As I understand it, the Republican Party was once - around the time of the Civil War - a modernist or even progressive party, which had broad support in the cities of the northern US. In this same time frame, the Democrats were apparently the pro-slavery conservatives with their power base in the southern states.
When, how and why did this situation turn around completely?
(please don’t blame me for my lack of knowledge on America political history; blame the education system in the Netherlands which ignores American history until WWII)
The South was solidly (big D) Democratic up until the 60s, but they were always conservative. The Democratic Party held sway in the South and in Northern cities. After President Johnson (a Democrat from Texas) pushed for and signed the civil rights legislation in the 60s, the Republican party took over in the South among white voters.
See Southern Strategy:
So what happened was by at least some measures the most conservative portion of the US left the Democratic Party and joined the Republican Party. The remaining portion of the Democratic Party is about as liberal as it was before while the Republican party seems to have lost its liberal wing to independents leaving the very conservative in charge.
The process probably started in the 1930s with the New Deal. In the early 1900s the Republicans were the more progressive party. However, even then they were regarded as the party of big business while Democrats were supporters of labor.
I agree, however, that the big shift was the defection of conservative Southern Democrats to the Republicans in the 1960s.
Herbert Hoover was the one who headed the federal relief effects. He favored whites and targeted blacks to suffer the brunt of the devastation. That got him elected President in 1928, but broke the ancient ties that Republicans had with the black community. His Presidency worsened that. Blacks were the first to lose their jobs in the Depression and unemployment rose over 50%.
Roosevelt appeared comparatively to be a savior. His actual accomplishments were minimal because he had to rely on the “Solid South” - the fact that all the Southern states were pure Democratic strongholds - to get anything passed, but he pushed much harder than any national politician ever had for equality, and his wife, Eleanor, was a public force and the face of the effort.
There had always been a Northern Democratic wing and a Southern Democratic wing, but tensions between the two exacerbated after WWII. And there had been a Progressive (liberal) Republican wing and a Conservative Republican wing but the Progressives steadily moved out of the party as the Civil Rights era heightened rifts in the party.
By the 1960s, the seeds of today’s party divisions were sprouting. Southern Democrats were violently against Northern Democrats in almost every way, on civil rights, cultural issues, Vietnam, and respect of the government. Richard Nixon implemented the Southern Strategy, which would see Republicans supplanting Democrats as the protector of white power and therefore officeholders.
As the northern Rust Belt emptied out, an internal migration brought many white working class families radicalized by their opposition to cultural change into the South and Southwest, allowing them to become Red States, while leaving a core, more liberal and racially diverse population in the Blue States.
That leaves a thousand details to be filled in. What’s important to remember is that it was a process of many changes over 80 years, not a single happening at a particular time.
Yes correct that the Democrat Party has its roots in the pro slavery south, and were the staunch defenders of slavery. Also correct that back in the day the Republican Party was the radical party that felt that all people should be free of bondage. In the Lincoln – Douglas debates prior to the 1860 election it was Douglas (the Democrat) that supported the pro slavery platform of the Dems of the time.
After the Civil War it was a Republican string of Presidents till Woodrow Wilson elected in 1912. Wilson started the push of the Dems towards the newly defined liberal ideals, although Wilson himself was a southern born and raised and he was quite the racist himself.
After Wilson it was another string of Republican Presidents till Roosevelt was elected in 1932. It was Roosevelt that brought about the modern Democrat party, well at least the liberal side. The current progressives came about after the mess of the Vietnam war and the movements of the 1960’s and on.
The Republicans were relatively progressive on Civil Rights in the 19th century, but after the Civil War, they became the party favored by business and rural interests. Black voters were Republicans because Lincoln freed the slaves.
The Democrats were split. Southern Democrats were big on Jim Crow, but the Northern Democrats – based in the big cities in the northeast – were more willing to go along with civil rights legislation. The Democrats in cities got their voters from immigrants and their children, and that interest slowly gained appeal to Blacks.
