Did the Democrats and Republicans “Switch Parties”?
The US political parties, now called Democrats and Republicans, switched platform planks, ideologies, and members many times in American history. These switches were typically spurred on by major legislative changes and events, such as the Civil War in the 1860s, and Civil Rights in the 1960s. The changes then unfolded over the course of decades to create what historians call the “Party Systems.”
Bottomline and clarity on the semantics of the term “switch”: The parties changed over time as platform planks, party leaders, factions, and voter bases essentially switched between parties. Third parties aside, the Democratic Party used to be favored in the rural south and had a “small government” platform (which southern social conservatives embraced), and the Republican party used to be favored in the citied north and had a “big government” platform (which northern progressive liberals embraced). Today it is the opposite in many respects. Although what happened is complex, in many cases there was no clean sudden shift, and some voter bases and factions never switched, you can see evidence of the “big switches” by looking at the electoral map over time (where voter bases essentially flipped between 1896 and 2000). Or, you can see it by comparing which congressional seats were controlled by which parties over time (try comparing the 115th United States Congress under Trump to the 71st United States Congress under Hoover for example). Or, you can see the “solid conservative south switch” specifically by looking at the electoral map of the solid south over time. Or, you can dig through the historic party platforms. Any of those links will give you a look at the basics of what did and didn’t change, but the details are as complex as U.S. party history and to some degree the term “switch” can be underwhelming when it comes to really explaining the nuance of what changed in terms of parties over the course of US history. Below we cover the details of what changes occurred and what they mean in context… and explain the history of the Democratic and Republican party in the process. To do that, we’ll start with an overview of the party systems. This overview will help to confirm the truth of the matter, which is, semantics aside, things indeed did change.
An Overview of the Party Systems
The “party systems,” AKA eras of the United States political parties, can be described as follows (where the main things that “switch” in each party system are key factions, party leaders, geographical voter bases, and specific planks of party platforms):
- The first party system: The Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists, to the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, to the Era of Good Feelings (where both parties “switch” to becoming the “one-party” Democratic Republicans). This ends with Jackson vs. Adams (where the parties switch back to a two-party system). In this system, the anti-Federalists and then Democratic-Republicans (who essentially go on to become Democratic Party in the second party system) are the “small government” party favored in the South. Meanwhile, the Federalists (who will essentially become National Republicans and then Whigs in the next party system before becoming Republicans) are the aristocratic “big government” party favored in the North.
- The second party system: the Jacksonian Democrats vs. the National Republicans/Whigs, to expansion, to the dissolution of the Whigs. This ends with the tension over “States’ Rights” before the formation of the Republicans, Lincoln’s election, and the Civil War. The tensions break the two parties into a number of factions, some of which take their single-voter issues party planks with them (like Know-Nothings and Free-Soilers), but the general two-party system and the ideologies of those parties is otherwise retained.
- The third party system: Know-Nothings, Free-Soilers, Southern Democrats, Northern Republicans (radical, moderate, and conservative), the Populist party, and many other factions (who switch from the major parties to “third parties” over the issues surrounding slavery during the second and third party systems); from Bleeding Kansas, to Civil War, to Reconstruction (where the “bourbon liberals” “switch” into the Democratic Party), to the Gilded Age (where both parties become pro-business, and in which there is an influx of immigration which changes the often pro-immigrant Democratic Party). This ends with the rise of Progressivism (where the Democrats begin to become increasingly progressive under figures like Bryan despite their conservative factions). The factions of this era are notable, as they help illustrate the different factions that “switch parties” and cause platform planks and much else to switch over time.
- The fourth party system: The rise of Progressivism in “the Progressive Era” (where both parties embrace progressivism following the Gilded Age), to Teddy leaving the Republican party (where progressive Republicans begin to “switch” to the Democratic Party), to the First World War, to Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover (where the Republican platform starts to become less progressive and more pro-business). This ends with the rise of the New Deal Coalition vs. Conservative Coalition (two cross-party coalitions that are emblematic of the modern parties). This party system really sets the modern struggle of free-enterprise (gilded age factions) vs. progressive (progressive era factions) in motion (especially with the rise of media, the events of World Wars, the Fed, the income tax, voting rights, and the rise of the modern state). Most of the major switches of the modern era are a result of this tension (this tension also gives new meaning to “big government” and “small government,” as now we have to consider “the welfare state”). Starting in this era the Great Migration begins and this changes both parties by changing the location of a future geographic voter base (once Voting Rights 1965 happens).
- The fifth party system: from FDR, to the New Deal Coalition vs. Conservative Coalition, to the Second World War (and the global and national tension between Fascism and Communism), to the rise of “States’ Rights” parties. This ends with the battle at home after WWII over Brown v. the Board, Kennedy, Civil Rights 1964 and Voting Rights 1965 under LBJ, and the rise of Goldwater Republicans in 1964 (where the “solid south” begins to “switch” from Democratic Party to the Republican Party in response to not only LBJ’s programs, but in response to the increasingly progressive Democratic Party and all the implications of that progressivism).
- Some, including me, feel that this is followed by sixth party system: From LBJ and Civil Rights, to the Southern Realignment AKA “big switch” or “solid south switch” (where from 1964 to 2000 when the South “switches” to favoring the Republican Party), to Reagan or Clinton. This ends with the rise of modern fairness doctrine-free media, Reaganomics, and Clinton’s Third Way “Neoliberalism” (which had started with figures like Cleveland, Wilson, and Carter and is a sort of bourbon liberal mashup of classical liberalism, social liberalism, and conservatism focused on business interests and deregulation; its counterpart in the Republican party is called neoconservatism). The socially conservative and/or small government identities we today call paleocon, libertarian, and “the religious right” become more dominant in this era (which helped to increase the popularity of the Republican party in the South with the aide of right-wing media and think tanks). Meanwhile, progressivism and neoliberalism come to dominate the Democratic Party as the southern conservatives either “reform” (like Robert Byrd) or shift to the Republican party (like Strom Thurmond) over time.
- Some, again including me, then feel this is followed by a seventh party system: from Reagan / Clinton, to the subsequent polarization and rise of modern media, to War in the Middle-East, to bailouts and modern debt, to Citizens United, to today. Does this end with Obama / Trump and figures like Bernie, or are we still in the seventh party? Only time will tell. One thing is clear though, the Democrats are increasingly seen as the aristocratic party and are favored in Urban centers and in the North, while the Republicans are seen as the populist small government party and are favored by Rural areas and the South (a full switch from how it was back in the 1800s!) This isn’t to say everything switched, and this isn’t to say that party planks didn’t evolve with the times, but it is to say the factions, voter-bases, and planks that did switch had a considerable effect (going as far as to turn the rural small government party of yesterday into the urban big government party of today).
