Notes and Summaries Pertaining to the Evolution of the Major U.S. Political Parties
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.
Below is a summary of a longer essay on “party switching,” This summary covers most of the same stuff that page does, but is an alternative way to look at the data. I suggest reading both if you have time, if not just bare with me for a moment while I make some basic points. See also, our other works on the subject of “party switching”.
All comments are welcome and encouraged, I’m happy to answer any questions.
A General Summary of the Party Switching and Party Systems
As America became increasingly progressive over time, from 1776 forward, different socially conservative and socially liberal movements banded together to create the parties of each of the 6-7 Party Systems (becoming increasingly divided by left and right and not stances on government as they originally were).
This caused different social-minded factions to align with different business-minded factions over time (in a Big Tent coalition of factions all generally for or against Progressive Modernization), and this changed the parties (in terms of some, not all, ideology, members, and platforms).
Oddly enough, this resulted in the previously Small Government Populist Democratic Party becoming the party of Big Government, Neoliberalism, Progressivism, Globalization, and Social Liberalism, and the previously Big Government Aristocratic party Republican Party becoming the party of Small Government (rhetorically), Nativism, and Social Conservatism. Oddly again, despite the changes the Republicans have always been Protectionist, Nationalist, and Stricter on immigration (although how that translated to policy changed as the party became more “socially conservative” over time). On that note, it is very important to understand that immigration changed the Democratic Party as they embraced new non-Anglo Protestant immigrants over time.
The tricky thing to grasp is that some conservatives want to conserve back to a time that they feel they had more freedom (more liberal liberty) and that progressive social liberalism requires Big Government to implement.
The best proof of this is looking at the voter map. See: a map of Historical Presidential Elections. In the story above specific changes are denoted by Party Systems, but even that classification fails to truly illustrate the complexity of all the changes.
TIP: At this point you can probably get away with just watching the following two videos. These VOX videos don’t say everything I want to say, and they aren’t fully centered, but they are notably fairly accurate and not overly bias.
From white supremacy to Barack Obama: The history of the Democratic Party. I didn’t make these videos, but they work as an introduction to some of the basics.
How the Republican Party went from Lincoln to Trump.
NOTES: The general party switching is denoted by party systems and realigning elections. Specific terms like “Red-State / Blue-State” Switch, “the Big Switch”, the 20th Century Reversal are all different ways of describing different general or specific switches. A lot has changed over time, including the changes in the era of Good Feelings, the time the Whigs became Republicans, the changes of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Gilded Age, Bryan’s influence on the Democratic Party, Teddy Roosevelt’s exit from the Republican Party, the impact of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover and the impact of FDR, the Southern Voting Bloc party switch (“the Solid South Switch“), and general changes in the parties post ’64 and into the era of figures like Roger Ailes and Karl Rove (the Sixth Party Switch). However, history is too complex to just be said (just like it is too complex to look for a senator or two to hang up their hat and switch parties as proof for or against a switch, that isn’t really how it happened). Generally though, the idea “the parties switched” is not a myth (it is true, they did switch, as we can see on the map and I can prove it six ways to Sunday if given a chance)!
PARTY SYSTEMS: Historians refer to the eras the changes resulted in as “party systems.“ The first party system included the Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists; and the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. The second party system included Jacksonian Democrats vs. Whigs at the time when the issue popular sovereignty and race split the parties and resulted in the Civil War in which the Democrats are the Confederates. The third party system included Reconstruction and the Gilded Age which turned both parties into business parties until William Jennings Bryan. The fourth party system included the Progressive Era, the era in which Theodore Roosevelt broke 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 returned the Republicans to Gilded Age politics and became increasingly “anti-Communist” and “anti-Progressive.” Today’s fifth party started with FDR, who ensured the Democrats would remain the Progressive party despite the states’ rights Dixie-wing who phased out of the party by 2000. This era was marked by the New Deal Coalition vs. Conservative Coalition. Some feel that this is followed by a sixth party from LBJ on when Dixie started to shift over Civil Rights ’64. Some recognize a seventh party system from Clinton on.
TIP: The story below skips over some important aspects of the most recent part of the 20th century reversal, you can get that part of the story of “the Big Switch” by clicking on the aforementioned link. The deal is that so much changed that I can’t fit even the general idea in just one space (although that is the plan eventually).
TIP: The New Deal Coalition and Conservative Coalition are two factions who symbolize the switch well. This summary doesn’t focus on them, so see the link. I feel the same way about key figures like Hamilton, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, Bryan, Cleveland, LBJ, Reagan, Clinton, Obama, and Trump. Each tells an important part of the story, but I can hardly offer all my notes on any of these at once.
