Whenever a major political party fails to hold the White House, the political pundocracy bemoans that the party is freezing in the political wilderness, with no message or unifying principles. Yet by historical standards, the chasm in the Democratic Party today is infinitesimally small compared to past divisions in the party. Currently the Democratic Party is divided between establishmentarian center-left Democrats, most of whom supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential primaries, and insurrectionist liberals, most of whom supported her main rival, Bernie Sanders.
The establishmentarians are what is left from the New Democratic movement which launched Bill Clinton to power in 1992. They support the use of military force as a viable tool in the nation’s arsenal, they favor open markets (with some regulations), and they willingly accept monetary contributions from large financial institutions and agribusiness.
The insurrectionist liberals are skeptical of the use of military force, they believe free trade is a threat to U.S. workers, and they excoriate centrists for their cozy relationship with business.
Yet both sides are mostly in harmony in believing that the federal government should be used to intervene where the free market fails. In addition, most Democrats support abortion rights and stricter federal gun control measures.
Socially conservative Democrats from rural areas are negligible. Rare examples of these include U.S. Representative Colin Peterson of Minnesota, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Governor John Bel Edwards of Louisiana.
The Democratic Party was founded as a conservative party, championing a decentralized federal government, free markets, state sovereignty, and the preservation of slavery.
During the Economic Panic of 1837, Democratic President Martin Van Buren literally sold the Federal Government’s tool supply so the tools could not be used for public works projects in an attempt to stimulate the economy. Van Buren contended: “The less government interferes with private pursuits, the better for general prosperity.”
A major break in the ideological foundation of the Democratic Party occurred during the second term of President Grover Cleveland. Cleveland steadfastly maintained that providing federal government assistance “encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character.” Accordingly, even as the national unemployment rate reached 18%, the President did not advocate using the Federal Government to attempt to curtail the nation’s economic woes.
The actions of the unpopular President effectuated a grassroots revolt within the party. Populist Insurrectionists advocated a policy of bimetallism, where both gold and silver would be certified as legal tender. They believed that with more money in circulation, the Depression would end sooner. They also called for the federal government to directly stimulate the economy. Cleveland, in contrast, continued to advocate a lasses-faire approach to the economy.
The wildly unpopular Cleveland announced he would not run for re-election in 1896. This was on the heals of the Democratic Party losing a record 127 U.S. House seats in the 1894 mid-term elections.
The insurrectionists unified around 36-year-old “Great Commoner” William Jennings Bryan, whose message of an activist federal government was a radical departure from the President. Bryan, in upbraiding the party’s past support for the Gold Standard, bellowed: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” With that, the Democratic Party nominated their first progressive candidate.
In politics, like in Physics, every action brings about an equal and opposite reaction. For the establishment of the Democratic Party, this reaction was to temporarily leave the current party. With the support of Cleveland and his coefficients, the National Democratic Party was hastily formed. The party nominated U.S. Senator John M. Palmer of Illinois. Speaking at the National Democratic Party Convention, U.S. Senator Bourke Cockran (D-NY) averred: “We must raise our hands against the nominee of our party, and we must do it to preserve the future of that party itself.”
In the end, Palmer garnered less than 1% of the vote and the National Democratic Party became a footnote within the American political tapestry. Bryan, the Democratic nominee, lost the election to Republican William McKinley.
The postmortem from this election was that the Democrats became a two-headed donkey. Conservatives wanted to return the party to its roots of advocating limited government. The avant-garde populist bloodline wanted the party to transmogrify into a house organ for the progressive movement.
Bryan won the nomination again in 1900, but the old guard wrested back control in 1904, nominating the staunch conservative New York Appeals Court Judge Alton B. Parker, who had the support of Cleveland. Bryan was incensed by this development, declaring: “No self-respecting Democrat would vote for him.”
This conservative/populist schism in the Democratic Party remained for much of the Twentieth Century.
The ideological divide was mostly drawn on geographical lines. Many Southern Democrats were more conservative than most Republicans. In fact, Conservative Southern Democrats joined with Conservative Republicans to form “The Conservative Coalition.” The group worked harmoniously against efforts to expand the Federal Government. They released the Conservative Manifesto in 1937. The document called for “lowering taxes,” “Maintaining states’ rights,” and “relying on American free enterprise.”
In addition to the economic split in the Democratic Party, there was also a split on the issue of segregation. Since the ending of reconstruction in 1877, Democrats controlled almost every office in “the solid south.” Most Democratic office- holders, like their constituents, sang the gospel of racial segregation. They used their leverage in the Congress, securing coveted committee chairmanships to make sure Civil Rights legislation never got out of their respective committees.
Many Democratic members of Congress from the North and West supported Civil Rights legislation but were not vocal for fear of offending the puissant Southern chairman.
The issue came to a head at the 1948 Democratic National Convention. The young Minneapolis Mayor and U.S. Senate nominee Hubert Humphrey, proposed a plank in the party’s platform committing the Democratic Party to support desegregation. Humphrey inflamed Southern delegates by averring: “The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” The Party supported the plank, precipitating the exit of the Mississippi delegates and half of the Alabama delegation from the Convention. Discontented States’ Rights Democrats formed the State’s Rights Democrat Party, a.k.a., the Dixiecrat Party. Despite the chasm, Democratic President Harry S. Truman was elected to a full term.
The Civil Rights battle in the party clashed in 1964. President Lyndon B. Johnson assembled a coalition of liberal and moderate Democrats and Republicans to shepherd the Civil Rights Act through the U.S. Congress. The split was magnified, as 93% of Southern House Democrats and 95% of Southern Democrats opposed the legislation. Contrariwise, 94% of non-Southern House Democrats, and 98% of non-Southern Senate Democrats voted for the bill. After that vote, the southern Democratic citadels of Alabama and Mississippi shifted sharply away from the party and joined the Republican ranks.
Johnson’s “gradual escalation” of the war in Vietnam saw strident opposition from the left, as well as from the right. A raging inferno enveloped in the party between the Johnson administration and their supporters and mostly liberal Democrats who supported U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN) in his failed quest to win the Democratic Presidential nomination. McCarthy branded the war “morally indefensible.” Many McCarthy supporters were disaffected by the Democratic party’s eventual nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a past Vietnam War supporter, and did not vote in the General Election. McCarthy offered only a luke warm endorsement of Humphrey, telling his loyal supporters: “I’m voting for Humphrey, and I think you should suffer with me.”
Four years later, the party nominated George McGovern, an ardent opponent of the U.S. role in Vietnam, causing some Democrats to join former Texas Governor John Connally in supporting the “Democrats for Nixon movement.” Johnson himself offered an unenthusiastic endorsement of McGovern, stating: “I believe the Democratic Party best represents the people, therefore I intend to support the 1972 Democratic nominee.”
While the gulf in the Democratic ranks today may seem wide, it is not nearly as pronounced as it used to be. The Democratic Party is fundamentally a center-left party. Conservative Democrats are nearly dormant. Both the center-left establishment and the liberal insurrectionist bloodlines support government as an agent of change. In the 2016 Presidential election, most Sanders’ supporters, even if reluctantly, supported Hillary Clinton in the General Election. That pales in comparison to whether the party should be conservative or liberal, whether it should support or oppose racial desegregation, or whether it should support or oppose a major military conflict involving the U.S.