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Historians Reflect on the Democratic Party’s Fractious Evolution

August 25, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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One of the world's oldest political parties, the Democratic Party has evolved over the past 100 years despite different ideologies held by its members and leaders. A panel of historians discuss past fractions within the party and the leaders who have tied Democrats together, including Sen. Barack Obama.

JIM LEHRER: And now some history on the Democratic Party and how it came to be what it is today. Margaret Warner has that.



With me for that are our presidential historians: author Michael Beschloss; Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University; and Peniel Joseph, professor of history and African-American studies at Brandeis University.

So we’ve heard tonight about a diverse party, a fractious party. Richard, how did it become the party it is today?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Well, it’s almost as if — imagine the two parties swapping identities.

First of all, this is the oldest political party in the world. It was for 100 years the party of Jefferson and Jackson, the party that said the best government is the least government.

That began to change dramatically with William Jennings Bryan 100 years ago, here in Denver, who brought the populist strain, who became a champion of the dispossessed.

And then, of course, Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and 1940s, transforming the role of government in the economy, and critically bringing African-Americans into this party after being part of the party of Lincoln.

A turning point for rights

MARGARET WARNER: So FDR, a major turning point?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: He was, and especially in the way that Richard just mentioned, because Roosevelt was liberal in all sorts of ways, but he sure wasn't on civil rights.

Roosevelt would not even support an anti-lynching bill; 1936, when Roosevelt was re-nominated, there was an African-American preacher who gave a prayer at the convention. Southern senators walked out. They thought this was outrageous that you would have an African-American on the podium.

That all changed with John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, civil rights and voting rights, mainly Johnson. In 1965, Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act. He hoped that African-Americans would come into the mainstream in a big way. On that floor, 24 percent of the delegates are African-American.

MARGARET WARNER: So that's the next big turning point, Peniel, the '50s, '60s, the civil rights struggle, LBJ?

PENIEL JOSEPH, Brandeis University: Absolutely. Lyndon Johnson transforms the Democratic Party, especially in terms of racial diversity. 1964, at that Atlantic City convention, Fanny Lou Hamer and the African-Americans who came to represent the true interracial Mississippi, were actually disallowed from being seated.

By 1984, Jesse Jackson delivers his very famous rainbow address, telling the party that diversity is actually its strength rather than a weakness.

Fractions among Democrats

MARGARET WARNER: But now this has also been a fractious party.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, no, absolutely. And, I mean, the last 40 years, frankly, since Richard Nixon's election in 1968, broadly speaking, have been a period, a conservative period in American politics. We've had two Democratic presidents, both southerners, relatively speaking conservatives.

This has also been a party torn apart more than once regarding American foreign policy.

You know, there's the Woodrow Wilson messianic quality -- America, in effect, preaching to the world -- and then, of course, Vietnam, which tore this party apart, brought us George McGovern and a host of reforms, which, in many ways, lead to the diversity that we see in this hall tonight.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And that's the irony, because there should be no conflict here this week. You know, they're not arguing over big issues. They agree on economics, Iraq, foreign affairs, all sorts of stuff.

Yet we're hearing about this roll call vote, and angry delegates, and factions, and all sorts of stuff. That's so amazing that this long conflict between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has ended this way.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Peniel, do you think that the evolution of the party into a more diverse one, at least in terms of demographics, race, and gender, made it a party more prone to friction?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Democracy is messy. So when we think back to 1948, when Truman supports a civil rights plank, the Southern Dixiecrats actually leave, and Strom Thurmond has a third-party run.

1968, the whole world is watching, according to the new left, and Mayor Daley actually calls in troops to basically harass and assault new left demonstrators.

1980, the very fractious convention between Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy. But, again, by 1984 and '88, you have Jesse Jackson, who was the consummate outsider finally on the inside of the Democratic Party, and he's actually invoking people like Fanny Lou Hamer and different civil rights activists.

The party's 'sea of faces'

MARGARET WARNER: Now, on the other hand, ideologically, is this party more or less diverse, Richard?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, that's fascinating, because this party looks much more diverse than it might have 40 years ago.

MARGARET WARNER: If you just look at it, the sea of faces.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Absolutely. Absolutely. Ideologically, I think you could make a very strong case that it's far less. And by the same token, the same thing applies to the Republican Party.

For years there were people in this country who said, "We need a liberal party and a conservative party." Well, guess what? You've got it. And it has led to all sorts of unintended consequences.

So I think there is a much less degree of ideological diversity in this hall, which, as Michael says, leads to sort of head-scratching about the intensity of the Clinton-Obama fight.

MARGARET WARNER: So what explains the fact that it is less ideologically diverse?

Obama unites Democrats

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The people who voted for Hillary Clinton this spring are very different for the most part from the people who voted for Barack Obama. So the great irony is that, while ideologically Democrats think pretty much the same, those voters are in different enough groups that it's a hard time getting them together. That's what's sad about that.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, as an historical matter, why has it been hard? I mean, Howard Dean was just saying, "We're a big-tent party essentially. We embrace all different points of view." And he talked about anti-abortion people even within the party, as well as pro-life people in the party, but, in fact, is that -- is that the case, Peniel, historically?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, the liberal wing of the party reaches its heyday in the early '70s, with people like George McGovern and people like Walter Mondale. So that liberal wing has really been -- I don't want to say beaten into submission, but certainly they've seen better days.

In a way, Obama has written himself that people see him as a Rorschach, and they read whatever they want into him. So people who are liberals see Obama as a liberal in the party. Conservatives in the party actually say, "Obama's on my side." People who are moderates or centrists actually say, "Obama's my guy."

So Obama actually has united, I think, a three-part party. It's a tri-headed party of liberals, centrists, and conservatives who see in Obama a person who they can all appropriate.

MARGARET WARNER: So we have one clear difference here. You say it's less diverse; you say it's more diverse ideologically. We'll pick this up in the convention show. Thank you all.


JIM LEHRER: Thank you very much, Margaret.