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.

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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 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.

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