The 2008 national elections are being presented as historic and in some ways they are. The Democratic Party primaries consisted of a contest between an African American and a woman. And now the selection of Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate means that an African American could be president. It is understandable that the appeal of breaking the color bar in the White House is great. It can be seen as a gesture against the deep-seated racism of this society. For those who have been part of the long fight against racism, or for women’s rights, this certainly seems like a victory, something that few could have imagined 40 years ago.
In addition, Obama’s messages of “hope” and breaking with the policies of the past are welcome and encouraging words, especially when contrasted with McCain’s campaign, which is grounded in the same fear-based politics of the Bush administration. For many of Obama’s supporters it is not just a matter of casting a vote. It is a matter of placing hope for change in his election.
Making History or Symbolic Gains?
Every four years we are confronted with the question of national elections – of voting for the President of the U.S. as well as a variety of national, state and local representatives. The media and the politicians portray these elections as an opportunity for us to chart the course of our future. But each election has shown the futility of this gesture at the voting booth.
If voting really changed anything, why don’t we see the most basic things we need in place? Why aren’t the needs and desires of the majority represented? It really isn’t because the majority votes against their interests. If people’s votes really counted, we would have a good system of healthcare, education, transportation, employment and other things that the vast majority of people want, and that so many politicians promised before getting elected. We would have seen an end to wars long ago. History has made it clear that elections are not the means of change for the majority of people in our society.
To believe that the election of an African American man to the presidency is any more than a symbolic accomplishment is to ignore the reality of the past 30 years, during which time we have seen African American, Latino, and women mayors, governors and members of Congress elected. And what has been the result? Look at our cities, the prisons and the condition of life of many working people, minorities and women today. Life has not gotten better for those who are supposedly represented by these politicians.
While the Democratic Party has posed as the friend, supporter and champion of working people, minorities and women, the reality of its past is vastly different from how the party represents itself. The Democratic Party, from it origins after the American Revolution to the Obama ticket today, has always been the representative of the ruling class. It began as a party of the southern slave owners, and after the defeat of the slave-system has defended the interests of big business and the banks ever since.
Since its inception, the Democratic Party has partnered with the Republican Party to defend the interests of the U.S. ruling class. Under their leadership, the top ten per cent of the population has vastly increased its amount of wealth at the expense of everyone else. Tax policies have allowed the corporations to pay little or no taxes and allowed the wealthy to keep their inheritances while middle-income and working class people pay taxes. Legislation has favored the interests of the rich and when profits were threatened, Democratic Party politicians have helped to arrange bailouts and subsidies for failing corporations or banks.
The Democrats have repeatedly used Taft Hartley and other anti-labor legislation against the unions and workers on strike. They have called out federal troops and used repression against workers on strike and Cointelpro and red squads to spy and attack activists in the Black movement and anti-war movements.
When the Democrats have appeared to act “in the interests” of the oppressed, it has been only when they were forced to by the pressure of social movements and struggles in the workplaces and in the streets and among young people and students. It was only when the ruling class faced a mass upheaval of working and poor people during the depression of the 1930s that the Roosevelt administration pushed legislation through that would appear to meet the needs of the people. Kennedy and Johnson didn’t intervene in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s or pass any civil rights legislation until the racist nature of this system was exposed to the world. As the media showed African Americans tearing down southern apartheid, met with the racist violence of the cops and mobs of white racists, the politicians had no choice but to act.
The Democratic Party poses as the party of peace and the defender of freedom around the world. But in reality, the Democrats have supported U.S. participation in every major war of the twentieth century from World War I to Iraq. Of course, when the population has demonstrated massively against these wars, to the point where it is possible to ride this opposition to win an election, then these Democratic Party politicians are ready to appear as anti-war candidates. They did this during the U.S. war against Vietnam and now today they are doing it again with the war on Iraq.
