History

The Real Origins of the “Democrat Party” Troll

We can’t blame Joe McCarthy for this one. (Though he was a fan.)

Juxtaposed black and white images of long-ago politicians with cartoon speech bubbles coming out of their mouths with the Democratic Party donkey pictured inside.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Library of Congress, German Federal Archives/Wikipedia, and Harris & Ewing Collection/Library of Congress.

“Who has taken the ‘ic’ out of the party of our fathers?” asked John Temple Graves II, a Southern newspaper columnist, in July 1952. Graves had observed speaker after speaker at the recent Republican National Convention call their political foes the “Democrat” party. “This must be their way of reminding us that the Democratic party isn’t what it used to be,” he averred.

Graves was referring to the Republican practice of purposely misnaming the opposition by chopping the last two letters off its name, a habit that, more than 70 years later, not only continues, but according to the Associated Press last year, is “on the rise.”

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The conservative columnist George Sokolsky may have been on point in 1956 when he wrote, “When a political party is led to believe that it can downgrade its opponent by removing an adjectival suffix from its name, it reduces itself to childishness.” But instances of the use of the childish ploy have not abated. Witness recent books by conservative writers with titles like Freedom Trumps Socialism: How the Democrat Party is Using Hitler’s Playbook to Make America Socialist, The True And Detailed Racist History Of The Democrat Party: 1830-2020, and Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation.

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Democrats like Harry S. Truman occasionally responded to the “Democrat” label by calling their opponents the “Publican” party, and others offered the “Republicrat” party. But Democrats never systematically pushed these misnomers, and they’ve remained largely out of the public conversation.

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Commentators have long sought to explain the infantile, but persistent and aggressive, Republican habit of labeling the Democratic Party as the “Democrat” party, among them William Safire, Hendrik Hertzberg, and Ruth Marcus. The New York Times’ Russell Baker did so twice, first as a reporter in 1956 and then as a columnist 20 years later. These analyses have been illuminating, but for the most part, they have not tracked the origins of this strange “verbal tic,” as the “ic” is “hard to pin down with any precision,” as Hertzberg wrote. Some have (incorrectly) fingered Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin senator and anti-communist zealot from the 1950s, as the coiner of the phrase, or have associated it with “the right-wing extremists of the John Birch Society.” In 1984, Safire interviewed Harold Stassen, a Republican politician from Minnesota, who claimed to have coined it in 1940, but Stassen provided no evidence of this to Safire at the time, and I’ve found none in the record.

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So, what is the history of this strange locution? Tracking the origins of the missing “ic” provides an instructive window into the evolution of modern conservatism. For although “Democrat party” has been employed for at least seven decades, it has been a shifting signifier. Tracing the history of the phrase helps us understand how the Republican Party has defined itself by what it was not. The phrase has always been about “othering” the Democratic Party, but the meaning of the slur has shifted significantly in politically telling ways.

This “ic”-y history begins in 1946, when its key popularizer, the improbably named Brazilla Carroll Reece, a veteran Tennessee congressman, was selected as chair of the Republican National Committee. Reece did not coin the term; “Democrat party” had been used by headline writers and politicians of both parties since the 19th century. Before 1946, however, the phrase did not have a straightforward connotation; it was sometimes used neutrally, sometimes positively, and sometimes negatively.

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Reece blazed the trail for the “Democrat party” or, equally frequently, the “so-called Democrat party” to become an insult. Journalists noted his characteristic use of the phrase. It was the “‘Democrat party,’ as he calls it,” wrote Ted Lewis in 1947.

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Reece did not, however, offer this renaming out of thin air. He built on two key Republican claims of the previous decade, both arising in opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The first was that, under FDR, the Democratic Party had dangerously radicalized. Frank Knox, the 1936 Republican vice presidential candidate, in a typical version of the critique, said the party had been “seized by alien and un-American elements.” The second claim was that the Democratic Party had lost touch with small-government traditions. “This administration … has lost all relationship to the Democratic party,” Knox said, to the point where “it no longer uses the word ‘Democratic.’ ” (This doesn’t seem to be true—the 1940 and 1944 Democratic Party platforms use the “ic” multiple times.)

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In 1940, the Republican presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie, occasionally spoke of the “Democrat party,” but he did not do so regularly; nor did he use always the term in a derogatory way. In 1944, in the midst of World War II, when Republicans stepped up their criticism of FDR for ceding the party to the left—the slogan “Clear it with Sidney” suggested that Roosevelt had allowed labor leader Sidney Hillman to determine party policy—the GOP again did not use “Democrat party” in a consistently critical fashion. Indeed, critics of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party often used the shortened name in a positive way, as a symbol of the restoration of the pre–New Deal party. This initial lack of coherence around the term’s meaning shows why the definitional work that Reece did was necessary.

