A Summary of the Evolution of the Major U.S. Political Parties and the “Red-State / Blue-State” Switch
The major U.S. political parties switched factions many times in history. The story is complex. Here are some different ways to look at it.
TIP: Below is a summary of a longer essay on “party switching”, which you can read here. It covers most of the same stuff that page does, but is an alternative way to look at the data.
Notes on Key Aspects of the Parties Changing / Switching / Evolving
WHAT IS A POLITICAL FACTION? To understand how the parties switched/changed/evolved, one has to understand political factions. A political faction is a group of people who form a coalition around key voter issues or a voter platform (which contains “planks” AKA stances on voter issues). Key voter issues include government size, positions on trade, positions on welfare, positions on social justice, positions on the environment, etc. The major U.S. parties are, from this perspective, best thought of as coalitions of factions. For example the Democrats contain humanists, environmental activists, business minded “neoliberals”, progressives focused on workers rights, anti-elite progressives, social justice progressives, etc while the modern Republicans contain the religious right, business minded “neocons”, paleocon Tea Party types, libertarians, constitutionalists, etc. Each party houses elite and populist factions from different geographic regions of the U.S., some citied, some rural, who share general ideology regarding key issues. It is the differences between factions in the parties that allow for the many changes
PARTY SYSTEMS: Historians refer to the eras the changes resulted in as “party systems“. As noted above, Historians call the eras the major changes result in as follows: the first party system (the Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists; and the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans), the second party system (Jacksonian Democrats vs. Whigs; the time when the issue popular sovereignty and race splits the parties and results in the Civil War where the Democrats are the Confederates), the third party system (Reconstruction and the Gilded Age which turn both parties into business parties… until William Jennings Bryan that is), the fourth party system (the Progressive Era, the era in which Theodore Roosevelt breaks from the Republicans to form the most popular version of the Progressive Party in history, at the end of this era Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover return the Republicans to Gilded Age politics and becoming increasingly “anti-Communist” and “anti-Progressive”), and today’s fifth party (it all starts with FDR who ensures the Democrats will remain the Progressive party… despite the states’ rights Dixie-wing who phases out of the party by 2000, this era is marked by the New Deal Coalition vs. Conservative Coalition). Some feel that this is followed by sixth party (from LBJ on, when Dixie starts to shift over Civil Rights ’64) and even seventh party (from Clinton on) systems.
SHOULD I FOCUS LESS ON DIXIECRATS? The story of the modern switch always comes back to the Solid South Conservative States’ Rights Dixie Confederate-Crats like Calhoun, Thurmond, and Wallace and their differences from the Bourbon liberal Redeemer-crats like Wilson and Cleveland and progressive Jeffeson-Van-Buren-Bryan-like Democrats. The states’ rights “Dixiecrat” faction is comprised of radical liberals from the south who are so liberal they once fought against kings, against banks, against elitists, and [making everything confusing for the next 240 years] for their right to own slaves (allowing them to compete with the north in early America). In other words, there is a faction that has existed since day 1 that is comprised of what today we call conservatives, but then they called Democrats, in the Solid South states like Georgia and South Carolina (although today we count “the great bourbon liberal victory Texas” among them, states like Texas are more like Florida or Arkansas, don’t have as much in common with states like Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina… although this differs vastly by region). In classical term, the core solid south states from the original 13 (the ones most like Georgia and South Carolina) are radical liberal / social conservative dominated states, who were once at the heart of slavery, the Civil War Confederacy, and segragation. There is a reason they formed states’ rights parties (to have the right to have a slave state). They used to be Democrats, and now they are Republicans. It is perhaps to easy to villainize them via a modern lens given the Civil War, especially as a progressive center-left-right Democrat (which I am). See, from the perspective of a modern Democrat who “gets” LBJ, Gore, Clinton, Obama and Kennedy (our northern and