The Democratic Party: A History of Race Politics

What do Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Stephen Douglas, James Buchanan, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden have in common? All of course have been either Democratic presidents or presidential contenders spanning the long history of the oldest political party in continuous existence on the face of this earth. But they have something else in common. Each of these Democratic leaders has been a practitioner of the politics of skin color. More to the point, each has done so in a dangerous way, not to mention an aggressively similar way as well. This is especially the case for Calhoun, Obama, and Biden.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Democratic party of today is in no way to be compared with either the openly racist Democratic party of the pre-Civil War era or with the post-Civil War Democratic party that gave birth to the original Jim Crow.  

Today’s Democratic party is certainly far removed from the Democratic party of 1924 that had no black delegates at its national convention and failed to include an anti-Ku Klux Klan plank in its party platform. Or is it?

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

The aforementioned conventional wisdom may be right when it comes to the size and reach of the federal government. The states’ rights Democratic party of a bygone era is not the modern Democratic party of the national administrative state. The 19th century Democratic party of a limited federal government is not the 21st century Democratic party of an all-powerful central government.

But when matters turn to the twin subjects of race and racial politics, conventional wisdom is wrong. Both Democratic parties, then and now, operate on the basis of what can only be labeled the politics of skin color (or POSC).  

Let’s go two steps further. Both Democratic parties have done—and, if not stopped, will continue to do—significant harm to black Americans, not to mention the country at large, even as they presume to be doing good. More than that, both Democratic parties have favored a strong central government when it comes to advancing its own version of the politics of skin color.

Despite his racist assumptions and states’ rights stance, John C. Calhoun no doubt thought that he was doing the good and right thing by seeking the support of the federal government when it came to preserving, advancing, and perpetuating what he termed the “positive good” of black slavery. When the newly formed Republican party came to national power in 1860, that support was gone and the result was civil war.    

And today? The Democratic party of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, followed by the Democratic party of Joe Biden and Barack Obama, has renewed their party’s ancient commitment to POSC, aided and abetted by their party’s modern commitment to centralized solutions. Like Calhoun before them, these Democrats are in the process of unwittingly doing significant damage to both black America and to the country at large.  

Unwittingly? Let’s concede the best of intentions to all three before surveying the actual damage and speculating about possible outcomes. 

Let’s begin with the current buzz term, Critical Race Theory, which refuses to pay attention to anything other than skin color while promoting racist policies as the only answer to white racism of the past and present, whether real or imagined or reimagined. That would be the same white racism that animated the Democratic party of yesteryear.

With the concession to Calhoun extended to modern Democrats, it remains fair to wonder what possible good could possibly come from turning race against race or from teaching the young that some are privileged and some are victims, based solely on skin color.

Reparations for slavery is essentially a racist proposal. It would make more sense to offer money to help repair the lives of those, both black and white, deliberately brought into the world without a father. Such a policy might help to make amends for the unintentional consequences of nearly a century of welfare-state policies. The harm, after all, is immediate, and the damage has been incalculable.  

A reparation, or repairing, could be regarded as a justifiable, even necessary, state response to the impact of state policy on family formation or the absence thereof. Of course, it should also be rejected, if only because that same infernal law of unintended consequences would likely dictate an increase in the supply of candidates for such cash-based solutions.

Then think about the multiple stories of the rise of resegregation. The repeated occurrences of separate graduation ceremonies for black students come immediately to mind. This is not legal segregation—at least not yet. But it is de facto Jim Crowism revived. At this point, let’s call it Jim Crow-lite, since it is being tolerated and even encouraged, but so far not imposed, by presumably well-meaning white liberals.  

Staying with education, what good can possibly come from telling black students that show-your-work math is somehow white math? Or from purging something called “writing white” from student papers? For that matter, in what sense is the killing of inner-city charter schools a positive good (to borrow from Calhoun’s defense of slavery)?  

