This paper will assess the historical social and political circumstances that caused and/or lead up to the landmark Democratic Primary of 2008. There is a two hundred year history prior to the 2008 primary where it seems as if this particular primary would be impossible. Those periods will be discussed as Colonial Period, WWI – WWII, the Civil Rights Era from 1954- 1968, and the legacy of Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush. The historical significance of the democratic primary of 2008 cannot be understated. Two minorities, one African American, the other a woman. Two hundred and twelve years in the making. If either won the general election the outcome would be cataclysmic. The only thing standing in their way was each other. Barack Obama, the Jr. Senator from Illinois, the Harvard Law grad, whose meteoric rise had come just a few years earlier at the Democratic National Convention.Hilary Clinton, the Senator of New York, the First Lady for eight years, who had reached the highest echelons of the Democratic Party and was treated as royalty for the last sixteen years. This would be a battle that set the stage for generations to come and ultimately secure a place in history, as the first, to the victor.
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The rights of resistance or rebellion, as articulated in the colonial documents in the Revolutionary era, were part of a longstanding principle in the American constitutional tradition derived from religion. The longstanding tradition of rights to resistance has roots tracing back to the theological tradition of Christianity, particularly, Acts chapter 5 verse 29 and applied these principles to the perceived tyranny of British policy following the French and Indian War. In Acts 5:29 the Apostles of Jesus Christ proclaim, “We should obey God and not men.” There is a contrasting sentiment during the revolutionary period due to the large proportion of reformed Protestants. Early Americans are grappling with the teaching of Romans chapter 13, which gives Christians instruction on submission to governing authorities. Ultimately, early Americans living in consistency with theoretical demands go against the tyrannical treatment of the British and take up arms. Social justice issues grapple with these points.
The biblical view of authority of civil government from Romans 13:1-7 established three succinct ideas: civil government is ordained by God, citizens must submit to those in authority over them, and civil authorities are established for the good of civil society. In the early years during the Revolutionary period from 1763-1776 a very large or significant majority of Americans identified with reformed or Calvinism as a theological foundation. The reformed protestant view was special in that there was a long standing history in which reformers identified different doctrines and prompted a reconsideration of the previous biblical view. God should be obeyed and not men prompted the dogma of obedience to God, which might require disobedience to the civil ruler, if the ruler is acting contrary to God’s law. This doctrine was not asking for unlimited obedience, instead, unlimited non-resistance. In 1750 Jonathan Mayhew gave a sermon which reminded his audience of the long English dissenting tradition in which the Christians are held to have not only a right but a duty to resist governments whenever they fail to secure the public good (Mayhew, 1750). These ideals are necessary to the core principles of being an American and are what allowed our country to progress to a place where anyone from any background can reach the highest levels of our society. We are all God’s children and this was representative in the 2008 Democratic Primary.
This paper will skip the 1800s to the Great Migration of African Americans from the south to northern states, during WWI. Blacks mostly voted Republican from after the Civil War and through the early part of the 20th century. That’s not surprising when one considers that Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president, and the white, segregationist politicians who governed Southern states in those days were Democrats. The Democratic Party didn’t welcome blacks then, and it wasn’t until 1924 that blacks were even permitted to attend Democratic conventions in any official capacity. Most blacks lived in the South, where they were mostly prevented from voting at all. During WWI there were approximately 350,000 African American troops serving in segregated units. These units were segregated because at this time in the US white people were not legally bound to serve in any capacity next to an African American. Socially and culturally this was extremely difficult for African Americans to justify. Community leaders in Harlem had lobbied for the creation of an all-black regiment for years; in July 1917, the African American 15th New York National Guard was mustered into service. They were forced to raise their own money for equipment and trained in the backyards and empty lots of Harlem. Why would they fight in a war for a country that did not respect their Constitutional rights nor grant them any form of equality or justice? Yet, there were 350,000 that were determined to show the world the hypocrisy of the politics of the United States. A country that would go to war to protect its interests abroad but not protect an entire population of its citizens. A country that would send its African American men to die in far off lands but wouldn’t give them the dignity to serve in units with their own countrymen. A country that would send its African American men to die but wouldn’t allow them to live as equals in a country they were responsible for building (Hudson, 2018). the activist W.E.B. DuBois wrote, “and close our ranks, shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow-citizens . . . that are fighting for democracy. If this is OUR country, then this is OUR war” (PBS Learning Media, 2018).
