“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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…
Read More: The history of an insult.