In other words, as the Democratic Party became more progressive in the progressive era, it attracted progressives from the Republican party and alienated the Democrats of the small government socially conservative south. Meanwhile, as the Republican party “conserved” toward Gilded Age politics in the 20th century, and embraced socially conservative single-issue voter groups and individualism, it attracted the “solid south” (their leadership and voter base) and alienated progressives. These two factors, and many more explained in detail below, substantially changed the party platforms, seats held in Congress, and the voting maps over the course of the 20th century (AKA the 20th century reversal, or the 20th century political realignment, or “the switch”).
To sum up and connect all of the above, the switches we see that change the parties and define different eras (party systems) include things like Teddy Roosevelt or Strom Thurmond switching parties (party leaders switching), the Democratic Party platform becoming more progressive in the progressive area (party planks and platforms switching), the southern Democrat “southern bloc” tending toward the Republican party after the Civil Rights era (political factions switching), all this impacting which regions of the country tend to support each party (geographic voter bases switching), and all of this affecting which party has a stronghold in which region as new elections occur (which we can see on Congressional voter maps for example).
All those changes together fundamentally change the parties over time and result in parties that look drastically different between party systems. Further, and oddly, it in some respects results in what at times almost seems like a full switch as the modern parties sometimes take the exact opposite stances they did in previous eras!
Further, since all these things happened to change the parties slowly over time, and each change gradually affected the other, there isn’t one simple event or moment in time to point to, but instead a range of evolutions over time that slowly changed the parties.
TIP: Especially given that the U.S. has a two-party system in practice, it forces all of America’s political factions to group together under two tents. A party is really compromised of the sum of the forces under its banner, it isn’t a static thing, it is a container that changes based on what is put in it. When looking at a past party system it can be helpful to look at what factions drove the platform rather than assigning those actions to the party itself. This can also help one understand the tensions within the party, as often factions in the same tent will disagree wildly over the direction of the party.
TIP: If you want to see some quick visual proof of party switching, see the images on our “Summary of How the Major Parties Switched” page. This page leads with explanations (which require reading), that page leads with images and videos (which don’t). Below is an essay that explains American history in depth, so bookmark it for further study.
An Introduction to the History of the Major Parties and the Big Switches
It is not a myth that “the parties switched,” just look at the voting map over time or at the historic party platforms (or check out Lincoln’s 1860 election, Democrat-Populist Bryan’s 1896 election, LBJ’s 1964 election, Nixon’s 1968 election, and the corresponding platforms of all parties in those races and compare them to the 2016 election).
The problem isn’t proving specific changes (for example showing that the southern bloc used to vote Democratic Party and now they vote Republican), the problem is that so much changed that it is difficult to summarize (especially from a centered standpoint that tries to do justice to all of America’s diverse factions; here I’ll apologize for any bias below, feel free to comment with questions or challenge anything).
This Isn’t Just About the Solid South
The truth is the Solid South switch (the Southern realignment) is one of the easiest to spot (as one can see it on the map), and debunking its related myths detracts from the equally important stories of Progressive Dixies like LBJ and Gore Sr. and their refusal to sign the Strom led Southern Manifesto, Teddy and his Progressives, Bryan and how he changed the Democratic Party, the tension between Federalists like Hamilton and Anti-Federalists like Jefferson, the one-party Democratic-Republicans in the era of Good Feelings (and the tension between Jackson, Clay, Calhoun, Van Buren, Adams that ended the era), and the countless other stories of Expansion and Compromise in the mid-1800’s, Third Parties like the People’s Party, Free Soilers, and Libertarians, the Difference between Southern Democrats and Know-Nothings (and their relation to the modern Tea Party), Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, the World Wars, the Great Migrations, the evolution of the Monroe Doctrine, the strategy that helped create Fox News, and the rise of Progressivism.
This is to say, I want to jump right in and explain that in Lincoln’s day there were four parties (not two), and that Lincoln was no Know-Nothing AND no Southern Democrat…
…Still, I get that this is about first and foremost debunking the “Big Switch,” so lets split the difference.
First, we’ll offer a quick summary in the form of an introduction (in order to quickly go over key points as a service to the reader who doesn’t want to read the whole thing; that will be about different factions and their relation to the groups at the heart of the “Big Switch”).
Then we’ll explain the general story, which shows that the main theme here is one of factions switching parties in a “two-party” system as America progresses and modernizes (with voter bases and key members typically switching first, usually over “single voter issues” or specific legislation, and then everything else changing slowly over time as new members are elected).
Then we move on to the details of “the Big Switch” (where the “Southern bloc” “Southern Democrat” “Dixiecrats” switched from favoring the increasingly progressive Democratic party to the increasingly conservative Republican party following 1964, slowly, over time, from 1964 to the 1990ss and beyond, thus causing “the big switch” (flipping the map) as one can see in the congressional voting records of the contemporary era; see the Southern strategy).
Then we’ll tell the full history of both major parties, noting each switch, each President, and major events.
First, a bit more on the Solid South (which is explained by the following image in many ways).
LOOKING FOR PROOF IN 2017: Keeping in mind we today are new generation. If one is still confused, today we can see some recent and major proof, that is Charlottesville 2017. In Charlottesville, we saw the Dixie battle flag of the Southern Democrats being waved by Republican Trump voters who were standing up to protect the statue of the Southern Democrat (Confederate) rebel army leader General Lee. Meanwhile, the progressive American liberal-ish antifascists marched against these groups with the progressive social justice movement Black Lives Matter in abolitionist spirit. In ye old terms, the socially conservative right-wing populist “America First” Know-Nothing nativists and Solid South radicals marched against the populist Reformers, Progressives, and left-wing anarchists. In the old days all those factions were in the Democratic party except the old Progressives of Republican party who would have marched with MLK, voted for Teddy, or stood with Hamilton or Lincoln, and the Know-Nothings who have always been Republican, Whig, Federalist, or Third Party. Today the socially conservative factions generally vote Republican and the progressive factions generally vote for the Democratic party. That is the main switch spurred on by shifts toward big government welfare state social justice and free-enterprise states’ rights small government. Here we can’t act like decedents of the Confederates are Confederates any more than a descendent of a progressive is progressive, but spiritually some of these factions switched parties and the alliances of the other factions subsequently changed (and regional voter bases and platform planks changed with them as the parties evolved). So yes, Thurmond and Goldwater are fine places to look, but 2017 is as fine as any other place. History is complex enough without twisting the story of the South and the progressive factions into a modern pretzel. Some factions have always been for small government, some for big government, the parties and times changed and the factions changed along with them, all of this is interconnected. Also, party loyalty is a factor.
