The Democratic Party of the United States is a big tent party composed of various factions. The liberal faction supports modern liberalism and social liberalism that began with the New Deal in the 1930s and continued with both the New Frontier and Great Society in the 1960s. The moderate faction supports Third Way politics that includes center-left social policies and centrist fiscal policies. The progressive faction supports social democracy and left-wing populism.
All Democratic officeholders whose photos are featured below have held public office for at least two years.
Liberalism in the US began during the Progressive Era with President Theodore Roosevelt (a Republican) and his Square Deal and New Nationalism policies, with center-left ideas increasingly leaning toward the political philosophy of social liberalism, or better known in the United States as modern liberalism. Following Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, John F. Kennedy's New Frontier and Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society (the latter of which established Medicare and Medicaid) further established the popularity of liberalism in the nation. Johnson's presidency and domestic agenda marked the peak of modern liberalism in the second half of the 20th century.
While the resurgence of conservatism and the Third Way of Bill Clinton's New Democrats briefly weakened the influence of social liberalism, Barack Obama acted as an ideological bridge. While characterizing himself as a New Democrat, Obama toed the ideological line between the Third Way and modern liberalism. The key legislative achievement of the Obama administration, the passage and enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), was generally supported among liberal Democrats. Under Obama, Democrats achieved an expansion of LGBT rights, federal hate crime laws, rescinding the Mexico City Policy, later reinstituted by President Donald Trump, rescinding the ban on federal taxpayer dollars to fund research on embryonic stem cells, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the Cuban thaw.
In 2011, the Democratic Leadership Council, which supported centrist and Third Way positions, was dissolved. In 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton eschewed her husband's "New Covenant" centrism and pursued more liberal proposals, such as rolling back mandatory minimum sentencing laws, a debt-free college tuition plan for public university students, and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Joe Biden has adopted social liberal policies during his presidency.
Generally speaking, moderate Democrats are Democrats who are fiscally conservative and socially liberal.
The success of social liberalism was weakened with the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the ensuing tide of conservative popularity in response to a perception of liberal failure. In reaction to angst following Reagan's landslide victory over left-leaning Democrat Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential election, the Third Way movement was formed. It is associated with the presidency of Bill Clinton and the New Democrats. During the 1992 United States presidential election, Clinton and running mate Al Gore ran as New Democrats who were willing to synthesize fiscally conservative views with the more culturally liberal position of the Democratic Party ethos, or to harmonize center-left and center-right politics. Clinton was both the first Democrat elected president since 1976 and the first re-elected to a second full term since 1948.
Most moderate Democrats in the House of Representatives are members of the New Democrat Coalition, although there is considerable overlap in the membership of New Democrats and Blue Dogs, with most Blue Dogs also being New Democrats. The Blue Dog Coalition, commonly known as the Blue Dogs or Blue Dog Democrats, is a caucus of moderate members from the Democratic Party in the United States House of Representatives. The Blue Dog Coalition was originally founded in 1995 as a group of conservative Democrats focused on fiscal responsibility. In the 2010s, the Blue Dogs became more demographically diverse and less conservative. As of July 2023, 10 House members are part of the Blue Dog Coalition.
Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden have largely tried to unify the wings of the Democratic Party while still addressing the goals of the liberal wing, and the Third Way is still a large coalition in the modern Democratic Party.
The modern progressive movement in the U.S. draws deeply from the left-wing populist economic and political philosophies of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom. Modern progressives are culturally liberal on social issues like race and identity, where they draw inspiration from the Civil and Voting Rights Acts proposed by President John F. Kennedy, enacted by President Lyndon B. Johnson and advocated for by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
While it does not transcend the political philosophy of social liberalism, the progressive wing has fused tenets of social liberalism with traditions of the Progressive Era as well as drawing more robustly from Keynesian economics, social populism, and social democracy.
President Lyndon Johnson and Civil Rights activists such as Dr. King were influential to progressives as well, not only for their positions on race and identity but on economics as well (Johnson for the Great Society and King for his support of social democracy). While there are differences between them, both historical progressivism and the modern movement share the belief that free markets lead to economic inequalities and, therefore, that the free market must be aggressively monitored and regulated with broad economic and social rights to protect the working class.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) is a caucus of progressive House Democrats in the Congress, along with one independent in the Senate.
In 2016, the Blue Collar Caucus, a pro-labor, anti-outsourcing caucus, was formed.
As of August 2023, there are nine democratic socialists in the United States Congress, with seven being at some point affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America. (See List of socialist members of the United States Congress for list.)
