of the many instances that show how the early Democratic Party, contrary to present-day, allowed and even sanctioned racism and white supremacy.
However, the Democratic Party’s ambitions didn’t stop at the Indian Removal Act. In the 1840s, the party adopted the doctrine of Manifest Destiny - which meant that Americans, white Americans, were divinely entitled to dominate the whole North American continent, which originally belonged to Native Americans. President James K. Polk put this doctrine into action by annexing Oregon, Texas, and more parts of the Southwest as “spoils” from the Mexican-American War. In total, the US got the modern-day states of Washington, Oregon, Texas, California, Arizona, and more. Soon after, the nation was divided by whether these new states should adopt slavery or not. Because most of the Democrats supporters resided in the Deep South, where slave-picked cotton ruled the economy, they relied on slavery for their livelihood and advocated for its spread to the new states. In opposition, the newly formed Republican Party, mainly based in the abolitionist North, didn’t want slavery to expand. When Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, won the presidency in 1860, the Deep South seceded from the United States, which marked the start of the Civil War. The aftermath of the Civil War brought an end to slavery, but racism and white supremacy was still very present in America. The aftermath of the war also made the Republican Party extremely unpopular in the Deep South because the white supremacists wanted to re-institute slavery. In response, the Democratic Party promised the southerners that they would limit government intervention in the south. Democrats effectively became the only political party in the South, aided by the intimidation and suppression of black voters. The party also won at state and local levels which led to constant abuses of the rights of black citizens. The white supremacist policies of Southern Democrats stand as a testament to its founding ideals of slavery and racism.
The Northern Democrats are the Democratic party we know today. As the 20th century began, the country and the Democratic Party were changing. Due to the Industrial Revolution, a few captains of industry became extremely rich and powerful and used their fortunes to influence the political climate of the 20th century. This led to very loose child labor regulations, extreme lobbying power from big corporations, and a hugely detrimental environmental impact from fossil fuels and CO2 emissions.
In response, many reformers in politics started pushing an agenda of progressive ideals, by arguing that the federal government should have a larger role in regulating big businesses and improving the lives of the rising middle class. At first, these progressive reformers were present in both the Republican and the Democratic Party, but it was a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, who took the Oval Office in 1912 and put this progressive agenda into action. This was the catalyst of the shift to the modern Democratic Party present today. Because of President Wilson, the Democratic Party became the party for progressives, while the Republican Party became the party that favored big business. Yet even though the Democratic party was inching towards the party that it is today, one main event sealed its new identity: The Great Depression. It was the worst economic crisis in American history and the defining moment when the Democratic platform was based on progressivism, regulating big businesses, and pro-big government.
To combat the crippling economic situation, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed what was then the largest package of domestic government projects in American History, calling it the New Deal. In the process of doing this, his administration dramatically expanded the size of the government. The New Deal secured the Democrat’s economic policy. The party was still split over one big thing, however: segregation. By the mid-20th century, the party contained Southerners who staunchly supported segregation, liberal reformers trying to end it, and many politicians who didn’t have a stance on the matter. The moment that resolved this divide happened in 1964 when the Democratic-majority Senate passed the Civil Rights Act. This exemplifies how the progressive reformers in the party had gained the upper hand, steering the party away from its racist past toward equality and social justice. Around the 1960s, the Black voters - who had already been moving toward the Democratic Party - began to overwhelmingly support the Democrats and reject the Republicans.
Meanwhile, white Southerners moved away from the Democratic Party they had been loyal to for so long - in part due to the issue of segregation but also because of suspicion of big government; due to the rise of conservatism in the Republican Party and the Deep South, the South wanted to defend its “traditional values” against big government and liberal activists. In such a short time, Democrats would go from dominating the Deep South to losing almost all influence in the region. Thanks in part to this significant drop in support among white voters, especially those in the South, Democrats started losing elections, often by large margins. For example, in the 1984 presidential election, the Democrats only got 13 votes while the Republicans got 525 votes. But demographically, the US is becoming an increasingly non-white country, and the Democrats have had a comeback, in part due to minority voters. The huge influx of Hispanic voters has especially benefited the Democrats.
The shifts in demographics, in addition to the party’s progressive agenda, helped the Democratic Party, once the advocates of white supremacy and slavery, elect the first black president, Barack Obama in 2008, thus showing how much the party has changed over the years. It is not completely clear where the future of the Democratic Party will lie, but as America becomes increasingly diverse, the Democratic Party’s appeal among minorities will likely continue to be its strength.