The Democratic Party and Human Rights: The History Defies the Claims

The Democrats have liked to promote themselves over the years as the party that has been at the vanguard of promoting such causes as civil rights and human rights generally. An impression has been cultivated that we owe advances in human rights to liberalism, which at least since the New Deal has been identified in the U.S. with the Democratic party. In this year’s platform, the Democrats are presenting themselves as opening the way to yet another new frontier in the civil and human rights struggle, as it endorses what it calls “marriage equality.” That is, it wants same-sex “marriage” to be the law of the land.

This, of course, is in line with the tendency of the Democratic party for the last generation—as it came to be dominated by an increasingly secular liberalism—to be at the vanguard of promoting such ersatz rights as abortion, sodomy, and sexual libertinism. This year, we continue to see the Democrats embrace a “no-exception” position on abortion—that is, no exceptions to the abortion liberty should be allowed (including “partial-birth” abortion)—and they will tolerate no opposition to it. So, the party continues its tradition since the Clinton era of allowing no pro-life dissent within its ranks. It would not permit the late Governor Robert P. Casey of Pennsylvania to give a speech against abortion at its 1992 Convention and this year it even refused to include language in its platform to the effect that it welcomes in its fold Democrats who are pro-life.

All these claimed civil and human rights are, of course, anathema to Catholic teaching. The party of the Catholic immigrants who played a crucial role in helping to fashion its majority status for several decades in the twentieth century is now a party, as seen in one platform after another and in the positions of most of its major office-holders, that is officially hostile to uncompromisable moral precepts of the Church.

If the Democrats are now the party of ersatz rights, what was the record of Democratic presidents and the Democratic Party historically on genuine human rights? Should they rightfully be credited with a legacy of upholding and advancing civil and human rights as the party and its apologists want us to believe?

I spent a memorable academic year (2008-09) as a visiting fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. Witherspoon has an informal association with the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University; both are under the tutelage of the eminent Catholic scholar Robert George. One of the Madison Program’s guest lecturers that year was the presidential scholar Alvin S. Felzenberg of the University of Pennsylvania and George Washington University. It was remarks in his lecture about rating presidents that first got me thinking about this subject. One of the criteria that he thought necessary to consider in evaluating presidents was their effort to preserve and extend liberty. As he talked about different presidents, he observed—almost as an aside—that the record on this of Democratic presidents, even ones often considered “great” or “near-great,” was troublesome. His comments and my own further reflections about the actions and viewpoints of both Democratic presidents and party demonstrate a not-so-stellar historical legacy.

First, there was Andrew Jackson, whose presidency marked the beginning of the modern Democratic Party and was when that name was first used (it had previously been the “Democratic-Republican” party). Jackson and his compatriot and successor Martin Van Buren, ignoring a Supreme Court decision and for reasons of political interest, forcibly relocated the Cherokees and other Indian tribes from the southeastern U.S. This included the “Trail of Tears,” where many of the Indians died in the difficult journey westward. Next, was the Mexican War, which was prosecuted by Democrat James Knox Polk and fiercely objected to by a little-known Whig Congressman named Abraham Lincoln who was later to become the first Republican president. The war, which was probably undertaken for expansion in the throes of Manifest Destiny, resulted in the massacres of Mexican civilians in occupied territories, the growth of slavery in the Southwest, and illicit seizures of private lands in violation of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. As far as slavery was concerned, it was always the Democratic Party that was the major political defender of it, as it was later on of Jim Crow. We sometimes forget that the old segregated South was one-party Democratic until the end of the 1960s, and that the major opponents of federal civil rights laws were the powerful, entrenched southern Democrats in Congress.

Woodrow Wilson, the quintessential Democratic “progressive,” presided over probably the most severe restriction of civil liberties in American history during the course of World War I. Any dissent against American war policy was vigorously put down. Then, of course, there was the Japanese internment on the West Coast carried out by the twentieth century’s most famous Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt. FDR also refused to support federal anti-lynching legislation (which was mostly pushed by Republicans). Finally, we return to the fact that the Democrats have been the party of legal abortion. Not only have they been impervious to the facts that abortion represents an assault on the most basic human and civil right—to life—and is a clear example of a denial of rights to a whole group of persons, they have rabidly supported it.