An Introduction to the Complexities of Changing Parties, Changing Factions, and Changing Party Platforms
Look at the image below, your eyes do not deceive you, the voter map of the Historical Presidential Elections tells a quick visual story of that which we will explain below, “that the political factions that formed around key voter issues in any era have switched parties over time as the major parties and their platforms changed, and this in turn changed the major parties and their platforms”.
The result is also, more specifically, that the major parties no longer reflect their original platforms or namesakes and that in many cases we are left with a full “switch” of underlying ideology (for example Republicans are now the small government States’ Rights party, but it used to be that the Anti-Federalist Democrats were! Really; this is well documented and provable.)
The main problem we have in arguing over Lincoln, Byrd, oddly never Teddy, and Strom Thurmond and whether or not “the parties switched” is that American history is complex and summarizing can take longer than reasonable human attention spans allow.
In other words, it isn’t that nothing changed, it is that it is harder to tell an accurate story than it is to perpetuate simple myths (like Dinesh D’Souza and infowars do). Meaning, I can’t make my full argument quick enough to sway the casual skeptic, but I promise those of you who want to dig deeper: ours is the most accurate answer you’ll find outside of the history books.
Looking to the Classics and Factions For Proof
One good and not-so-divisive way to explain history is to look at the classics, especially those who focus on state-based political factions over political parties.
Classic works of this sort of political history, like V.O. Key’s Southern Politics in State and Nation (see an overview), make it very clear that the Solid South had (prior to the 1950’s) historically always voted lock-step for the Democratic Party (Anti-Federalists, Confederates). Of course, the voting map over time, actual recorded history, and so much else tell this story too, but a well respected book like this is a great secondary source!
Today the Solid South (here speaking of them as a national political faction) is with the Republican Party (just look at a voter map) and today old Socially Progressive Republicans like Teddy (or Hamilton or Lincoln) aren’t in the party (or at least they aren’t influencing the platforms or speaking out if they are).
This isn’t to say that some of the more progressive Dixies, Bryan followers, and even economically minded Southern Bourbons aren’t in the Democratic Party, they obviously are, just look at Carter, Clinton, Gore, and Bernie (they have their Neoliberal Bourbons and Populist Progressive Bryans right there).
Likewise, the GOP have their constants. The conservative Federalist pro-business faction, the neocons be they switched Bourbons, Gilded Age post-Reconstruction Republicans, or traditional Federalists, and the Federalist War Hawks are still in the Republican Party, as are the nativists of the north Know-Nothings.
However, despite what didn’t change, a ton did, including the party platforms, key factions, and a large swath of the voter base.
Today the Democrats are notably missing their Jeff Sessions States’ Rights Southern Solid South Conservatives, and the Republicans are missing any notable socially progressive wing.
Modern Democrats know this well, they lost the 2016 election and didn’t get one state in the Southern Bloc for Hillary (AKA the switch isn’t just real, it is actively impacting current politics and platforms).
Simply, today the modern Republican platform has conservative Federalist elements, but it is a States’ Rights platform. Likewise, the Democratic Party platform has some populist and southern elements, but it is a Federalist neoliberal globalist platform.
There are countless Keys to point to (pun intended), but pointing only works as long as I have your attention.
How the South Went Republican: Can Democrats Ever Win There Again? (1992). These fellas talk about VO Key and the actual history of the South. In the real deep south they don’t even like Lincoln, but that fact is only known by those with longer memories. The alt-right is twisting things for a new audience.
TIP: One might say “but Tom, only like 13% of Democratic Party Congresspeople actually switched”, to that I say, “something like that”. That isn’t what we are talking about, we aren’t looking for an all-at-once switch, we are looking at evolving parties over time as reactions to things like Civil Rights 1964 and Voting Rights 1965. Look a little harder at the data, it backs up what I say. Also, just listen to modern Republican talk about the South and States’ Rights and wave a confederate flag, it is a giant signal our theory is correct.
The Bad Boy of Washington: Lee Atwater – Southern Strategy (1997). Lee Atwater was a major player in political strategy (he is like the Karl Rove of the 80’s). He gives a pretty clear account of the switch, from the perspective of someone who had to understand it to spew alternative facts in an era when the switch was still happening.