What the Democrats mastered early in their history and turned into a fine art is the ability to co-opt and channel social struggles. They have a well-developed tradition of appearing to respond to the demands of social movements. They are masters at appealing to those who have mobilized their forces in struggle to “work within the system” instead.
Once elected, the Democrats have then legislated some of what the masses had already won for themselves. History is then written to make it seem that the politicians delivered the victory, not that the politicians simply took credit for what people themselves had already accomplished.
And each time the workers, or those active in other social movements have fallen for these lies, have put their trust and faith in these politicians – what has been the result? Over and over again the lure of “working within the system” has been used to trick those who had shown their abilities to organize into becoming functionaries and bureaucrats for the system they were opposing. And instead of those active in struggle learning to count on their own struggles, they are corralled back into the voting booth. This has been true for the unions, the civil rights organization, the women’s groups and even many so called left and revolutionary organizations. As a consequence, those engaged in these struggles ended up trading their dreams for a different society, for real social justice and economic equality, into the mere acceptance of a new set of politicians and temporary reforms.
This pamphlet explores the role the Democratic Party has played since its founding. We examine the interests the Democratic Party has represented. When we look at the history of the Democratic Party, we see a pattern of defending a system based on greed and exploitation – a capitalist system that maintains the class, racial and other divisions of this society.
The Democratic Party – Rooted in Slavery
The Democratic Party was founded in the period after the American Revolution of 1776. One of the first major political struggles after the revolution was between the two groups of elites who had supported the revolution against Britain. The most powerful group was the large landowners from Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Their wealth came from the exploitation of Africans who had been ripped from their homes and brought to the colonies as slaves. Their plantations produced cotton and other crops, which were sold directly to Europe. They saw themselves like European nobles living on their estates with servants and imported European finery.
The other group of elites was wealthy merchants based in the North. Some of the merchants had profited from the slave trade but as they grew wealthier they searched for new areas for investment. They wanted a central government which could develop roads, waterways, and other infrastructure to get goods to domestic markets and industry. They also wanted a strong central bank which could set tariffs to protect their enterprises from competition with the more advanced European capitalists. Advocates of the merchants’ interests formed the Federalist Party.
The slave owners opposed both setting up tariffs which would cut their direct connection to European markets and also a strong central government which might interfere in the slave trade. The slave owners organized around these fundamental goals called themselves the Democratic Party.
The conflict between these groups played out in Congress and in the elections for the presidency. In 1787, during the drafting of the Constitution, the two groups of elites made an agreement on how to govern the country. The agreement was written into the Constitution, as the “Three-Fifths Compromise” of 1787. The ruling class in the slave-states got proportional representation in the House of Representatives based on the white population plus three-fifths of the slave population. That meant that each slave gave the slave-owners of that state three-fifths more of a vote in the House of Representatives. The compromise reflected the importance of the slave economy and ultimately ensured the slave owners’ control of the country. The Democrats were the ruling party for most of the early years of United States’ history. Thirteen out of eighteen presidents before the Civil War were from the Democratic Party.
The Federalist Party and the Democratic Party were united in their goal of building up the United States by conquest and genocide. Both agreed that the U.S. would come to rule the continent of North America by taking land from Mexico and from the Native Americans. They wanted the state to use the army to clear new territories for expansion. The Democratic Party candidate Andrew Jackson was elected in 1828. His first action was to support the “Indian Removal Act” which was passed in 1830. Under Jackson and the next Democratic Party President, Martin Van Buren, 70,000 Indians east of the Mississippi were terrorized and driven out of their lands by the military. In 1845 Democratic Party President James Polk took the United States into a war with Mexico to acquire the territory from Texas to California. That summer, in a leading Democratic political magazine, the editor John O’Sullivan proclaimed that it was the U.S.’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent…” In other words, it is the so-called God-given right of the United States to dominate the continent of North America by force.
