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Thursday, 6 January, 2000, 10:16 GMT
The Democratic Party

The Democratic Party first emerged in the 1790s under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, organised around the protection of agricultural interests and opposed to concentration of power in the hands of the federal government.

Presidential contenders
Al Gore
Bill Bradley
At the centre of the party stood a belief in "state's rights", meaning that the federal government should intervene as little as possible, leaving almost all responsibility to individual state governments.

The issue became increasingly bound up with slavery dividing the party between northern and southern Democrats.

Eventually, with the election in 1860 of Republican Abraham Lincoln as president, the southern Democrats seceded from the Union, plunging the country into civil war.


The bitter divisions of the Civil War had a lasting impact on the party
In the years after the war, charges of disloyalty dogged the party helping to keep them out of the White House until 1884.

As the minority party - reliant on southern support and the votes of ethnic minorities in the North - the Democrats began to identify with the more marginalised groups such as poor farmers in the west and those left behind by the growth of big business in the late 19th century.

Democrats divided


When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property

Thomas Jefferson
Democrat President 1801-9
Long periods out of power had a damaging effect on the party, leaving it weak and divided, principally between conservative southerners and urban progressives in the north.

In a bruising party convention in 1924, it took 103 separate ballots to decide upon a candidate for the presidency.

It took the Great Depression and the Republican failure to meet the challenges that it threw up to transform the political landscape and pave the way for Franklin Roosevelt's powerful new Democratic coalition.


The only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance

Franklin D Roosevelt
Democrat President 1933-45
In what became known as "the New Deal" Roosevelt moved the party onto an agenda of vigorous intervention in social and economic issues, expanding the Democratic vote to encompass urban workers, the unions, intellectuals, small farmers, minorities and poor southern whites.

During this period roughly twice as many voters identified themselves as Democrats compared to Republican, leading to a period of Democratic dominance in the White House and Congress.


FDR's "New Deal" brought about a golden era for the Democrats
Between 1932 and 1968 the Democrats held the presidency for 28 out of 36 years, interrupted only by Eisenhower's two terms (1952-1960). They also controlled the House of Representatives until 1994 and the Senate for the vast majority of that period.

The New Deal coalition began to split in the 1960s, when presidents Kennedy and Johnson pursued a civil rights agenda, opening the way for Nixon and the Republicans to pursue their "Southern Strategy" of appealing to Southern whites.

Growing opposition to the war in Vietnam and the counter-culture movement allied with the rising union power in turn caused further divisions in the Democratic party.

Losing ground


An America that gives all Americans the chance to live out their dreams and achieve their God-given potential

1996 Democratic National Platform
The sixties onwards saw the Democrats become increasingly out of touch with their traditional, core constituency: white working- and middle-class voters, the key "swing group" in American politics.

Instead the party became associated with elite opinion and special interests or "identity politics" rather than the interests of working people.


Jimmy Carter's clean living image found little lasting appeal
This widening gulf opened the field to the populist conservatism of the Reagan presidency, uniting working and middle class America and heightening the extent to which the Democratic party became identified with minority interests, big government, welfare, racial quotas and weak foreign policy.

Between 1968 and 1992, the Democrats only held the White House for four years. It is significant that the people who broke that trend in 1976 and 1992 were both Southern governors - Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Carter came in on the back of Watergate with a powerful centrist message of honesty which scored highly in the wake of the Nixon Watergate scandal.

But he fared poorly in office, consigning the Democrats to 12 more years in the wilderness until the arrival of Bill Clinton.

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