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In American politics, a conservative Democrat is a member of the Democratic Party with conservative political views, or with views relatively conservative with respect to those of the national party. While such members of the Democratic Party can be found throughout the nation, actual elected officials are disproportionately found within the Southern states, and to a lesser extent within rural regions of the United States generally, more commonly in the West.
21st century conservative Democrats are similar to liberal Republican counterparts, in that both became political minorities after their respective political parties underwent a major political realignment which began to gain speed in 1964. Prior to 1964, both parties had their liberal, moderate, and conservative wings, each of them influential in both parties; President Franklin D. Roosevelt had proposed a realignment of the parties in the 1940s, though the trends which brought it about did not accelerate until two decades later. During this period, conservative Democrats formed the Democratic half of the conservative coalition. After 1964, the conservative wing assumed a greater presence in the Republican Party, although it did not become the mainstay of the party until the nomination of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The Democratic Party retained its conservative wing through the 1970s with the help of urban machine politics. This political realignment was mostly complete by 1980. After 1980, the Republicans became a mostly right-wing party, with conservative leaders such as Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, and Tom DeLay, while the Democrats, while keeping their left wing intact with such Senators as Ted Kennedy, Christopher Dodd, and Paul Sarbanes, grew a substantial moderate wing in the 1990s in place of their old conservative wing, with leaders such as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Evan Bayh. In 2008, the Democrats nominated Barack Obama for President; he was the first nominee since 1988 that was not a member of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council. In 2010 midterm elections, many Conservative Democrats lost their seats to the Republicans.
The modern view of a conservative Democrat is a Democrat who is fiscally conservative, with a moderate or conservative foreign policy, but socially liberal, moderate, or conservative. Some members of the left wing of the Democratic Party apply the term "Democrat in name only" to conservative Democrats.
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The 1828 presidential election marked the beginning of the Democratic Party as a modern, mass-based political party. The opposition to Andrew Jackson in the Democratic-Republican party splintered off into the short-lived National Republican Party, which later combined with other opponents of Jackson to form the Whig Party. Jackson's supporters dropped the "Republican" part of the name and became known as the Democratic Party. Andrew Jackson is notable as the first U.S. President to be elected from the frontier rather than from the East Coast.
The Democratic Party split along regional lines for the first time in 1860 over slavery. This split between southern and northern factions led to a brand new party in 1854, the Republican Party and its candidate Abraham Lincoln being elected in 1860. The Civil War followed shortly thereafter.
In 1865, the 13th Amendment—abolishing slavery—became part of the Constitution when it was ratified by three-quarters of the states. Despite protests from the Democrats, the Republican Party made banning slavery part of its national platform in 1864. Senator Lyman Trumbull (R-IL) wrote the final version of the text, combining the proposed wordings of several other Republican congressmen.
The Solid South describes the reliable electoral support of the U.S. Southern states for Democratic Party candidates for almost a century after the Reconstruction era. Except for 1928, when Catholic candidate Al Smith ran on the Democratic ticket, Democrats won heavily in the South in every Presidential election from 1876 until 1964 (and even in 1928, the divided South provided most of Smith's electoral votes). The Democratic dominance originated in many Southerners' animosity towards the Republican Party's role in the Civil War and Reconstruction.
The United States Populist Party, United States Greenback Party, and the Agrarianism movement are often cited as the first truly left-wing political movements within the United States. Nonetheless, while they emphasized economic issues that were radical by the political standards of the time, they are relatively conservative by today's standards. Historian Richard Hofstadter has taken the view that the Populist and Agrarian movements were essentially right-wing and reactionary movements, left-wing economic issues notwithstanding.
Because of the political dominance of one party or the other in many states, the real political races during this period would often be within the party primary. Indeed, in many southern states, there was hardly any Republican Party at all, and the serious candidates of both the conservative and liberal kind were all Democrats. For example, in the southern states the race might be between a populist left-wing Democrat and a conservative Democrat in the primary, while in regions of the country such as the Midwest or New England in which the Republican Party was dominant, the race might be decided in the primary between a progressive Republican and a conservative Republican.
