A People’s History of the Democratic Party
By Christopher C.
Many on the broad left argue that the Democratic Party is, at least in a general sense, “on our side.”
When compared to the GOP, which actively works to deny minorities their right to vote and puts forward reactionary agendas on a host of other issues, it is easy to see why this might be the case. When one looks beyond the surface, however, one sees that the story is very different.
The Democratic Party is not a force that works for the people. It is a party of monopoly capital. Its function is not to give a voice to the oppressed, but to co-opt and channel their movements into an ineffectual arena. The Democratic Party is not a wolf, but a sheepdog.
This is the crux of my argument. In this essay, I want to dig beneath the propaganda of the Democratic Party as the party of the people. I am attempting here to the true history of that organization: the people’s history. Such an effort must necessarily be partial, so I want to focus on two eras in which the Democratic Party is widely regarded as being a progressive force: the New Deal era of the 1930s and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
It is a fairly common view that the two-party system is inherently flawed. Both parties are generally and increasingly regarded as being “bought off” by the rich, or at least working in the interests of some group other than the broad masses. In terms of the Democratic Party specifically, this usually expresses itself in an individualistic analysis.
The Party is painted as being currently run by bootlickers, sell-outs, and the like. But this is painted as a deviation from the norm. There is supposedly some populist or progressive kernel at the center of the Party, which individual candidates often stray from. The inevitable result of such an understanding is, of course, the belief that a specific candidate can fix the situation. “If we just elect this President, or these senators,” the argument goes, “everything will be fine.”
This attitude was given its clearest expression in the Bernie Sanders campaign. But the Democratic Party is an actual organization with goals and a strategy. It is, with some exceptions, a unified whole. Parties are not, in the last analysis, collections of individuals. Individuals have a significant amount of agency within such organizations, but this is dwarfed by the influence of the Party’s class interests. The Democratic Party takes a great deal of money and energy from unions, but that did not stop Bill Clinton from abandoning them to business interests. When we evaluate the Democratic Party, it is less useful to focus on individual policy choices than it is to zero in on the class base of the organization.
The Democrats have, admittedly, maintained a populist veneer for most of their history. It has always been run by the capitalist class, but its members painted themselves as standing up for the common person. Provided, of course, that said person was a white male. The two founders of the Democratic Party, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, typify this. Jefferson, the slave owner, glorified a hypothetical democracy made up of small farmers. His democracy of small farmers explicitly did not include black people, the majority of the working class at the time . Jackson, the champion of extending suffrage to those who did not own property, launched a new round of genocide against Native Americans . The Party began as a viciously racist, anti-democratic, and violent institution bent on maintaining the supremacy of capital.
The origins of the Democratic Party lie in the slaveholding South. Before the Civil War, the Democratic Party’s base was the slave-owning aristocracy . In the North, where there was a growing industrial capitalist class, the Party marshalled appeal to the settler workers who had been given land stolen from the Natives . They spoke out against the formation of monopolies, which appealed to settler workers, the small farmers, and the planter class alike. All were against the growth of an industrial owning class in the North . It was this alliance, all united based on their desire to uphold genocide and slavery, from which the Democrats pulled their early support. They put forward legislation aimed at increasing the amount of land that slaveholders could own, and this happened to line up with the interests of settler farmers as well.
During the Civil War, the Democrats took up seemingly populist causes that actually allied with the interests of the slave-owners. The Party was against the draft and against raising taxes for the war effort . This polarization laid the basis for race riots in which white settlers attacked and beat black workers. Any rhetoric that spoke to this working class (universal suffrage, etc) would only apply to whites, who were near-universally granted privileges that elevated their class positions . The Democratic Party’s rhetoric has always been engineered to maintain the dominant mode of production. There have been significant changes to the Party in the intervening two centuries, but it is worth reflecting on the fact that the Democrats’ biggest campaign fundraiser, held yearly in Iowa, is called the Jefferson-Jackson dinner . Although the Party has always spoken to the working class, their interests have always been the perpetuation of the oppressive status quo.
In the 20th century, the Party transformed its openly racist into a new populism that was able to absorb the mass union uprisings of the 1930s, as well as a large part (though by no means the totality) of the black power struggles in the 1960s . (the struggles inspired by this period, including the feminist and environmental justice movements, have also been the target of co-optation by the Party, with varying degrees of success) . None of these movements took over the Democratic Party; their participants merely became part of its voting base. These movements sought, whether or not they were conscious of this fact, to alter the class character of the Party. The property-owning elites who had always been at the top could not and would not allow such a shift to occur. The Party’s platforms and policy choices were based on capitulating to the right, rather than pushing the discourse to the left.
It is worth noting that some of the biggest victories these movements sustained were won in periods of great independence from the Party. The New Deal is a superlative example of this. The New Deal was, at its core, an attempt not to better the lives of the working class, but to save a failing capitalist system. President Roosevelt actually considered himself “the savior of free enterprise” . The New Deal was an almost direct response to agitation by Communists and the impending collapse of capitalism. FDR and the Democrats passed some of its more radical provisions because they wanted to reign in the oppressed and stave off revolution. One important fact all but proves this: the heads of General Electric and Standard Oil were called in to write the New Deal . It represented not worker’s power, but the dawn of a new bloc of capitalists. In contrast to the prior laissez-faire attitude of years past, these magnates advocated state intervention to save capitalism.
One of the most important aspects of the New Deal was the so-called National Industrial Recovery Act, which granted the right to unionize. The NIRA did not only give workers the right to unionize, it also permitted the corporations themselves to form unions, which could then head off the organization of the workers. Even when attempting to appease the working class (if only to stop them from going too far), the Democratic Party could not help but give a leg up to the already-dominant capitalist class .