An Introduction to the Different Types of Democrats and Republicans: This is a Story of Factions Switching and Parties Changing
I can’t stress this enough, a major thing that changes in history is the Southern Social Conservative one-party voting bloc (because in an electoral system, 11 states who often vote lock-step always matter and often paint the map clear as day, for example when they vote for Breckenridge in 1860, Goldwater in 1964, or George C. Wallace in 1968).
This is the easy thing to explain given the conservative South’s historically documented support of figures like Calhoun, John Breckenridge and his Socially Conservative Confederates of the Southern Democratic Party, Byrd (the who didn’t switch), the other Byrd who ran for President, Thurmond, C. Wallace, Goldwater (the “Libertarian” “States’ Rights” “Republican”), and later conservative figures like Reagan, Bush, and Trump (rather than progressive southerners like Carter and Bill Clinton).
The problem isn’t showing the changes related to this, or showing the progressive southerners like LBJ, the Gores, and Bill Clinton aren’t of “the same exact” breed as the socially conservative south, the problem is that the party loyalty of the conservative south is hardly the only thing that changes, nor is it the only thing going on in American history (to say the least).
Not only that, but here we have to note that the north and south have its own factions, Democrats and Republicans have their own factions, and each region and state has its own factions… and that gives us many different “types” of Democrats and Republicans.
Consider, Lindsey Graham essentially inherited Strom Thurmond’s seat, becoming the next generation of solid south South Carolina conservative, now solidly in the Republican party.
When we note that Graham’s stance on key issues tends to be rather liberal for a right-wing conservative Republican (and is generally different than his northern Republican counterparts like Trump; who is also rather liberal for a Republican) we can see some real evidence of what I am saying. Both Trump and Graham are liberal Republicans, but they are from two different parts of the country and don’t exactly share all the same interests.
A southern conservative from South Carolina used to vote Democrat, supporting figures like Bryan and Wilson, now they generally vote Republican, supporting figures like Trump. However, that doesn’t make them “exactly the same” as their counterparts in other parts of the country, that just makes them part of the same coalition in this era (they support the same platform and oppose the other party together).
In other words, it isn’t just party interests that define a politician, there are state interests, regional interests, monied interests, single voter issue interests, and more to grapple with here. Add to that the fact that some of those interests change, and we have a rather complex situation.
Consider also, Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK). Although MLK was not directly affiliated with a party, he supported Southern Democrats [among other factions], just like Thurmond would have been before he switched… However, he didn’t just support any Southern Democrats, he supported the progressive ones like the Mississippi Freedom Democrats who stood against Goldwater and for Civil Rights. We are talking about different factions duking it out district-by-district, not cartoon characters.
Birmingham was [speaking loosely] all about a Democrat spraying a firehose at a Democrats, while the Democrats sent in the national guard to stop the protestors, while a Democrat told the guard to stand down.
Civil Rights 1964 and Voting Rights 1965 had strong Republican support (remember the change happens over time; this being the point of our story here), but in respect to MLK, Civil Rights wasn’t a story of Republicans (like it had been in Lincoln’s day or prior to 1877). It was a story of different factions of Democrats from anti-war Hippies, to Northern liberals like Kennedy, to Progressive Southern Freedom Democrats, to Socially Conservative ones (who are no longer with the Party today, which again you can see on any voter map and see reflected in the party platforms and “States’ Rights” third party splits).
In other words, the Republican party was still supporting Civil Rights under Eisenhower and Nixon, that is very clear.
However, the struggle in the Democratic Party that happened under Kennedy and then would flip the map under LBJ and Goldwater in 1964 and Humphrey, C. Wallace, and Nixon in 1968 was a main theme of the 1960s.
As the Democrats shifted to the progressive left, with figures like MLK supporting Kennedy and LBJ (to some extent), the Republicans shifted to the socially conservative right supporting figures like Goldwater, and this had a profound effect on the parties over the years from Reagan to Clinton, to Bush, to the Obama era.
A socially liberal progressive Democrat certainly voted for FDR and Kennedy, and they might support LBJ, but they weren’t going for Goldwater or George C. Wallace, they were going for liberals like Humphrey from this point forward.
Still, I don’t want to demonize Northern or Southern conservatives in any party system (it isn’t my stance at all if you read carefully), or discount important figures like Eisenhower, Reagan, Nixon, or Bush, or downplay the role of left-wing or socially progressive Republicans, or the impact of “America First” “Know-Nothings“ in the North, or the role of third parties (States’ Rights, Free Soil, or Progressive), or the role of other Democratic party figures and factions (like Bourbons and Carpetbaggers and Tammany Hall), or those Republican factions like Civil Service Republicans and Stalwarts, or the countless single-issue voter factions I haven’t noted yet (like “the Religious Right“)… and what about the original single-issue party, the nativist Anti-Masons, or the original crony Spoils system?! How about the Alien and Sedition Acts that show the different types of Federalists? There is truly a lot to cover here!
Thus, not only will we debunk the myths of the Solid South below, we’ll also explore other specifics changes in each Party System from 1789 to 2017 (like the start and end of the one-party era of Good Feelings, the split over States’ Rights in the 1850’s, the changes of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, Bryan’s effect on the Democrats, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt’s exit from the Republican Party in 1912, the changes under Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover that turned the GOP to a “small government” party in the 1920s, landslide wins by FDR, LBJ, Nixon, and Reagan which changed the nation, and finally the polarizing effects of the eras of mass media and Bush and Clinton) to show the many changes that define the Party Systems.
With all the above points in mind, we can say: the Democrats used to be the party of the Rural South, but that changed from FDR in 1932, to LBJ in 1964, to Clinton and Obama with their “second rights” “safety net” legislation.
The effect has been a Southernization of the Republican Party and an Urbanization of the Democratic Party.