This record demonstrates what Pope John Paul II cautioned about: When democratic republics disconnect themselves from truth they can become “thinly disguised totalitarianisms.” Perhaps these troublesome actions of earlier Democratic presidents resulted from pandering to the sentiments of electoral majorities; the current ersatz rights regime is a response to a trend-setting cultural elite.

To be sure, the Republican Party, although founded to further one of the greatest human rights crusades of modern times (ending slavery), has not been pure. It was not welcoming of the immigrants or supportive of the rights of labor (although the Democrats also overwhelmingly supported the ending of open immigration in 1924 and were no great friends of labor before the New Deal either). One also thinks of episodes such as the violent eviction of the “Bonus Army” of WWI veterans from Washington, D.C. under Herbert Hoover (even though the real culprit was probably General Douglas MacArthur, who ignored Hoover’s orders to stop his assault and his aide Dwight D. Eisenhower’s—the later Republican president—entreaties to step back).

Still, it has been the Democrats who for fifty years have touted themselves as the party of the people and of civil rights. We hear time and again that the Republicans and their allies, like the Tea Party, are hostile to civil rights. The left is quick to pin the label of “hypocrite” on their opponents, but doesn’t the history of America’s leftist political party readily qualify it for this very accusation?

Stephen M. Krason


Stephen M. Krason's "Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic" column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis Magazine. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He is the author, most recently, of The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and editor of three volumes: Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and The Crisis of Religious Liberty (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); and most recently, Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians (Franciscan University Press). His next book is Catholicism and American Political Ideologies (forthcoming this fall from Hamilton Books). He is also the author of a new novel, American Cincinnatus.

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  • Karen

    liberals are friends of human rights and freedom. For most of its history, the Democratic Party had a large contingent of conservatives, left over from the Civil War. Conservatives have always opposed the expansion of freedom and respect to anyone who isn’t white, male, and very, wealthy.

    • Patrick

      Ha Ha Ha… whooooo! That’s a good one, Karen! So that’s the new line for the Democrats… the KKK; George Wallace; Gore, Sr filibustering the Civil Rights Act; Margaret Singer advocating abortion to weed out black babies… these are all because they are actually Republicans!? Too rich!

      On the contrary, the party of Lincoln; the party with the first black people elected to Congress; the party of MLK, Jr (yes, he was a Republican); the party responsible for the passage of the Civil Rights Act… these are the racists?!

      Educate yourself:

      • Karen

        I said conservatives, not Republicans. There once was a sizable group of liberal R’s, especially on the East Coast. Those were the Republicans who passed all the civil rights laws. They were defeated for being RINO’s. The conservative Dems who opposed civil rights — Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond — became Republicans.

        • jmann

          Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, a lot of time was spent identifying and over coming stereotypes…The idea being of course that discrimination was the result of stereotypical beliefs. Well, apparently the last stereotype that is alive and flourishing is that of the conservative. Man, do you really think this way? Karen, this may be news to you, but YOU are a conservative. Do you consistently spend more than you bring home every month? Would you give your children, if you have children, whatever they ask for just because they ask for it? Would you have no expectation of their behavior, your’s, or of others? Would you have no code of right and wrong, good and bad? The answer to all those questions is, of course, no. We are all conservative in how we live our lives because conservatism is not an ideology. It’s a way of life. It’s seeing the world as it is and living accordingly. It’s only in the world of politics and governance that we think that the laws of economics and human nature don’t apply. So, you are a conservative. Congratulations and welcome to the club!

    • Adam__Baum

      Yeah, that’s why FDR threw all those white males into internment camps with Executive Order 9066.

      What you call “liberals” today are an amorphous group with varying amounts of the elements of statism, redistributionism, Marxism, secularism and atheism-and among the most intolerant and illiberal people on earth.