Dinesh D’Souza Gives an Inaccurate Reading of the “Big Switch” Myth: His Version of History is a Myth
Dinesh D’Souza decided to make a movie about how the Democrats didn’t change and how Northern ghettoes are proof of modern slavery (where welfare state = slavery, ignoring the fact that the Solid South votes Republican and literally uses the same “States’ Rights” language they did back in 1850; see the clip below).
This argument shows a lack of an understanding of American history (consider the argument against the North in Lincoln’s time was that that economic inequality of the Northern Whigs/Republicans was worse than slavery).
Northern ghettoes are a problem because “lots and lots of reasons” (I will write an essay on “northern ghettoes”, but for now see the Black Vote and American History and Wage Slavery and Chattel Slavery are Different I touch on the subject in both places). Their problems stem from things like: the nature of capitalism and classism, a push-back against busing and integration, the great migration, immigrant rather than a history of slavery, and even less heartwarming truths of obstructionist factions in both parties (think States’ Rights KKK and Nativist know-nothings).
Northern Ghettoes like South Side Chicago aren’t a product of the Confederate ideology, they are a product of economic inequality. It isn’t “because Socially Liberal Progressives and Neoliberals are racist and have racist policies”, it is because “aristocracy + oligrachy + capitalism + the welfare state = economic inequality for economic minorities (including the minority poor whites)”.
This is very different than Southern Slavery where the “less-thans” were known by skin color rather than pocketbook size.
This is to say:
- The party with the outwardly hurtful policies is generally the party with the Social Conservatives in it (so Democrats for most of history, but also third party Northern parties like the Know-Nothings, and then today and increasingly since 1968, the Republicans).
- The party with the policies that are economically hurtful… is typically the business wing of both parties, always. Not all factions of a given party, but generally the dominate establishment factions; as those are always the factions with the most money and thus the one’s least likely to create policies that don’t help their class first.
The above is a harsh oversimplification, but it is less a judgement call and more a call to see reality for what it is:
- We are divided by social issues.
- We are divided by class and economic issues.
- We are divide by ideology related to government size and its purpose.
- And everyone always operates on self-interest on some level.
Those three positions and one maxim each need to be thought of as their own thing, although they often relate.
Essentially the main factions in political history who tried to help that bottom percentage that many black Americans sadly find themselves in directly are the Lincoln / Roosevelt Socially Liberal Republicans and the Progressive William Jennings Bryan / Bernie Sanders factions (the social liberals in each party).
We may not think that “big government” is a good answer to social inequality, but those socially liberal factions do. And their big state solution is about as far from slavery-in-practice and confederate ideology as possible. To what degree a neoliberal gets on board, and their motive, that is a different issue.
It isn’t that neoliberals don’t try to lift everyone up, and thus lift the bottom, or that libertarians don’t try to lift every one up with economic liberty, or that Neocons don’t try to lift everyone up by promising more coal jobs or freedom from government for some classes… it is that the business factions that took over the parties have successfully divided the country over social issues since 1776 while everyone kind of suffers economically (if only it were this simple, stick with me while I make my point).
Now, don’t get me wrong: people don’t need much help dividing themselves over social issues.
Rather, for all my study, I would say we divide ourselves over social issues and ideology first, and then economic issues second.
Marx thought it was all about money, but for many of us it seems that money isn’t a primary concern (it may inform our other fears, but it isn’t what drives the majority in most times). After-all, Hitler didn’t rally the masses on economic promises only, no he made Jewish people and non-Germans the symbol of Germany’s economic problems (thus, economics was the cause, but it was not the primary divisive motive).
Again, this may sound harsh, but I’m just trying to be accurate and brief as possible.
The Solid South never wanted integration and globalization… You are thinking of the Federalist Liberals (who are essentially now mostly Democrats). I’d say, followers of Dinesh “you are only being divided by the oligarchs and aristocrats again!”… but like I said, I don’t think it is them, I think it is us who divide ourselves.
And we don’t divide ourselves over the issues of yesterday, we divide ourselves over the issues of today. In other words, it isn’t that D’Souza doesn’t make some good points, it is that his theory that “the parties didn’t switch” and that modern socially liberal Democrats are modern Confederates when it comes to a racist or economic ideology, is provably wrong.
Read VO Key. The right-wing alternative fact that the Democrats are still the Confederate party is a misreading of history any way you slice it and frankly it is distracting from the real issues at hand. In other words, it doesn’t just annoy me as a liberal Democrat, it annoys me as someone who cares about our history.