TIP: With all of that said, for the reader who doesn’t want to read a long essay (that explains things like the difference between a progressive Dixiecrat liberal ally like LBJ who didn’t switch and a staunch southern Conservative Democrat like Strom who did), consider watching the following videos.
The Election of 1860 Explained. That time the Northern Liberals, Free Soil Classical Liberals, Know-Nothing Nativists, and Southern Democrats went to war. Lincoln was not a Know-Nothing or Southern Democrats… obviously.
What was the Southern Strategy? This part of the story is only one part, but it is vital to get. This is from Keith Hughes who explains much of our American history accurately. All videos on this page are secondary resources not created by us.
TIP: Today only one party displays the Confederate Battle Flag. The flag of the Southern Democrats is now flown by the southern Republican. That is a big hint when all else fails to sway someone. From there one only needs to understand that the old conservative Southern Democrat and the old “Know-Nothing” “America First” Northern Tea-Party-like Republican are not the same thing. Both are right-wing populists, but one is a southern populist and used to be Democrat, the other is a northern anti-immigrant populist who allies with elitist pro-business conservatives and was always of the Republican line. One is more like a “Bill the Butcher” nativist, and the other is more like a Deep South agrarian. They are very different types of Americans, only united on some social issues, and they actually used to be on different teams, even though today we may think of both as Republican Tea Party voters. The progressive direction of America really changed things.
Southernization, Urbanization, and Big Government vs. Small Government
Today the Republican party doesn’t have a notable progressive left-wing and the Democratic Party doesn’t have a notable socially conservative right-wing.
Instead both parties have establishment and populist wings and the parties are divided by stances on social issues.
In other words, regional interests and the basic political identities of liberal and conservative didn’t change as much as factions changed parties as party platforms changed along with America.
The modern split is expressed well by the left-right paradigm “Big Government Progressivism” vs. “Small Government Social Conservatism,” where socially conservative and pro-business conservative factions banded together against socially liberal and pro business liberal factions, to push back against an increasingly progressive Democratic Party and America (and programs like the New Deal).
This tension largely created the modern parties of our “two-party system,” resulting in two “Big Tents” who disagree on the purposes of government and social issues. This tension is then magnified by the current influence of media and lobbyists, and can be understood by examining what I call “the Sixth Party Strategy” and by a tactic called “Dog Whistle Politics“).
The result is that today the Democratic Party is dominated by “liberal Democrats and Progressives”.
Meanwhile, most of those who would have been the old “socially conservative Democrats” (Dixiecrats) now have a “R” next to their name.
Just look at the 115th United States Congress under Trump (without naming names, look at Trump’s administration and the current House and Senate, pick out modern conservatives from the south, then compare those seats to say, the 71st United States Congress under Hoover).
Don’t try to oversimplify this to “what Strom did,” most of the changes happened over time, and the proof is in the platforms and voting records.
Today things are still changing, Berniecrats are new, and so are Trumpians, even the Tea Party has been changing. The two parties are constantly changing “Big Tents” of factions, they aren’t static things.
The Tension Between Rural Regions and City Regions is as Old as the Federalists and Anti-Federalists
With the above covered, there is a reason the Northern Coasts and Cities are in one party and the Rural South and Mid-West are in the other party in almost any era (taking into account “winner-take-all” at least), with this being true even when the parties switch.
This is because a major divide is between the political, economic, and social interests of rural regions and citied regions (and between their related inequalities and cultural differences, and between the interests of the Bosses, Cronies, and Corporations who sway the vote in given regions).
Learn more about How the Tension Between City Interests and Rural Interests Affects Politics, not just on a national level, but on a state and regional level too (and make sure to read up on VO Key).
The better you understand this tension, the better you’ll understand that age-old Federalists / Anti-Federalist, Republican / Democrat, or North / South split in any era (which is really a North and Coast vs. South and Mid-west split where notably the North and Coasts have more cities).
We are all Democrats, we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists, and we all love liberty.
We are all Americans.
We simply disagree on specifics (sometimes only split regionally by a slim gerrymandered margin or a single debate over a single voter issue), and thus we form factions and voting blocs around those differences (in Democratic spirit).
The changing factions responding to newly arising voter issues is the main thing that “changed” the parties.
Still, not everything changed (for example the Republican stance on trade and the Democratic Party stance on immigration). That is explained in excessive detail below.
Now that you know about the rural vs. city split, and the big changes like those of Lincoln’s time, those of Teddy’s time, and the shifting Solid South (and how that is different from a Bryan or FDR or Kennedy), take a look at the time-lapse video below which shows the U.S. Presidential election results map, both by state and by county, from 1789 to 2016.
Here you can see the solid voting blocs that switch, oddities like the Black Belt, and proof that the country is more diverse and complicated than party politics or the electoral map elude.
U.S. Presidential Election Results (1789-2016). Consider starting with Lincoln’s 1860 election forward to really see the different factions (including the Solid South Southern Democrats who seceded over “States’ Rights” and other things.)
TIP: See a Summary of How the Major Parties Switched, the New Deal Coalition and Conservative Coalition (the two factions that help tell the story of the big switch), and our other works on the subject of “party switching” (which include the story of Lincoln, the history the Democratic party and slavery, a Fact-Check of Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party, the anti-Federalists and Federalists, and the Republicans of Reconstruction) for additional perspectives.
NOTE: This page is more like a long essay and less like a blog post, you can get away with just reading the first part, but consider skipping around to different parts or book-marking it and coming back. Each section tells a different part of the story. We will answer any and all questions posted below. Feel free to comment (even if you didn’t read the whole thing).
FACT: If the above didn’t make it clear, the tension between the “States’ Rights” Conservatives of the Southern Bloc and the Rest of the Democratic party essentially starts 1789 with tension in the anti-Federalist party, continues to Jackson, splits the party in Civil War, doesn’t exactly help Bryan, results in Wilson, and is part of the story of FDR, but it really picked up steam after WWII over Brown v. the Board. From there we start getting the “States’ Rights” third parties. Then Civil Rights 1964 and Voting Rights 1965 is the tipping point. Yes, many Republicans voted for Civil Rights and Voting Rights. Indeed. The parties really did change from 1964 to the 1990’s to today, that is kind of the point of this whole thing. Explaining that slow transition and what it means is one of many reasons this page is long and not short. Still, if you get that we are talking about “factions” first, and “Big Tents” second, you get the gist of what the specific details below will explain.