southern allies), but not as much Byrd, Thurmond, and Wallace (our former and current old Democrat allies), the Democratic Party has lost a chunk of its voter base to the Republican southern strategy that attracted old states’ rights conservative Dixie AND Dixie has largely driven the anti-Obama anti-Progressive message alongside the Nixon-Republicans AND Dinesh D’souza (being one of many) now claims Hillary and the Democrats are the Confederates… That doesn’t seem fair to me, does it to you? I’m not insulting Calhoun, Andrew Johnson, Thurmond, or even Byrd, Gore, Bill Clinton, or Lyndon B. Johnson, nor am I insulting a rural American from the south, I am just saying “no, no, progressives from the North-east and their Gore-like allies aren’t the same as the modern David Dukes of the world… David Duke is clearly not a Democrat today, but clearly would have been one in the early 1900’s” (unless you think he would have been campaigning for Teddy’s “square deal“?) Even in Andrew Jackson’s time, when slavery was a less divisive issue, Jackson and Calhoun were not the same, and they weren’t the same as Jefferson, Madison, or Van Buren. Today things are so divided that I don’t think any of us can be too confident those old Democrats would have been on the same team. No, me thinks some would be Tea Party and some Progressive… which is the way it is. We both teamed up with the economic elite who benefited during the Gilded Age instead of coming together under figures like Bryan… odd, right? Well, no odder than the full red-state blue-state switch we can see on the dang map. And, it is only one of many odd things that happen in American history. It is one centerpiece of the argument, but it isn’t the full story.
TIP: Don’t believe that the Solid South switched parties? Just ask yourself, “which party supports the flying of the Confederate flag?” Lots of things changed, geography and the human condition isn’t one of them.
THE SEMANTICS OF THE TERM “SWITCH”: The term switch works on some levels, and doesn’t on others. It sort of implies that there was a clean switch, there wasn’t. Instead many complex factors led to what looks like a clean switch between about 1896 and 2000… but really the parties evolve (the Republicans become more conservative and Democrats more liberal) and the Solid South Democrats “switch” to supporting Republicans and some Progressives switch to supporting Democrats. The other factions of each party evolve, but essentially remain in a given party. Of course, of the factions that did switch, not every voter or politicians “switched sides”… just enough for the map to make a clean switch and the general platforms of parties to change. One could easily argue, a party only “switches” when it hangs up its hat and changes its name, so then we can say “the parties changed and evolved” as changing stances on key voter issues attracted new factions to each party resulting in the red and blue states “flipping” over time.
U.S. Presidential Elections 1789-2012. This video shows each U.S. election result from 1789-2012 with party names and voting maps. Given it shows each election, it illustrates some of the major switches clearly. Note: The colors that have represented the parties have also changed over time. Despite this fact, the video (like most modern sources) represents Democrats as Blue and Republicans as Red, as has been a tradition since the 2000 election. TIP: Speaking of learning about this in video form, see Keith Hughes’ series on American Elections, CrashCourse American History, and Tom Richey’s American history videos.
Comparing the Changes in the American Political Parties by Comparing Presidents, Elections, and Factions
Although we can see the changes in the parties by comparing key political figures in a given era like Hamilton and Jefferson, Adams and Jackson, Lincoln and Johnson, Grant and Cleveland, William J. Bryan and McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson, Hoover and FDR, the very telling Truman, Dewey, Thurmond, Henry Wallace (who all ran in 1948 and where each faction except the progressives win states), Kennedy, Byrd, and Nixon, LBJ, and Nixon, or Clinton and Bush, and although we can point to key realigning elections like the 1828, 1860, 1876, 1896, 1912, 1932, 1964, 1968, 1980, 1992, and 2000, and now 2016 elections, the changes/evolution/switches are perhaps best exemplified by examining the opposing factions of each party system in American history including: Federalists and Anti-Federalists, Whigs and Second Party Democrats, third parties like the Know Nothings and Free Soilers, the Union and Confederacy, the Redeemers and the Progressive Party third parties, and finally the factions that sum up the modern parties the New Deal Coalition and Conservative Coalition and their corresponding progressive, states’ rights, traditional conservative, and bourbon liberal factions.