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In the immediate post–World War II moment, Reece expanded the anti–New Deal argument that the Democratic Party “no longer is the historic Democratic party.” In the context of the nascent Cold War, he did so more systematically, using the phrase “Democrat party” to signal that the party was not just no longer itself, but outside of the American mainstream and potentially subversive. “The radicals who have stolen the Democrat party,” he charged, act as if they are “working for Moscow.”

In using the wrong name for the Democratic Party, a label that Democrats came to despise, Reece pioneered a tactic whose primary goal is to demean, upset, and annoy political opponents. The reporter Earl Mazo described the “phrasemaker” Reece as drawing applause at the 1948 Convention “when he ripped into what he calls the ‘Democrat party’ with lacerating wordage.” As with others, like Sen. Joe McCarthy, who followed in his footsteps, Reece’s main point, commentators noted, appeared to be humiliation. “Nothing seems to annoy a Democrat more than to have his Democratic party called the ‘Democrat’ party,” wrote Fletcher Knebel in 1955. “On the other hand, nothing seems to give the Republicans more pleasure than to shear this last syllable off the name of their adversaries.”

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If this is an early ancestor of the tactic we now know as “owning the libs,” the irony is that, although Reece surely employed the phrase to annoy Democrats, he did so not as an enemy but as a self-proclaimed champion of liberalism, which he associated with the GOP. Reece wanted to reclaim liberalism from the New Dealers, not annoy liberals. Given how the “Democrat party” slur evolved, it is fascinating to note that Reece’s critique of the party was that it was not sufficiently liberal—that, indeed, the Republican Party exemplified “American liberalism.”

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Within a few decades, as the parties sorted ideologically into conservative and liberal parties, the Republican embrace of liberalism would come to seem absurd, but just after the war, “liberalism” remained, as the historian Gary Gerstle called it, a “protean” concept. Although Roosevelt tried to claim the term as synonymous with New Deal–style politics, many ardent foes of FDR clung to the label. From the start of the New Deal, critics like Herbert Hoover, the man Roosevelt beat to become president in 1933, claimed that the Democratic Party had perverted the true meaning of liberalism, which he associated with individual liberty and limited government. Even though Reece represented the Taft wing of the GOP and was described as an “out-and-out conservative” when he took over the RNC, he saw himself and his party as representing “true liberalism.”

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For Reece, advocating liberalism was a means of outflanking the Democratic Party from both the left and the right simultaneously. Reece argued that the Democratic Party was unworthy of the name because of what he called its “three discordant elements.” First were the “corrupt big city political machines.” Second was the segregationist South, which “rules by a racial dictatorship, a dictatorship which may aptly be described as ‘Bilboism’ ” (a reference to Theodore Bilbo, the notorious race-baiting Mississippi senator). Finally, Reece highlighted the labor movement and the left, which he believed had asserted ideological control of the party, especially CIO-PAC, the nation’s first political action committee, which was associated with the left-leaning and fast-growing Congress of Industrial Organizations.

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Although Reece said, “I am not asserting that the democrat party is the communist party or the socialist party or the fascist party, or that as a whole it is devoted to un-American theories of government,” he implied exactly this when he declared things like “the American form of government will be ruined completely if Democrats are elected at the next election,” or that the left calls “the tune to which the administration dances, and the tune is strangely like the Internationale.” And so, despite his protests to the contrary, Reece did use “Democrat party” for red-baiting purposes, to describe a “party dominated by radicals,” and to denominate its reactionary elements, as embodied by big-city bosses and Southern racists. Denouncing the “Democrat party” as dangerously left-wing, he also, with no fear of contradiction, labeled the Democrats “the party of reaction” and positioned the GOP as the “liberal party” of the country.

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Reece served only one term as RNC head, but he set an enduring template. In 1948, for the first time, the Republican presidential platform un-“ic”-ed its rival, referring twice to the “Democrat administration.” While he did not coin the term, Sen. Joseph McCarthy played the role of an accelerant in spreading it; the 1950s were the high point of the relabeling. In one 1953 address, McCarthy used variations of “Democrat” eight times (“Democrat Party,” “Democrat ticket,” “Truman Democrat administration”). Commentators noted the “constant use by Senator McCarthy” of “Democrat party” during the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, one of the first major televised political events in American history.

