HOW DID AMERICA’S TWO POLITICAL PARTIES get to be the way they are today? It’s a long story, for although we think of the United States as a young country, the Democratic Party, dating back to 1832, is the oldest political party in the world; the Republican Party, dating back to 1854, is the third oldest. (The second oldest is Britain’s Conservatives, if you date their beginning, as historian Robert Blake does, to the rallying of Tory opposition to the repeal of the Corn Laws by Benjamin Disraeli.) Nevertheless, over their history the two parties have retained their basic characters. The core of the Republican Party has been people who are considered by others and by themselves as typical Americans—Northern Protestants in the 19th century, married white Christians today—though they have never been by themselves a majority of the country. The Democratic Party, in contrast, has been a collection of out peoples considered by others and by themselves as not typical Americans—Southern whites and Catholic immigrants in the 19th century, blacks and gentry liberals today. Thomas Nast, the 19th-century (Republican) political cartoonist, was on to something when he depicted the parties as two different animals.
One corollary of the different characters of the two parties is that the Democratic Party has been more changeable than the Republican. Different out-groups have differing strength as new issues arise; disgruntled out-groups leave the party or, as they are assimilated and come to be seen as typically American, become part of the Republican core; new out-groups, like the peace protesters of the late 1960s and early 1970s, move into the party and upset the balance between its constituencies. From 1836 to 1932 the Democrats required that presidential nominees be chosen by a two-thirds vote at their national conventions. In effect, each out-group was given a veto over who should lead the party.
The Republicans have, however, undergone only one basic change, one made in response to a shift in the Democratic Party. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Republicans were the party more inclined to favor activist government. They wanted Congress to bar slavery in the territories and to undermine it in the slave states by appointing postmasters who would deliver abolitionist literature to slaves (Democratic postmasters put it in the round file). They wanted protective tariffs to encourage domestic industry. They prosecuted the Civil War, complete with an income tax and printing-press money, and after the war they favored generous pensions for Union Army veterans. Starting with the little-remembered Benjamin Harrison, progenitor of the first billion-dollar budget, they favored spending to build up a two-ocean navy. They passed bills purporting to regulate railroad rates and breaking up monopolies. They established the first national parks and forests, launched federal water reclamation projects, and built federal dams. Progressives like Robert La Follette of Wisconsin and George Norris of Nebraska did not think it anomalous that they remained Republicans during most of their careers. The party of Lincoln was not a laissez-faire party.
THE PARTY OF ANDREW JACKSON and Grover Cleveland was. Just about every time it was in power, it lowered tariffs and extolled free trade. Jackson vetoed the re-chartering of the Bank of the United States, and Cleveland vetoed bills providing disaster relief. The Democrats’ Kansas-Nebraska Act, which permitted voters in territories to decide whether to allow slavery (and which prompted the formation of the Republican Party), was in line with a general policy of noninterference with state and local institutions. During the Civil War, Democrats sought a compromise peace. Afterward they were the party of segregation in the South and the saloon in the North: Let each out-group have its way.
All this changed during the time that the two Roosevelts, the Republican Theodore and the Democrat Franklin, held the presidency for nearly 20 of the 45 years between 1901 and 1945. Democratic presidential nominees William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson favored a more activist government than Jackson or Cleveland (who as incumbent president refused to endorse Bryan). The 1912 election was a contest between three presidents who all favored some form of activism: the Republican William Howard Taft, whose policies were not much different from those TR backed when in office; the Democrat Wilson; and Roosevelt, now an explicit progressive. The Taft-Roosevelt split enabled Wilson to win, and he and his Democratic Congress passed activist legislation—the Federal Reserve, the Federal Trade Commission, a tougher antitrust act—even as they lowered tariffs. The Republican administrations of the 1920s were by no means entirely laissez-faire; they raised tariffs and passed farm subsidies even as they whittled down Wilson’s high wartime tax rates. But under a junior member of the Wilson administration, Franklin Roosevelt, Democrats made themselves what they have been ever since: the party more in favor of big government programs. In response, the Republicans moved toward free market policies. But progress was uneven. As late as the 1960s, it was Democrats who mostly supported lowering trade barriers and Republicans who were mostly opposed; Democrats, including Edward Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, played significant roles in deregulation legislation in the 1970s.
THE DEOMCRATS HAVE BEEN an especially changeable party on foreign policy. In the first half of the 19th century, the party of Jackson was expansionist, and its opponents, first the Whigs and then the Republicans, were generally opposed. Jackson played a key role in the acquisition of Florida in 1819 (his execution of two British subjects there gave leverage to his later rival John Quincy Adams to get Spain to give it up) and, with his protégé Sam Houston, the independence of Texas in 1836 and its annexation in 1845. A Jacksonian publicist coined the term “manifest destiny,” the justification for Jackson protégé James K. Polk’s peaceful acquisition of the Oregon Territory and the successful war with Mexico, through which the U.S. won California and our current Southwest. Whigs and Republicans feared, correctly, that they were trying to expand the zone of slavery.