I could say, “just compare Jefferson, Jackson, Calhoun, William Jennings Bryan, and Cleveland, Wilson, FDR, LBJ and compare Hamilton, Adams, Clay, Lincoln, Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Hoover, Eisenhower, Reagan and then account for the different populist and elitist factions and the changing times to see how things changed after 1824 and after reconstruction and after the progressive era and due to the red scare. See how the voting map switched, notice how race issues stop the left and right populists from working together. Do you see the left and right elite who agree on business, but not which businesses or trade or fiscal policy to support? See how which party supports which factions and voter issues changes? Do you see how Dixie abandoned the Democrats as the party shifted toward progressivism and the Republicans shifted right.”
Or I could say it like this:
- Jefferson was the original populist, supporting individual rights to the extent that he allied with pro-slavery factions, unlike the more elite Hamilton who preferred a more centralized government but had less tolerance for slavery.
- Jackson, the first Democratic party President, was a nativist populist whose anti-bank states’ rights stance is easy to relate to the modern Tea Party, but isn’t too far from the anti-elite stance of Sanders, and is notably different from the stance of the party leaders Dixiecrat-precursor Calhoun and Lincoln-precursor Clay.
- Lincoln, the First Republican Party President, inspired by Clay, implemented the first income tax and went to war to abolish slavery and restore the southern Confederates (ex-Democrats) to the Union, yet he wasn’t the same as his War Democrat VP Andrew Johnson or the following Republican Grant.
- Cleveland who was a Bourbon Liberal Redeemer, party of the pro-business faction who helped Redeem the South during Reconstruction.
- Williams Jennings Bryan drew inspiration from Jefferson and Jackson to turn the Democratic party back into the progressive party post-Civil War during the Gilded Age where both major parties had become focused on business.
- Teddy Roosevelt, who drew inspiration from Jefferson, Hamilton, and Lincoln, sought to solve the corruption of the Gilded Age by using central power and “a square deal”, where Wilson sought a more decentralized solution focused on agriculture when the Bourbon liberal teamed up with the populist Bryan.
- FDR, who stood in stark contrast to the Republican Hoover whose classical liberal position on the economy had little to nothing in common with Teddy who had left the party less than 10 years earlier.
- LBJ, who doubled down on FDR’s New Deal politics which further drove the right-wing populists from the Democratic party… and attracted conservatives to the growing regulatory and anti-communist sentiment of the Republicans.
- Clinton and Bush who mark the final changes we see in the parties and voter map, where by 2000 the south and mid-west are Republican and the North and Coasts blue, a full switch from Bryan’s day.
Here we can say simply. There are different factions, elite and populist, and which factions team up to form the major parties is affected just as much by geographic location as it is from the needs, cultures, and voting issues of the day. Where once workers united under Bryan, today Republicans and Democrats have their Bernie Sanders and Tea Party respectively…. in all cases we come back to the same central truism: The parties are comprised of factions, they don’t agree on all issues, even when they share a class, and The solid south Dixiecrats switched from supporting the Democrats to the Republicans, after Wilson and by today, and this story is told well by Byrd and Thurmond and a close comparison of states’ rights progressivism and social justice progressivism. All workers suffer the same injustices, but not all workers agree on which among them deserves equality. This is the 240 year old sticking point.
I can point to a thousand telling changes, and explain this a thousand different ways, but each takes time and only complicates things for the average reader (and it can be no other way, history is complex).
In all cases, for everything that does change, there are things that DO NOT CHANGE.
