The Democratic Party is one of the two major political parties in the United States, and the nation’s oldest existing political party. After the Civil War, the party dominated in the South due to its opposition to civil and political rights for African Americans. After a major shift in the 20th century, today’s Democrats are known for their association with a strong federal government and support for minority, women’s and labor rights, environmental protection and progressive reforms.
Though the U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention political parties, factions soon developed among the new nation’s founding fathers.
The Federalists, including George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, favored a strong central government and a national banking system, masterminded by Hamilton.
But in 1792, supporters of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who favored decentralized, limited government, formed an opposition faction that would become known as the Democratic-Republicans.
Despite Washington’s warning against the danger of political parties in his famous farewell address, the power struggle between Federalists and the Democratic-Republican Party dominated the early government, with Jefferson and his supporters emerging largely triumphant after 1800.
The Federalists steadily lost ground in the early 19th century, and dissolved completely after the War of 1812.
In the highly controversial presidential election of 1824, four Democratic-Republican candidates ran against each other. Though Andrew Jackson won the popular vote and 99 electoral votes, the lack of an electoral majority threw the election to the House of Representatives, which ended up giving the victory to John Quincy Adams.
In response, New York Senator Martin van Buren helped build a new political organization, the Democratic Party, to back Jackson, who defeated Adams easily in 1828.
After Jackson vetoed a bill renewing the charter of the Bank of the United States in 1832, his opponents founded the Whig Party, led by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. By the 1840s, Democrats and Whigs were both national parties, with supporters from various regions of the country, and dominated the U.S. political system; Democrats would win all but two presidential elections from 1828 to 1856.
Civil War and Reconstruction
In the 1850s, the debate over whether slavery should be extended into new Western territories split these political coalitions. Southern Democrats favored slavery in all territories, while their Northern counterparts thought each territory should decide for itself via popular referendum.
At the party’s national convention in 1860, Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckinridge, while Northern Democrats backed Stephen Douglas. The split helped Abraham Lincoln, candidate of the newly formed Republican Party, to victory in the 1860 election, though he won only 40 percent of the popular vote.
The Union victory in the Civil War left Republicans in control of Congress, where they would dominate for the rest of the 19th century. During the Reconstruction era, the Democratic Party solidified its hold on the South, as most white Southerners opposed the Republican measures protecting civil and voting rights for African Americans.
By the mid-1870s, Southern state legislatures had succeeded in rolling back many of the Republican reforms, and Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation and suppressing Black voting rights would remain in place for the better part of a century.
Progressive Era and the New Deal
As the 19th century drew to a close, the Republicans had been firmly established as the party of big business during the Gilded Age, while the Democratic Party strongly identified with rural agrarianism and conservative values.
But during the Progressive Era, which spanned the turn of the century, the Democrats saw a split between its conservative and more progressive members. As the Democratic nominee for president in 1896, William Jennings Bryan advocated for an expanded role of government in ensuring social justice. Though he lost, Bryan’s advocacy of bigger government would influence the Democratic ideology going forward.
Republicans again dominated national politics during the prosperous 1920s, but faltered after the stock market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first Democrat to win the White House since Woodrow Wilson.
In his first 100 days, Roosevelt launched an ambitious slate of federal relief programs known as the New Deal, beginning an era of Democratic dominance that would last, with few exceptions, for nearly 60 years.
Roosevelt’s reforms raised hackles across the South, which generally didn’t favor the expansion of labor unions or federal power, and many Southern Democrats gradually joined Republicans in opposing further government expansion.
Then in 1948, after President Harry Truman (himself a Southern Democrat) introduced a pro-civil rights platform, a group of Southerners walked out of the party’s national convention. These so-called Dixiecrats ran their own candidate for president (Strom Thurmond, governor of South Carolina) on a segregationist States Rights ticket that year; he got more than 1 million votes.
Most Dixiecrats returned to the Democratic fold, but the incident marked the beginning of a seismic shift in the party’s demographics. At the same time, many Black voters who had remained loyal to the Republican Party since the Civil War began voting Democratic during the Depression, and would continue to do so in greater numbers with the dawn of the civil rights movement.
Civil Rights Era
Although Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed civil rights legislation (and sent federal troops to integrate a Little Rock high school in 1954), it was Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat from Texas, who would eventually sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.
Upon signing the former bill, Johnson reportedly told his aide Bill Moyers that “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
Over the course of the late 1960s and 1970s, more and more white Southerners voted Republican, driven not only by the issue of race, but also by white evangelical Christians’ opposition to abortion and other “culture war” issues.
Democrats From Clinton to Obama
After losing five out of six presidential elections from 1968 to 1988, Democrats captured the White House in 1992 with Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton’s defeat of the incumbent, George H.W. Bush, as well as third-party candidate Ross Perot.
Clinton’s eight years in office saw the country through a period of economic prosperity but ended in a scandal involving the president’s relationship with a young intern, Monica Lewinsky. Clinton’s conduct in the affair eventually led to his impeachment by the House in 1998; the Senate acquitted him the following year.
Al Gore, Clinton’s vice president, narrowly captured the popular vote in the general election in 2000, but lost to George W. Bush in the electoral college, after the U.S. Supreme Court called a halt to a manual recount of disputed Florida ballots.
Midway through Bush’s second term, Democrats capitalized on popular opposition to the ongoing Iraq War and regained control of the House and Senate.
In 2008, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois rode a wave of popular discontent and economic concerns during the Great Recession to become the first African-American U.S. president.
Opposition to Obama and his policies, particularly health care reform, fueled the growth of the conservative, populist Tea Party movement, helping Republicans make huge gains in Congress during his two terms in office.
And in 2016, after a tough primary battle with Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton captured the Democratic nomination, becoming the first female presidential nominee of any major party in U.S. history.
But against most expectations, Clinton lost in the general election that November to reality TV star Donald Trump, while Republican gains in congressional elections left Democrats in the minority in both the House and Senate.
The slate of candidates running for president from the Democratic Party in the 2020 election was historically large and diverse. Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Corey Booker, Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar, Tulsi Gabbard and Tom Steyer were among the major candidates aiming to take on President Trump.
After a slow start to his campaign, former Vice President Joe Biden won his party's nomination. Biden chose California senator Kamala Harris as his vice presidential running mate, making Harris the first Black and Asian American woman to be named on a major party's ticket. Biden ran as a moderate, and pledged to unify the country after a divisive four years under President Trump. On November 7, Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election; he took office as the 46th U.S. president on January 20, 2021, alongside a fully Democratic Congress.
Political Parties in Congress, The Oxford Guide to the United States Government.
Eric Rauchway, “When and (to an extent) why did the parties switch places?” Chronicle Blog Network (May 20, 2010).