The 1932 election brought about a major realignment in political party affiliation, and is widely considered to be a realigning election. Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to forge a coalition of labor unions, liberals, Catholics, African Americans, and southern whites. These disparate voting blocs together formed a broad majority and handed the Democrats seven victories out of nine presidential elections to come, as well as control of both houses of Congress during much of this time. In many ways, it was the American civil rights movement that ultimately heralded the demise of the coalition.
Roosevelt's program for alleviating the Great Depression, collectively known as the New Deal, emphasized only economic issues, and thus was compatible with the views of those who supported the New Deal programs but were otherwise conservative. This included the Southern Democrats, who were an important part of FDR's New Deal coalition.
During the Roosevelt administration, several radical populist proposals which went beyond what Roosevelt was willing to advocate gained in popularity. It is notable that all four of the main promoters of these proposals, Charles Coughlin, Huey Long, Francis Townsend, and Upton Sinclair, were originally strong New Deal supporters but turned against Roosevelt because they believed the New Deal programs didn't go far enough. Like the New Deal programs, these populist proposals were based entirely on single economic reforms, but did not take a position on any other issue and were therefore compatible with those holding otherwise conservative views. Some historians today believe that the primary base of support for the proposals of Coughlin, Long, Townsend, and Sinclair was conservative middle class whites who saw their economic status slipping away during the Depression.
A different source of conservative Democratic dissent against the New Deal came from a group of journalists who considered themselves classical liberals and Democrats of the old school, and were opposed to big government programs on principle; these included Albert Jay Nock and John T. Flynn, whose views later became influential in the libertarian movement.
Conversely, it also held the party to increasing commitment to ending segregationism and Jim Crow, and disengaging itself from its segregationist wing, held to be too far right for the new centrist consensus. This led to a conservative backlash by southern Democrats during the same period.
The proclamation by President Harry S. Truman and Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey of support for a Negro civil rights plank in the Democratic Party platform of 1948 led to a walkout of 35 delegates from Mississippi and Alabama. These southern delegations nominated their own "States Rights Democratic Party" (a/k/a "Dixiecrat Party") nominees with South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond leading the ticket (Thurmond would later represent South Carolina in the U.S. Senate, and join the Republicans in 1964). The Dixiecrats held their convention in Birmingham, Alabama, where they nominated Thurmond for president and Fielding L. Wright, governor of Mississippi, for vice president. Dixiecrat leaders worked to have Thurmond-Wright declared the "official" Democratic Party ticket in Southern states. They succeeded in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina; in other states, they were forced to run as a third-party ticket.
Similar breakaway Southern Democratic candidates running on states' rights and segregationist platforms would continue in 1956 (T. Coleman Andrews), and 1960 (Harry F. Byrd). None would be as successful as the American Independent Party campaign of George Wallace, the Democratic governor of Alabama, in 1968. Wallace had briefly run in the Democratic primaries of 1964 against Lyndon Johnson, but dropped out of the race early. In 1968, he formed the new American Independent Party and received 13.5% of the popular vote, and 46 electoral votes, carrying several Southern states. The AIP would run Presidential candidates in several other elections, including conservative Southern Democrats (Lester Maddox in 1976 and John Rarick in 1980), but none of them did nearly as well as Wallace.
When Jimmy Carter entered the Democratic Party Presidential primaries in 1976, he at first was considered to have little chance against nationally better-known politicians. However, the Watergate scandal was still fresh in the voters' minds, and so his position as an outsider distant from Washington, D.C. became an asset. He ran an effective campaign, did well in debates, and won his party's nomination and then the election, receiving 50.1% of the popular vote. The centerpiece of his campaign platform was government reorganization. Carter was the first candidate from the Deep South to be elected president since Antebellum.