On the higher education front, there is the (perhaps unintended or perhaps intended) consequence of affirmative action, which has morphed into an unspoken racial quota system that has all too often resulted in mismatches between student and school. This good intention has all too often led to frustration and anger at worst or disappointment and/or dropout at best. 

All of this and more has come at us at breakneck speed in recent years—and especially in the past year. It’s a wrong turn that must be righted—and quickly.

To be fair, if also damning, this wrong turn has generally been taken with the best of good intentions. But such good intentions rank right down there with the worst of John C. Calhoun’s paternalistic best intentions. Like the good white benefactor that he thought he was, today’s practitioners of POSC, including today’s incarnation of white benefactors, presume to tell black Americans that they know what’s best for them.

Moreover, such benefactors offer to protect blacks from evil white men intent on doing them harm. (Wasn’t Calhoun making a similar promise?) These benefactors also offer to absolve blacks of responsibilities, including the responsibility to produce proper identification to vote. If such a requirement is tantamount to voter suppression, then necessary identification for a medical appointment or a commercial flight is evidence of health suppression and travel suppression.

Now notice who was missing from that initial list of Democratic leaders that stretched from Presidents Jackson to Biden. Here are a few familiar names: Harry Truman, Hubert Humphrey, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter and, yes, even Bill Clinton.

Why were they left out? Because when it comes to the practice of POSC, their Democratic party was quite different, possibly tragically different, from both today’s Democratic party and the seemingly distant Democratic party of long, long ago.

Between the end of World War II and the onset of the 21st century, this country was moving steadily, if at times haltingly, toward the building of a genuinely post-racial America. That would be an America grounded in individual freedom, rather than an America grounded by group rights or group grievances.

Moreover, this was being done on a broadly bipartisan and multiracial basis. Lest we forget, in 1947 a pair of courageous Republicans, Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, desegregated major league baseball. And, in 1964, a greater percentage of Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 than did Democrats.  

Given the work, decency, and goodwill of Democrats and Republicans, not to mention the work, decency, and goodwill of countless millions of ordinary American citizens, white and black, the country was poised to usher in the 21st century as a gradually built, but solidly constructed post-racial America. 

But thanks to the identity politics of POSC, at this historical moment the country is in the process of spurning the goal we had been moving toward for more than half a century. This shift must be exposed, confronted, and reversed. Identity politics, whether practiced by John C. Calhoun or today’s Democrats, is a poisonous pill. 

Barack Obama has long prided himself on being the advance man for the arc of history. More accurately, this self-proclaimed progressive would have us retreat to the 19th century and the politics of skin color. By doing so, he has more in common with John C. Calhoun and James Buchanan than he does with Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King, not to mention countless Democratic leaders of the now increasingly distant post-World War II era. For that matter, the Joe Biden of yesterday has little in common with the Joe Biden of today.

In his 1948 book The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It, the great liberal historian Richard Hofstadter labeled John C. Calhoun the “Marx of the master class.” Hofstadter’s tongue was not entirely in his cheek. Like the original Marx, Calhoun was convinced that the workers of the world would one day revolt. Therefore, he regarded black slavery as at least a partial answer to that prospect. Given the affinity of today’s Democrats for the Marxist movement that is Black Lives Matter, would a Hofstadter sequel label Obama and Biden as the Marxes of the modern progressive class for more reasons than one?  

The ever-progressive Barack Obama and the newly-progressive Joe Biden as modern John C. Calhouns? This tongue is not entirely in its cheek either. All three are practitioners of POSC, an approach which has already failed us many times in the past. Let’s bring a halt to it before it fails us again.   

[Image: John C. Calhoun and Joe Biden]

  • John C. Chalberg

    John “Chuck” Chalberg is a retired academic, having taught American history for years at Normandale Community College in the suburban Twin Cities. He graduated from Regis College, Denver and has a doctorate in history from the U of Minnesota. He performs as Chesterton, H.L. Mencken, Theodore Roosevelt and a few others, and has written for the print version of Crisis, the now departed Weekly Standard, National Review, and regular reviews for Gilbert! magazine.

tagged as: Politics

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack

Share to...