Why is the Republican party called the GOP? And why the elephant?

Re: Why is the Republican party called the GOP? And why the elephant?

I just have one question. And just to show you my question is relevant to this article, SDStaff Ian writes in it:

(So he does bring up the politics, not just the abstract symbolism.)

My question is simply this: How did the Republican Party become so conservative, even opposing many progressive measures that benefit African Americans (once their reliable base) among other people?

The party of Lincoln seemed so progressive, even by today’s standards. They were even responsible for the passage of many of the so-called civil rights amendments, starting with the 13th amendment, outlawing slavery.

I know my high school history teacher was a staunch liberal Democrat and a Vietnam Vet. The other teachers used to laugh he wanted Ted Kennedy to run for president. And he once said, that yes, the Republican Party has sadly changed throughout the years. But he didn’t elaborate how or why. In any event, that is my question now FWIW. Summarized in just a few words: What happened???

Thank you in advance for your kindly replies:).


The original Republicans were a mix of the remnants of the Whig and Free Soil parties of the pre-Civil War era. Their main objective was to limit slavery in the newly-acquired western lands of the Mexican Cession. Within a decade of winning its first presidential election, the Republicans (having ended slavery, their original raison d’etre) tinkered with their platform to maintain popular appeal and stay in power. By the early 1900s they became the party of Wall Street and northern bankers. they were still the more progressive of the two parties in several regards, until FDR became President in 1932 and embraced their conservatism with some relish. “GOP” stands for “Grand Old Party,” a nickname and nothing more. The elephant for Republicans and the donkey for Democrats was the brainchild of Thomas Nast, the very influential political cartoonist of the Gilded Age; neither image is particularly flattering.

Am I mistaken, or is this, at best, extremely misleading?

The Republican Party started when the Whig Party ruptured, not the Democrats. Yes, they were joined by some anti-slavery defectors from the Democrats, but the article’s wording—“whose members, primarily abolitionists”—implies that most Democrats were abolitionist. :smack:

GOP = Grand Old Party

The Civil War was a blip and an aberration. The country snapped back to normal in a couple of years.

The Republicans quickly became the party of business interests. If you think business is strong now, it’s nothing compared to the end of the 19th century. Senators weren’t popularly elected in most states; they were appointed by legislatures, which themselves were controlled by business interests. McKinley and Harding were put it as presidents by business. Business looked for “small” government, defined then as now as government that protected its interests but didn’t regulate them and otherwise have low taxes and leave them alone. That philosophy was popular among many in small towns, still the dominant population.

Democrats had no one controlling interest. As today, it was a ragged coalition of varied interest groups who were mostly defined as not being Republican. Labor was always anti-Republican, but they started third parties, like the Populists and Progressives, that cut into Democratic voters. Democrats were also associated with corrupt big city political machines. (Republicans had machines of their own, of course, but weren’t as numerous.) Worse, Democrats were associated with communists and socialists and that made them anathema in most of the country.

That didn’t change until the Depression and the New Deal, when the Democrats at long last started backing labor during the brief moment when business was discredited. Democrats, despite Southern opposition, also became the party of civil rights. That was their downfall.

Labor got everything it wanted and for a while that was no longer an issue. The South abandoned the Democrats. Democrats got smeared as commies and hippies. Business went on a resurgence. They passed a zillion laws castrating labor and moved manufacturing jobs overseas so labor lost its numbers and power. Immigration increased. Whites saw they were losing their majority and their privilege and blamed the Democrats. Liberal religious bodies lost members and conservative denominations picked up millions and became activists.

So lots of different trends coalesced and separated and merged and faded and grew. 150 years is an insanely long time in cultural history.

Up until the early 1970s, there were plenty of liberals in the Republican party and there were plenty of conservatives in the Democratic party.

The Great Depression and the New Deal definitely changed the Democratic party, but it also changed the Republican party for the next few decades.

The real turning point came during the Civil Rights Era, when Lyndon Johnson threw his weight behind the New Society benefits, the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act. Johnson predicted that the Democrats would lose the South for a generation for supporting desegregation and equality.

That’s when Nixon picked up the ball and decided to take the Republican party to the hard right, to pick up the segregationists that the Democrats were losing. It started with being for Law and Order. It was remarked that Nixon was doing something new by running for president on a local sheriff’s platform.

Law and Order, like other Republican bywords that started cropping up during that time, was a code word for anti-black. And that’s what started the Republican party on its current path further and further to the right and more and more the party of white nationalism and Christian nationalism.