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” – LBJ had a mouth on him, but all his faults aside, the Progressive Southern Democrat ended up on the right side of history in terms of his Great Society programs. Today many planks of the Republican Party seek to undo LBJ’s work (and Lincoln’s, and Wilson’s, and FDR’s, and Obama’s etc).
A Response to the Claim Welfare is Equatable to Slavery
In the 1850’s, inequality in the Northern “big government” cities, northern immigration in the big cities (and the related racism and classism), and African slavery in the “small government” south (and the related racism and classism) all existed side-by-side…. and in ways, so it is today (minus the slavery). Northern cities still favor bigger government, and they still have problems of racism and inequality, Rural South still favors small government (and they still have issues of racism and inequality). This does not make the North of today equatable to the slave economy of the South of yesterday however.
There is this idea that welfare is equatable to slavery in this respect, as in both cases a societal structure is providing basic essentials for a class of people (who some would claim are oppressed by the situation to the benefit of some elite). This argument, often presented in tandem with the claim “the parties didn’t switch/change” is essentially a red herring that misses the nuances we describe on this page (I hear it enough that I want to address it here before moving on).
The southern conservatives who held slaves and fought for the Confederacy essentially switched out of the Democratic party starting in the 1960s, and even continuing to the modern day (although the changes had most occurred by 2000), in response to LBJ’s welfare programs (after forming a coalition with Republicans in response to Wilson and FDR’s welfare programs prior). In other words, if the southern conservative had wanted to oppress a class of people with welfare, one would logically assume they wouldn’t have switched out of the Democratic party over time in response to welfare programs.
What we see in the cities of the north is instead more like what we have seen since before the Civil War, it is the inequality capitalism breeds, and the related state-based solutions generally favored by cities (like welfare). When African Americans migrated to northern cities in the Great migrations, they (much like the European and other immigrants) were subject not only to the inequalities of a capitalist melting pot, but to the general racism and classism that exists outside of party lines. Thus, it should be little surprise that the modern Democratic party is a coalition of those who immigrated in those times, urbanites, and party leaders who remained after the switch.
It is important to understand that bourbon liberals (pro-business factions who came to the South after the Civil War to become Democrats), neoliberals, neocons, progressives, conservative pro-business Republicans, liberal Democrats (like Kennedy), classical liberals (like the Free-Soilers or Jeffersonians), social conservative Know-Nothings, social conservative southerners (like the old Confederates), etc are all different ideological factions that have existed in history and have been in one of the two major parties or a third party at different times. The social conservative south were the ones who dragged slavery with them up to the Civil War and then combated Civil Rights from the Democratic party up until they were pushed out of the party by the progressive movement which had gained traction since the Gilded Age.
Thus, although it is complex to explain (and vastly under-explained right here), equating chattel slavery and wage slavery, and then tying it back to the 1850s-1860s, really misses the nuances of history (again it is red herring as it sounds like it applies to the argument, but doesn’t). Think of all the nations on earth with welfare states, in all cases are they not generally spurred on by the progressive factions to strive for social equality? Are the small government and conservative factions not the ones who oppose this?
Today it is a Southern Republican who flies to Confederate flag, today it is a Republican who champions small government in America. Yesterday, it was a Southern Democrat.
TIP: Remember, this does not speak to the many other factions and why they did or didn’t ally with this faction in any era. Nor does this truism or the claim we are addressing speak directly to people alive today (as we are tracing parties and ideologies over time, no person alive today was alive in 1850, and very few were adults in 1950… plus, people like parties “change”).
TIP: There is more on this subject below, I don’t want to offer too much space to any one aspect of this long discussion at any point, so keep reading for more proofs.
Understanding the Basics: How the Parties Changed, General U.S. Party History, and Why the “Big Switch” isn’t a Myth
Above we did an introduction, this next section takes a very general look at how the major parties changed and how factions changed parties.
To sum things up before we get started discussing specific switches, both major U.S. parties used to have notable progressive socially liberal left-wing and socially conservative right-wing factions, and now they don’t.
Originally, like today, one party was for “big government” (originally the Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans) and one party was for “small government” (Anti-Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, and then Democrats).
However, unlike today, party lines were originally [very roughly speaking] drawn over elitism and populism (by class / by rural vs. citied interests) and preferred government type more than by the left-right social issues that define the parties today, as the namesake of the parties themselves imply (where Democrats favored a more liberal democracy, and the Republicans favored a more aristocratic liberal republic).
In those days both parties had progressive and conservative wings, but the Southern Anti-Federalist, Democratic-Republican, and then Democratic Party was populist and favored “small government”, and the Northern Federalist, Whig, and then Republican Party was elite and favored bigger central government.
However, from the lines drawn during the Civil War, to Bryan in the Gilded Age, to Teddy Roosevelt leaving the Republican Party to form the Progressive Party in 1912, to FDR’s New Deal, to LBJ’s Civil Rights, to the Clinton and Bush era, the above became less and less true.
Today, the Republican Party doesn’t have a notable Progressive Socially Liberal “Federalist” Elitist Hamilton, Lincoln, Roosevelt wing, and the Democratic Party doesn’t have a notable Socially Conservative “Anti-Federalist” Populist Jackson, Calhoun, George C. Wallace wing. TIP: Each party still has a “left” and “right”, and certainly both have classically liberal and classically conservative values, but the Democrats lack a prominent socially conservative wing and the Republicans lack a prominent socially liberal wing (and this is a thing that has notably changed).
Instead, today the parties are polarized by left-right social issues, and each party (each “Big tent” Coalition of single voter issue factions) has a notable populist and elitist wing.
- Modern Republicans are a “Big Tent” of conservative right-wing populist and elitist “single voter issue” factions. They have their Socially Conservative Tea Party right-wing Nativist Populists (both States’ Rights Right-Wing Dixie Populism like Sessions, and Know-Nothing America First Nationalism like Bannon, plus other right-wing populist factions like the Religious Right) and their Classically Conservative Neocons (their “establishment” liberal-conservative business faction like McCain or Romney), all of whom favor “Small Government” (rhetorically at least).
- Likewise, the modern Democratic party is a [mostly] equal and opposite “Big Tent” of populist and elitist socially left factions. They have their Progressive Left Populists (like Bernie) and their Neoliberals (which is a mash-up of the southern and northern “establishment” conservative-liberals with their “big city machines”, both of which can be seen in the Clintons; or Al Gore and Obama if you like), both of whom favor “Big Government” (especially for social issues).