  • hombre111

    Doing research for a book about the Mormons in the 1830’s-1840’s, I rediscovered the story of the Democrat Party, above all its commitment to states rights, which was a code word for a states rights to maintain the system of slavery. It also meant a state could violate the constitutional rights of large grops of people without fearing any pressure from the federal government. The Mormons received brutal treatment from the state of Missouri, which issued an extermination order driving them out of their homes inthe middle of winter. When Joseph Smith went to Washington in the name of his brutalized lpeople, President Van Buren, a Democrat and proponent of states rights told Smith Smith there was no way the federal government could intervene even though Missouri had deliberately and systematically violated the constitutional rights of thousands of people.
    The Southern Democrats remained tied to this idea far past the middle of this century. Then came the great switch. When President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he famously said, “There goes the South for the next generations.” In the face of the fury from the Democrats in the South, President Nixon devised his “Southern Strategy” and lured all those old states rights Democrat racists into the Republican Party. Every since, the South has belonged to the Republicans. When Reagan said he favored states rights, he was speaking the code words the racists wanted to hear. And with the election of the black man to the White House, all that racist fury surfaced again. That is one of the reasons why I find Mormon semi-official support for Republicans hard to undersand. A religion that suffered so much because of the states rights doctrine supports the party that espouses that hard-hearted tradition today.

    • hombre111

      But that is not the only puzzle in this strange story. The Democrats became the self-proclaimed champions of human rights and freedom. I guess the next logical step was to support gay rights, which makes sense to me. If I might prophecy, in a hundred years the Church will be apologizing for its attitude toward human beings with a gay orientation the same way in continues to apologize for stuffing poor Galileo into the purgatory of house arrest.
      But for whatever deliberate or undeliberate self-deception, Pro-Choice Democrats seem unable to understand that abortion denies the personhood and civil rights of the unborn child. This is the logical consequence of sex without responsibility, a messy but necessary tactic to clean up the inevitable consequences.This inabilityto accept the rights and dignity of the unborn child is the great mistake of the Democrat Party and a major reason for its struggles for the last half century. Democrat support for states rights without regard for moral consequences has given way to support for a mother’s rights without regard for moral consequences, and most Catholics are appalled.

      • jmann

        The Democrat party learned in the 30’s with labor and the 60’s with civil rights that it can create broad appeal annointing itself as the defender of the oppressed. It’s undeniable that good came from some of its accomplishments. It has continued to do so, however, well beyond the expiration date of the oppression. Big labor has played its cards so well that one wonders who is the oppressed and who has the power as industries with large contingencies of org labor have negotiated themselves practically out of existence. Black Americans have too often found themselves in the worst kind of oppression, a chronic underclass that demands that they must think of themselves as constantly vicvtimized so that they can remain exactly where they are. A new, self imposed slavery. So, now what’s left? What new group of oppressed to appeal to? What new voting constituency? Ah, how about anyone who has ever had sex?! Now THAT’s a constituency. But le’s not appeal to what is good and properly ordered. Let’s appeal to the fallen nature of all men and women so that anything that had previously been considered improper, disordered, perverse we would say is reasonable, responsible, GOOD. All who oppose are intolerant, phobic, EVIL. Truth is turned on its head and any lie can be sold as truth. Genius! We will be our only standard of right and wrong. We will give ourselves anything we want, discard anything, anyone that we don’t want and we will call it good. And we will love ourselves. Yes ourselves. Only ourselves.

    • Adam__Baum

      You have demonstrated an amazing capacity to find what is clear, obvious and logical difficult to understand. Perhaps if you approached political discourse with less brainwashing and slogans, you wouldn’t have so much escaping your cognition.

  • Howard Kainz

    After the Civil War, the Republicans passed the 13th Amendment, freeing the slaves, the 14th Amendment, granting them citizenship, and the 15th Amendment, granting the right to vote.Republicans passed, and Republican President Ulysses S. Grant signed
    into law, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Reconstruction Act of
    1867.Republicans consistently introduced federal civil rights bills, and
    Democrats kept blocking them – an 1890 bill protecting black voters,
    anti-lynching bills in 1922, 1935, and 1938, and anti-poll-tax bills in
    1942, 1944 and 1946. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was supported by a huge majority of Republicans, but a lesser majority of Democrats. But somehow, towards the end of the 60s, the Democrats metamorphosed into the “party of civil rights.”

