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Historians Reflect on the Democratic Party’s Fractious Evolution

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.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

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

    Margaret?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Thanks, Jim.

    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.