TIP: There are more factors to consider, such as the fact that party members and factions generally come in conservative, moderate, liberal, progressive, and radical forms and stances can change per issue. For example, a “progressive left-wing social liberal populist” will generally be “to the left” of even a “moderately liberal right-wing pro-business conservative” on most social issues, and thus they will likely be in the Big Tent Democrat.
Although nothing that happened is simple or singular, generally, what happened is the aforementioned “elite northern socially liberal progressive” and “southern socially conservative populist” factions effectively “switched parties” (along with their voter base and fellow politicians) over party stances on “key voter issues” (like Civil Rights and Globalization; the history of switches is all about single-voter-issue factions), as can be seen in the New Deal Coalition and Conservative Coalition, and that was enough to flip the party platforms and the voter map geographically (as can be seen by comparing 1896 to 2000, and generally here).
Essentially, one can explain this by saying “the progressivism and modernization of the 20th century under figures like FDR, LBJ, Clinton, and Obama resulted in conservative factions in both parties banding together and pushing back under Hoover, Nixon, Regan, Bush, and Trump.”
Today, with the effects symbolized by the New Deal and Conservative Coalition having already taken place, we can say the Republican Party is generally a coalition of socially conservative and pro-business right-wing movements previously found in both parties, and the Democratic party is generally a coalition of socially liberal and pro-business left-wing movements previously found in both parties. In reality, their stance on the state changes voter issue to voter issue, but generally it is this left-right split over social issues that results in the parties being “Big Government” and “Small Government” respectively.
What didn’t change is the left-wing Democratic Party Anti-Federalist populists (like Jefferson, Bryan, or Bernie) and conservative right-wing Republican Federalists (both know-nothing and pro-business) never changed parties (they just got new allies and new platforms). Likewise Bourbon liberals have essentially been with the Democrats since Reconstruction (although one can argue some went to the Republicans over time). Also, the “big city” Democratic Party machines have long been a part of the Democratic Party’s story. Also, the parties have been in their current big-government / small-government (rhetorically at least) forms since the 1920’s with Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Furthermore, Republicans have always been strict on immigration and protectionist, and the Democrats always pro-immigrant (and had historically been for free-trade before becoming “neoliberal“; which adds complexity). FACT: Lincoln disliked Free-Trade, implemented the first income tax, created the first free colleges in the U.S., and used the Federal Power of the State to restore the Southern rebels to the Union; Lincoln is a good place to look for what did and didn’t change (as is Hamilton who inspired both Lincoln and Clay and Theodore Roosevelt). On the other side Jackson, Van Buren, Jefferson, and Calhoun are good Democrats to look at for similar reasons (each representing a different type of Democrat).
Thus, although many things change over time, in modern times one of the main things that switches is the socially conservative Democrats (notably including many Dixiecrats) switched from the 1960s to the Bush era (very slowly; Thurmond aside, not in a clear all-at-once switch; partly due to the Sixth Party Strategy, partly due to changing times and self interest).
One last note before moving on, it is important to understand that we are discussing intergenerational switches, so there is a complexity to consider which is: general ideological factions switch over the course of generations more than all-at-once (in most cases, not in the 1850s and 1860s as much, that happened quickly). When we pair this with the fact that the times and parties have generally themselves changed, we can understand how oversimplifying this to “all the racists became Republicans” is an underwhelming simplification given the fact that so many different things changed (we have barely scratched the surface here yet).
Thus, to summarize the basics: some [not all] things change, but regardless, entire party platforms and much else changed as the key voter issues the factions were rallied around ebbed and flowed in importance in state and national politics (consider not only does the nation as a whole have political factions which form the basis of the national two-party system and third parties, but each state has its own internal political factions that form around key voter issues, identity, and general ideology).
If you got this far, do yourself a favor and watch the two next videos from VOX. VOX explains large parts of the story, including the connection between “progressivism”, “conservatism”, “the minority vote”, and the historic major parties and their policies.
NOTE: While I have your attention third parties like Know-Nothings, States’ Rights, Populist, Progressive, American Independent, Southern Democrat, and Constitutional Union tell the story of “switching platforms” well. Each denotes a major faction who is emblematic of “a single voter issue” (or two) and otherwise major changes. You can see major third party platforms here. It is no mistake that we see third parties in years like 1856, 1860, 1892, 1912, 1948, and 1968, they are symbolic of major changes.
From white supremacy to Barack Obama: The history of the Democratic Party. In a sentence: The KKK used to be Democrats, and now they aren’t, not after the effects of the Solid South switch and Southern Strategy (part of the overarching Sixth Party Strategy). The post-War 1960’s really changed the Democratic Party, their liberal wing essentially took over (much to the dismay of the “free enterprise” Republicans).
How the Republican Party went from Lincoln to Trump. In a sentence: The Republican party used to be the party of Lincoln, but Teddy’s exit, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, and the conservative coalition and Sixth Party Republican strategy changed that. The pre-Teddy republican Party and post-Teddy party are very different things.
Now that we have the basics down, let’s restate this all before moving on to notable specific switches.
Originally, the Populist Anti-Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, and then Democratic Party Platforms were about “Small Government” (as their names imply), Free Trade, and States’ Rights and were favored in the rural-South, and the more elite aristocratic Federalists, Whigs, and then Republican Party Platforms were about “Big Government” (as their names imply), protectionism, taxes, and Collective Rights and were favored in the citied-North. However, today this has mostly “switched” (NOTE: some key stances on some key issues haven’t changed, for example the Republican party has almost always been stricter on immigration and have generally favored trade protectionism; we cover nuances like this below).
In simple terms, what happened was both parties became pro-business in the Gilded Age after Reconstruction following the divisive Civil War which forced all factions to take sides, and then both parties became progressive in the Progressive era, and this and a series of events led to the Republican party becoming the party of small government over time (despite the party’s aristocratic roots) and the Democrats becoming the party of big government (despite their populist roots).
Today business-minded NeoConservatives (establishment conservatives) ally with Tea Party Social Conservatives (populist conservatives) in the “Right-Wing” Republican Party, both agreeing that less Government is best, and business-minded NeoLiberals (establishment liberals) and Progressive Social Liberals (populist liberals) ally in the “Left-Wing” Democratic Party, both agreeing on the use of the State.
Each party essentially still has the Gilded Age business factions they have had since Reconstruction, but since the States’ rights faction joined the Republican party, and since the modern Right political machine pushed conservative Populism, they have gained a more prominent populist wing.
