The Democratic Party has always been the more populist-oriented political party in America. That has inherently given it a potential electoral advantage over its main opponents (i.e. the Republican Party since 1856). However, having the largest political base also means that the Democratic Party is innately more factious. Maintaining unity has generally been its biggest problem, and during times of social division this difficulty has gotten even worse.
The issue of slavery and the Civil War pushed Northerners out of the Democratic Party for a very long time. It did not fully recover until 1932, after twelve years of Republican rule had driven the economy into the Great Depression. FDR’s overwhelming victory resulted from the coalescing of divergent groups around a central theme of economic populism, which included the influential progressive movement that had been championed by former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt.
Although the old racial fissure in the Democratic Party remained relatively dormant through World War II, it began to resurface again in 1948 with the Dixiecrats. The final departure of White Southerners from the Democratic Party occurred after passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Apparently, President Lyndon Baines Johnson told an aide while signing the former, “we have lost the South for a generation.”
But, the Democratic Party coalition was so large in the 1960’s that it could have survived the South’s defection had it not made a much more egregious political mistake. It had committed to waging the unwinnable Vietnam War concurrent with a growing youth counterculture movement that emphatically wanted peace. The public pressure was so great that LBJ declined to seek reelection in 1968, leaving the Democratic presidential nomination up in the air. When the popular candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in June of that year, it was left to a reluctant Hubert H. Humphrey to carry the party standard. Republican Richard M. Nixon went on to win that election, and another great demise of the Democratic Party ensued.
Despite the elections of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democratic Party has not fully recovered from that debacle in 1968. The South is gone, older White voters have left, and Congress – which should be electorally favorable to Democrats – has been dominated by the GOP for two decades. When a frustrated Democratic establishment started playing the “big money” fundraising game in 1992, they sacrificed their core message of economic populism in order to win the presidency. Idealistic young people today see little difference between the two political parties on economic issues. One (the Republican Party) is the loyal spouse of powerful corporate interests, while the other (the Democratic Party) is its frequent mistress.
The financial crisis of 2007-08 and subsequent Great Recession created a populist backlash against the GOP (a la 1932 and 1992) that enabled a Democratic resurgence. But, it didn’t last long. Just two years later Republicans won a crushing victory in the 2010 midterms. The central issue of that election was the Affordable Care Act (i.e. “Obamacare”) – a 1990’s GOP plan from the Heritage Foundation that was despised by progressives (because it had no public option) as well as conservatives (because they had embraced right-wing extremism). By the 2012 election, the higher voter turnout of 2008 had subsided especially among younger voters:
This graph of voter turnout in presidential elections since 1948 shows how important populism is to the success of the Democratic Party. When it’s up, they usually win. When it’s down, they usually lose. Democrats do hold a huge advantage over Republicans on social issues (women’s reproductive rights, marriage equality, and immigration reform), and that puts them in a good electoral position with respect to America’s changing demographics (i.e. minority voters) unless GOP voter suppression efforts – like their gerrymandering efforts – prove successful. The Democrats’ advantage on economic issues is less pronounced due to their previously explained foray into corporatism.
And, here’s where future elections could get problematic for the Democratic Party. Recent revelations about the Obama Administration’s secret surveillance operations (i.e. NSA), their clandestine investigation of journalists (i.e. Associated Press), their persecution of whistleblowers, leakers, and sources, and their continued military involvements on foreign lands (e.g. Syria), are eerily similar to the authoritarianism of the Vietnam War era. As before, this has the potential to alienate the younger, progressive, and civil libertarian wing of the party. If they choose not to vote, the Democratic Party will have shot itself in the foot once again.