After the Civil War, the Democrats swore off expansion; it was Ulysses S. Grant who tried to grab the Dominican Republic and William McKinley who authorized the war with Spain that gave us Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and quasi-sovereignty over Cuba. And of course it was McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, who obtained the Canal Zone and started construction of the Panama Canal. The Democrats’ out-groups, including distinguished members of the chattering class, joined William Jennings Bryan in opposing what they called imperialism. The Republicans produced a large navy and a reformed army and, when World War I broke out in Europe, it was Theodore Roosevelt who was champing at the bit to enter. But the decision to go to war in 1917 was Woodrow Wilson’s, and for a half-century after it was the Democrats who were the party more inclined to favor military involvement and the Republicans who tended to be opposed—though both parties contained many interventionists and isolationists in the years before World War II.
Democratic presidents provided leadership in that war and in the Cold War that soon followed, though in both cases they included Republicans in their administrations and decision-making. Some Republicans demurred: Robert Taft voted against the NATO treaty, the prime reason Dwight Eisenhower ran against him in 1952. And the United States went to war in Korea in 1950 and in Vietnam in the 1960s under Democratic presidents as well. This is the history Bob Dole was referring to when in the 1976 vice presidential debate he spoke bitterly of “Democrat wars.”
His comment puzzled some listeners since it was already out of date. The peace movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, like the Tea Party movement of the last three years, was an inrush into political activity of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of citizens energized by strong beliefs over a major policy issue. The peace movement, like the Tea Party movement, initially proclaimed itself bipartisan but quickly directed most of its efforts and energies into one political party. Thus although Republican Rep. Pete McCloskey ran against Richard Nixon as a peace candidate in the 1972 Republican presidential primaries, his candidacy ended after New Hampshire, four years after Sen. Eugene McCarthy ignited the peace movement by almost beating Lyndon Johnson in the Democratic primary there. And dozens of peace Democrats were running against incumbents in House and Senate primaries in 1968, 1970, and 1972, sometimes winning them and then losing the general election, but sometimes winning the general election as well. As McCloskey was foundering on the Republican side, George McGovern was on his way to winning the Democratic nomination over Edmund Muskie, who had backed Johnson’s Vietnam policies, and Henry Jackson, who continued to support the Truman-Kennedy Cold War policies, as he did until his premature death in 1983. But increasingly there was less room for the Scoop Jacksons in the Democratic Party. In the 1984 presidential primaries, Democratic candidates vied to see who could most vehemently support the ludicrous nuclear freeze proposal. The peace movement transformed the Democratic Party from the more hawkish party it had been for 50 years to the more dovish party it has been for almost 50 years now. The white Southerners and blue-collar union members who had been the party’s key constituencies migrated toward the Republicans, spurred by cultural issues as well as by foreign policy. They were replaced by the gentry liberals, who were attracted by the peace and abortion rights movements, and by black voters, who migrated almost unanimously to the Democrats starting in 1964. The Scoop Jackson Democratic tradition lives in the lonely example of Joe Lieberman, defeated in his Democratic primary in 2006 and retiring from the Senate this year.
The core constituencies in Barack Obama’s Democratic Party include black voters, public employee union members, and gentry liberals (think Nancy Pelosi) who are particularly energized by issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and supposed man-made global warming; they also include a majority of voters under 30, the so-called Millennial generation. The Obama strategists all but explicitly gave up on winning white non–college graduate voters this cycle, the moderate Blue Dogs have mostly disappeared from Congress, and white evangelical Protestants (heavily for Jimmy Carter in 1976) are now a solid and large part of the Republican core. In the meantime, the Tea Party movement has provided a new focus for a Republican Party that, under leaders like Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and the two George Bushes, has been less supportive of (but not entirely unsupportive of) activist big government. The peace movement transformed the Democratic Party; the Tea Party movement has simply nudged the Republican Party further in the direction it already tended to go. The Tea Party folks, like the peaceniks, have defeated incumbents and seized nominations with varying effect; as with the peace movement, some of the newcomers have turned out to have good political instincts and even governing skills, while some—this is inevitable in a mass inrush of citizens into politics—have turned out to be wackos, weirdos, and witches.
The electoral coalitions of the two parties in the 1995–2005 period, a time of unusual stability in voting patterns and near-equal balance between the parties, were formed around cultural issues and based on voters’ deep moral and religious (or unreligious) beliefs. The Tea Party movement—and the Obama Democrats’ big-government policies that sparked it—has changed the focus to economic and fiscal issues. And so the Republicans, as is typical in their history, are trying to rally their core group to the polls and frame the issues in a way that appeals to the undecided, while the Democrats, as is typical in their history, are trying to rally their disparate out-groups with appeals tailored to each one in turn. Sometimes they bump up against one another: Barack Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage pleased gentry liberals and young voters, but may have antagonized black voters, who opposed it by wide margins in state referenda. The outcome, as this is written, is unclear. But it seems likely that the basic characters of the two parties will persist, as they have for 180 and 158 years now.