In 1956, another Republican functionary, L. Richard Guylay, the RNC’s public relations director, made it the Republican Party’s “official policy” “to refer to the opposition as the ‘Democrat party’ ” because “Democratic as an adjective is not descriptive of the party as it exists today.” He insisted that GOP speakers exclusively use what one newspaper called this “disrespectful epithet.” (By 1956 this was a common line in the media—that Republicans were being rude in not calling their opponents by the name of their choosing.) Every speech at the Republican National Convention that year was vetted to remove any mention of the “Democratic Party.” Reporters noted that the text of two-time former Republican presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey’s address that was circulated to press contained “two smudges where party staffers had erased ‘ic.’ ” An editorialist in Oregon said that “it sounded to us like they were sneering or at least leering” when they used the phrase. The GOP platform that year referred variously to “Democrat administration,” “Democrat 84th Congress,” and “Democrat programs.”

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By this time, the “Democrat party” epithet had shifted almost exclusively to critique the party’s domination by the labor-left—what one columnist called its “northern, radical liberals.” But the Republicans had not yet abandoned liberalism. As President Dwight Eisenhower said in a statement quoted in the 1956 GOP platform, “In all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human. In all those things which deal with people’s money, or their economy, or their form of government, be conservative.” In 1960, commentators noted that one sign of Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon’s “newfound liberalism” was that he stopped referring to the “Democrat party.”

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The presidential election of 1964 was the key turning point. Barry Goldwater, the Republican standard-bearer, was a bold conservative, who, unlike Eisenhower, had no use for the liberal label. In his manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative, he condemned Eisenhower’s embrace of liberalism and used “radical” as a synonym for “liberal.” For example, in 1964, William E. Miller, Barry Goldwater’s vice presidential nominee, who regularly called it the “Democrat party,” said that the “liberal platform is a blueprint for socialism in America.” When South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond switched parties shortly before that election, he said that if the “Democrat Party” won, “Freedom as we have known it in this country is doomed.” Sympathetic commentators said that “there was now only one kind of Democrat”: the “liberal … Democrat party.” In other words, as “liberalism” came to represent progressive New Dealism, the “Democrat party” slur became a condemnation of liberalism itself.

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Interestingly, although the Reagan revolution of the 1980s succeeded where Goldwater’s failed, Republicans didn’t routinely drop the “ic” in that decade. The practice only reemerged with a vengeance in the 1990s when Democrats were once again in power. By this time, the “Democrat party” nickname was closely linked to the party’s liberalism, now meaning excessive progressivism.

The 1992 Republican platform denounced “liberal Democrat tax-and-spend policies” and even referred to the “Democrat Party plantation.” Republicans no longer claimed any connection to liberalism. Indeed, Newt Gingrich, who led the Republican counterrevolution of that decade, said his movement, like Goldwater’s, was “anti-liberal.” It was precisely the party’s connection to liberalism—elitism, big government, progressive taxation, and so on—that the “Democrat party” slander was meant to highlight. “Democrat liberalism is the root problem,” claimed a letter writer to the Biloxi Sun Herald in 2005, explicitly connecting the slur to the offending ideology, in a clear about-face from its coinage by Reece.

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The last two Republican presidents employed the insult even more frequently than their predecessors. George W. Bush famously spoke of the “Democrat majority” in his 2007 State of the Union address. And after Donald Trump became president in 2017, he “ramped up his usage of the phrase.” Trump made his reasoning explicit: In 2019, he said “the Democrat Party. Not Democratic. It’s Democrat. We have to do that.” And pretty much every ambitious Republican politician today follows his advice.

There is an essential strangeness to the “Democrat party” calumny. Sure, excising the “ic” makes the party name sound awkward, but the noun “democrat” should hardly be a term of opprobrium in the United States. If the goal was to highlight that the Democratic Party was not truly democratic, why not say “un-Democratic” or “anti-Democratic,” in kinship with a technique that Trump, who has referred to the House “Unselect Committee” and the “Department of Injustice,” has so often employed?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that many critics of the New Deal were also critics of democracy. For example, in 1939, H. W. Prentis of the National Association of Manufacturers made the argument that “too much Democracy” was the “greatest ‘pitfall’ facing the American republic.” Later echoed by the John Birch Society, this argument continues to be an article of faith among the modern right: The United States, it is insisted, is a Republic, not a democracy. This may be why, while highlighting and critiquing the anti-democratic tendencies within the Democratic Party, Reece, the original pioneer of the “Democrat party” slur, chose to do so by celebrating liberalism, not democracy.

Misnaming is rude, and Democrats have a right to choose their preferred title. But even as they continue to reject the slur, perhaps they should point out what an odd insult it is, particularly at a time when the party employing the affront has proven themselves to be, at best, indifferent defenders of democracy. Why should anyone be afraid to be called a “Democrat”? Even without the “ic”?

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