He is a born-again Christian and was (until 2000) a member of the Southern Baptist Convention. While the Republican Party began to pursue a strategy of wooing born-again Christians as a voting bloc after 1980, led by activists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, in 1976, 56% of the evangelical Christian vote went to Carter. He combined conservative fiscal and social policies with more moderate views on peace and ecology, making for a rare combination in the history of American Presidents.
Carter's 1976 electoral sweep of all the states of the former Confederacy except Virginia (which he narrowly lost to Gerald Ford) was the first time a Democrat (excluding the third-party campaigns of George Wallace and Harry Byrd) had swept the South since 1956, and would never be repeated. In 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton would win some southern states, and Barack Obama was successful in some coastal Southern states such as Florida and Virginia, but otherwise the South turned solidly Republican after 1976.
After 1968, with desegregation a settled issue, the Republicans began a strategy of trying to win conservative Southerners away from the Democrats and into the Republican Party. Nonetheless, a bloc of conservative Democrats, mostly Southerners, remained in the United States Congress throughout the 1970s and 1980s. These included Democratic House members as conservative as Larry McDonald, who was also a leader in the John Birch Society. During the administration of Ronald Reagan, the term "boll weevils" was applied to this bloc of conservative Democrats, who consistently voted in favor of tax cuts, increases in military spending, and deregulation favored by the Reagan administration.
Boll weevils was sometimes used as a political epithet by Democratic Party leaders, implying that the boll weevils were unreliable on key votes or not team players. Most of the boll weevils eventually retired from office, or in the case of some such as Senators Phil Gramm and Richard Shelby, switched parties and joined the Republicans. Since 1988 the term boll weevils has fallen out of favor.
In 1980, a political unknown named Lyndon LaRouche entered the New Hampshire Democratic Primary and polled 2% of the vote, coming in fourth place. He and his National Democratic Policy Committee were largely ignored until 1984, when he became something of a curiosity by paying for half-hour political ads proclaiming Walter Mondale a Soviet agent of influence, and 1986, when two followers of his won upset victories in Democratic primaries for statewide races in Illinois. After the media began to pay attention, LaRouche was promptly labeled an ultraconservative Democrat by some, and a nut by others, primarily due to the overlap of some of his views with those of the Reagan administration. Others disputed the label and noted LaRouche's background as a Marxist/Trotskyist from the 1940s until the early 1970s. Among those to criticize LaRouche as a "leftist" was conservative Democratic Congressman and John Birch Society leader Larry McDonald, who was killed when the passenger aircraft he was travelling in was shot down by Soviet interceptors.
Aside from LaRouche, some Democratic leaders during the 1980s did turn toward conservative views, albeit very different from the previous incarnations of southern Democrats. In 1988, Joe Lieberman defeated Republican U.S. Senate incumbent Lowell Weicker of Connecticut by running to the right of Weicker and receiving the endorsements of the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association. Colorado governor Richard Lamm, and former Minnesota Senator and Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy both took up immigration reduction as an issue. Lamm wrote a novel, 1988, about a third party Presidential candidate and former Democrat running as a progressive conservative, and Lamm himself would go on to unsuccessfully seek the nomination of the Reform Party in 1996. McCarthy began to give speeches in the late 1980s naming the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Federal Election Commission as the three biggest threats to liberty in the United States.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., known during the 1950s and 1960s as a champion of "Vital Center" ideology and the policies of Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy, wrote a 1992 book, The Disuniting of America critical of multiculturalism. Jerry Brown, meanwhile, would adopt the flat tax as a core issue during the 1992 Democratic primaries. Bill Clinton, the winner of the 1992 Democratic nomination, ran as a New Democrat and a member of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, distancing himself from the party's liberal wing.
