I posted about the Republicans and DW-Nominate last time, now it is the Democrats’ turn and the story told about them is much more complicated. The Democratic Party was in its heyday a party that presumably stood for the working man (provided he was white), against big business interests, and for tariffs for revenue only instead of protection. It was indeed Democrats who primarily opposed land grants to railroads and would be the greater supporters of inflationary currency. Their understanding of the role of government was from their start until the 1890s a Jacksonian one, that the state governments could be used as a check on the power of business and were the best protectors of liberty rather than the federal government. Indeed, Democrats preferred state to federal courts in rulings on big businesses as the former were less favorable to them than the latter in practice. However, the rise of the Populist Party and William Jennings Bryan challenged this traditional practice and the Democratic Party became more favorable to active federal intervention, which was first practiced on a wide scale among Democratic Presidents by Woodrow Wilson.
The results of DW-Nominate are odd to our modern conceptions. It portrays at their most “liberal” from 1867 to 1901 in the Senate, and the current period ties with the late 19th century in levels of liberalism in the House. For the House, the most liberal period was apparently 1865-1921. The most conservative period for House Democrats was 1923-1965, when they never hit a -0.3 average. The period we are in now with House Democrats is a second rising of liberalism, with this being true to a lesser degree in the Senate. This sounds strange given the party’s direction during the New Deal, but the 1930s and 1940s was the period when the Southern members grew much more conservative and people who registered as more conservative by DW-Nominate were getting elected. This is an odd narrative that this data seems to tell, as the most liberal periods for both the House and Senate coincided with the rise of the Bourbon Democrats, who have conservative reputations and with some justification. My MC-Index certainly gives more credit to Bourbons for conservatism than this measurement does, however there were two areas in which they were distinctly opposed to Republicans: tariffs and imperialism. One of the oddest cases, which I have written about before, was that of Senator Huey Long of Louisiana, who DW-Nominate finds to be the most conservative Democrat in the Roosevelt years despite public perception of him and some of the votes he cast on key issues. The Democratic Party really was evolving in a strange way: although initially the party of a Jefferson-Jackson conception of limited government as a way to counter the growing force of big business interests and to help the working class the methods began to change with the Wilson presidency. However, Democrats even in the Cleveland Era were willing to establish the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate major business.
Although Woodrow Wilson was a Southerner by birth and attitude on racial issues, with this helping keep Southerners in, FDR was a different story as he engaged in even more permanent expansions of the federal government. This was the point in which the Southern wing became distinctly more conservative than the Northern wing, particularly with the latter’s increasing acceptance of blacks in their ranks. Northern Democrats that chose to remain conservative often found themselves primaried or defeated by a Republican. The issue of race, frankly, did not start to become left-right ideologically until after World War II. Before it was regional and there was some crossover between region and left-right ideology after the war, but when it came to matters such as employment and housing discrimination, the most conservative of Republicans took the side of business and property owners, which given the origin of many of the early Republicans as Whigs adds up. The Democrats, standing as the party of the working class, used different means to support said class over time. The alliance between civil rights activists and labor that was forged after World War II was in truth a gargantuan accomplishment, as protection from competition was at one time a justification for regressive laws on the subject of race, such as bans on immigration based on race. President Nixon briefly revived the conflict with his proposed Philadelphia Plan that I covered before, but this was at this point no more than a notable blip in the alliance. The Democratic story told by DW-Nominate is odd and my system certainly has significant disagreements with it, but it does at least spell that the Democrats were not even close to as conservative back then as thought.