RECAP: “The Party of No,” 9/3 Colloquium with Eastern Connecticut Historian Thomas Balcerski

If we place its origins in the 1790s, with Jefferson and Madison’s forging of the Democratic-Republican Party, there can be little argument that what we now know simply by the first half of its old moniker is, in fact, the nation’s oldest mass partisan institution. As Eastern Connecticut Associate Professor of History Thomas Balcerski noted in introducing his September 3rd talk in Columbia, the first installment of the Kinder Institute’s Fall 2021 Friday Colloquium Series, the goal of his new book project isn’t simply to chart the expanse of the Democratic Party’s history but to unpack the fascinating admixture of evolutionary consistencies and schisms within it. Specifically, even as positions changed and figureheads fell in and out of favor, the Party remained, he argued, conservative at its core, at least from its Jeffersonian roots through the rise of New Deal liberalism (and in some cases, well beyond this terminus).

For as capacious a term as it is, the most fundamental aspect of Democrats’ ‘conservatism’ remained largely in focus during the time period in question: an anti-elitist insistence, dating back to the Democratic-Republican Societies of the Age of Jefferson, on simultaneously expanding democratic rights and constraining to whom these rights applied (white men). That said, highlighting this thematic tradition still leaves unexplained significant variation in what, exactly, both leaders and rank-and-file Party members grounded their conservatism in. Dovetailing Walter Houghton’s 1880 ur-infographic on the history of political parties with political scientists’ work on re-alignment, Prof. Balcerski cited shifts in the balance of partisan power as one causal factor underlying this variation. He added, though, that the articulation of Party identity was likewise dependent on whom, between Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, this identity was being crafted around, as well as one’s tolerance for what he termed “historical amnesia.” Following an 1830 Jefferson Birthday Dinner, for example, Thomas Hart Benton, the dinner’s likely organizer, wrote in the Washington United States Telegraph of attendees touting the Democratic-Republican principles of the event’s namesake—namely strict states’ rights constructionism—in spite of the fete taking place in the midst of Jackson’s negotiation of the nullification crisis and in spite of Jackson being present at it. Bringing into stark relief the degree to which intra-Party divisions ruled the day, after South Carolina Senator Robert Hayne offered a toast to the sovereignty of the states, Jackson offered the rebuttal, “our federal union, it must be preserved.” Some variation on Benton’s version of the Party’s origin story would be invoked as needed at Jefferson Day Dinners throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries: by post-Civil War Southern Democrats as a way to align the Party with white supremacy and economic entrenchment; by Populists latching onto Jefferson’s anti-monopolism; and again by turn-of-the-century Segregationists who cited Jefferson’s pro-states’ rights distaste for government overreach as a way to organize the party around opposition to civil rights for African Americans and voting rights for women.

This is not at all to say that Jackson was extinguished as a guiding light for Democrats but only that the memory of he and Jefferson worked in tandem, if not always in harmony. Following William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 presidential defeat, for example, many Midwestern Bourbons re-centered Party identity around Jackson, as Southern Segregationists looked elsewhere. Even more notably, as he searched for a way to square New Deal liberalism with Party history, FDR turned toward the Age of Jackson as a usable past, resurrecting Jacksonian Democracy’s common man focus to position the party in opposition to special interest groups and their outsized share of vested social, political, and economic power (this affiliation, unsurprisingly, was pronounced at a Jackson Day Dinner). The twain finally met, though, in 1948, when at the newly-merged Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, Wilson W. Wyatt summoned both spokes of the Party’s genesis in an attempt to reconcile the conservatism of the past with the Cold War liberal present by emphasizing Democrats’ longstanding, if also highly debatable, commitment to human rights. Under the umbrella of progressivism, Jefferson could be the Party founder, Jackson its plain spokesmen, and mid-century Democrats—Dixiecrats notwithstanding—could self-style as members of a Party that “by tradition and by conviction” had long “put its trust in the people.”

To return to a previous term, if a healthy dose of historical amnesia was required to wed old and new in 1948, this is doubly true today. For more than a generation, Democrats have laid claim (or at least tried to lay claim) to a 200-year lineage rooted in dedicated defense of social security, broadly construed, and workers’, women’s, and civil rights. As Prof. Balcerski pointed out in closing, however, we shouldn’t overlook how the articulation of this history often begins with FDR, which underscores just how paralyzed the Party is when it comes to grappling with its actual past. Moreover, the very idea of a coherent Party identity belies one aspect of its long history that has endured: the kinds of division that U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reminded us of when she noted how, in any other country, she and Joe Biden wouldn’t be in the same party and that should lead us to question if and when a partisan tent can get too big.