October 16, 2004

Making the World Safe for "Democracy"


Dave Holsinger at Semantickler had a nice post a while back about the Republicans' propensity for referring to the "Democrat Party." Holsinger describes the manueuver a back-formation on the order of aspirate from aspiration. He's right, I think, but thereon hangs a tale.

Back in 1984, William Safire did a column on the "Democrat Party," label, saying:

Who started this and when? Acting on a tip, I wrote to the man who was campaign director of Wendell Willkie's race against Franklin Delano Roosevelt. ''In the Willkie campaign of 1940,'' responded Harold Stassen, ''I emphasized that the party controlled in large measure at that time by Hague in New Jersey, Pendergast in Missouri and Kelly Nash in Chicago should not be called a 'Democratic Party.' It should be called the 'Democrat party.' . . .'' Mr. Stassen, who is only four years older than President Reagan, is remembered as a moderate Republican; his idea is still used by the most partisan members of the G.O.P. Democrats once threatened to retaliate by referring to their opponents as Publicans, but that was jettisoned. Despite the urge to clip, Democratic and Republican the parties remain.

I had always assumed that story was right, but it was written in the age BC (before corpora), and these things are easy to check now. In fact it turns out that Stassen was exaggerating. (Hard to resist saying "Stassen, stop gassin'," though I doubt if many people now will recognize the allusion.)

The fact is that "Democrat Party" was in use well before Willkie's campaign. Hoover used the phrase campaigning against Roosevelt in 1932. And back in 1923, H. Edmund Machold, the Republican Assembly Speaker of NY State, was quoted  as saying:

The people of this State have chosen the Republican Party as the majority party in this House, and the representative of the opposite party, the Democrat Party, for the place of Chief Executive of the State, and have given to him the majority of the other house, the Senate. New York Times, Jan. 4, 1923.

The phrase occurs before then, but it seems to have been regarded more as a rusticism than as a partisan dig. In 1908, a wag used it in a poem accusing Williams Jennings Bryan of being a flip-flopper avant la lettre:

Nothin' at all to say, William; nothin' at all to say;
There ain't no Democrat Party, so go on and have your way.
Fix up th' platform to suit you; put in what planks you may choose;
You've been on all sides of everything, so you've got plenty to use.
The New York Times, July 29, 1908
But to judge from the citations in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the phrase didn't really become a Republican tic until the 1950's or so.  The Republicans of Lincoln's time didn't think to refer to the Democrats as the "Democrat Party." (The 6000-volume Making of America collection contains just one 19th-century use of the term in an American context, in a 1896  reference to Franklin Pierce, but that was reprinted from the Westminster Review, so doesn't mean a lot.)

Why did it take so long for the gag to catch on? Probably because until the early 20th century, opponents wouldn't have seen much partisan advantage in referring to the "Democrat party," not when the word democrat still carried some of its original force . It wouldn't have been heard as a back-formation, but rather as implying "An adherent or advocate of democracy," as the OED defines the word -- not a connection that Republicans would have been eager to stress.

Until the early years of the 20th  century, in fact, it was the Democrats themselves who made that connection. William Jennings Bryan sometimes used Democracy as a  synonym for the party itself, as in an address to a party conclave held in Boston in 1902: 

I recognize... how much fidelity it requires to plead for Democracy in New England. Here in New England a man may be a Democrat with much credit. I am glad your committee called from the South a representative of Southern Democracy. ... Between one who is at heart an aristocrat and one who is at heart a democrat there is a great gulf fixed. The New York Times, July 25, 1902

That leaves us with the question of why this sense of democrat became thin on the ground over the course of the 20th century, to the point where Republicans could speak of the "Democrat Party" in the confidence that no one would associate the word with its original sense. Perhaps it had to do with a redefinition of the relevant oppositions. For Bryan the relevant distinction was between democrats and "aristocrats," the defenders of wealth and privilege; as he put it in his famous "Cross of Gold" speech:

The question we are to decide is, upon which side will the Democratic party fight -- upon the side of "the idle holders of idle capital," or upon the side of "the struggling masses"? ...The sympathies of the Democratic party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic party. There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.

By mid-century, though, "small-d" democrat implies only a commitment to electoral democracy as opposed to other systems of government, and once the Cold War sets in, the word isn't much used in the American political context. A case-sensitive search on democrat in Nexis major papers between 1978 and 1980 turns up 169 hits, almost all of them either referring to foreign political contexts. The remainder either refer  to American historical contexts (as in a description of Benjamin West), or involve an explicit  contrast with a term like fascist ("they can't tell whether I'm an overaged hippie or a fascist in democrat's clothing," a high-school principal says).

Not surprisingly, the loss of the earlier meaning of democrat has  taken the phrase "economic democracy" over the side along with it, as witness its generally declining frequency in New York Times stories:

Period        Hits
1930-39      110
1940-49      162
1950-59      64
1960-69      37
1970-79      40
1980-89      54
1990-99      14

So the same shift that made the world safe for "Democrat  Party" made it safe for "democracy."

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at October 16, 2004 03:32 PM