TIP: Just because the Republicans are the socially conservative party of today doesn’t mean “all African Americans should vote Democrat” or Lincoln has no place in a moderate Republican ideology. That really isn’t where I’m going with this, both parties are today and have always been Big Tents. I’m just trying to sort out history and stop the whole “Progressives are Dixiecrats” alternative fact from revising history at the whims of the alt-right propaganda machine (an “invisible machine” AKA self-interest more than coordination, as explained in our Sixth Party Switch Page).
TIP: Other points include the fact that the Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans all used to see Free Trade as being oligarchical and hurting the working man. In other words, things are way too “changed” and “switched” to draw a straight line between the welfare state and Confederatism… but to the extent we can connect the party’s of yesterday and today, the South is still the South and the North Still the North, not everyone waves the Confederate Battle Flag (and really, it is as simple as that).
In words: Today the Know-Nothings and States’ Rights factions are on the same side, in the Republican Party together, and that is at the heart of why our politics are so divided. They are trying to act like the neoliberal globalists and the Sanders Social Liberal Populists are the Confederates in the Civil War because of the party name. Um, no, look at the platforms! Why would you think welfare is the new slavery and not States’ Rights to discriminate and waving a confederate flag is the same thing with a different party name? Get it?
To summarize this section, Ill say it like this: Don’t confuse economic inequality (a national problem) with socially conservative policies that hurt blacks more than whites. The first problem is one that both neocons and neoliberals share, it is the classist divide in any country occurring once again. It is complex, but not akin to actual socially conservative policies (like a ban on muslims, or telling trans kids they can’t use a bathroom, or making a black person sit in the back of a bus). One is an ill of globalism and the welfare state, one is an ill of the fear embedded in the human condition coming out as prejudice policy. Neither is great, but they aren’t “the same”.
Bill Whittle – Racism – Democrats and Republicans switch sides? (this video, which charges sides didn’t switch, is the alternative fact we bust here). So today this sort of alternative garbage is brainwashing a generation of conservatives to think that neoliberalism is akin to slavery (I am saying this video is wrong). The problem with the video’s logic is that Jeff Sessions and the rest of the States’ Rights social conservatives are the one’s who are perpetuating the claims made in this video, and they are historically the slavery south and historically the anti-liberal-globalist right-wing. Globalism has problems of economic inequality, but at the time of Lincoln it was the ideology of the North and what the South was fighting against. In words, this is a giant misreading of Federalist Globalist and American history. Yes, neoliberals are globalists, and yes some of them are also prejudice like many Americans, and yes that has economic concerns, and yes they are aristocrats first, but they are also the faction that wars with the social conservative nativists as they fight for global integration and national banking… Seriously, read your history folks! Lincoln was a neoliberal, as was Hamilton, as was Teddy, as is Clinton. There is an element of protectionism that is consistent with the Republican Party, and they are no way a cast of shady villains, it is just that this narrative doesn’t work. If you are on the other team, fine, maybe you are a know-nothing, maybe a confederate, maybe a business neocon protectionist, maybe religious right, maybe just classically fiscally conservative. Whatever you are, own it, but stop dragging the Democrats through the mud, our history already does that for us. The proof is in the platforms and voting map here.
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 cities, some rural areas, who share general ideology regarding key issues. It is the differences between factions in the parties that allow for the many changes
KNOW NOTHINGS AND LINCOLN: One important note in the overarching debate is that the Know Nothings were nativist populists in the Whig party before the Civil War. They were founded in 1844 some good years after they may have cast a vote for Jackson Democrats in the Era of Good Feelings. Like the northern anti-Federalists in the founding days, these were akin to a modern Northern Tea Party Republican. When the Know Nothings are in the Whigs, it can look as though “nothing switched.” We can almost trace a line from Know Nothings to northern McKinley Republicans to Hoover to the modern era. When we trace this type of American through history, we see that the faction wasn’t in the Whigs at the time of Lincoln. Lincoln by his own admission was “no know nothing.” This faction too “changed parties” over time despite not keeping their “know nothing” title. As noted, they tended to be in the Republican party by name, especially as more and more immigrants came to America after the Civil War. Immigrants are typically supported by Democrats in any era. On that note, I’d like to also clarify that Republicans, Federalists, and Whigs have typically been less welcoming to immigrants despite all the other changes. This is part of why they have also tended to be the “nationalist party” throughout history, casting aside the argument that the Confederates were a type of nationalist. This is an indication that there is “no clean switch.” There were many changing factions, platforms, planks, ideologies, etc.
