Note, some of the below sections are very similar to the corresponding sections for the Republican Party. This is by design to ensure that both political parties are described in a similar, nonpartisan manner. Because of this, we would encourage you to read our descriptions of both party platforms, not just one of them, as they were written in relationship to each other and not as standalone descriptions.
What is liberalism? Similar to conservatism, liberalism is one of those words that is difficult to define because it is an idea, or to be specific, it is an ideology, which is a group of inter-related ideas. Because ideas are abstract, and not concrete like an apple (that you can see, touch, quantify, etc.), ideas’ meanings tend to change over time. But define liberalism we must because it is impossible to truly understand American politics without understanding the two main ideologies that underpin it. The following definition was developed by Political Rankings in an effort to make it as compact, but accurate, as possible. In a sentence, liberalism is “the ideology that, more often than not, things should change.” Advocates of liberalism generally love the phrase “let’s try to make it better.”
As you are probably thinking right now, sometimes that is a helpful way to look at the world but sometimes that is not. Exactly! That is where conservatism, with strengths and weaknesses generally opposite of liberalism, comes in to compliment liberalism. The fruit of this powerful teamwork is monumental. It has provided the sufficient environment for the United States of America to grow up to become the most powerful and prosperous country that has ever existed! In America liberalism is most closely associated with the Democratic Party and the reasons for that will be elaborated in the following history section.
The following (brief) account of history will focus on the federal level of government as politics at the state and local levels of government can be quite different and would take much longer to recount. The Democratic Party was officially founded in 1828 by Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. The first Democratic President, Andrew Jackson, was elected in 1828 on a platform of representing the “common man,” distrust of big banks, and opposition to the abolition of slavery. The only time the United States government was debt-free was in under Andrew Jackson when he paid off the national debt (in 1835) and vetoed the Second Bank of the United States. The opposition to the Democratic Party was less organized and less well-financed for the first couple of decades of the party’s existence, so the party would win all but 2 presidential elections from 1828 to 1856 and control both the House of Representatives and the Senate for periods of time.
Beginning in 1860, things got very complicated for the Democratic Party as support frequently splintered among competing wings within the party; typically wings in support of, and opposition to, abolishing slavery. In the 70 years between 1860 and 1930 the Democratic Party only elected 2 presidents, Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson, controlled the House of Representatives for 22 years, and controlled the Senate for 10 years. The tragedy of the Civil War itself had multiple, profound effects on the Democratic Party, which held most of the power in the states that made up the Confederacy. After the Civil War the Democrats rebuilt the southeastern part of the country during Reconstruction, fought to have a strong economic platform (such as support for the gold standard), and led the United States to victory during World War I.
The advantage of not being in charge when the Great Depression hit (they didn’t control the presidency, the House of Representatives, or the Senate) was that they had a strong case for Americans to let them try to pull the country out of historically dire straits. For this task the Democratic Party turned to the only president to server more than 2 terms, Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the 50 years between 1930 and 1980, there were only 3 non-Democratic presidents (Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford) and the Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress for all but 4 years. Some significant achievements during this time were the United States rising out of the Great Depression, the defeat of the Axis Powers during World War II, passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the landing of American astronauts on the moon in 1969. To retain the majority of power at the federal level and oversee so many accomplishments during this time, the Democratic Party made a number of shifts in the party platform. The popularity of the New Deal marked the start of the welfare state and ongoing advocacy for growing government to solve America’s problems. The Great Society continued this shift, and along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, saw the beginning of high margins of minorities in America voting for the Democratic Party. The quagmire of the Vietnam War caused a strong anti-war sentiment within the party to take root. The party overall would find itself as being much more liberal by 1980 than it was in 1930.