A conservative from the south is a conservative from the south, Dixie is still Dixie, big city bosses are still bosses, NYC is still NYC, a city still a city, a farm still a farm, a union still a union, a farmer or factory worker is still working class in any era, a northern business person is always going to favor wall street, an elitist is an elitist, a populist a populist, a nativist a nativist, the left the left, the right the right, the tea party the right-wing populist response, social justice the left-wing populist response, northern cities still have race issues and house both parties, the south and mid-west still contain many progressives, and a northern business person who goes to the south to be a bourbon liberal redeemer to rally carpetbaggers and scalawags thus “redeeming the south” is… well they still aren’t the true Confederate Dixie South, and yes that is confusing.
Some things do not change, never have, not sure they ever will… but which party supported which type of American in a given era… and vitally, which of the classical conservative, classical liberal, social liberal progressive, and social conservative factions teamed up in a given era over key voting issues… that is something we can define despite it involving a complex essay, affected by Civil War, Reconstruction, Civil Rights, the rise of Communism, immigration, modernization, and debates over economy, foreign policy, and religion.
Summarizing the Party Systems
Thus, [very long story as short as humanly possible; forgive the long sentences in this section] the story of the history of the American political parties and their changing factions is best told by:
- Examining America’s early First Party factions, including the urban Federalists and the agrarian Anti-Federalists, to see how the Anti-Federalist party of Thomas Jefferson became the nearly unified Democratic-Republicans under the Virginian dynasty in the First Party System, only to become the polarized party of the nativist populist Southern Unionist Democrat Andrew Jackson and his southern states’ rights leader VP, the ex-Unionist John C. Calhoun, with whom Jackson butted heads (showing a clear difference between three southern democrat ideologies by the start of the Second Party System: Jeffersonians, Jacksonians, and Calhoun’s brand of “states’ rights Agrarian republicanism).
- Examining the Second Party factions of the 1820’s to the 1860’s to see how pre-Civil War “states’ rights” and “expansion” politics increasingly polarized, split, and changed the major parties from the “compromise” of 1824 that ended the Era of Good Feelings, all the way to Bleeding Kansas, and how the elitist business-minded liberal-conservative Whigs leaders like John Quincy Adams, and Henry Clay and Daniel Webster (who along with Calhoun make up the Great Triumvirate, which is very illustrate the factions of the time), ended up becoming increasingly social progressive in response to this.
- Examining the classically liberal, socially liberal (AKA “progressive”), classically conservative, and socially conservative factions of the Third and Fourth Party Systems from the 1860’s to 1912 to see how the Republican party of the socially liberal ex-Whig Abraham Lincoln and “Bull Moose” Progressive Teddy Roosevelt changed in response to the Civil War. In this era Progressives and Bourbon liberal redeemers both begin to take over the Democratic party leading to history’s most confusing changes. Here we can examine how the Democratic party goes from Confederate, to Lincoln’s predecessor the War Democrat Southern Unionist Andrew Johnson, to business-minded figures like the great Bourbon Democrat Cleveland, to the pro-factory worker and pro-farmer progressive populist William Jennings Bryan, to Progressive Southern Bourbon Democrat Woodrow Wilson and his agrarian “New Freedom” reforms. This complex and telling part of the story includes examining the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, Reconstruction, the “Redeemers” who brought business interests to the south during reconstruction, and the “Compromise” of 1877 that ended Reconstruction, the following cronyism and modernization of the Gilded Age and the story of Half-Breed and Stalwart Republicans, and the rise of progressivism that responded to Reconstruction and Gilded Age politics and began a new era of American history… Here we must realize the progressives Democrats, Bourbon Democrats, and Dixie Democrats were very different factions in the same party, yes they all stood against the traditional conservatives, but each for a different reason, and just as often they stood against each other (see the 1896 election for example). Here one should note that the Republicans have typically been anti-immigration in any era, as immigrants moved to American in the Gilded Age they were attracted to the Democratic party, thus we get Northern Progressive Democrats like the future Bidens and Kennedys (and this changes the Democratic party).
