In 1976, Senator Bob Dole rather caustically labeled the Democrats as the “War Party”: World War I, World War II, the Korean conflict, and the Vietnam conflict were all begun by Democrats, leading to the death of roughly 1.6 million American soldiers in combat.
Dole’s comments deeply divided Americans at the time, and, admittedly, they affected me profoundly. I had just turned 9 when Senator Dole made this statement, but that debate serves to this day as one of my earliest “political” memories.
Soon after, I rather proudly pasted a Ford/Dole sticker on my third-grade blue notebook and paraded it around Wiley Elementary School in Hutchinson, Kansas, despite a bit of friendly abuse from my beloved teacher, Miss Mackey.
While Dole later became known as little more than a corporate shill (with the low-point being his endorsement of Viagra), he played a pretty good hatchet man for Ford.
Certainly for me, after his speech, I began–even when still in single digits–to question the history and purpose of the Democrats.
[At this point in the blog I should admit, I registered as a Republican the first moment I could, and I’ve been a registered Republican ever since. Despite this, I have rarely voted for Republicans in presidential elections. But, there is, of course, a bias in my views, to put it mildly. Still, whatever commentary I offer, I will offer it around indisputable facts].
Roughly a decade and a half ago, this personal suspicion continued and deepened as I began to teach the history of the early American Republic up through the Mexican War.
One of the single best books I’ve come across regarding this era is Daniel Walker Howe’s Pulitzer-prize winning history, What Hath God Wrought (Oxford University Press, 2007).
For all intents and purposes, the Democratic party is the first of all American parties in any real and recognizable sense. [And, granted, I’m dismissing the commonly held historical view that dates the first parties back to the Federalists and Anti-federalists]. Founded as an alliance of New York bankers, southern plantation owners, and western farmers, the Democratic party began its institutional life not as a party for the common good (the res publica) but for the benefit of special interest groups.
[Frankly, even in the deepest days of the Great Depression, the Democratic party favored its own or potential own over the good of the country.]
With the relatively successful coming together of these three disparate groups, a new type of man assumed the presidency, Andrew Jackson.
“Despite his bow, Jackson brought to his task a temperament suited to leadership rather than deference,” Howe explains. “Although he invoked a democratic ideology, the new president had profoundly authoritarian instincts. Tall, ramrod straight, with piercing eyes and an air of command, the hero of New Orleans was not a man to be crossed.” [Howe, pg. 328.]
Or, as a voice from the time said, fully understanding the democratic mass appeal of the militaristic demagogue:
Beware how you give a fatal sanction, in this infant period of our republic, scarcely yet two score years old, to military insubordination [Jackson’s in Florida]. Remember that Greece had her Alexander, Rome her Caesar, England her Cromwell, France her Bonaparte. [Howe, pg. 105]
So proclaimed Henry Clay.
As Howe argues, correctly, nothing mattered more to Jackson than the forced removal of the Indians. Such an immoral and constitutionally illegal act dominated his presidential agenda [pp. 347, 357].
Ultimately, Howe concludes, “White supremacy, resolute and explicit, constituted an essential component of what contemporaries called ‘The Democracy’—that is, the Democratic Party” [pg. 423].
Now, one might (especially if defending the Democratic party) brush this aside, stating, well, everyone was racist in 1827. Of course, not everyone was racist, and not everyone who was racist in private still advocated racist policies in public. So, simply to historicize Jackson’s views is a huge disservice to many, many of the era.
Let’s look at the record of the institutional “achievements” of the Democratic party.
The first Democratic president Andrew Jackson–against the will and decisions of the Supreme Court–forcibly removed American Indians from their proper and “ancient” homelands. Good estimates note that of, for example, the southern tribes removed, nearly ⅓ died en route to Indian Territory, while another ⅓ died once arriving there, mostly from exposure to the elements and disease.
In the 1830s and 1840s, the Democratic party as a whole opposed the rise of Personal Liberty Laws [PLLs] in northern states. The PLLs stated that if the federal government wanted to reclaim runaway slaves, it would have to pay for it, for the states would not.