The Conservative Democratic movement received a recent, but short, rebirth in party structure. During the 2006 midterm elections, the Democratic Party ran moderates and even a few conservative Democrats for at-risk Republican seats. The Blue Dog Democrats gained nine seats during the election. The New Democrats had support from 27 of the 40 Democratic candidates running for at-risk Republican seats. In 2010, the Blue Dog Coalition lost more than half its members. As of 2015, the Blue Dog Coalition has 14 members.
According to the New York Times the party as a whole has shifted to the left. Although the country as a whole has shifted to the left, they aren't increasing their liberalness at the same rate as Democrats. Democrats like Bill Clinton were considered to be centrists but Obama ran to the left of Clinton on the budget, social issues, welfare reform, entitlement reform, and Israel relations. Obama has focused on income inequality while President Clinton stressed opportunity and mobility. Bill Clinton lowered capital gains taxes while President Obama supported raising it.
During the Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, he received the endorsement of prominent Obamacons, conservatives and Republicans who supported Obama. This was due to Bush's unpopularity. Despite receiving support from some Republicans, Obama ran to the left of Bill Clinton.
During the 2008 Democratic Party presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton ran to the left of Barack Obama on economic issues, but on the right on national security and foreign policy issues. On the issue of health care, Clinton was willing to include an individual mandate to buy health insurance as part of a program for universal coverage. Obama was not willing to go so far, and came in for substantial criticism from liberals for it. Clinton proposed a Cabinet-level poverty czar position. Clinton secured more labor union backing than Obama, and Obama did better than Clinton at gaining primary votes from self-identified independents. However, Clinton opposed certain liberal aspects of Obamacare such as the cadillac tax.
In 1994, moderate and conservative Democrats within the U.S. House of Representatives organized themselves into the Blue Dog Democrats, in response to the Republican victories at the polls that November. The explanation was that the Blue Dogs felt the party had moved so far left that it had "choked them blue." The name is a reference to an earlier term, Yellow dog Democrat (typically, a southerner who would vote for a Democrat even if a "yellow dog" were the Democratic candidate) and also to the "blue dog" paintings of a Louisiana artist. The Blue Dog Coalition is not considered as conservative as the earlier Dixiecrat and Boll Weevil incarnations of conservative Democrats.
During the 2004 election, several high-profile conservative writers endorsed the Presidential campaign of John Kerry, arguing that the Bush Administration was pursuing policies which were anything but conservative. Among the most notable of these endorsements came from Andrew Sullivan and Paul Craig Roberts, while a series of editorials in Pat Buchanan's The American Conservative magazine made a conservative case for several candidates, with Scott McConnell formally endorsing Kerry, and Justin Raimondo giving the nod to independent Ralph Nader.
In 2006, Democratic Nebraska senator Ben Nelson received the endorsements of groups such as the National Right to Life Committee and the National Rifle Association, respectively a pro-life group and pro-gun group, that both typically endorse Republicans.
In South Carolina in 2008, the Democratic candidate for United States Senator was Bob Conley, a traditional Catholic, and a former activist for the Presidential candidacy of Ron Paul. Conley failed in his bid to defeat Republican Lindsey Graham, receiving 42.4 percent of the vote. Conley was the only Paul supporter to be a Senate candidate for either main party in 2008. Conley was widely expected to, but did not, challenge Joe Wilson for his seat in the House of Representatives in 2010.
In his 2010 campaign for reelection, Walter Minnick, the U.S. Representative for Idaho's 1st congressional district, was endorsed by Tea Party Express, an extremely rare occurrence for a Democrat. Minnick was the only Democrat to receive a 100% rating from the Club for Growth, an organization the typically supports conservative Republicans. Minnick ultimately lost to Raúl Labrador, a conservative Republican, in the general election.
Also in 2010, Travis Childers, the U.S. Representative for Mississippi's 1st congressional district, was endorsed by the National Right to Life Committee and the National Rifle Association in his reelection campaign. Childers lost to conservative Republican Alan Nunnelee.
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