One of the great fads of the current age is the view that institutions bear continuing responsibility for things done long in their past, by different people in different generations. We see regular demands that businesses and universities not only apologize but offer some form of reparation for their involvement in slavery, segregation, and other injustices. This is even the theory under which there is agitation for reparations from the government.
Somehow, however, one institution always seems to escape that: the Democratic Party. And yet, no other institution in American history was more responsible for the national maintenance of both slavery and segregation for more than a century and a half from the party’s founding. There were pro-slavery Federalists and Whigs and even slave-owning or anti-abolition Republicans, but at worst, the Federalists were indifferent to slavery and the Whigs incoherent on it. At all times, the Democrats were the party of the plantations, the party of the expansion of slavery westward, the party of resistance to any restriction upon it, the party of the Slave Power’s encroachment on the rest of the country, and the party of secession over slavery. After the Civil War, Republicans at times were less aggressive than they could or should have been in pursuing black civil rights in Reconstruction, but it was the Democrats who were the party of resistance (including armed resistance) to Reconstruction, the party of terrorizing black Americans away from the voting booth, the party of the Klan. And that pattern held for a century: Republicans were sometimes indifferent to Jim Crow and uninterested in dismantling it, but the most vigorous efforts to affirmatively promote Jim Crow and add to its edifice at the state and national level always came from the Democratic Party. Even in the 1960s, when the pro-civil-rights Democrats began to gain decisive control and push national reforms, the people turning on the fire hoses and standing in the schoolhouse doors were always elected Democrats. If you look at the worst of America’s history on race, nearly everywhere you will find Democratic politicians — and by no means only southern Democrats.
Why has there never been a formal apology for this on the part of the party, or an effort to make amends in a way that actually costs the party anything? Why hasn’t a leading figure in the party made a major speech on coming to grips with the party’s historic responsibility? It is not as if apologies by Democrats are uncommon when they find them politically useful. And it is not as if Democrats are unaware of the problem, given that they have been removing the names of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from annual events. Mark Hemingway looks at the failure of the 1619 Project to pursue the institutional guilt of the Democrats. I asked a similar question in 2014 about the “Our History” section of the Democrats’ website. It remains mostly unchanged seven years later. Here’s how it opens:
For more than 200 years, our party has led the fight for civil rights, health care, Social Security, workers’ rights, and women’s rights. We are the party of Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, FDR, and the countless everyday Americans who work each day to build a more perfect union. Take a look at some of our accomplishments, and you’ll see why we’re proud to be Democrats. [Emphasis added.]
This is a bald-faced lie, and it is noticeable that the website does not cite a single accomplishment before 1920, well over a century after Jefferson founded the party and nearly a century after Jackson fused it into its modern name and structure. (By contrast, the Republicans’ recitation cites seven events between 1854 and 1872.) Leave aside the tendentiousness of claiming women’s suffrage as mainly the work of Woodrow Wilson (in fact, it was much more a Republican initiative); it is astonishing to see Wilson — the man who segregated the federal government — cited here as the first exemplar of Democrats’ belief in civil rights, followed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the man who gave us Japanese internment and residential redlining. The “history” even has the audacity to claim as an accomplishment Harry Truman’s order desegregating the army without mentioning that it was Wilson who formally segregated it in the first place. Not a syllable is breathed here about the party’s having ever been in the wrong about anything.
It would be one thing to simply take the view that history isn’t important and where you stand today is all that matters. That is a defensible stance. But it is the posture neither of the Democratic Party in 2021 nor of its major supporters among public intellectuals and writers. If guilt is institutional and intergenerational, nobody in the United States of America has more to answer for than the Democratic Party.