The basic types of people still exist, they just exist with modern stances on key voter issues and in different coalitions.
The real story here, to distill it to one line, is that of a tug of war between big-state social justice liberals progressing toward a modern future and conservatives pushing to returning to a past age when things were “great” (that age is 1900 for modern conservatives, roughly 1775 for the Confederate era, and the 1820’s for the old Young America movement).
The underlying basic ideology of people didn’t change, it is just that the factions, tactics, and party stances have changed, and which party and factions wanted the above have changed.
This is to say, some things are consistent in our history, but the platforms (collections of official and unofficial stances on key voter issues AKA planks) and the party’s socially minded factions have essentially “switched” to create the modern populist and neo-business wings of the parties (the major, but not only national wings… we haven’t even got to the importance of state factions, other factions, and third parties yet).
Of course, reality is more complex than “the Conservative south and old Republican Progressive factions switched parties due to the events that occurred from the Gilded Age to the Bush and Clinton years which caused a southernization of the Republican Party” or “the party of small government became the party of big government as social issue took on new importance and this caused factions who favored small government or big government to switch parties” or “the States’ Rights Socially Conservative Populists reshaped one party with their exit and one with their entrance while the Elite and Populist Progressives took hold of the other party”.
That is the gist, but describing specific causes and effects is more difficult, as these changes didn’t happen in isolation (does the faction follow the platform, or the platform the faction, or the faction a single key voter issue? The answer is, “all this, and more!”). History is too complex to just say everything in one consumable bite, and America is to diverse for this all to be just about one faction or one ideology.
This is to say, although a figure like Strom Thurmond, Lester Maddox, Bo Callaway, Robert Byrd, Henry A. Wallace, or Teddy can symbolize what did and didn’t change, in the same way Civil Rights 1964 and Voting Rights 1965 can symbolize a motive, or the Progressive Bull Moose Party, the States’ Rights “Dixiecrat” Party, Freedom Democrats, Southern Bourbons, the American “Independent” Party, and Goldwater Republicans can symbolize factions, or the “Southern Strategy” (both Hoover’s and Nixon’s) and what Hillary Clinton lovingly calls “the Vast Right-wing Conspiracy” (the other part of the Republican’s “Sixth Party Strategy” AKA the semi-coordinated pushback against progressivism in the 20th century which spurred on the 20th century reversal) can symbolize a telling tactic, those looking for a clear all-at-once switch, a complete switch, or smoking gun won’t find it.
With all of the above said, without further ado, there is notably one switch that is clearer than the others, and that is “the Solid South Switch” (the one most people think of as “the big switch”; and the one I imagine draws the average reader here… so let’s discuss it directly).
The Solid South Switch and Southern Strategy
Although it is hardly the only switch that happens in American political history, “the Solid South Switch” (which has thus far only been eluded to), is both one of the easiest to spot, easiest to prove, and one of the most impactful switches.
The Deep South, unlike most of the country, has often had a one-party system at the state level (comprised of competing factions in the same party, not competing parties, banded together in a single party over key issues of “race politics and a legacy of war” more than national issues in any era; although government size and rural vs. urban policy were always key secondary issues), and that makes them an easy place to look for changes (as when they change, they change lock-step en masse and re-color the map).
To prove the switch, we can first confirm southern political history up to the 1950’s via works like V.O. Key’s Southern Politics in State and Nation (see an overview).
In his classic work of political realism, Key documents the history of the South to explain that what we might describe as Progressive Reformist Populists, Southern Socially Conservative Populists, “Small Government Libertarians”, agrarian Southern Conservative business people, and [since Reconstruction] Bourbon Liberal Pro-Business Redeemers were all Solidly in the Democratic Party in the South from the Gilded Age to the start of the 1950’s.
This isn’t to say there weren’t progressive Republican factions, Gilded Age small business pro-Gold Libertarian-like Republicans, or America-First Know-Nothing Republicans in the North and South, this is to say, we are talking about the dominate solid south factions who vote in lock-step here (we’ll discuss these other factions below).
From the start of the 1950’s (where Key leaves us) on, we can then confirm the consequent changes via the Republican southern strategies (both Hoover’s starting in the 1930s which affects the later years, and Nixon’s in the 1960’s following Civil Rights and Voting Rights which had consequences that we still feel today; here we must also note both the Conservative Coalition and New Deal Coalition, Both Bushs’ Southern appeal, Byrd, Carter, Gore, the Reagan Democrat Clinton’s New Democrats, and things like that in general).
Then we can show how, even though not everything changes, this led to “a switch” over party stances on key voter issues.
Thus, we can point to the well documented history of the factions of the Solid South to show they were all historically solidly Democrat, then look at a voter map to see enough are Republican today to flip the map, and thus say “the parties switched”, but the full-story of all the changes is even more complex, fascinating, telling, and humanizing than a talking point size factoid about Byrd factions, Bryan factions, Wilson factions, Henry A. Wallace factions, Thurmond factions that arise from differing factions within the one-party solid south states.
Still, if we do want our smoking gun, we can say the “1968 Presidential Election where the liberal Democrat Humphrey, one of the last of the old gaurd Liberal-Conservatives Nixon, and the Solid South Conservative George C. Wallace go head-to-head following the progressive Dixiecrat LBJ’s Civil Rights legislation and his 1964 Presidential election” is a good place to look.
How the South Went Republican: Can Democrats Ever Win There Again? (1992). If you have an hour and an earnest interest in our history, this video will confirm and explain all our points about the “Solid South Switch” (one of many switches, but certainly one of the most impactful and notable). By the way, Nixon was a liberal-conservative, he knew how to reach across the aisle and talk to a liberal like Humphrey… and how to reach out and woo a conservative Dixiecrat with his “Southern Strategy“. Since “the Switch” there has been less “reaching across the aisle”.
The Republican Sixth Party Strategy – Where the Tea Party and Alt-Right Come From
Everything noted so far leads up to one other thing that needs to be discussed on its own (you’ll see it below in the story, but it is important to note).
After Voting Rights 1965 it wasn’t just a matter of switching the South, it was a matter of taking that 1930’s conservative coalition to the next level and the Republicans switching themselves (again, in response to the increasing social liberalism of America and the Democratic party).
