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From white supremacy to Barack Obama: The history of the Democratic Party

Today’s Democratic Party believes government
has an important role to play in society. It fights against economic inequality. It advocates policies that battle racial and
gender discrimination. But it wasn’t always this way. The Democratic Party was once the party of
white supremacy, supporting slavery and the Ku Klux Klan. To understand how the party made such a huge
shift, you have to go back to the party’s origins in the mid-1820s, when it sprung up
supporting the presidential candidacy of a popular former general, Andrew Jackson. Jackson was an outsider challenging the political
establishment and elites of his day, and his critics disparaged him as a “jackass.” But Jackson embraced the animal as a symbol
of determination, and donkeys started appearing in newspapers to represent him and his followers. In the 1828 presidential election, which saw
record-breaking popular participation, Jackson won a landslide victory. So his supporters argued that they and not
the old elites represented the popular will of the country — and they started calling
themselves the Democratic Party. Jackson’s administration immediately began
expelling Native Americans living east of the Mississippi River, an issue that defined
the new administration. After he signed the Indian Removal Act into
law in 1830, five large tribes were rounded up and forcibly marched to territories and
camps further west. And Democrats’ ambitions didn’t stop there. In the 1840s, the party adopted the doctrine
of “manifest destiny” — the idea that Americans — white Americans — were divinely entitled to dominate the whole North American continent. Democratic president James K. Polk put this
idea into action, massively expanding US holdings by annexing Texas, acquiring Oregon, and winning
much of what’s now the southwestern US in a war with Mexico. But soon afterward, national politics devolved
into bitter controversy over whether new states entering the Union should be permitted to
allow slavery. Democrats said they should, since their support
base was strongest in the slaveholding South. Yet a new Northern party — the Republicans
— sprang up in opposition to expanding slavery any further. When Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidency,
the South seceded, and the Civil War began. Once the Civil War was over, the Republican
party was bitterly unpopular among white Southerners, who wanted to maintain their supremacy over
former slaves. So the Democratic Party promised to limit
federal government intervention on behalf of black citizens. Democrats became effectively the only political
party in the South, aided by intimidation and suppression of black voters. Democrats also won on the state and local
level leading to constant abuses of the rights of black citizens. As the 20th century began, the country was
changing, and the Democratic Party was changing too. A handful of individuals and corporations
had grown enormously rich and powerful, using their vast fortunes to influence politics. As a reaction to this, some reformers began
pushing an agenda of progressivism — arguing that the government would take more of a role
in regulating big businesses and improving ordinary people’s lives. At first, these progressive reformers were
present in both parties. But it was Democrat Woodrow Wilson who won
the presidency in 1912 and put much of this agenda into action, over Republican resistance. So the Democratic Party became the main home
for progressives, and Republicans became more the party of business. But it was the Great Depression of the 1930s
that sealed the Democratic Party’s new identity as the party of government activism. In an effort to combat the crippling economic
situation, President Franklin Roosevelt signed what was then the largest package of domestic
government projects in American History, calling calling it the New Deal. His administration dramatically expanded the
size of government. Yet the party was still split over race. By the mid-20th century, it contained Southerners
who staunchly supported segregation, liberal reformers trying to end it, and many politicians
happy to look the other way. But it was 1964 when the senate voted on the
anti segregation civil rights act that shows how the progressive reformers in the party
had gained the upper hand, steering the party away from its racists past towards equality. But the democrats in the south voted against
the civil rights act, remaining wedded to the idea of segregation. This chart shows the presidential vote of
black voters. Around the 1960s the Black voters who had
already been moving toward the Democratic party would begin overwhelmingly support Democrats
from then on, and conversely the republicans would take a huge hit in black voter support. Meanwhile, white Southerners, moved away from
the Democratic Party they had been loyal to for so long — in part because of race, but
also because of suspicion of big government and a desire to defend “traditional values”
against liberal activists. Democrats would go from dominating the South,
to losing almost all influence in the region. Thanks in part to this drop in popularity
among white voters, Democrats started losing elections, often losing by huge margins. But demographically, the US is becoming an
increasingly non-white country, and the democrats have had a comeback thanks in part to minority
voters. The huge influx of hispanic voters has especially
benefitted democrats. These demographic shifts helped the Democratic
Party, once the advocates of white supremacy and slavery to elect the first black president
in 2008, showing just how much the party had changed over the years. Yet it’s still not entirely clear where
the future of the Democratic Party will lie. But as America becomes more diverse, it’s
likely that the democratic party’s appeal among minorities will continue to be its strength
into the future.