These veterans who had fought in lands outside of the United States and liberated countries were not going to just let the same thing continue. Upon returning to the US or migrating to the North these veterans no longer wanted to be subjected to the indignities of Jim Crow and the constant threat of racial violence, the migrants experienced a new sense of freedom. There were of course many problems that arose out of this reshaping of America. Poor whites now how more competition from people that would accept lower wages and this led to racial violence. There was also the impact on women and children. With many of the men off at war many women and children had to go to work to keep the country running.
WWI was a transformative era for African Americans in the United States. There was a changing of the guard, new leaders emerged, the first wave of the great migration, a new industrial workforce, and the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. These factors affected the political, social, and cultural growth of African Americans and set the stage for the eventual historic culminating win of equality. The African American veterans of this time and their new negro mentality was definitely a strong influence in this transformation.
Immediately following WWI in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was finally ratified, enfranchising all American women and declaring for the first time that they, like men, deserve all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship (History.com, 2009).
Leslie Hume argues that the First World War changed the popular mood:
The women's contribution to the war effort challenged the notion of women's physical and mental inferiority and made it more difficult to maintain that women were, both by constitution and temperament, unfit to vote. If women could work in munitions factories, it seemed both ungrateful and illogical to deny them a place in the polling booth. But the vote was much more than simply a reward for war work; the point was that women's participation in the war helped to dispel the fears that surrounded women's entry into the public arena (Hume, 2016).
Long after women achieved suffrage they faced discrimination until this day in education, healthcare, employment, and physical violence.
The rise of the Democratic Party as the party that embraced African Americans came during the 1932 Presidential election. There was a process of realignment which involved a push from Republicans and a pull from Democrats. The refusal by Republicans to pursue civil rights alienated many black voters, while efforts by northern Democrats to open opportunities for African Americans gave black voters reasons to switch parties (United States House of Representatives 2019). The 1932 Presidential Election was a turning point for Democrats in successfully gaining many African American voters. Many African Americans were turned off by Herbert Hoover’s attempt to align himself with southern segregationists and there were no economic policies put in place, during Hoover’s administration, to offset the effects the Great Depression had on African Americans. By 1936, seventy one percent of African American voters were voting Democrat (Jackson 2008). Which is a stunning turnaround due to the fact just twelve years earlier African Americans were not even allowed to attend the Democratic Conventions.
During the 1932 Presidential election there was a lot of distrust among African Americans for both candidates. Some of the issues surrounding Herbert Hoover were stated above. However, there was a distrust of FDR because of his Democratic Party affiliation and his choice of running mate, House Speaker John Nance, a racist from Texas. This distrust of the Democratic Party spanned back to the Civil War. Most African Americans, when they were given the opportunity to vote, they stayed loyal to The Party of Lincoln. The southern democrats were brutal and vicious in their racism but the GOP rarely did anything after Reconstruction to offset this vehemently, negative feelings towards African Americans.
In 1932, twenty eight percent of African Americans voted for the Democratic nominee, FDR. After, FDR beat Hoover in the election his support among African Americans swelled, due in part to his New Deal plan and the inclusion of African Americans. One could argue the New Deal set the ground work for what would become the Civil Rights Movement. Though by no means, could one say, FDR was a friend of African Americans. Fortunately, FDRs institutional and structural reforms implemented by the administration, however, eclipsed the President’s impassivity toward black civil rights activists (Martin 1971, 86).
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When FDR ran for President in 1932, he won decisively in a landslide over Hoover. FDR received a greater percentage of the women’s vote, it is believed, because when he was Governor of New York he voted for women’s suffrage and his Bull Moose Party endorsed women’s suffrage (City University of New York, 2019). This election brought the majority of women to the Democratic Party by 1932.
