Should We Rename the Democratic Party? An Inadvertently Interesting Suggestion From a Trolling Politician

by Michael C. Dorf

Last week, Florida state senator Blaise Ingoglia proposed a bill that would "cancel" the Democratic Party. The "Ultimate Cancel Act" (as the bill itself labels the measure) does not mention any party by name but requires the state's election authorities to "cancel" any "political party, if the party’s platform has previously advocated for, or been in support of, slavery or involuntary servitude." That's a not-at-all-veiled reference to the Democratic Party. Why? Because prior to realignment, the Democratic Party, especially in the South, was the party of slavery and then Jim Crow. Thus, most of the worst white supremacists were Democrats before Nixon's Southern Strategy led them and later racists to make their home in the Republican Party, which, into the 1960s, was still the "Party of Lincoln."

To state the obvious, the bill is absurd. Ingoglia is apparently a longtime critic of "cancel culture"--a somewhat amorphous concept that generally applies to instances of people being publicly shamed or losing employment or other economic opportunities based on having said or done something that many others regard as offensive. Let's grant that some of the incidents that Republicans and Republican-aligned media label as instances of cancel culture involve disproportionate penalties for either innocent mistakes or relatively minor offenses. Even so, the comparison to what Ingoglia's bill would do is inapt.  No one subject to "cancel culture" is literally canceled in the sense of silenced by the government. Perhaps Ingoglia knows that and is only trolling. I had never heard of him before last week, so I don't know whether he is a dimwit or an evil-but-not-entirely-stupid provocateur.

In any event, the bill is unconstitutional. The government cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, prevent private associations and entities (such as the band "The Slants") from obtaining a trademark in a name that others regard as offensive. State registration of a party involves no greater, and probably less, state association with the party's name than does federal granting of a trademark. Political parties are private entities whose names are their speech. Just as no state could decline to register the Republican Party based on its recent and ongoing association with racists and insurrectionists, no state can deny recognition to the Democratic Party based on its 19th-century association with slavery. 

So we can dismiss Ingoglia as a dimwit, a provocateur, or (as the chair of the Democratic Party in Florida called him based on The Ultimate Cancel Act) a would-be "dictator." But if wisdom can come from the mouths of babes, as the proverb says, why not from a Republican troll? Is there a case to be made for re-naming the Democratic Party?

The question whether to rename the Democratic Party is similar in some but not all respects to questions about what to do with institutions named for historical figures who enslaved other human beings, as well as monuments honoring such figures. Some such questions are easy. Where people were honored because of their evil deeds--as with statues of Confederate generals--it's an easy call: take down the statues; rename the institutions and buildings. The harder questions involve people who were enslavers (or otherwise associated strongly with racism) but are honored for deeds we still deem honorable. The Virginians who played key roles in the founding--especially Washington, Jefferson, and Madison-- are prime examples.

People differ over that question, as I noted recently on Presidents' Day. Because there's no fair likelihood of the United States de-Washingtonizing any time soon, it's largely an academic question. In the interest of honesty--and perhaps to further ensure that I'm never nominated to a government job requiring Senate confirmation--I'll say that I've come to think that if it were politically and practically feasible, I would favor de-Washingtonization, at least if that were the preference of most African Americans. It strikes me that slavery is a sufficiently great evil that it's simply not possible to say of anyone who actively enslaved others that we can set that fact aside to honor them for their other contributions. If Josef Mengele had, in addition to performing sadistic experiments on Jewish prisoners, also and wholly separately made important contributions to medical knowledge, I would nonetheless not hesitate to urge the renaming of, say, the Mengele Medical School. Indeed, I would say the same for a much less notorious Nazi--even one who voiced misgivings about the Final Solution in the same way that Washington and Jefferson voiced misgivings about slavery while continuing to enslave people.

So I take seriously the idea that an association with slavery can taint an institution or name. True, Ingoglia and other right-wing dimwits/provocateurs ignore the importance of realignment when they make the simplistic claim that the Democratic Party was associated with slavery. Even so, it is possible that the party name should be deemed tainted.

Possible, but not very persuasive. For one thing, abandoning the name would be hugely politically costly. Many southern Dixiecrats continued to vote for Democratic candidates long after realignment, probably out of habit. Today, abandonment of the name "Democratic Party" for any other name, no matter how catchy, would confuse at least some low-information but generally Democratic-leaning voters, perhaps enough to swing an election.

Moreover, political parties are long-lived. Abandoning the name "Democratic Party" would not merely abandon the party of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson but also the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Barack Obama.

I'll add that the word "Democratic" means something, especially in juxtaposition with "Republican" (although I acknowledge that the name descends confusingly from one branch of what was once the Democratic-Republican Party). To be small-d democratic as opposed to small-r republican is, other things being equal, to favor greater voice for the average citizen. Given that Democrats generally favor broader voting rights and government more responsive to the needs of the less fortunate, there is some descriptive accuracy in the party labels.

That's not to say that a political term could not become tainted despite its literal meaning. I assume that no reasonable person who was a socialist (even if only in the Bernie Sanders sense) and also favored robust patriotic programs (such as a requirement of national service) would dream of founding a "national socialist" party, even though the term, taken literally, would be descriptive and harmless. The term would not be taken literally. Nearly everyone would understand it as invoking Nazism. Thus, if, as a matter of broad social understanding, the term "Democratic Party" connoted support for slavery, Jim Crow, and racism, then abandoning it would be not only sensible but imperative.

Because the party name does not carry that social meaning, however, it can and should be retained.