Summary and Keywords
Will Rogers understood the confounding nature of the Democratic Party. In noting that “Democrats never agree on anything, that’s why they’re Democrats,” the Oklahoma humorist highlighted a consistent theme in the party’s more than 200-year history: division. The political party of the underdog and ethnic, racial, and social minorities has always lacked the cultural cohesion that the Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans possessed. As a result, the main currents of Democratic Party foreign policy elude simple categorization. Muddying any efforts at classification are the dramatically disparate eras in which Democrats conducted foreign policy over two centuries.
Like other major American political parties, the Democrats’ foreign policy was animated by a messianic theme balanced against the national and constituent interests. Thinking themselves a “chosen people,” the Revolutionary generation thought their experiment foreshadowed a new global order with universal appeal. As representatives of God’s new Israel, the Founders made their new nation’s messianic relationship to the international system essential to its identity. Shunning established foreign policy practices, they founded a style of American diplomacy that combined idealism with pragmatism. Democrats, along with most every other major political party, have followed the Founders’ example but in a manner particular to the party’s history, constituents, and circumstance.
The foreign policy connective tissue of the Democratic Party has been its particular expression of the Founders’ messianic mission interpreted through its ever-evolving cast of disparate constituent groups. In pursuit of this, 19th-century Democratic foreign policy favored territorial and commercial expansion to safeguard their republican experiment. In the 20th and 21st century Democrats globalized these sentiments and sought a world conducive to democracy’s survival. But consistency is scarcely the hallmark of Democratic foreign policy. Driven by its disparate constituent groups and domestic politics, the party has bandied diverse foreign policy strategies through an array of historical circumstances. The sum total of Democratic foreign policy is, at times, a contradictory amalgam of diverse constituencies responding to the issues of the moment in a combination of self-interest and democratic idealism.
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