Once America entered World War II, however, men went off to war by the millions and women stepped into the civilian and military jobs they left behind. It’s estimated that up to six million women joined the civilian work force during World War II in both white and blue-collar jobs, such as: streetcar operators, taxi drivers, construction workers, steel workers, lumber workers, munitions workers, agriculture workers, government workers, and office workers (History.com, 2018). Approximately 350,000 women served in the military during WWII. Around the same number as African Americans during WWI. Most women served in nursing or clerical roles. Women also served as truck drivers, radio operators, engineers, photographers and non-combat pilots. And the all-black, all-women 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion was sent first to Birmingham, England, and then to Rouen, France, to process huge backlogs of undelivered mail (Histroy.com, 2018).
Civil Rights Era
African Americans had challenged and set up political fronts to battle racial segregation. Finally, state sponsored segregation in schools was outlawed in 1954 with Brown v. The Board of Education. Brown v. The Board of Education was landmark case in which galvanized the nascent civil rights movement into a full blown revolution (Pbs.org, 2007). Then state sponsored segregation and voting discrimination was outlawed with The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law on August 6, 1965, by President Lyndon Johnson. It outlawed the discriminatory voting practices aligned with Jim Crow in many southern states following the Civil War. This included literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting (OurDocuments.gov, 2016). The Voting Rights Act had an immediate impact and changed the composition of registered voters that had an enormous impact on the African American community. By the end of 1965, two hundred and fifty thousand new black voters had been registered, one-third of those were registered by federal examiners. By the end of 1966, only four out of the thirteen southern states had fewer than 50 percent of African Americans registered to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was challenged and strengthened in 1970, 1975, and 1982 (OurDocuments.gov, 2016).
The 1950s and 1960s were dominated by the civil rights movement, the movement to end segregation and promote equality within the United States. However, the civil rights movement during this time generally applies to African Americans to achieve political and social equality, but the ideologies of the movement spread beyond this community to women (Study.com, 2019).
From the rigid ideas of gender conformity in the 1950s, women embarked on a much wider campaign of equality and opportunity in the 1960s and 1970s. They were influenced by the civil rights movement and equality was what mattered. In 1968, Hilary Rodham Clinton started to claim her stake. As the nation boiled over Vietnam, civil rights and the slayings of two charismatic leaders, Ms. Rodham was completing a sweeping intellectual, political and stylistic shift. She came to Wellesley as an 18-year-old Republican, a copy of Barry Goldwater’s right-wing treatise, “The Conscience of a Conservative,” on the shelf of her freshman dorm room. She would leave as an antiwar Democrat whose public rebuke of Republican senator in a graduation speech won her notice in Life magazine as a voice for her generation (NY Times, 2007). During this period we can see the political ideologies of Hilary Clinton forming. Gaining power, Ms. Rodham asserted, was at the core of effective activism. It “is the very essence of life, the dynamo of life,” she wrote.
Reagan, Clinton, Bush Years
By the time Ronald Reagan was in office, Barack Obama was a college student at Columbia University and Hilary Clinton was the First Lady of Arkansas. The 1980s were a tie of prosperity and growth for our economy but not necessarily for African Americans. In 1981 when Ronald Reagan took the presidency the incarceration rate was 200,000. A mere thirty years after his War on Drugs initiative the incarceration rate is nearly 2,000,000. A very high percentage of these prisoners are locked up for non- violent drug offenses. With another 7 million on probation, parole, or labeled ex –offenders (Alexander, 2011). Alexander discloses that, in conjunction with this gigantic jump in the number of people behind bars, is an accumulation of laws that exclude convicts from basic social and political rights. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution bans slavery except for those convicted of crimes. The 13th amendment gave the local and federal governments the authority to impose with impunity “slave” laws for convicts, of all races. This small part of the 13th amendment gave governments the go ahead to make “convict” laws against persons convicted of a crime. These statutes legalize the practice of refusing housing to felons, preventing them from voting, running for public office, and not allowing felons to serve on jury duty. Though mass incarceration affects most of the population it disproportionately affects African Americans. African American males represent 7% of the general population but 40% of the prison population. One of every 3 black males will be incarcerated in his lifetime. This was the landscape Barack Obama was trying to combat. Meanwhile, Hilary Clinton was advocating for healthcare reform and in 1994, as First Lady of the United States, her healthcare bill failed to get approval in the Congress. However, 1994 did bring a major win for the Clintons. The passage of the Crime Bill. The 1994 law was the largest crime bill in the history of the United States.