To maintain their hold over the government, the Democrats tried to play off the working class of the North against the Northern capitalists. They could oppose the capitalists’ economic policies because they had very different interests. They presented themselves as defenders of the Northern workers and small-farmers against the wealthy merchants. Since the 1790s, tradesmen and farmers in the North had organized into political clubs to fight against the policies of their employers in the Federalist Party. In most cases, workers did not have the right to vote. There were restrictions on those who did not own a minimum amount of property, or could not afford to pay a substantial tax at the polls. These laws were designed to keep workers and poor farmers from having any power in politics.
The Democrats were able to co-opt some of the farmers and workers by supporting a few of their demands – for a ten-hour day, and for voting rights for the property less. Because of this, they could present themselves as champions of the poor in the North while they were brutally exploiting their slaves in the South. Not all workers were tricked into this alliance with the capitalists’ slave-owning cousins. Between 1828 and 1834 workers built their own parties and ran worker-candidates in 61 cities, with some success. For the most part, however, the Democrats were able to control the Northern workers and farmers and incorporate their political activity into the Democratic Party.
The Civil War – The Democrats Fight to Maintain Slavery
The Northern merchants continued to expand industrial production and this increased their need for transportation, access to raw materials, and protection from more powerful European markets. Slave owners watched as the harsh cotton-growing agriculture stripped their plantations of fertile soil. They started to look for new lands in the South and West. The question was posed: Would the new territories be a space for industry and markets to develop or for slave-based plantations? If Congress remained under the control of the Democrats, the slave owners would control the wealth of the country. Between the Northern industrialists and the Southern plantation-owners a deadly struggle was developing over which system of exploitation would rule in the new territories, and ultimately in the whole country.
The balance of forces was maintained, at least for the time being, because the capitalists in the North preferred to compromise with the Southern slave owners. Pushing a conflict would upset trade and force a confrontation that the Northern merchants feared losing. The old Federalist Party had been reorganized in the 1830s as the Whig Party by Federalists who supported a policy of compromise with the Democrats. The Whigs opposed the Democrats in elections, criticized their policies, and argued that the new territories should be free from slavery but they accepted the South’s dominance based on the Three-Fifths Compromise. Step by step they gave in to the Democrats’ demands. For example, in 1850 Whig President Millard Fillmore pushed for California and the other territories taken from Mexico to be made non-slave states. In return for the support of the Democrats, he signed the Fugitive Slave Act promising the aid of the federal government in tracking down slaves that escaped to non-slave states. This meant that even in states where slavery was illegal, a slave was still a slave and could be arrested and sent back to the slave owner.
The institution of slavery did not go unchallenged. The first opponents of slavery were the slaves themselves. The system of slavery was constantly under threat of a generalized slave rebellion. In 1791, Haitian slaves overthrew the French colonial administration in Haiti and set up their own government. The thought of a similar generalized slave rebellion in the U.S. was an inspiration to the slaves and a nightmare haunting the slave owners. Many small-scale rebellions took place. The largest on record occurred in 1811 when nearly five hundred slaves at a plantation near New Orleans took up arms and marched to neighboring plantations attempting to launch a general slave rebellion. In 1822, a conspiracy for a major rebellion in South Carolina was organized by a freed slave named Denmark Vessey, but was uncovered before it was launched. In 1831, a slave named Nat Turner led a famous slave rebellion in Virginia, which set the whole South on guard against other rebellions. In all cases the rebellions were crushed by military and police, and the leaders and participants were executed.
There were also many people in the North who organized politically to fight for the abolition of slavery. These people were collectively known as the Abolitionist Movement. The abolitionists were led in the North by religious leaders such as the Quaker, William Lloyd Garrison, and ex-slaves, such as Frederick Douglass. The abolitionists produced a great amount of literature condemning slavery and arguing against it on moral grounds. Abolitionist ideas provided moral ammunition for those who opposed slavery. The Abolitionist Movement was never a mass force, but its criticism of the slave system threatened the Southern elite who feared anything that might encourage the slave rebellions. In 1830, the U.S. Postmaster General banned abolitionist literature from being sent to the South. Schoolteachers who were suspected of being abolitionists were expelled from Southern states.
