The Democrats’ Sea Change

A while back I discussed Michael Holt’s history of the Whig Party.  In reading up on the Whigs one naturally also learns a great deal about their opponents, the Democrats.  As I mentioned in that blog post, the Whigs were, comparatively, the party of big government.  That is a bit of an exaggeration, but they did advocate for a stronger centralized government, promoted federal support for internal improvements, backed a national bank, and favored a high protective tariff.  In contrast, the Democrats were almost purely libertarian.  They advocated minimalist government intervention in the economy, opposed federal funding for internal improvements, generally opposed the National Bank (though not all did), and were the party of “states’ rights.”

This description of the Democrats sounds a lot different than the way one describe the current incarnation of the party.  While some would say that Republicans and Democrats have, in a sense, switched places, I would tend to disagree.  This is a point I’ve made before, but Federalists-Whigs-Republicans have carried on in the Hamiltonian tradition.  While Hamilton desired an energetic government, he wanted the government to be energetic in the few defined areas over which it had constitutional jurisdiction.  He was not an advocate for the sort of leviathan state that has sprung up in modern times.  So in a sense the Republicans have not changed that drastically from its earliest incarnation.  All that has happened is that the Democrats have moved from one extreme to the other.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the intellectual forefather of the Democratic party is Thomas Jefferson.  It was called something different in his day – in fact the name of the party that he belonged to was the Republican party.*  The party morphed over time, especially as the Federalist party died and old Federalists started joining the Republican party.  The election of 1824 saw the party split into at least two factions, the one led by President John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, the other led by Andrew Jackson.  The National Republicans – those led by Adams – would be vanquished by Jackson in 1828, and soon the party led by Jackson would come to be known – then and forever – as the Democrats.  (Yes, I am guilty of over-simplification, but this a blog post.)

If one looks at the general outlook of the Democratic party in the age of Jackson, it hues pretty closely to the Jeffersonian philosophy.  Certainly Jefferson was no fan of centralized government.  He was suspicious of the National Bank.  Like Jackson, he played the part of the “man of the people.”  Philosophically the so-called National Republicans were really a new incarnation of the Federalists, and the Whigs in turn were the heirs of this tradition.

So the Democrats were the more libertarian of the two parties, though perhaps even more decidedly so than modern libertarians.  Even the most passionate of libertarians of today would concede that there is some role for government in national economic affairs.  To put it more crudely, one can almost describe the Democrats of the pre-Civil War period as libertarians on steroids.

As well know, things are much different today.  This being a blog dedicated to history, I might save some of the discussion regarding the ramifications of this change for another venue.  But what intrigues me is the question of how and why the party changed so dramatically.  Donald discussed in the comments section of my Whig post how southern Whigs did end up in the Democratic party in southern states, but I don’t think it was the influence of this group that so radically altered the philosophic outlook of the Democratic party.  Did the Civil War so alter the political landscape that the old libertarian of the Democratic party was no longer tenable?  Was it Progressive and Populist infiltration?  If so, why were the Democrats the ones that moved so far in one direction?

I will suggest an explanation: the change that occurred within the Democratic party was simply the logical outgrowth of the Jeffersonian philosophy.

How can the libertarian philosophy of Jefferson have led to the big government Democrats of today?  In part it comes down to the core part of the Jeffersonian creed.  At heart he was a populist, and the 19th century populism of Jefferson was one that opposed the government.  20th century populism, on the other hand, embraced government intervention in the economy.  So the party didn’t really change fundamentally, it’s just that the populism that lay at the heart of the Democratic party led it down different policy paths at various times.

Again, I will expand on this a bit in another venue.  For now, I’ll just present this as some food for thought.

*NOTE: Please do not call it the Democratic-Republican party.  The term democratic-republican was rarely ever used to describe the party of Jefferson and Madison.  Historians use it today, I think, to distinguish it from the modern Republican party as well as to signify the link between the Democrats and the Jeffersonians.  Sorry, but this is a bit of a pet peeve of mind.

Published in: on December 13, 2010 at 10:55 pm  Comments Off on The Democrats’ Sea Change