“I’m not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”Will Rogers
“Democrats never agree on anything, that’s why they’re Democrats. If they agreed with each other, they would be Republicans.”Will Rogers.
Answering the question, “What does it mean to be a Democrat?” is not simple. There is no official Democratic creed. There is a platform hammered out every presidential election, but that’s usually structured to support the party’s candidate on policy issues of the day. Its candidates have been all over the political spectrum, and its roots are in the party organized by Andrew Jackson and his followers after the election of 1824.
Editor’s Note: On Friday, the News will examine what it means to be a Republican; Saturday will focus on independents.
However, today’s Democratic Party starts with the New Deal and the coalition built by Franklin D. Roosevelt, said Christopher Devine, assistant professor of political science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. FDR advocated a strong government that acted to help those seen as vulnerable, or lacking power. He brought together a coalition of party regulars, African Americans (who had been Republican since the Civil War), Catholics, conservative southern Democrats and labor unions.
That coalition, minus the southern conservatives, but adding Hispanics, younger people and gays and lesbians, exists today.
John Elliott, Harry M. Clor Professor of Political Science at Kenyon College, describes the Democratic Party as a “coalition of minorities,” noting that “most Arab-Americans are Democrats, so are most Jewish Americans.”
“The Democrats are, and long have been, the more liberal party, the more urban party, the party of the less affluent, and the party of labor,” he said. “They are the party of religious minorities and of the more secular element of society.”
Since the New Deal, Elliott said, the central Democratic idea has been that the country needs a stronger national government dedicated to promoting greater equality. That began with shifting the balance between business and labor.
Both parties claim to be the ally of the middle class, the Democrats arguing that it benefits from more government programs and a more regulated economy.
Before FDR, Democrats often portrayed themselves as the party of small government, and it was not always a party of equal rights, but it usually portrayed itself as the party of the people.
Nationally, the party today is thought of as “liberal” or “left wing,” while the Republicans are “conservative” or “right wing.” (The left and right designations actually go back to the French National Assembly of 1789, when, as the president faced the legislative body, supporters of the king were on the right and supporters of the revolution were on the left.)
But local and state parties do not always move in lock step with the national party. West Virginia, Devine noted, is a heavily Democratic state with many Democratic officials, but it is expected to vote for Mitt Romney in November.
And, Elliott added, there are many kinds of liberalism, as there are many kinds of conservatism.
So how do local party members view the meaning of being a Democrat?
Knox County Democratic Party Chair Adam Gilson said to be a Democrat is to be concerned with the dignity of the individual, to be concerned with social justice, to be concerned about equality of opportunity and to support policies that sustain a strong and vibrant middle class.
Party Vice Chair Mary Rugola-Dye said, “We believe in equal opportunity,” explaining that includes to work, to make a better life for ourselves and family, for education and for health care.
“We’re about rebuilding the idea of the middle class,” she said. “President Obama is working for that and is committed to it. People in Ohio and the country are beginning to understand what the president has been doing.
“We want everyone to play by the same rules, to have an equal chance,” she said “You work hard and get rewarded if everyone plays by the same rules.”
Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Mavis said being a Democrat means being aware of social issues in the community, and understanding that the local community is not immune to the problems you see in other communities on TV. Although at the local level, Mavis said party affiliation often makes little difference — the issues are more often more practical: What streets do we pave, how do we pay for police and fire protection, or safe drinking water.
Mavis finds Democrats are committed to making their community a better place and addressing social needs. “I think Democrats tend to be more responsive to those issues. Democrats are sensitive to the community’s ability to provide jobs and other services people need.
“Both Democrats and Republicans want to create jobs. Politicians have to create a climate that allows businesses to expand or move here. It’s the responsibility of the politicians to make sure the community is equipped to handle growth and development.”
One way the party has changed in the past 10 years or so, Mavis said, is the growth and increased activity of Democratic Women’s groups have made the party stronger.
Rose Cole, president of Knox County Democratic Women described her affiliation: “I am a member of the Democratic Party because I believe that our different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds is what makes our country great and that this diversity creates a more just and honorable nation. Equality and Justice are only words without the commitment of the people and our government to make them integral principles in American life.”
Local Democrat Susan Hayes of Mount Vernon said being a Democrat means “caring about other people and not just yourself.” It means equal opportunity, no matter your race, gender or occupation.
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