Democratic Party history from the year you were born
Political figures, wars, protests, and scandals have all had a hand in shaping the Democratic Party's platforms.
Stacker took a look at important developments in the party from 1931 until today through historical records, newspaper accounts, and government archives. From Franklin Delano Roosevelt, elected in 1932, to Joe Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump in 2020, a picture of the party emerges, sometimes changing to meet Americans’ needs and demands, other times reacting to events outside of the United States, wars, and revolutions.
Which presidents, vice presidents, governors, and mayors broke barriers in their careers? Who were the party favorites? And who were the agitators demanding reform?
In his January 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced four core freedoms that the United States needed to protect against the Axis powers: the freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. In the depths of the Great Depression, he created a New Deal for Americans, a series of work projects, regulations, and programs meant to lift the country out of the economic morass it was experiencing. His Democratic successors worked to try to ensure voting rights for all Americans, to vanquish poverty, and to provide health care and education for all.
The party has been wrenched in new directions, including when protests broke against the Vietnam War and against racial injustice. Other times, Democrats moved toward protecting the environment and passing gun control.
President-elect Joe Biden faces challenges even more urgent, as he tries to move the country past the angry divisiveness of the past four years, the coronavirus pandemic, and the economic strains it has caused.
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1931: Democrats take control of Chicago
Anton Joseph Cermak beat Republican incumbent William Hale Thompson to become Chicago’s 44th mayor, beginning an unbroken line of Democratic mayors that lasts until today. Mayor Cermak, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, was shot to death in Miami in 1933 by a man trying to kill President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As Mayor Cermak was rushed to the hospital in President Roosevelt’s car, he said, “I am glad it was me instead of you.”
[Pictured: Campaign trucks for Anton Cermak are visible in Chicago's 22nd Ward in 1931.]
1932: Roosevelt elected president
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to his first of four terms as the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. Roosevelt implemented his New Deal over the first 100 days of his administration, with financial reforms, the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority, relief for Americans without work, and protection for family farms and businesses. He brought renewed confidence to the country with his fireside chats on the radio, but earned the ire of some Republicans opposed to controls on business.
[Pictured: Franklin D. Roosevelt with Anna Roosevelt Halsted and Eleanor Roosevelt on Oct. 24, 1932.]
1933: Congress passes Emergency Banking Act
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first step to stabilize the country’s economy came immediately after his inauguration with the Emergency Banking Act. He shut down the banks with a four-day holiday and sent the legislation, prepared by the Treasury Department under President Herbert Hoover’s administration, to Congress. Passed the same day, it enabled the country’s Federal Reserve Banks to issue additional currency so that Americans could feel confident that when the banks reopened, they would not fail.
[Pictured: President Roosevelt Broadcasting his first fireside chat regarding the banking crisis on March 12, 1933.]
1934: Roosevelt creates the Securities Exchange Commission
President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Securities Exchange Commission through the Securities Exchange Act. It licensed stock exchanges and decided the legality of speculative market actions. In addition, the Corporate Bankruptcy Act allowed corporations to reorganize if they faced bankruptcy and the Federal Farm Bankruptcy Act implemented a moratorium on farm mortgage foreclosures. The farm act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, but upheld after it was amended.
[Pictured: The members of the new Securities and Exchange Commission in their first meeting on July 2, 1934.]
1935: Roosevelt enacts Social Security
The historic Social Security Act was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Fourteen months earlier, he had called for a program that would protect older Americans “against the hazards and vicissitudes of life.” Some Republican lawmakers warned it would enslave workers and threaten American institutions. The Work Progress Administration provided millions with jobs constructing roads and public buildings.
[Pictured: President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Social Security Bill in the White House.]
1936: Roosevelt wins second term
By the time that President Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for his second term, he was enormously popular. President Roosevelt won 60.8% of the popular vote to 36.5% for his Republican opponent Kansas Gov. Alf Landon. He took every state but Maine and Vermont, and got 523 electoral votes. That was 98.49% of the electoral vote, the most dramatic win since 1820.
1937: FDR tries to pack the Supreme Court
Using the ages of some on the bench as his rationale, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to expand the U.S. Supreme Court by as many as six justices after the court overturned some of the New Deal laws. In 1936, for example, the court ruled 5-4 against a New York law for a minimum wage for women and child workers, one of a number of rulings unpopular in both parties. The court-packing plan failed, but after one justice began switching his votes, Roosevelt’s New Deal was safe.
[Pictured: A Works Progress Administration protest march in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 16, 1937.]
1938: Democrats lose in midterm elections
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was facing opposition from conservative Democrats within his own party. With war threatening in Europe and the country still in a depression, Democrats lost a large number of congressional seats to Republicans in the midterm elections of 1938. Republicans gained 71 seats in the House of Representatives and eight in the Senate.
[Pictured: President D. Roosevelt as he spoke during a radio broadcast from his Hyde Park home on the night of Nov. 4, 1938.]
1939: Roosevelt signs Neutrality Act
With little support for war in the country, President Franklin D. Roosevelt positions the United States as neutral as France and Britain declare war on Germany, and Germany and the USSR divide Poland between them. He also, however, allows the sale of arms to the countries at war, a way for the United States to help France and Britain.
[Pictured: House and Senate conferees agree on the final draft of the neutrality bill in Washington D.C., on Nov. 3, 1939.]
1940: Roosevelt wins third term
President Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Republican lawyer Wendell Willkie to win a third term, becoming the only president to serve more than two. The UPI newswire described Roosevelt’s win in this way: “The New Deal had broken through Republican defenses in New England and in the great industrial states of the middle east. The solid south held solid and the far west went to Roosevelt although Oregon was fighting ground. The middle west proved a Willkie stronghold.”
[Pictured: President Franklin D. Roosevelt takes the Oath of Office from Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes at his third inauguration on Jan. 20, 1941.]