First, the 1994 crime bill gave the federal stamp of approval for states to pass even more tough-on-crime laws. By 1994, all states had passed at least one mandatory minimum law, but the 1994 crime bill encouraged even more punitive laws and harsher practices on the ground, including by prosecutors and police, to lock up more people and for longer periods of time (Ofer, 2019).
Second, the 1994 law shaped Democratic Party politics for years to come. Under the leadership of Bill Clinton, Democrats wanted to wrest control of crime issues from Republicans, so the two parties began a bidding war to increase penalties for crime, trying to outdo one another. The 1994 crime bill was a key part of the Democratic strategy to show that it can be tougher-on-crime than Republicans (Ofer, 2019). However the outcome was devastating to the African American communities and caused a major disparity in incarceration rates. During this time, Hilary Clinton also made a major gaffe that would come back to haunt her in 2008. She called young black males, super predators. While Clinton was in the White House, Obama was a community organizer in the City of Chicago about to run for his first political office. Both future candidates were advocating for human rights and strong on social justice issues. However, by the time George W. Bush was in office the world had changed. Social issues and justice were no longer on the forefront of American politics because of September 11, 2001. Terrorism had become the focus of America and once again the country was at war. Both Senator Barack Obama and Senator Clinton of Illinois and New York, respectively, had a lot to say about the state of our union.
On the campaign trail in 2007, Senator Barack Obama said the United States should immediately start removing one to two combat brigades from Iraq a month, with a goal of withdrawing all combat troops by the end of next year and leaving a substantial presence of American forces for a limited humanitarian mission (NY Times, 2007).
“The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq’s leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops,” Mr. Obama said. “Not in six months or one year – now” (Zeleny, 2007). Obama was adamant about ending the Iraqi War since 2002.
In contrast Clinton said this about the War in Iraq, ““I know that there is a great deal of frustration and anger and outrage, but we can’t just wave a magic wand and make things change,” she said about Iraq at another point. “I wish we could. I wish I could give a speech and it would all be different, but that’s not how our country works” (Healy, 2007).
It is the assertion of this author, Barack Obama won the 2008 Democratic Primary and eventual general election because of his stance on social justice issues and the War in Iraq. Hilary Clinton had a track record too long and there were too many political errors made along the way. Like the generations before them, an African American man was able to gain footing before a woman. Of course there was a huge emotional component to the African American vote as opposed to simply deductive reasoning. By putting some of the major social issues of the last one hundred years into context, one can see how these two candidates rose to the heights of political power at that particular time. "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line" still sounds true in the 21st century. The fight for racial equality, the fight against injustice, the fight for equality for all humankind is heard and seen through the politics of the 21st century. This was especially true in that window of 2007-2008.
- Alexander, M. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York, NY: New Press. 2011.
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- PBS Learning Media. African Americans and World War I. The Great War. 2018 https://whyy.pbslearningmedia.org/print_support_material/145327/For%20Students/
- PBS.org. “Expanding Civil Rights: Brown V Board of Education.” 2007. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/supremecourt/rights/landmark_brown.html
- The City University of New York. “FDR: Elections and Suffrage”. 2019 http://rhppi.org/womentakethelead/exhibit/fdr-suffrage-and-elections/
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- Zeleny, Jeff. “Obama’s Speech on the Iraq War.” 2007. https://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/09/12/obamas-iraq-plan/
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