  • salvagesalvage

    Shorter version:

    Democrats 100 years ago were racists therefore Democrats now are… something… bad.

    Oh and you ever hear of the “Southern Strategy” that’s a little more recent.

  • B. Johnson

    Regarding constitutionally undefined civil rights, please consider the following. As a consequence of the public schools not teaching the Constitution for many generations, constitutionally ignorant voters don’t understand that the likewise constitutionally ignorant lawmakers that they send to DC do not have the constitutional authority to protect so-called rights like gay marriage outside the framework of the Constitution.

    More specifically, given that the states have never amended the Constitution to protect marriage for example, there is no marriage amendment that can be applied to the states through 14A, Congress thus having no 14A authority to make laws which protect citizens from 10A-protected state marriage laws. In fact, I will reluctantly side with activist justices who might eventually decide that Congress had no constitutional authority to make the PC Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

    Again, beware that constitutionally undefined, vote-getting civil rights were established outside constitutional framework and are subject to arbitrary interpretations by activist judges.

  • B. Johnson

    I should have used a different term than civil rights in my previous post. Again, in relatively recent decades, Congress has been making rights laws which address specific issues, the problem being that some issues are outside the scope of the privileges and immunities expressly protected by the Constitution, thus 10A protected state power issues. And corrupt members of Congress are arguably protecting PC rights to win votes from constitutionally ignorant voters.

    John Bingham, the main author of Sec. 1 of 14A, had officially put it this way.
    “Mr. Speaker, this House may safely follow the example of the makers of the Constitution and the builders of the Republic, by passing laws for enforcing all the privileges and immunities of the United States as guaranteed by the amended Constitution and expressly enumerated in the Constitution.” –John Bingham, Congressional Globe, 1871.
    Another way of looking at it is this. As a consequence of widespread constitutional ignorance, Congress is getting away with wrongly ignoring its Article V requirement to petition the states to amend the Constitution for new privileges and immunities.

  • I am a conservative christian and quite frankly a lot of what Mitt Romney believes worries me

  • Mark

    The Democrat’s Missing History, by Jeffrey Lord, Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2008.

    Vanishing history of the Democratic Party aside, the platform of the party today puts it in direct and open opposition to the Catholic Church and her fundamental social teachings. There is one political party in America that proudly and directly defies the two primary and non-negotiable teachings of the Church: the protection and defense of Life and Family. There is one political party in America that is advancing the dictatorship of relativism and the culture of death as defined by the Catholic Church.

    This is in no way an endorsement of the ‘other’ party in our two-party system (both are corrupt political machines), but these objective facts about the Democratic Party (the sanitizing of its history, and the policies the party openly supports today) need to be unmasked, so that the decades-long, nearly blind support given to the party by Catholic Americans can finally be seen as a grave error. The question is whether Catholic democrats will ever recognize that they’ve allowed their politics to define (and trump) their faith for far too long.

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  • hmm this article has some holes in it. that’s not the whole story..

  • also, what is the point of this article anyway?

  • Dishonest essay. The author fails to mention that radical white racists fled the Democratic party in the 60s. Nowadays Republicans tow the white power line of the Old Democratic party. While its true that what passes for white left liberalism is sometimes a subtle form of racism. Republican racism is much more blatant. For example, it was no accident that Republican senators refused to sanction an apology for federal inaction on lynchings in America. And where are the Republican champions of Civil Rights in 2012??

    • RufusChoate

      No one sane believes such self deluding idiocy. The Klan, the Nation of Islam and the Nation Socialist Party are all on the Left.

    • Paul

      Had 99% of white Americans voted for McCain or Romney against Obama no doubt African American would call it racism, yet 99% of African Americans voted for Obama in both presidential elections and no one dares to call African Americans racist !?! You’re just as racist as the very racists you deplore,