BRYAN, THE PEOPLES’ POLITICIAN: I’d like to also make clear, for a brief moment in the late 1890’s, the populists teamed up under Bryan and against McKinley. Here most of what one would consider the Tea Party and Progressives were in an alliance similar to what we saw under Jefferson. They at this point were Democrats; however, they lost the election to big money elites in part due to the northern factory workers and rural farmers having different needs and, at the time, having different thoughts on racial and sexual equality. Bryan was a progressive, but he was also an early religious activist and a rural midwesterner. In the Gilded Age before Roosevelt, both parties had big business wings that today we can neocon and neoliberal. The story of the business factions are odd though. When we admitted Texas to the United States, it was seen as a victory for the old Bourbon liberals. You might say that Bush was an old Bourbon, but perhaps not. The Cleveland and Wilson line makes Gore and Clinton more the new bourbon liberals or neoliberals. Today this is confused by the Southernization of the Republican party and the move toward elitism and progressivism by wings of the Democratic party. There is no clean and simple part of this story. Things don’t just “flip once,” they are fluid and changing.
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 Jefferson-Van-Buren-Bryan-like Democrats. The states’ rights “Dixiecrat” faction was comprised of radical liberals from the South who were so liberal they fought against kings, against banks, against elitists. That made everything confusing for the next 240 years. They fought for their right to own slaves and competed with the North in early America. In other words, there is a faction that has existed since the start of our political system that is comprised of what today we call conservatives, but then they called Democrats in the Solid South states like Georgia and South Carolina. Today we count “the great bourbon liberal victory Texas” among them. States like Texas are more like Florida or Arkansas and 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, which are radical liberal and social conservative, dominated states who were once at the heart of slavery, the Civil War Confederacy, and segregation. They formed states’ rights parties to have the right to be a slave state. They used to be Democrats, and now they are Republicans. It is perhaps to easy to demonize them if we look at them through a modern lens given the Civil War. A modern Democrat may be sympathetic to Clinton, Obama and Kennedy (our northern and southern allies), and not be as sympathetic to Byrd, Thurmond, and Wallace (our former and current old Democrat allies). The Democratic Party has lost some of its voter base to the Republican Southern strategy that attracted old states’ rights conservative Dixie. Dixie has largely driven the anti-Obama anti-Progressive message alongside the Nixon-Republicans. 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 saying, “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 could 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 factions are so divided that I don’t think any of us can be confident those old Democrats would have been on the same team. 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. Is that odd? Well, perhaps no odder than the full red-state blue-state switch we can see on the 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.
Then Again, the Bourbons: So know-nothings were whig-like and the Confederates were most certainly always in the South and had been Democrats up until the era following Civil Rights (then they test out Dixiecrat and American Independent parties before finally becoming Republican). That is pretty clear. However, on the point above, there is a very real thing called Bourbon Liberal Redeemers and another very real thing called Party Bosses. These are elements that were in the Gilded Age Democrats and still in the party today. We can see them as “Elite Oligarchs” who caused some of the modern South’s problems. That is fair, and a fair version of that viewpoint can be seen in V. O. Key’s classic Southern Politics in State and Nation. Also to be fair, we can see the relationship between elite conservative neocons and the modern south as this… same F’ing thing (which is, social issues aside, still elites using poor whites, and that is not much better, right?) A northern Ghetto is a shame, but it was a shame back in the days of Bill “the Butcher” of NYC when the North was Republican (in this same way, the black belt is a shame, but it was also a shame back then, and it has never had much to do with the North). This line of thinking doesn’t prove or disprove the party switch, it only shows how history is complex. We know the history of Carter, Byrd, the Gores, and Clinton, but we also know the history of Strom Thurmond, Lester Maddox, and Bo Callaway too (and it is from this lens that we see the changes). Today the charge against the Democrat is the same as the charge against the old Radical Republican. The modern charge that a D’souza makes is “Democrats are trying to get the black vote / immigrant vote to keep the poor white man oppressed under welfare” but Progressives/Radicals say to this what they have since the 1800’s, “no, this is a moral issue not an issue of Hobbesian domination”. Maybe this is just Bernie and Billy-Bob slinging mud at each other over divisive social issues, not listening to the other, while the elites divide, conquer, and benefit? But, again, on the moral issue, Progressives from Bryan, to the Roosevelts, to Henry A. Wallace have made their main issue the idea that social justice and civil rights are human rights. So it is like “the States’ Rights” of progressives if that makes sense. There is probably room for debate, but to conflate that with Confederatism in such a flippant way as this… is like “super confusing” and “super annoying” (here is the true version of that). Even at the time the Bryan faction and States’ Rights faction were not the same faction. They did however, form a union called the Democratic Party. So who knows what the future holds?