This backstabbing lead to a wave of strikes across the nation in 1934, particularly in Toledo, San Francisco, and Minneapolis. Workers shut down cities and won the right to organize genuinely free unions-a right that had been denied to them by the NIRA . This pushed FDR to pass the National Labor Relations Act and the Wagner Act. When this latter law was passed in 1935, the Communist Party was the most powerful force in the unions. It was when the CP shifted towards the Democrats that Roosevelt was able to put the breaks on the New Deal .
The Democratic Party has not welcomed progressive movements with open arms. On the contrary, they responded to the demands of the oppressed only when confronted with immense pressure from below, spearheaded by independent left-wing organizations. Any benefits derived from the New Deal was won through autonomous working class struggle, not the benevolence of the ruling Party.
The Democratic Party was careful to grant just enough to labor unions so that the movement would continue to ally with them. On the back of the New Deal, Democrats rose to prominence, tying the political legitimacy of labor to the legitimacy of the Party. The CIO even headed up committees within the Roosevelt administration, further cementing the co-optation of labor into Democratic Party politics . In 1936, the UAW Commission voted to build a genuine labor party. The heads of the CIO, at this point a fixture in the Roosevelt administration, threatened to cut funding if the UAW abided by the results of the vote. The union was eventually forced to capitulate. Leaders actively organized to channel these sentiments back into the Roosevelt reelection campaign . The Democratic Party’s duty is to impose ruling-class politics on the oppressed. Their goal is to change the logic of resistance.
The Civil Rights movement, too, fell victim to this. It could not rely on the Democratic Party of the South. This organization was materially and ideologically committed to the maintenance of Jim Crow, given that its base was still firmly rooted in the ruling class of the region. Northern Democrats could be pushed left after much cajoling, but the Black Freedom Movement required a strong base in the South to even begin affecting national change. This Southern wing also began independent of the Democratic Party. This is when they were able to shut down major parts of the South and affect genuine change .
Kennedy and Johnson wanted to maintain the moderate wing of the movement so as not to upset the Southern Dixiecrats that formed an influential wing of the Party . One example of this is Kennedy’s response to the Freedom Rides against segregation, in which activists organized to desegregate lunch counters and public transit. The activists, who faced unimaginable violence, requested federal protection from the Kennedy administration. Granting this protection would alienate the Dixiecrats, but not granting it would prove that the United States was not a democratic country. In the thick of the Cold War, this was something Kennedy desperately wanted to avoid .
Kennedy elected to fund the activists, but only on the condition that they channel their efforts into voter registration rather than segregation. This did little to mitigate the violence faced by activists, as they were still beaten and jailed in the thousands . All this without the federal protection they had initially requested. In fact, the 1963 movement in Birmingham was a response to this betrayal, which further radicalized the movement. Only then, in the face of radical action from below, did Kennedy officially sponsor a Civil Rights bill. He did so reluctantly, and the bill in question was often not enforced . This says something about what the Democratic Party does to movements. Its imposition, its monopoly, prevents movements from developing radical cores, as the energy of the people will always be channeled into avenues that do the least to challenge power.
The Democrats are not the party of change. It is built to maintain the legitimacy of capitalism and pull it out of crisis when necessary.
This is a vital lesson we must learn. Our duty should be to fight for independence from the Democratic Party within mass social movements. The particular history of the United States tells us that this is the only viable path to victory. The Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements. It is where liberation goes to die. Our critique does not stem from an idealistic perfectionism, but rather a shrewd, materialist calculation. It is not merely that the Democratic Party isn’t doing enough to help us, but that they are doing too much to hinder us.
The Democrats take the force that can make change-the working class and oppressed-and cut off its legs. The Party is not some benevolent force that can be molded to the will of anyone who happens along. They are an organization with a particular material interest, a particular class content. The Democratic Party is the enemy, just as much as the Republicans. If we want to change the world, it is vital that we break away from them and form our own mass, really revolutionary Party.
Christopher C is a Marxist-Leninist activist and writer.
- Padover, Saul Kussiel. Thomas Jefferson on democracy. New York: New American Library, 1946.
- Cave, Alfred A. “Abuse of power: Andrew Jackson and the Indian removal act of 1830.” Historian 65.6 (2003): 1330-1353.
- Eyal, Yonatan. The Young America Movement and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, 1828–1861. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
- Sakai, J. Settlers: The mythology of the white proletariat. Morningstar Press, 1983.
- Sanders, Elizabeth. Roots of reform: farmers, workers, and the American state, 1877-1917. University of Chicago Press, 1999.
- Silbey, Joel H. A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860-1868. WW Norton & Company, 1977.
- State Central Committee. “staff Finances campaign, 189, 204 communications expenses, 121 Dollars for Democrats, 213-24 finance director, 212-15 Jefferson-Jackson dinners.” n 16: 103-4.
- Martin, John Frederick. Civil rights and the crisis of liberalism: the Democratic Party, 1945-1976. Westview Press, 1979.
- Quoted in McFarland, Charles K. Roosevelt, Lewis, and the New Deal: 1933-1940. No. 7. Texas Christian University Press, 1970.
- Swenson, Peter. “Arranged alliance: Business interests in the New Deal.” Politics & Society 25.1 (1997): 66-116.
- Goldfield, Michael. “Worker insurgency, radical organization, and New Deal labor legislation.” American Political Science Review 83.4 (1989): 1257-1282.
- Martin, op. Cit.