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The History of the Democratic Party: How It Changed

Skimm2020 Dem Guide Hero
Mar 1, 2020

Editor’s Note: This guide is part of a two-week series spotlighting the US’s two major political parties. Check out our guide on the Republican Party’s evolution here.

The Story

The Democratic Party is having an identity crisis.

The Background

The Dem Party is the nation’s oldest existing political party. It came on the scene in 1828, when Andrew Jackson was elected as the party’s first president.

Winning is nice. 

It is. And the Democrats were used to it by the mid-1800s. They won all but two presidential elections from 1828 to 1856. At the time, the party’s policy priorities were maintaining slavery and expanding the US. As more territories joined the country, it became increasingly divided between slave states and free states. The Republican Party, which had a stronghold in the North, was in favor of a free labor society. The Dems argued that the South needed slavery to support its agrarian-based economy. But the Democratic Party wasn’t one big, happy family. 

What do you mean?

The Southern Democrats believed that all territories should have slavery, while the Northern Democrats thought each individual state and territory should decide. The two wings of the party said ‘fine, be that way,’ and nominated two different candidates in the 1860 presidential election. This ended up splitting the Dem vote and paved the way for Republican Abraham Lincoln to win the election. 

Yes, I remember him. 

He’s hard to forget. He led the country through the Civil War – four years of fighting between the Union and Confederacy, which did not see eye-to-eye on the issue of states’ rights (read: slavery). 

What about after the war?

After the Union won, the Democrats had an even deeper hold on the South as they opposed certain northern policies, like rights for African Americans. Then the party went through its first big shift at the turn of the 20th century.

What happened? 

William Jennings Bryan. He was the Democratic presidential nominee three times (first in 1896) and advocated for an expanded federal government. He supported ideas like an income tax where the wealthy pay more than the poor and the creation of the Labor Department. While Bryan never became president, he helped set the tone that shaped the Democratic Party’s move toward a big-government ideology. At this point, the Republican Party was reaping the support it gained after its Civil War win. But that ended after the Great Depression. 


Many blamed Republican President Herbert Hoover for failing to alleviate the damage done by the crisis, which caused millions of people to lose their savings and jobs. Families experiencing homelessness gave rise to shanty towns that were called “Hoovervilles.” After 12 years of Republican presidents, Hoover lost his re-election bid to Democrat Franklin D Roosevelt. When it came to Democratic ideas for government reform, Bryan walked so FDR could run. His presidency set the “first 100 days” yardstick that current presidents are measured against. He rolled out the New Deal, which included programs that promoted infrastructure projects and legislation that protected workers to help get the country back on its feet. Traditional Democratic southerners, who opposed a larger government, began to jump ship and joined the Republican Party.

Now the Democratic Party looks like something I recognize. 

Exactly. And the party took another step toward the progressive side with President Harry Truman. In the late 1940s, he introduced a pro-civil rights agenda and signed an executive order that desegregated the military. This helped push black voters, who’d traditionally aligned with Republicans’ anti-slavery agenda, toward the Democratic Party. 

What happened to the Dems next?

Between 1933 and 1980, the Democrats controlled Congress for all but four years. But Republican Ronald Reagan’s election win marked a turning point. He was elected amid a recession and campaigned on a fiscally conservative platform that included cutting taxes – a number of Democrats wound up voting for him. The Dems were out of the Oval Office until Democrat Bill Clinton beat incumbent GOP President George HW Bush in 1992. Clinton was the first Democratic president to win a second term since FDR. After two terms, Clinton was followed up by Republican George W Bush. Toward the end of his second term, the US experienced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. It led to millions of people losing their homes and jobs, and the crisis unfolded while there was a presidential race underway. Enter: 2008.

Oh yes, Obama. 