In 1980 the Democratic Party began seeing competition from the Republicans it had not seen in decades and it was clear that it would need to reformulate its strategy if it wanted to regain power at the federal level. For the 40 years after 1980, the Democratic Party would split power at the federal level fairly evenly, controlling the presidency for 16 years, the House of Representatives for 20 years, and the Senate for 18 years. To start off with, the Democratic Party shifted toward the center of the political spectrum and achieved success with the elections of Bill Clinton as president in 1992 and 1996. But after losing the presidency in 2000 and 2004, the Democratic Party shifted even farther in the liberal direction (than the party was in 1980). Presidential victories in 2008 and 2012 affirmed the viability of that shift for the Democratic Party; one that focuses on social justice, progressivism, environmentalism, and a strong desire to reduce America’s military presence overseas. These shifts have produced the Democratic Party that Americans know today, which is built on the platform described in the next section. Currently most of the northeastern and western states have become reliably Democratic (blue) while the southeastern, southwestern, and mid-western states became reliably Republican (red).
To visualize a party’s platform, it is helpful to first visualize the foundation on which the platform is built. That foundation is ideology, and in the case of the Democratic Party, that ideological foundation is liberalism. For a political party’s platform, the key parts of concern are the planks that are side by side and equate to the boards a person would stand on if the person was standing on a physical platform. These planks are the party’s stances regarding various political issues, and similar to a physical platform, candidates campaign (while running on) on a political party’s platform. Politically savvy candidates’ positions do not blindly match up with a party’s platform 100% of the time. Instead they typically make small changes they believe will be advantageous for their specific campaign because each candidate, district, and race is different. Below are some specific planks in the Democratic Party platform, which is regularly updated by the Democratic National Committee. For more information, please visit www.democrats.org.
Social issues are those where the main focus is on institutions such as the family, American society, religion, etc. The premier plank in the Democratic Party platform here is of course support for abortion, aka support of the pro-choice position. When it comes to guns, there is a plank for more regulation in the form of universal background checks, red flag laws, bans on certain types of guns, magazine capacity limits, etc. The two most widely accepted Democratic planks regarding businesses are support for unions and increasing the taxes on the highest of earners, such as increasing capital gains taxes and dividend taxes. Oddly enough, this plank does not alienate businesses, or the white-color employees of businesses, the majority of whom vote for the Democratic Party. The plank regarding education favors expanding access to public education, especially post-secondary education, and providing universal public preschool education. Most public schools are represented by unions. In recent decades the plank of support for same-sex marriage and LBGT people or rights has steadily grown to become core to the platform. There is no plank in the Democratic Party against the military, but the planks of support for increased spending in almost all areas of government before the military point to a presumption that there is a plank against the military.
Economic issues are those where the main focus is on taxes, trade, finances, etc. The first key plank for economic issues is that higher taxes are sometimes necessary to provide the services that citizens expect from the government. The Democratic Party strongly believes in the progressive tax system and new taxes are marketed towards the ultra-rich, big corporations, or income such as capital gains. The belief is that public dollars spent, especially on things such as infrastructure, spur job creation in both the public and private sectors. These various beliefs and positions combine to make up a key plank that the government be as big as necessary to take care of America, especially the most vulnerable (especially minorities), from foreign enemies, exploitive corporations, climate change, and more. As such, there are planks in the platform for greater regulation, more governmental benefits, strong unions, and expanded public housing. Increasing federal and state minimum wages is a frequently featured plank of the Democratic Party. There has emerged an important plank in the party platform to support increased government intervention into the healthcare market, by such options as the “Medicare-option” and the “Medicare-for-all.” There is a (sometimes forgotten) plank of advocating for reducing waste related to government spending, especially as it pertains to the military. The plank for environmental advocacy began growing in recent years and gets stronger with every year, including supporting such things as increased environmental regulation on corporations, imposition of a carbon tax, transformation of the energy sector to greener options, etc. Democrats advocate doing all of these things to combat climate change, create jobs, and more.