- Examining the Progressive era factions and seeing how Williams J. Bryan and the Progressive populists continued to change the Democratic party, how Teddy Roosevelt caused a mass exodus of progressives from the Republican party and changed the party forever, and how Wilson reunited the factions of the Democratic party as the Progressive, Bourbon liberal, Southern, pro-farmer, elitist, intellectual he was.
- Examining the factions of the 1930’s to the 1990’s, like the New Deal Coalition and Conservative Coalition, to see how many of the old Solid South Conservative Democrats (AKA Dixiecrats) switched from supporting the increasingly progressive Democratic party to supporting the increasingly socially conservative Republican party. Here we can examine the evolution by looking at the 1920’s classical liberal anti-Communist Republicans Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, the socially progressive FDR, his New Deal, and his ex-Republican Progressive VP Henry A. Wallace, the rise of the “Religious Right” (and its less organized [in America] counterpart the Religious Left) and a refocus on Social Justice issues and Red Scare politics after WII, the Civil Rights supporting Kennedy and his successor the southern-liberal LBJ who enacted Civil Rights ’64, Voting Rights ’65, and the Great Society Programs, the southern strategy of the liberal-conservatives Nixon and Reagan which caused a “southernization” of the Republican party and began to officially flip the red and blue states, and the “neoliberal” Bill Clinton and the “neoconservative” Bush. Here we can examine how Teddy’s exodus from the Republicans left a “progressive void” in the Republican party that was filled by the business-minded classical liberalism of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover and a growing sentiment against Communism (and progressivism), and we can see see how this results in the Democrats eventually being left only with Bourbon liberals/neoliberals and Progressives in the Democratic party as the Solid South joined the “Duke-style” Republicans to become the modern “law and order” “small government” Republican Party.
- Examining how this all relates to modern politics and the 2016 election by comparing factions and party leaders in past eras to the Clintonian Hillary Clinton, the neoliberal-progressive Barack Obama and the “Obama Coalition”, the progressive Bernie Sanders, the old neoconservatives like Jeb Bush, the new Nativist Tea Party, the libertarian movements and green movements, and the grand result, the anti-Obama, Clinton, and Bush neoconservative-nativist-populist Tea Party favored Donald Trump.
With the above said, America’s history has many more aspects to consider, and the full story is far more complex than that. To get a full scoop you can see the essay in the link above or click on the links and learn more about each era, faction, or great American.
Did the Ideology of the Major Parties Change?
Some say “the ideology” of the parties didn’t change. While this is true for some issues like immigration for example, the implication that welfare is equatable to slavery and thus the modern Democrat really has a pro-slavery mentality (as presented by sources like this) is false in my opinion (again people are trying to contribute the conservative Dixie south to the Democrats by connecting the Gores and Clintons of the world to the old south… but no, they are more like a Bush, they are “bourbon liberals” for the most part, not staunch states’ rights Dixiecrats, who truly did not want Civil Rights ’64).
We can argue the Democrats retained their Bourbon liberal faction after Nixon, we can see their progressive faction (which has ever been on tense terms with the bourbon neoliberals) remains strong from Bryan until today, we can see they retained some reformed Dixiecrats like Byrd, and we can clearly point to Tammany Hall style big city bosses, but the modern Democrat is not typically a socially conservative southerner from Dixie. The southern conservative Dixie majority now votes Republican, which is why maps look like this when they used to look like this.
Bryan was a Jeffersonian and Jacksonian, but he was not Calhoun. Bryan took the bible literally and believed in equality between all men AND small government AND welfare.
Likewise, Cleveland is a Bourbon Liberal like many future Democratic party leaders were after him. They are all Democrats, but they aren’t the main faction we are thinking of when we think “Civil War Confederates”.
Jefferson is progressive left in many ways, and Jackson progressive right (like the tea party), Bryan was both… but none were Calhoun, they were in the same party, but not of the same faction. Today Calhoun’s faction is Republican, but today Republican is still many factions.
