Notes and Summaries Pertaining to 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 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

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.

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 ThurmondLester 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. NoteThe 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 ElectionsCrashCourse 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 McKinleyTeddy Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson, Hoover and FDRTruman, Dewey, Thurmond, Henry Wallace (who all ran in 1948 and where each faction except the progressives won states)Kennedy, Byrd, and NixonLBJ, and Nixon, or Clinton and Bush. We can point to key realigning elections like 1828, 1860187618961912, 193219641968, 19801992, 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:

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.


"A Summary of How the Major Parties Switched" is tagged with: American Politics, United States of America

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