I was under the impression that the aftermath of the Tilden vs Hayes election (1876) had a lot to do with it. Tilden, the Democrat, narrowly won the popular vote. Things were in turmoil in the electoral college. Cue the smoke-filled back rooms. Some southern folks made a deal with the Republican leadership that they’d tilt the outcome to Hayes if the Republicans turned their backs on reconstruction and the fate of black people in the south. They did.

It didn’t result in an overnight embrace of black folks’ plight as a political concern by the Democrats or anything, but folks for whom that was a priority no longer had reason to see the Republicans as heros.

The Democrats had a chance to recover from utter disgrace in 1876 only because of business interests. Railroads, the hugest business of the time, bribed Congress. It’s called the Credit Mobilier scandal in textbooks, which never explain it intelligibly. Even so, the Republicans threw away the election when they nominated Hayes, a stiff, as a compromise candidate. Tilden was hailed as helping break up Boss Tweed’s NYC machine. By 1876, the South was well on the way to building back its all-white political system, a sinkhole of depravity that was illegal in every way. The compromise that gave the Republicans enough electoral votes to squeak through nonetheless is worst political scandal in American history.

Nobody believes me when I tell them that today’s political process is a beaming model of fairness, openness, and legitimacy compared to what it used to be. People scream that all politicians are crooks. They aren’t. But they sure were crooks back in the Good Old Days people admire so much. Idiots.

Actually, the business/non-business split didn’t really happen until the time of Taft. Teddy Roosevelt was not uniformly in favor of business interests, and the Democrats prior to Wilson weren’t uniformly populist in opposition to business interests. But the elections from 1908 to 1916 pretty firmly separated the pro-business from the less pro-business peeps along party lines.

Don’t forget Roosevelt was a complete accident. McKinley was the tool of Mark Hanna, the boss of business interests. Roosevelt was gifted the vice-presidency to keep him away from crusading. Only an assassin changed that.

The presidency of the previous Republican, Benjamin Harrison, saw huge tariffs passed, of course for protectionist business interests. American business loved tariffs at the time, because otherwise European goods would have destroyed them. Tariffs had also been the issue in previous elections for the same reasons.

They were unpopular then, as today, because protecting businesses makes everything more expensive for consumers. Cleveland won on that issue. But he was also anti-labor and set the Army against strikers in his second term, setting back the union movement for decades.

It’s hard - impossible - to say that Democrats were anti-business in the 19th century, because only third parties could rally around that. But the Republicans were the wholly-owned party of business from the Civil War on.

For decades after the Civil War, southern white voters were adamantly opposed to the Republican Party, who they blamed for the war. These were the so-called Yellow Dog Democrats because they would supposedly have voted for a yellow dog if it was running against a Republican.

Southern black voters, as you noted, favored the Republicans. But the white voters kept them from voting and controlled the polls.

So for decades, there was a solid base of conservative Democratic Congressmen elected from southern states.

Things started to change after World War II. Southern Democrats began to feel that the party was moving in the wrong direction on civil rights at the national level. Strom Thurmond, a Democrat, ran as an independent candidate for the Presidency in 1948 to oppose Harry Truman, who southerners felt was too much in favor of civil rights.

Barry Goldwater was the Republican presidential candidate in 1968. He was very conservative and spoke out against civil rights. Lyndon Johnson was the Democratic candidate, running for re-election; Johnson supported civil rights. George Wallace, like Thurmond, was a conservative southern Democrat who ran as an independent candidate.

Resentment over the civil war was dying out. Some conservative Democrats began to feel they had more in common with conservative Republicans than they did with their fellow Democrats outside the south. Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 exploited this by appealing to conservative southern white voters.

This appeal to conservative southern white voters, based on opposition to civil rights, alienated black voters away from the Republican party.

In New York City, because of the long-entrenched corruption among the Democrats, Republicans were, in practice, the more liberal of the two parties, roughly up to the election of Giuliani. There was a strong third party of moderate socialists known as the Liberal Party, and the Republicans and the Liberals, when they worked together, could often beat the Democrats. But Giuliani changed the situation; now the Republicans are the undoubted conservatives and the Democrats the undoubted liberals, as in the rest of the country since Goldwater’s day, and the Liberal Party almost instantly dried up and blew away.

So, how does the elephant fit in?

Well, it is “old” and it is a “party”, I’ll give it that.

