It seems ironic that the Democratic Party was founded on being against the current principles they now espouse. The Democratic Party was founded against the ideas of clientalism and patronage. Andrew Jackson, the famous general and two term president, was best known for being the founder of the party and defending the little guy, the farmer, the urban worker, the pioneer, etc. This attracted the average joe of the 19th century to the party.
At this point in history the GOP was not around. Instead you had the Democrats, Democratic Republicans (modern-day Democratic Party) and the Whigs. The Whigs would die out around 1850 when the GOP was formed. Their signature issue of finances having run its course in winning the presidency once in their party’s short history. The Democratic Party would find a base in the urban North as the populist Democratic Republicans found a home in rural and populist Andrew Jackson America (Appalachia) and the South.
The GOP would be founded with the blessing of disaffected Whigs and Democrats and find its home in the Industrial North, gobbling up Democratic voters. And after the Civil War the GOP would preside, over the period of several presidencies, a vast expansion of the nation in terms of population and economic growth. Yet through it all the Democratic Party survived and even thrived in areas of the country. Not even Grover Cleveland’s inept handling of the Crisis of 1893 could change the appeal the populist message of the Democrats carried.
Starting at the dawn of the 20th century the Democratic party would begin to change. Prominent Democratic pols in Chicago, New York and Boston gained fame by running City Hall like it was a trading post; blatantly exchanging favors for votes. Still, the Democratic Party was the party of populism and the little guy. Populist issues such as the right to unionize and for women to vote were the bread and butter of the party’s faithful. Woodrow Wilson’s presidency reshaped the Democratic Party. In a way Wilson could be called the father of modern progressiveness and openly abandoning the party’s populist roots.
After Calvin Coolidge’s failed presidency the larger than life progressive president FDR came to power. FDR proved to be the master at catering to the new clients the party had picked up starting with Wilson. He appealed the average worker through programs such as Social Security and the Public Works Administration, he bought off Southern whites with a promise to leave the issues of segregation and civil rights alone, and appealed to the managerial class with his strong hand and stewardship. Even when the economy dovetailed for the first time in 1936 he won reelection (doing his precursor Wilson proud).
With the end of WWII and a growing economy however the old client groups the party had picked up shifted. By the 60s the Democratic Party now had to appeal to African-Americans, feminists, environmentalists, anti-war activists and Southern whites. It is no surprise that the party could not do it. Perhaps if Kennedy survived past 1964 it could have but already the party was making trade-offs. The Civil Rights Act paid off African-Americans but began to cost them white Southerners. And this under a Southern Democratic president no less. The pursuance of the Equal Rights Amendment appealed to feminists but not middle America.
The GOP has never really been the party of populism but with the Democratic Party shedding populist Southern whites the GOP suddenly found itself growing through economically populist and socially conservative members. The GOP has been able to balance this change largely because the party is so economically and racially homogeneous.
But the Democratic Party continued to struggle to balance its interests. Jimmy Carter failed disastrously. His “all-man” presidency fizzled with the recession of 1979 and he managed somehow to turn off both middle America and Southern populists. Ronald Reagan’s presidency ushered in a decade of GOP dominance at the executive level. Beneath the GOP dominance of the executive level control of the Democratic Party’s message was debated. The Democratic Party had to find a way to appeal to its interest groups. For the next decade the party would try to find its answer at the executive level with liberal presidential candidates from the Northeast. That didn’t turn out well.
In 1992 the party would return to its populist roots in Bill Clinton. Clinton, with his Southern populist message proved the party could still use the message effectively. But as soon as Clinton entered the Oval Office the party’s interest groups all clamored for attention. Clinton at first tried to appeal to liberal interests alone. Perhaps he focused on the wrong interests. He tried to appeal urban liberals and gun control advocates with passage of the Brady Bill. He tried to get Healthcare Reform (a single payer based system) through to make UHC advocates happy. But ironically Clinton ran head-first into the populist Southern Democrats he represented in 1992. What would follow would be the GOP Revolution of 1994 and Southern white populists abandoning the party over its cronyist practices. Southern populists did not want to abandon Clinton and his return to centrist politics after 1994 ensured their support for the president once again, if not for the Democratic Party as a whole.
The modern millennium’s politics have been rocked by turmoil and upheaval. The 2000 presidential election was mired in controversy. September 11, 2001 went down in history as a day America would never forget. The Iraq liberation in 2003. The Financial Meltdown of 2007 culminating in the election of America’s first African-American president. Electoral instability has also hit American voters with massive Democratic wins in 2006 and 2008 and the Tea Party wave of 2010 favoring the GOP. But the modern foundation of the Democratic Party has not changed.
Then presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2007 and 2008 had the luxury of not having to appeal to particular constituencies. He was everything to an electorate hungry for change. This did not stop the President from pursuing a strategy based on a clientalist system after he was elected however. In his first two years Healthcare Reform was a buy-off to the insurance companies, liberals and feminists. Financial Reform has done little to strengthen the financial system but it sure has made bankers, attorneys and hedge fund managers happy. Cap and Trade was a favor to all of the above groups and then some.
Indeed the president’s current campaign strategy seems to be to try to hold this amalgamation of Democratic clients together just long enough to get reelected. Already he is playing to core client groups. He is courting the young with student loans, environmentalists with claims the EPA would be abolished, feminists and single women with the familiar leftist siren call of Roe vs. Wade being overturned if he is defeated in November. Not surprising missing from the president’s rhetoric is a message on economic populism to help the little guy. Perhaps Obama is learning for the party to continue its clientalistic practices it has to shed old clients to make way for the new.
It is sad to see what the party of Andrew Jackson has become. The party of populism has now become the party of urban , minority and client interests alone. Gone is the message of helping the little guy. Gone is the wing of the party that once represented Andrew Jackson’s views. Attrition has taken its toll as both Jacksonian voters and politicians have fled the party.
The absence of the populism in the Democratic Party has left a vacuum in American politics many voters see but can do nothing about. The GOP and Democrats increasingly continue to cater to the interests of partisans and special interests at the expense of America. For a vibrant two-party democracy to survive the little guy must have a voice. Right now he does not.