Yep. The 2008 election was a big moment for the Democrats. Barack Obama became the first African American president – riding a wave of frustration that stemmed from the Great Recession. But his presidency wasn’t all turkey pardons and dad jokes. The Dems reportedly lost more House, Senate, state legislative, and governor seats in Obama’s eight years than under any other president, which was in part attributed to the rise of the conservative tea party movement that helped usher in a new wave of conservative Republicans into Congress. And some of Obama’s policies (the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and proposals (reducing Social Security benefits) drew criticism from lawmakers in his own party who argued they’d hurt Americans’ wallets and jobs. Then in the 2016 race, a candidate came along whose platform centered around boosting up federal programs, like Social Security, to help average Americans. Let us introduce you to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

The Bernie Effect

Since the 2016 presidential election season, the Democratic Party has started turning further to the left, to the left. That’s led to an identity crisis in the party, dividing it into the moderate wing and progressive wing. You can thank Sanders for all the ch-ch-changes. The self-declared democratic socialist may not have won the party’s presidential nomination in 2016 (hi, Hillary), but his ability to resonate with voters’ concerns and his grassroots campaign propelled him to do better than anticipated – and pushed the party to become more progressive.

Tell me more about that.

On the 2016 campaign trail, Sanders channeled Americans’ frustration with issues like income inequality, student loan debt, and health care – and rolled out policies to tackle many of those problems. Actually, Sanders and President Trump had pretty similar strategies: they ran populist campaigns focused on average Americans’ concerns...and were successful in doing so.

*Strokes chin, looks pensive*

While Trump’s base is largely white, working-class Americans, Sanders’ hype team has mostly been made up of young voters. Millennials and Gen Z grew up feeling the brunt of the 2008 financial crisis, from taking out student loans to having a hard time getting a job post-graduation. Young voters resonated with Sanders’ policies like Medicare for All and free college. His campaign helped shift how candidates campaign today, focusing on grassroots fundraising and mobilizing voters on social media.

But he didn’t become the presidential nominee.

No. But the Obama presidency, followed by the energy and enthusiasm around Sanders, made the Democratic Party realize that its voters had become more liberal. And party leadership has had to adapt accordingly. During the lead-up to the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton started taking more progressive stances on issues like the environment and trade, which some analysts say was due to Sanders’ success. We’ve also seen the party tilt to the left throughout Trump’s presidency. As the president has rolled out hardline policies on issues like immigration and climate change, Democrats tried to counter Trump by proposing policies on these issues that were much more progressive. And now, Sanders is back for round two.

How’s he doing this time around?

Sanders has emerged as the front-runner in the 2020 race, winning races in crucial early-voting states like New Hampshire and Nevada – even as an independent. If he continues to do well, the party may have no choice but to back him as the presidential nominee.

What do you mean no choice?

The Democratic establishment is blasting “Torn” on repeat. While it can’t deny that the party has moved to the left, it’s consistently tried to keep the party’s ideology in the middle in order to attract a wider range of voters. Some Democratic lawmakers view Sanders as too extreme. And they’re concerned that if he wins the nomination, it could drive voters away from voting for other Dems on the ballot – potentially giving Republicans a chance to win both the House and Senate.

The Impact

The party’s left-leaning shift has become evident in the 2020 race. Many Democratic candidates have rolled out policies that Democrats would not have supported in the past. For example, almost every candidate supports gov-backed health insurance, whether that means a more moderate public option or a more extreme plan like Medicare for All, and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Skimm Notes explains how the growing progressive wing is impacting the Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, the country’s demographics have changed in recent decades. The number of minority and young voters in the country is growing – and these groups tend to align with Democrats more than Republicans...which could pave the way for the party to clinch the White House in 2020 and remain there for a long time.


The progressive wing may be gaining steam, but there are some moderate Democrats who aren’t happy with the left-leaning shift in the party. As both the GOP and the Dems edge out further to the extreme sides of the spectrum, it leaves little room for more moderate voters to find a place in either party. That raises questions about whether the US’s traditional two-party political system still works today.

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