This particular editorial cartoon from 1874 by Thomas Nast: http://public.media.smithsonianmag.com/legacy_blog/rublican-elephant-cartoon.jpg. He just wanted to have a big, heavy animal that would be in danger crossing a bridge, but the elephant image stuck permanently. He also locked in the Democratic Donkey, though he wasn’t absolutely the first. There’s an entire article at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/political-animals-republican-elephants-and-democratic-donkeys-89241754/.

Nitipick: Goldwater ran against LBJ in 1964.

In the next election cycle, LBJ withdrew his bid for re-election in March 1968 prior to the Democratic Convention because of his unpopularity due to the continued escalation of the Vietnam War. The Democratic nominee for the 1968 election was incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who ultimately ran against (and lost to) Richard Nixon (the Republican nominee).

Many people don’t realize that the Goldwater Republicans despised Nixon because he was moderate. The shift to the right of the GOP wasn’t a smooth process. It wasn’t until 1980 and Reagan that the almost continuous move to the right became the norm.

But Goldwater was the big change in the GOP turning their back on black voters. Eisenhower got 39 percent of the black vote in 1956, Nixon 32 percent in 1960 and then Goldwater got 6 percent in 1964.

Cool; ignorance fought!

It’s also worth asking how the Democrats became so liberal. Parties used to be less homogenous as a general rule. Therewere coalitions within the parties of all sorts of ideologies. The basic trend was 1860s- R-Abolitionists D-Pro-Slavery. During Reconstruction R-Pro-Civil Rights D-Anti-black. In this era, the wealthy in the North were the pro-Civil Rights people – Suffragettes tended to be anti-Democrat as an example. Anti-civil rights voting blocks tended to be white (obviously) and middle and lower class (still are.) Democrats then in the early 20th century embraced middle and lower class white values which were the values of the labor movements. Republicans by the 1890s had largely stopped focusing on Civil Rights simply because there was no gain in it. The South was solidly Democratic and the North hadn’t yet experienced the huge Jim Crow migrations of the early 20th century bringing with them their black voters. Republicans instead focused on the interests of Northern people which tended to correlate with wealth and business. So by the time of the Depression and FDR, the Republicans were solidly pro-business and wealthy and the Democrats were solidly pro-labor. Democrats were still anti-Civil Rights, but Republicans were Civil Rights agnostics.

As blacks gained more power though, they became more solidly labor. You have people like Philip Randolph who organized black porters into the labor movement and they found allies in the pro-labor camp of the Democratic Party, especially the northern Democrats who were largely socialists as opposed to southern Democrats who were largely anti-Northern in sympathies. Black people became very pro-labor, especially during the Depression and began to gravitate away from Republicans and vote for labor Democrats. This led to the first major fracturing of the Democratic coalition. Truman decided in 1948 to desegregate the military. This was largely at the behest of Randolph and black voters who threatened to vote wholesale Republican in the 1948 election if Truman didn’t integrate. In northern states, the black vote was just swing enough to be able to determine election outcomes, so Truman needed black votes to regain election. Once he bit the integration bullet, that set off a landslide. Southern Democrats absolutely crapped their pants. They began drawing away from the Democratic Party and while they weren’t Republicans, they started looking at becoming more independent. This forced Democratic leadership to shore up the black vote to offset the white losses so they begin to advance more and more Civil Rights types of legislation. Republicans largely didn’t form opposition to the legislation and voted predominantly independently based upon each individual seat. Northern Republicans were in favor of Civil Rights legislation and Southern Republicans weren’t. The national party remained agnostic while the national party of the Democrats pushed farther and farther socially left. Nixon though saw this obvious split in Democratic fortunes and decided it was time to exploit it. His logic was that if he peeled off the Southern Democrats, he could essentially turn the US into a Republican country. His Southern strategy essentially was a dog-whistle appeal to southern Democrats who were against the Civil Rights movement and disenchanted with the Democratic move left. The Southern Strategy eventually paid dividends, but it forced Democrats to veer even further left as they now absolutely required minority voters in order to win elections. That’s really what brought us to where we are today. Rather than truly ideological parties, we have two parties that are very much focused on identity since they require those constituents to stay in power.

So, the long and the short of it is. Political parties are what they are today because of Truman grubbing for black votes and Nixon grubbing for white ones.

The New Yorker debuted in 1925. I believe the magazine involved here should be Harper’s Magazine, as in https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/political-animals-republican-elephants-and-democratic-donkeys-89241754/