Political issues are those where the main focus is on the role of government domestically, the role of government internationally, interpretation of the Constitution, etc. Overall domestically, the Democratic Party platform advocates for a stronger role of government in maintaining or improving the lives of Americans. Internationally, the strongest plank of the Democratic Party platform is more isolationist, seeking to end military conflicts, reduce American influence so countries can be more self-deterministic, and rely more on alliances to keep the world safe. The Democratic Party view of the Constitution is that of a living document to be read in light of current situations. There is a minor plank of overturning state and federal death penalty laws. The plank in the Democratic Party platform that advocates for the right to privacy has grown stronger as America has moved farther into the digital age. Other than environmental regulations, there is a plank for generally reducing the punitive effects of the law, especially as it relates to drugs, immigration, and smaller crimes such as theft or property crimes. As such, the platform is made up of planks related to legalization of marijuana, criminal justice reform, and increased immigration. Building off of the progress of increased rights for African-Americans in the 1960s, a key plank of the platform is to increase the rights of other minority groups based on ethnicity, immigration status, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Lastly, the Democratic Party generally favors federal/national government rights over state governments.
The planks and political issues mentioned above are in no particular order but you will notice that some of them were described as key or important planks. These are the planks that somewhere between a majority and all of the Democratic Party support/agree on. The lesser important planks are more likely where there is variation in agreement. Some common and well-communicated variations, or combinations of variations, of agreement on planks in the party platform lead to wings (aka factions) of the party. These wings typically jockey for control or maximizing influence within the party instead of forming their own party due to the heavy disadvantages third parties or independents have in the American political system.
The progressive wing makes up the majority of the Democratic Party. The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) is the single largest Democratic caucus in the House. Likewise, this wing’s views generally line up with the Democratic Party Platform described above. Other than the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), there are not too many identifiable factions within the progressive wing; most such politicians simply identify as progressive Democrats. They focus on maximizing the social, economic, and political subrankings along liberal lines. Some key political topics of focus for progressives include environmentalism, income inequality, immigration reform, expanding social safety-net programs, workers’ rights, and political corruption. Regarding foreign policy, the progressive wing is almost unanimously isolationist. The progressive wing receives and overwhelming amount of support among the millennial generation of Americans.
In current times, there is some overlap between the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and the progressive wing, but the prioritization of issues and methods for advocacy are different enough to identify a separate wing. Also, there are many Democratic politicians who self-identify as liberal but not progressive, though that number seems to be decreasing with each year according to polls. This wing is focused on maximizing the political and social subranking along liberal lines. Members of this wing are typically united on issues such as healthcare reform, immigration reform, pro-choice advocacy, and criminal justice reform, but differ on economic and foreign policy issues. Some of this wing is more isolationist and some is more interventionist. As of 2015 Gallup measured the amount of Democrats that identify as liberals as 45%. Currently there are not any easily identifiable separate factions within the liberal wing. Democrats in the liberal wing are referred to as “establishment Democrats,” though the label can be misleading because it is also sometimes used when referring to centrist wing Democrats as well.
The centrist wing of the Democratic Party, sometimes referred to as “New Democrats,” developed their “third way” approach to politics in the 1980s. During this time America saw a rightward shift in politics so the centrist Democrats used an incrementalist approach, believing that a radical approach would leave them empty-handed more often than not. As the name suggests, they are generally not focused on maximizing any specific subranking, but again seek to gain political ground incrementally where possible. Democrats in this wing are generally more pro-business and less favorable toward increased regulations and taxes. Centrists are typically geographically located in less “blue” areas of America and typically more “purple” areas. It could be said that there are 2 factions within this wing known as the New Democrat Coalition and the Blue Dog Coalition, but there is such considerable overlap of the priorities and members that they are basically the same. On top of that, differences between the 2 factions are mostly academic due to the reduced size and influence of both, as part of the overall reduction in size and influence of the centrist wing within the Democratic Party.
Thank you for taking the time to read this party platform description. By design it was not intended to include every single part of the party platform because that would take dozens and dozens of pages to do. Our goal here was to provide a shorter description while still being comprehensive. In the interest of transparency though, if you do want to read the actual Democratic Party Platform, here is the link:
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