This doesn’t make modern Democrats saints (I mean have you been to LA, NYC, Chicago, or Las Vegas?) and it doesn’t make Democrats purely northern, but it does poke holes in the sort of logic that Dinesh D’souza and the alternative media present.
Same is true for “small government” vs. “big government” ideology. The Democrats and their predecessors were generally the small government party until the Progressive era, and the Republicans and their predecessors were generally the party of “bigger government” until the same era (compare Coolidge and Wilson or Consider Teddy is a Republican and FDR a Democrat). The list goes on.
In truth both parties simply have changing factions based on voter issues of the day. Even right now the parties are changing under our noses. Just compare Bush to Trump or Bernie to Hillary. The human condition isn’t black and white, and the groups we form are not either.
Still, with all the changes, the modern major parties don’t purely represent any past faction or president. So there is lots of room to admire Lincoln as a modern Republican, or Jefferson as a Democrat, Jackson as a Republican, or Teddy as Democrat, or Cleveland as a Republican, or Hamilton as a Democrat.
I’ll put it this way, “our ancestors did not fight the Civil War just so modern social conservatives could accuse a modern northern progressives of being the Confederate south in the Civil War”… that is a bizarre theory that cherry picks history and ignores the changes that give the party systems their names. That aside, exactly how things changed is too complex to not examine the implications in detail, we can refute the general charge, but it doesn’t imply the true full story is simple or as easy as finding a consistent red team blue team.
Modern Social Progressives also aren’t Duke-style anti-Communist conservatives (a faction that has been with the Republicans since WWI at least, and is classically conservative in terms of government and classically liberal in terms of trade), the Religious Right are not Social Justice Warrior Progressives (although they can both be puritanical), a Libertarian isn’t a Socialist, and an apple isn’t an orange.
Simply put, “the major parties are comprised of factions” and the southern conservative Dixie faction is no longer voting for the Democratic party, they are voting with the classical conservative Duke-style Republicans, neocons, and the Religious Right in the Republican party…. I mean, the Republican party just fought for the right to fly the Confederate Dixie flag if that is a hint?! I get how Wilson, Gore, LBJ, and other southern progressive Democrats confuse this issue, but they are generally “bourbon liberals” and not the same faction has the more hardcore “states’ rights liberals” like Wallace, Byrd, and Thurmond. The Democratic party carries aspects of its past, but the Republicans are the favorite party of the current Solid South.
I mean can you honestly tell me that people like John Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and other southern icons would be modern Democrats? And if this was so, why the heck can’t the Democratic party get support from the conservative south? With all that said, these truisms don’t imply that every faction in a party cares about the same issues in a given era or supports general platforms, planks, and polices for the same reasons. I fully get why a traditional conservative doesn’t see themselves as “the same” as a southern social conservative, after-all, New Deal Progressives sat right next to the same faction in FDR era (so empathy is easy to come by). The exact implications of all this are up for debate, but the general facts aren’t. Feel free to ask questions or comment below.
WAS LINCOLN A REPUBLICAN? You can read our essay on it here, or the Nation’s When the Republicans Really Were the Party of Lincoln. Otherwise, i’ll let you use your imagination and let his words speak for himself. I’m of the mind that coming together as a nation is more important than fighting over who gets Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, or the Roosevelts (although i’ve never in my life seen a conservative try to appropriate a Roosevelt).
“I do oppose the extension of slavery, because my judgment and feelings so prompt me; and I am under no obligation to the contrary… I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].” – Abraham Lincoln 1855
TIP: a Know-nothing is like a mix of Solid South and Anti-Communist / Anti-Immigrant conservative. They were nativist populists who wanted to make sure America stayed anglo and Judeo-Christian. No, Lincoln wasn’t that, but… “what is the stated agenda of the Tea Party?”… Also, to end on a light note, “lol” on using Russia as a scapegoat in any era.