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The Democratic Party’s successful struggle to reject its ugly history of racism and sexism is a source of pride, and justifiably so. So you can imagine how gobsmacked we were upon reading the official history of the national Democratic Party on its own website. Such distortion and historical misrepresentations!
According to the opening statement of this pseudohistory, “For more than 200 years our party has led the fight for civil rights.” Nope! Democrats tolerated or supported slavery before the Civil War and Jim Crow laws in the decades that followed. The party pushed for the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and accommodated segregationists well into the 1960s, even though many were migrating to a GOP that openly wooed them.
In fact, this “history” avoids many ugly truths of the Democratic Party’s positions from 1828 to the mid 20th century by beginning its timeline in 1920. It is true that by 1932 Black voters arriving in the Great Migration were coalescing as a small but growing influence in the Democratic Party’s northern wing. However, these new arrivals were fleeing the South where the Democratic Party had subjugated them under the regime of Jim Crow.
But that wasn’t the position of the national party, which leads us to another big whopper. “Under the leadership of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. Constitution was amended to grant women the right to vote,” the site reads. Well, sure, it did happen on Wilson’s watch and yes, he did eventually come to support suffrage.
But Wilson’s support was hard-won. Under the Wilson administration women picketing the White House were imprisoned, and they were force-fed while on a hunger strike. Only under pressure from family members, and only in face of a growing and united suffrage movement that emphasized women’s contributions to the war effort, did he support women’s suffrage.
So, no, Wilson—also a notorious racist, who segregated the federal workplace for the first time–did not lead in the fight to gain votes for women. He eventually capitulated to it, as did his party. In the House, 200 Republicans supported the 19th Amendment compared to only 102 Democrats, while in the Senate, southern Democrats attempted to filibuster the bill.
It was during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency that the Democratic party began to make the slow turn to the civil rights positions it holds today. Not surprisingly, the website’s history of the New Deal is less dumbfoundingly bad. It names the Social Security Act of 1935 and the G.I. Bill, and gives a nod to rural electrification and farm price stability. Instead, it is the omissions from the New Deal’s history that are stunning. Where is the Wagner Act, that legitimized collective bargaining, or the Glass Steagall Act that reined in banking excesses? Do the authors of this “history” not see labor as central to our party and do they fear offending the financial interests which its progressive wing has been determined to rein in?
More importantly, this “history” represents an election strategy for 2022 and beyond rather than an honest assessment of how the party has changed over time. As later Democratic Presidents are name-checked in this timeline, their accomplishments emphasize contemporary choices that are calculated to speak to the moderate voter. These include Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) to Barack Obama’s (and Joe Biden’s) signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act of 2010.
But history isn’t a list of accomplishments and failures; it is the study of change over time. Sadly, what Democrats have chosen to feature on their website is propaganda.
If there is anything we have learned from the debate over Confederate monuments, it is that history must account for uncomfortable truths and renounce mythical pasts. It must explain political decisions we now abhor but that are true nonetheless. It is not just insulting to gaslight Black, Latino, and Asian-American Democrats, but it also encourages white activists and voters to assume a misplaced sense of virtue.
Wouldn’t it be far better to explain that Democrats turned away, albeit too slowly, from a toxic past to embrace the just demands of civil rights for all? Wouldn’t it be more effective political startegy to show how change happens—how a party that once embraced racism came to reject it, losing some supporters and gaining others?
Over the past 200 years the Democratic Party has changed. Voters have changed. America has changed. The Democratic party would do well to respect visitors to its site by acknowledging that. The website needn’t offer a complete history of the party, or stop promoting landmark legislation passed during the administrations of its elected leaders. That’s part of the story too. Although partisan politics has become a game of information strategies, largely carried out on the internet. there are lines Democrats mustn’t cross, and pedaling obvious lies is one.
Instead, the information shared at democrats.org should tell the truth about its past and applaud how far we have come in recent years—despite the party’s past missteps, errors, and accommodation of sexism and bigotry.
Site visitors will understand that the Democratic Party of the 21st century is not the Democratic Party of the 19th or even the 20th century. But only if they can read a clear explanation of the party’s development over its nearly 200 year history can they be well-informed enough to know that the Democratic Party is no longer the party of Andrew Jackson or Strom Thurmond.
Janet Golden is History Professor Emerita at Rutgers University, Camden.
Richard Harris is Political Science Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University, Camden.