TIP: If you don’t believe that the Solid South switched parties, 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. Of course, the other thing that doesn’t lie is “the voting map“.
THE SEMANTICS OF THE TERM “SWITCH”: The term switch works on some levels, and doesn’t on others. It implies that there was a clean switch, there wasn’t. Instead, many complex factors led to what looked like a clean switch between about 1896 and 2000. In reality the parties evolved. The Republicans became more conservative and Democrats more liberal while the Solid South Democrats “switched” to supporting Republicans and some Progressives switched to supporting Democrats. The other factions of each party evolved, but essentially remained in a given party. Of course, in the factions that switched, not every voter or politicians “switched sides.” Enough changed for the map to make a clean switch and the general platforms of parties to change. One could argue that a party only “switches” when it hangs up its hat and changes its name. We could 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
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, Truman, Dewey, Thurmond, Henry Wallace (who all ran in 1948 and where each faction except the progressives won states), Kennedy, Byrd, and Nixon, LBJ, and Nixon, or Clinton and Bush. We can point to key realigning elections like 1828, 1860, 1876, 1896, 1912, 1932, 1964, 1968, 1980, 1992, and 2000, and now 2016 elections. The changes, evolution, and switches are perhaps best exemplified by examining the opposing factions of each party system in American history. These include 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, “compare Jefferson, Jackson, Calhoun, William Jennings Bryan, and Cleveland, Wilson, FDR, LBJ. Compare Hamilton, Adams, Clay, Lincoln, Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Hoover, Eisenhower, Reagan. Then account for the different populist and elitist factions and the changing times. Explain 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 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, the 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.
There are different factions, elite and populist. The factions that team up to form the major parties are affected just as much by geographic location as they are from the needs, cultures, and voting issues of the day. Where once workers united under Bryan, today Republicans and Democrats have their Tea Party and Bernie Sanders 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. The solid south Dixiecrats switched from supporting the Democrats to the Republicans, after Wilson and by today. 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 a 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 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 is the left; the right is the right. The tea party is a right-wing populist response. Social justice is a left-wing populist response. Northern cities have race issues and house both parties, the South and Midwest still contain many progressives. A northern business person who goes to the south to be a bourbon liberal redeemer and rally carpetbaggers and scalawags thus “redeeming the south” is still not a true Confederate Dixie Southerner.
Some things do not change, never have. I’m not sure they ever will, but we can know 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, the story of the history of the American political parties and their changing factions is best told by:
- Examine America’s early First Party factions. We can look at 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. We can watch it 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. This showed 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).
- Examine 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. We can see how the elitist business-minded liberal-conservative Whig 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.
- Examine 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. It also includes the cronyism and modernization of the Gilded Age, 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. 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 an example. 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.
- Examine the Progressive era factions to see how Williams J. Bryan and the Progressive populists continued to change the Democratic party; Teddy Roosevelt caused a mass exodus of progressives from the Republican party and changed the party forever; Wilson reunited the factions of the Democratic party as the Progressive, Bourbon liberal, Southern, pro-farmer, elitist, intellectual he was.
- Examine 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 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.
- Examine the way this relates to modern politics and the 2016 election by comparing factions and party leaders in past eras to 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.
America’s history is far more complex than that. To get a better view 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. This is true for some issues like immigration. However, 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. People are trying to attribute the conservative Dixie south to the Democrats by connecting the Gores and Clintons of the world to the old south, but 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. 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.”
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 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 the small government party until the Progressive era. 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.
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 major modern 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 modern northern progressives of being part of the Confederate South in the Civil War.” That is a bizarre theory, which 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 is not Social Justice Warrior Progressives although they can both be puritanical. A Libertarian isn’t a Socialist, and an apple isn’t an orange.
“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. The Republican party just fought for the right to fly the Confederate Dixie flag. I understand 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.
Do you think that people like John Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and other southern icons would be modern Democrats? If they would, why can’t the Democratic party get support from the conservative south? 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 understand 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. Empathy can be easy to come by given similar objectives. 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 a mix of Solid South and Anti-Communist or Anti-Immigrant conservative. They were nativist populists who wanted to make sure America stayed Anglo and Judeo-Christian. Lincoln wasn’t that, but “what is the stated agenda of the Tea Party?” Also, to end on a light note, using Russia as a scapegoat in any era carries the same lack of credibility.