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Party Platforms, Historically Speaking

created Sep 06, 2016 09:02 AM

Much of the distinction between the Democratic and the Republican Parties today centers on
what each party believes is the proper size, scope, and role of the federal government. These
positions have changed over the history of each party, but contemporary views more or less
coalesced in the first half of the twentieth century. Here is a brief look at these positions.

The Democratic Party under President Franklin Roosevelt took a bold approach to the
economic catastrophe of the Great Depression. Unlike Roosevelt’s Republican predecessor
Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt believed that the best road to economic recovery was to commit federal spending to work programs to help the many unemployed, to provide direct aid to citizens, and to regulate the banking and business sectors so as to avoid another stock market crash. Among many other of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the Agricultural Adjustment Act regulated farming practices, the National Recovery Act regulated business and provided support for labor unions, the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Projects Administration provided jobs to millions of Americans as government employees, and Social Security promised government support for elderly Americans. These developments worried some
Americans, especially Republicans, who felt the federal government was encroaching on the freedom and autonomy of the individual and businesses, as well as the authority of the individual states.Throughout the Great Depression, however, those who accepted, and even welcomed government support, far outnumbered those who saw this as a slight to liberty. Franklin Roosevelt was reelected in 1936 and won an unprecedented third election in 1940. When the United States entered World War II at the end of 1941, war priorities led the
federal government to continue taking an active and involved role in the economy, and Roosevelt was reelected yet again in 1944.

Once the war ended, a small number of Republicans began to challenge the large and powerful federal government. Republicans gained control of Congress in 1946, and worked to pass anti-New Deal legislation that would weaken the role of the federal government, such as a major tax cut and an end to the government’s wartime involvement in economic regulations. Meanwhile, the Cold War between the United States and the communist Soviet Union drove many Americans to accept a strong federal government that could withstand the threat of the Soviets, including a strong national security force. Democrats and Republicans alike supported measures to resist the spread of communism and to promote democratic forms of government in newly established countries. Throughout the 1950s, the mainstream branches of the Republican and Democratic parties found general agreement on matters of foreign policy,
but during these years a more conservative branch evolved in the Republican Party to resist liberal social and economic policies and the powerful central government.

After eight years of the moderately conservative President Dwight Eisenhower, Americans elected by a narrow margin the Democrat John F. Kennedy in 1960. Kennedy did not survive his first term and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, had long adhered to Roosevelt’s ideology and formed his own version of the New Deal. The Great Society, as Johnson called it, was premised on the belief that the federal government could and should take an active role in society to improve the lives of all citizens through such measures as civil rights, early childhood education, government sponsored health insurance and much more. A growing
conservatism within the Republican Party led to the nomination of Barry Goldwater in the 1964
presidential election against President Johnson. Goldwater stood opposed to social security,
government aid to education and involvement in civil rights, and the graduated income tax, for he saw all of these measures as impositions to states’ rights and/or personal liberty. Johnson’s landslide victory revealed that a majority of Americans still agreed with the liberal social and economic policies of the Democratic Party.

But within just four years an important shift occurred within the nation and Republicans gained
the presidency with Richard Nixon’s election. The causes for this shift were multiple, including
Johnson’s policy successes with the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, and the Great Society; liberal rulings of the Supreme Court including ruling unconstitutional school-sponsored prayer; and the anti-war, student and women’s movements. These developments challenged the status quo and left many conservatives feeling threatened by a changing social order and liberal policies focused on minority populations. Significantly, these policies and events led some long-time Democrats, namely white southerners, to begin identifying with the Republican Party platform. In addition, white working class voters began seeing their interests as best represented by the Republicans who promised to decrease welfare and therefore taxes. The economic troubles of the 1970s and globalization hit hard upon these working-class voters. They particularly resented seeing their taxes go to programs that they believed disproportionately benefited minorities, and affirmative action further alienated them from a liberal agenda. Many working-class whites moved into the Republican Party, joining many
southern whites, religious conservatives, and economic libertarians who called for limiting
federal involvement in the economy. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, continued to
attract ethnic minorities and African-Americans who appreciated the Democrats’ commitment to civil rights legislation, as well as most workers in labor unions because of the Democrats’ support of labor rights.

The 1980 election solidified the Republican base of voters under Ronald Reagan, and today this same combination of voters continues to guide the Republican Party’s commitment to lower taxes, a small federal government, and minimal government regulation in the economy. The Democratic Party still holds the loyalty of most labor unions, ethnic and racial minorities (who make up an increasingly large percentage of the population), other minorities including LGBT, and many women, all of whom see their rights as protected by the inclusive social and economic policies of the Democrats. This coalition of voters supported President Obama in the last two elections, and the Clinton campaign is hoping it stays together to propel her into office. The Trump campaign is hoping to secure the support of voters that coalesced in the 1980 election to bring a Republican into office once again.

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