In 1850, the Democratic party gave us the first federal police force, the slave catchers authorized by the Fugitive Slave Act of that year.
In 1854, the Democratic party gave us the Kansas-Nebraska Act, thus opening Kansas and Nebraska, in complete violation of the spirit of the Old Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise, to the evils of slavery and civil war.
During the last third of the nineteenth century, the Democrats repeatedly segregated the American population, one group from another, and authored and helped pass a multitude of anti-black laws.
The one clear and important exception to all of this nastiness is President Grover Cleveland.
In 1917, under the leadership of Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, the United States entered World War I, and nearly subjected American sovereignty to the purposeless League of Nations.
During his presidency, Wilson not only racially segregated Washington, D.C., but he also segregated the American military, forcing blacks into separate units and, generally, away from combat and in support positions.
Finally, Wilson (unlike the later Robert E. Lee) refused to condemn the lynching of blacks.
Through his “minister or propaganda,” George Creel, Wilson violated more civil liberties than any other president of the twentieth century, with the exception of FDR. Paul Murphy has done an outstanding job detailing all of the violations on the home front in WWI in his readable and disturbing book, World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties (W.W. Norton, 1979).
Under the executive order (9066) of Franklin Roosevelt, the federal government countenanced and organized the concentration of thousands of loyal Americans of Japanese ancestry (few Japanese has immigrated to the United States after 1905 due to a “gentlemen’s agreement”), so there were relatively very few recent immigrants from Japan).
In a manner comparable to Henry VIII’s confiscation of Church property, Japanese Americans were denied all of their property previously held and earned, as it was sold to the highest non-Japanese bidders. Conditions in the camps–such as in the Idaho desert–could be horrendous as well, as abuses by local whites were often tolerated by larger society.
In 1945, under the Democratic leadership of FDR and Harry S Truman (who, thankfully, reversed many of Wilson’s earlier segregation decrees), the federal government designed, tested, and used (against civilian targets) Atomic weaponry.
One must give Wilson and FDR some credit, however, as they were the last two presidents to seek a Congressional (hence, constitutional) declaration of war. Every “conflict” since 1945 has been utterly unconstitutional.
Harry S Truman recklessly got us into the Korean Conflict.
John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson–with even more recklessness–got us into the Vietnam conflict.
As far as civil rights abuses and getting us into armed conflicts, Carter and Clinton seem fairly different from the other Democratic presidents of the last 100 years.
Obama, though, is possibly the worst of all recent presidents. Not only has he continued the immense and unimaginably costly stimuli packages (which only benefit the politically connected rich), but he has also expanded nearly every one of Bush’s war efforts.
Obama is especially bad when it comes to human rights and civil liberty abuses. The clearest example of this has been the passage of the NDAA, which now gives the power–false and contrived as it is from the perspective of natural law and natural rights–to the president to detain any person without trial. The rise of the national security state has grown exponentially under Obama as well.
So, this is our Democratic party. When the followers of Obama act surprised by his pro-war policies, I can only laugh in deep sorrow. What did they expect? What history of the Democratic party have they been reading?
In 1976, no matter his other flaws, Senator Dole made a true point. If you want death and destruction, vote for the Democratic party.
Does this mean every policy that comes out of the party or all of its supporters are evil? Of course not. I know many, many fine persons who support the Democratic party. Am I trying to write this to that everyone will run out and vote Republican in the November election? No. Sadly, since Bush I, the Republicans have become what Bob Dole feared the Democrats had become: the party of endless war. With endless war comes endless abuse of human persons abroad and at home. No person and neither major American party is immune.
Still, the history of the Democratic party should be troubling even to its most ardent supporters. Rarely has it behaved admirably, humanly, or liberally.
In the history of the United States, what single institution has so consistently opposed the common good as well as the dignity of the individual human person while fiercely promoting (at least prior to Truman) racism and (always) war?
Where in any of the above, is it right, moral, ethical, and just for a Roman Catholic to support such a party? The answer should be clear.
As Catholics, we have a duty to vote against the Democratic party and undermine it in every peaceful way possible.