The struggle between the North and the South became impossible to contain in spite of the Whig Party’s compromises,. Bloody battles took place in the new territories. In 1855, Kansas became known as “Bleeding Kansas” because of bloody conflicts between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers. In 1859, the abolitionist John Brown, who fought pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, led a raid on the military armory of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Brown hoped to take the armory and rally the local slaves in revolt. The attempt failed and John Brown was tried and executed, but the incident became a symbol of the conflict over slavery.
The conflicts outside of the political system led to a dramatic change in the two-party system. Many Northern capitalists were tired of compromise and wanted to weaken their opponents by striking at the heart of their system. They formed a new political party which was thoroughly opposed to the Democrats, the Republican Party. The Republican Party, like the Whig Party, fought for the economic interests of the Northern capitalists. Unlike the Whigs however, the Republicans called for an end to the power of the Southern slaveholders to dominate the Federal Government. The Republicans started to use some of the abolitionists’ moral condemnation of slavery in their rhetoric.
After the founding of the Republican Party, the conflict between Northern merchant elites and Southern Democrats came into the open. In 1860 Abraham Lincoln, a Republican and lawyer for the railroad companies, was elected President. Southern Democrats seceded from the Union when they saw that the Republicans were coming to power. Eleven Southern states from Texas to the Carolinas broke away to form the Confederate States of America. This began the Civil War. In fact, the Civil War took the shape of a revolution led by the capitalists of the North against the political domination of the slave-holders. In order to destroy the slaveholders’ power, the Republicans would be driven to destroy the system of slavery which was its basis.
The Civil War raged for four years until it seemed that the North might be beaten by the South. The South had a more effective and experienced army. The most skilled army officers had been slave-owners from the South – an aristocratic plantation tradition. The North, however, had a weapon which it could use against the slave owners’ power. There were four million African Americans living in the South under the Confederacy. The slaves already understood that the Civil War meant a shake-up for slavery. With the forces of repression off fighting the war, thousands of slaves were leaving the plantations as the Northern Army approached. This force of rebellious slaves could provide the forces the Northern capitalists needed to defeat the Southern slave owners.
In 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the South. The Emancipation Proclamation was a military maneuver. It was a recognition that thousands of slaves had freed themselves and constituted a powerful force in the conflict. By giving the signal that Northern victory meant securing their freedom, the Republicans could use the newly freed slaves to shut down the Southern economy, cut the Confederate army’s supply lines, and give the Union Army an overwhelming military advantage. Lincoln and the Republicans were by no means abolitionists. In fact, the Proclamation did not declare that all slaves would be freed, but only those in the states that had participated in the rebellion. This left slavery intact in some Northern states in the Union.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union Army prevailed and the South was occupied by Union troops. By the end of the war in 1865, Congress signed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing the old form of slavery in the whole United States. The power of the slave-owners organized in the Democratic Party was effectively broken.
The Party of Racism and Terror in the South
President Lincoln was assassinated shortly after the war ended and power passed to his Vice President, the Northern Democrat, Andrew Johnson. Some Democrats in the North, like Johnson, rejected the Confederacy and supported the North during the war. They had supported the North, but they were not politically committed to seeking a radical restructuring of the South and preferred to make an alliance with the defeated slave owners.
The Northern capitalists wanted to rebuild the South so that they could start shipping cotton and other agricultural products to Northern factories and cities. To do this they had to find people who could govern the South for them. President Johnson pardoned the ex-slave owners, returned their property, and gave them political control of the South. The ex-slaveholders immediately used their regained political power as well as their wealth and ownership of the land, to re-institute slavery in all but the name. They vetoed new state-constitutions which gave African Americans the right to vote. For a short period of time it seemed that the Southern plantation-owners would regain control of the South and the Civil War would begin again.