By the 1920s, the Democratic party was tearing itself apart over civil rights. The southern wing was against it, supported the KKK, and objected to anti-lynching laws. The Depression switched the poor voters Democratic – FDR seemed to be working to help fight it after Hoover never understood what to do. The various New Deal policies were designed to help those hit hard and Black voters started voting Democratic.
After WWII, the Democratic party got behind civil rights as the Northern wing became stronger than the Southern, who lost power in the political conventions when the party eliminated a requirement for a supermajority to win the nominations. Southern Democrats remained in the party until around 1968, when Nixon started his “southern strategy” or getting the southern Democrats to switch to Republican. The Republicans, whose power base used to be in the midwest, switched to a power base in the South.
In a nutshell, the racist elements of the Democratic Party found the Republican Party more to their interests starting in the 60s. At the same time, the liberal wing of the Republican Party was slowly squeezed out.
Your understanding is only partly correct. The Democrat party after the civil war had a two part power base. The southern agrarians and the ethnics of the northern cities political machines. At that time the parties had regional interests and not ideology as the basis of their appeals. The two parts of the party were not aligned since inner city government was always more progressive and big government oriented than the relatively conservative and rural south. Until the new deal and WW2 the party could survive having a progressive wing and a conservative wing because the south did not try to impose its rules on the inner cities and vice versa.
However, after the huge growth of the federal government during the New Deal and WW2 that became increasingly untenable to have half the party wanting bigger government and half wanting smaller government. From WW2 until the late 1950s racism was able to keep the South Democrat but once the civil rights movement started to gain traction and racism was no longer a unifying principle, the conservative rural southerners split with the inner city liberals and the parties aligned along ideological lines.
When I studied these topics in high school and college in the 70s, the generalization was that there were lots of factors determining your party with parents being a big one. Beyond that, the more education and higher income, the more likely you were to be a Republican. To counter this, the Republican’s adopted a strategy of appealing to demographic that tended to vote against them (poor people) by stressing social issues like abortion and running against gun-control. They cover the economic interests by talking about the “job creators” needing tax cuts. Now low income, low education voters tend to be Republican, joining the wealthy and high education segments and the Democrats are left with the middle class and that is shrinking.
The big Southern switch started in the '60s, but it took a while to be completed. As late as the '90s there were still some conservative Southern Democrats hanging around in Congress. Flipping a bunch of these districts to the Republican Party helped the GOP take over Congress in '94.
My state, Maryland, followed an interesting trajectory. It was originally part of the Democratic, segregated Solid South, but at the same time as the parties were realigning, Maryland was changing culturally and economically, becoming more a part of the liberal, urban Northeast. The two changes happened to line up so that Maryland has remained firmly under Democratic Party control.
But, in a nutshell, there was a time not so long ago when each major party had its liberal and conservative wings, and I recall reading that one of the Kennedy clan (a woman, I believe) once remarked on how difficult it would be to explain to a foreigner the difference between Republicans and Democrats. The parties were more in the nature of tribal identities than ideological.
But then the Dems finally committed themselves to the Civil Rights movement, and a few years later Nixon committed himself to the Southern Strategy, winning in 1972 most of the states George Wallace had won in 1968, and then throughout the 1970s there was a gradual exchange of constituencies, with Southern white supremacist conservatives leaving the Dems for the Party of Lincoln, and liberal Rockefeller Republicans going the other way. This process continued throughout the '80s, radical-reactionary Movement Conservatism took over the GOP, and now for the first time in American history we have a clear ideological-partisan divide – each party remains a big-tent coalition, of course, but now the Dems are a coalition of various brands of liberals/progressives/leftists and the Pubs a coalition of various RW/conservative tendencies.
Great info, Exapno. I just ordered the book. Thanks!
ETA: Meant to include, ISTR that Reagan used to be a Democrat, but then as the party moved left he then switched to the Republican Party. He said that he did not leave the party, but the party left him.
On a national level since 1896 with the nomination of William Jennings Bryan for President. Since then only two Democratic nominees for President-Alton Parker and John W. Davis-can reasonably have been called more conservative then their Republican opponent.