Historical factions of the Democratic Party include the founding Jacksonians; the Copperheads and War Democrats during the American Civil War; the Redeemers, Bourbon Democrats, and Silverites in the late-19th century; and the Southern Democrats and New Deal Democrats in the 20th century.
Jeffersonians, named after founding father Thomas Jefferson, was a political movement in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. While it dominated the first party system which predates the Democratic Party, many of its beliefs influenced the party throughout the 19th century. These beliefs were concentrated around the beliefs of republicanism and agrarianism. Other than Jefferson, early notable Jeffersonians included presidents James Madison and James Monroe of the Virginia dynasty.
Jacksonianism was the foundational ideology of the Democratic Party with the election of Andrew Jackson as president in 1828, and it was the predominant faction of the party until the 1840s. It represented the politics of Jackson, which were a modified form of Jeffersonianism. Jacksonians supported a small federal government and stronger state governments. They were also opponents of central banking, which represented an early factional division in the Democratic Party when Jacksonians competed against pro-bank Democrats.: 19–20 Jacksonians supported the Southern United States on several issues, including slavery, arguing that it was permissible on the grounds of states' rights, and protective tariffs, opposing them on the grounds that they disproportionately benefited the North.: 23–25 Other than Jackson, notable Jacksonian Democrats include presidents Martin Van Buren and James K. Polk.
The Young America movement was a political as well as a societal movement in the 1830s throughout the 1850s. While not an explicit political faction, it did impact many Democratic party ideals though its promotion of capitalism and manifest destiny and broke with the agrarian and strict constructionist orthodoxies of the past; it embraced commerce, technology, regulation, reform, and internationalism. Notable promoters included President Franklin Pierce and 1860 presidential nominee Stephen Douglas.
The Free Soil Party had many former members of the Democratic Party, most notably their 1848 presidential candidate former Democratic president Martin Van Buren. The party's main platform was opposition to the expansion of slavery into new territories acquired from the Mexican–American War.
During the American Civil War, the Democratic Party split into several factions:
Redeemers were Southern Democrats that, after the end of the Civil War, sought to return white supremacists to power in the South. They were opposed to the expansion of rights given to Black Americans and were associated with groups such as the White League, Red Shirts, and the Ku Klux Klan.
Following the end of the Civil War, several factions emerged in the democratic party during the Third Party System, such as the Bourbon Democrats (1872-1912) and Silverites (1870s–1890s). During the Gilded Age, or from around 1877 to 1896, the only Democratic president to win both the Electoral College and popular vote was Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893–1897).
During the Fourth and Fifth Party Systems in the 20th century, new factions such as the Progressives (1890s–1910s) and the New Deal coalition (1930s-1970s) arose. From 1897 to 1932, the only Democratic president was Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921). Wilson imposed racial segregation in the federal government. It was only until after the Great Depression and World War II that the Democratic Party began to support civil rights, starting with President Harry Truman desegregating the United States Armed Forces in 1948.
Throughout the 20th century, Southern factions within the Democratic Party emerged and held significant power around the issue of civil rights, segregation, and other issues. These included the conservative coalition (1930s–1960s), the Solid South (1870s–1960s), Dixiecrats (1940s), and the boll weevils (1980s). Until the 1994 "Republican Revolution", most Southern members of the House of Representatives were Democrats.
The conservative coalition was an unofficial coalition in the United States Congress bringing together a conservative majority of the Republican Party and the conservative, mostly Southern wing of the Democratic Party. It was dominant in Congress from 1937 to 1963 and remained a political force until the mid-1980s, eventually dying out in the 1990s. In terms of congressional roll call votes, it primarily appeared on votes affecting labor unions. The conservative coalition did not operate on civil rights bills, for the two wings had opposing viewpoints.
However, the conservative coalition did have the power to prevent unwanted bills from even coming to a vote. The coalition included many committee chairmen from the South who blocked bills by not reporting them from their committees. Furthermore, Howard W. Smith, Chairman of the House Rules Committee, often could kill a bill simply by not reporting it out with a favorable rule (he lost some of that power in 1961).
The traditional conservative Democratic faction lost much of its influence in the 21st century as the South realigned towards the Republican Party. Starting in the 2010s, however, a new set of moderate to conservative voters disillusioned with Trumpism began voting Democrat. This predominantly included but was not limited to many suburban women voters, as well as a new southern Democratic base, where as of 2022 both elected U.S. Senators from the state of Georgia are Democrats, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff—the first African American and Jewish person respectively in U.S. history to represent Georgia in the Senate.
The following table lists coalitions' electoral results for the House of Representatives:
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