The Northern capitalists were unwilling to give political control back to the Southern plantation-owners whom they had just defeated. At first the Republicans’ attempt to impeach Johnson failed by one vote in Congress. Then in the 1868 election, Republican Ulysses S. Grant, a general for the North in the Civil War, was elected president on a platform of radically restructuring the South to stop the ex-slave owners.
The South was still occupied by the Union Army. The North divided the South into military districts. Under Grant, anyone who had been involved in organizing or supporting the Confederacy in the Civil War was barred from holding office, this meant the majority of the plantation owners. Conventions were held to write new sets of laws and state constitutions. The Northern capitalists relied on the ex-slaves and poor white people to prevent the ex-slave owners from exerting political control. This period, known as “Reconstruction”, is one of the most important democratic experiments in the history of the U.S.
For a brief period, the ruling class was suppressed, and it was up to the poor, farmers and workers, to set policy. What did they do? African Americans and white people from among the poor and working population were elected to the state governments. They cooperated because they had the same goals and interests. They passed laws to improve their lives. They set up some of the first public education in places like South Carolina. They built roads and bridges for small farmers. They ensured equal rights of white and African American citizens. The experiment of Reconstruction even reached to the federal level. In 1869, there were two African American members of the U.S. Senate and twenty Congressmen. Congress passed a Fourteenth Amendment which guaranteed equal rights for all races.
The plantation lands, however, were held by the federal government after the Civil War and returned to the ex-slave owners. The Republicans were willing to allow the ex-slaves to exercise new political rights, but they were not willing to overturn the property-relations in the South.
After the experience of Reconstruction, the Southern elite and their Democratic Party representatives made it clear to the North that they accepted the defeat of slavery and would not threaten the new order. Above all, the wealthy industrialists of the North wanted the South to be a stable source of agricultural produce. The Southern elite had promised to ensure this and a deal was struck.
The Reconstruction democracy was vulnerable because it had a fatal weakness. It’s existence rested on the protection afforded by the guns of the Union Army. It was the Union Army that had crushed the slaveholders and opened a political space for the participation of African Americans and poor white people.
The big landowners and their Democratic Party representatives used their wealth and authority to organize paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan. During the 1860s and 1870s the KKK and other groups terrorized African Americans and poor white people who were politically organized. They beat those who resisted, burned their homes, and lynched people. The violence was designed to reverse the gains that poor people had made during Reconstruction and to use racism to drive a wedge between the races. Southern plantation owners still owned the land and rented it out to share-croppers in return for a big part of the produce. In 1877, the Union Army was withdrawn from the South, leaving the Reconstruction governments at the mercy of the Southern plantation owners.
The Democratic Party was re-organized by the plantation owners to take back the state and federal legislatures. The Democrats recaptured the Southern states and took their place alongside the Republicans in Congress. They passed many state-level laws in the South known collectively as the Jim Crow laws. The laws institutionalized the segregation that had been established by violence. The laws effectively stripped African Americans from having any voice in the political system. And the Supreme Court effectively reversed the Fourteenth Amendment in 1896, legalizing a system which denied the African American population equal rights to education, housing, and jobs turning an entire population into second-class citizens. The population of the South had been divided and conquered by force and the Democrats were re-integrated into the political system as the party of racism and terror. The most democratic experiment in U.S. history died at their hands.
From 1877-1914 – Keeping the Working Class Under Control
Victory for the North in 1865 meant a victory for industrial capitalism. During the decades following the Civil War, industry expanded rapidly across the continent with the help of government subsidies, trade protection against foreign industry and development of transportation, particularly the railroad. The agricultural goods of the South were no longer shipped for manufacture in English factories. The resources of the South were at the disposal of Northern industry. American industrialists began to look for foreign markets to sell their goods. The Democrats became the loyal opposition to the Republican policies of industrial development and imperialism, and they continued to try to control the working class.
Most industrial capitalists supported the Republican Party which favored tariffs, internal development, and imperial wars – everything that could protect and extend their markets. The Democratic Party was able to represent another group of American capitalists engaged in overseas trading, banking, and railroads along with the traditional Southern elite. These capitalists, the Bourbon Democrats as they were known, opposed the Republicans because of the tariffs, high taxes, and imperial wars – everything which might upset or slow down the day to day functioning of the market. They represented a different leadership team in case a majority of the capitalists wanted to change its strategy.
Many American farmers could not afford agricultural machinery and compete in the market. They were forced to sell their farms to the larger landowners and moved to the cities, and became workers in the rapidly expanding industrial sector. Alongside the American workers, many immigrants – people from Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe, China and other countries – began to work in the factories, mines and on the railroads.
The cities swelled with this influx of population made up of both immigrants and natives. From 1860 to 1914 New York grew from 150,000 people to four million. Chicago went from 110,000 people to two million, and Philadelphia went from 650,000 people to one and a half million people. This created a large working class made up of both immigrants and native born Americans.
The Democrats controlled these new communities of industrial workers through the growth of “political machines”. The political machines traded votes for favors. If you wanted your garbage taken out, your streets swept, you had to pay with your vote. If you wanted a job or a house in a particular neighborhood, you had to make a deal with the local political boss. The Democratic machines in cities like Chicago, Boston and New York made sure that workers voted for the Democratic Party, or else they would make it difficult to receive housing and basic municipal services.
The Democrats played their most important role in responding to the challenge that the working class posed to the capitalists. With the growth of capitalist industry came the resistance of workers to their exploitation. Capitalism has an inherent tendency to break down as profits and investments by the capitalists sometimes result in production outstripping demand. This causes the whole system to come to a grinding halt. When goods are overproduced, people are thrown out of work and have no wages to buy the goods they produced. This traps the economy in a vicious cycle of layoffs and decreasing buying power. The periodic depressions meant hunger, insecurity, and misery for many workers.
The year 1873 marked the beginning of a deep economic depression. By 1877, the workers and farmers of the North were in rebellion. The owners of the railroads attempted to use the depression to reduce railway workers’ wages. This touched off a huge railroad workers’ strike. It was the biggest coordinated action that workers in the U.S. had ever taken till then – the Great Upheaval of 1877. The strike crossed the country from coast to coast at the speed of the railroad, pulling railway workers and other sections of the working class into action. The strike shut down whole cities as more workers joined. The Northern industrialists called on the Republican government to suppress the rebellious workers. The state repression against the strike was brutal. Federal troops, fresh from the South, were sent to suppress workers and re-assert the control of the bosses. Cities full of striking workers were besieged by government troops. One hundred people were killed in clashes with the police and army and a thousand were jailed.
The railway corporations backed down on the wage-cuts, but the government built up military defenses against the workers to protect the capitalists against future strikes. National Guard barracks or armories were built in the major cities with fortified positions to fire on the workers. The strike shook American capitalists to the core.
Now that the workers had shown their power on a national scale it was essential for the capitalists, both North and South, to divert workers energies away from mass organizing. During the 1880s they criticized the Republicans for being the tools of big business. The Democrats were a minority in Congress and didn’t hold the presidency, so they could blame the problems on the Republicans and seem like an alternative.
Many workers saw through the policies of the Democrats. Since the Great Upheaval of 1877, workers had begun organizing on a more political basis in their own interests. The Socialist Party of the U.S was formed in 1901 from a number of smaller revolutionary groups. Revolutionary workers had also begun to form radical unions, especially amongst unskilled immigrants and the poorer layers of the working class. The most important development was the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) founded in 1905 with the goal of organizing workers, not just for better wages and conditions but also for revolution. The IWW was an industrial union embracing all workers in any given industry regardless of their skill, race, or gender. By 1912 it had an estimated 50,000 industrial workers organized in its ranks, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. Between the Socialist Party and the IWW, a significant section of the working class was becoming conscious of its own interests.