No social conservative faction was strong enough on its own to win an election, not after Voting Rights, but together, under a strategically planned big tent, the social conservatives and establishment conservatives could create a siren-like Frankenstein’s monster to push for free-enterprise (classically liberal and Gilded Age business interest) and socially conservative values against the progressive state an increasingly progressive Democratic Party (the reference to Frankenstein is a political metaphor made, not an insult).
This story involves:
The Powell memo, the southern strategy, the John Birch Society, the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, Norquist, Roger Aisle, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Fox News, Reagan, Right-Wing Radio, Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, and “a vast right-wing conspiracy” aimed at getting the many different social conservative and establishment conservative factions to adopt each other’s ideology (each not popular enough to win elections on their own, but in a “Big Tent” a force).
Essentially, the Conservative Coalition (both its business factions and socially conservative factions) in their fight against Communism and liberal democrats since WWI, but especially when their hand was forced post 1965, have created the modern right-wing populist political machine to counter the left’s own political machine (“machine” is a term that describes both literal coordination and the uncoordinated or loosely coordinated self interest of groups; AKA the “conspiracy” isn’t fully “a conspiracy” as much as it is a coordinated and uncoordinated natural response to changing politics; Powell acknowledges this in his memo, let us not lose sight of that).
With the above said, this Sixth Party Strategy didn’t just go after Southern Socially Conservative Democrats, but working class Democrats and moderate Republicans (as we can see in-action in the working class voter tug-of-war between Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump).
In other words, the strategy “switched” some to the Republican Party, but also further switched the party from Federalist-leaning to Anti-Federalist (so to speak).
This part of the story doesn’t speak of neoliberalism and its rise directly, or progressivism or its rise directly, it speaks to the movement that responded to it all and resulted in Fox News, Right Wing Radio, the Tea Party, entities like Freedom works, and modern “Big Tent” Conservatism.
TIP: You can read the full story of the Republican Sixth Party Strategy and the Big Switch here. The full story includes comments on the rise of New Deal progressivism to which the Conservative Coalition responds.
The Brainwashing of My Dad Trailer. If you can stomach the liberal bias (sort of built into the title on this one), and can keep in your mind that social conservatism is real and natural just like social liberalism, I strongly suggest watching this documentary as it explains the non-southern part of the strategy that caused the switch and resulted in our modern situation.
TIP: In any era we can find our anti-Federalists and Federalists, obviously the faction that wants to abolish government and the IRS is “anti-Federalist” in their wanting to conserve back to 1900 before the income tax. Learn more about the different forms of conservatism.
With That Said, It is More Complex than We Can Just Say.
With everything thus far said, we have only skimmed the surface.
The truth is, be we talking about the South or not, not every faction changes, and we have to account for more history than can fit in any essay. We have to account for changing platforms, changing voter bases, congressional changes over decades, battles between factions within states and parties, the changing [and unchanging] ideologies of factions and parties, technological changes of automation and modernization, business interested elites in both parties who tend to organize better and dominate, populists in both parties who can’t always agree on divisive social issues, the general rift between key voter issues and social issues vs. economic issues, arguments over the size of state within parties, voter issues taking on new importances, single issue third parties, global politics, and so much else to fully tell this story.
This is to say, the history of the major U.S. political parties if of course more complex than can just be said… which is why we use terms like “parties switched” and “party systems” to preface this long in depth essay.
A Summary of Party Systems, Realigning Elections, and Switching Factions in the Major U.S. Political Parties
Now that we have the essential basics down, let’s do an overview of all the changes (not just the general points or the Solid South Switch).
Historians refer to the eras the changes resulted in as “party systems“.
Each party system is defined by realigning elections or otherwise important elections like the elections of 1800, 1828, 1860, 1876, 1892, 1896, 1912, 1928, 1932, 1948, 1964, 1968, 1980, 1992, and 2000, key voter issues of the day like states’ rights, workers’ rights, social welfare, equal rights, central banking, and currency debates, and which factions were in which parties at the time like the New Deal Coalition and Conservative Coalition (the major parties are best thought of as coalitions of political factions who agree on key voter issues in any era; In the same way Bernie and Hillary are different types of Democrats, or Bush and Trump are different types of Republicans, so it is true for any era).
To make things simple (putting pre-Civil war factions like the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, Whigs and Second Party Democrats, and third parties like the Know-Nothings and Free Soilers aside for a second), we can say the “red and blue states” “flipped” between the Third and Sixth Party Systems (between Lincoln in 1860 and LBJ in 1964 to today) as the battle between the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War gave way to Reconstruction, Redeemers (elite pro-business Democrats), and the Gilded Age, which gave way to the Democratic Party progressive populist William Jennings Bryan and the Fourth Party Progressive Era, which led to Theodore Roosevelt’s split from the Conservative Taft and exit from the Republicans along with his progressives, which led to the Republicans becoming increasingly classically liberal and conservative starting in the 1920’s under figures like Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, which led to the the Democrats becoming increasingly socially progressive under FDR in the 1930’s at the start of the Fifth Party System, which led to the solid south conservative states’ rights faction of the Democratic party favoring the Republicans in the post-’64 Sixth Party system by the 2000 election (despite those members who didn’t “switch”, enough did to flip the map).
Or, in a very general sentence, Solid South States’ Rights and Tea party-esque Populist Conservatives in the Democratic Party and elite Social Liberal Progressives in the Republican Party essentially switched parties from roughly 1900 to 2000, which resulted in red and blue states flipping from north to south (as can be seen in the voting map video below).
Or, to frame this another way, this time speaking to both the changing factions and changing ideology of the major parties, and noting that generally speaking the Anti-Federalists became the Democrats and Federalists became the Whigs and then Republicans, we can say, in the late 1700 and 1800’s Solid South Democrats like Calhoun (who himself switched from Federalist to Anti-Federalist early on), progressive Democrats like Jefferson, and inbetweeners like Jackson, and their populist factions formed the bulk of the Democratic party (they were anti-tax, anti-bank, small government, populist liberals favored in the south). Meanwhile elites, be they socially liberal or just business minded (like Hamilton, Adams, and Clay), dominated the Republican party and its predecessors (they were pro-tax, pro-central-bank, pro-federal power, elite liberals favored in the north).
That said, to complicate things, the Federalist line was historically anti-immigrant and nationalist and gave birth to (anti-Federalists and states’ rights Democrats aside) the first Tea Party-like entities the Know-Nothings in the North and Anti-Masons in the North.
Despite this truism however, the Civil War forced factions to choose sides over slavery and expansion. Consequently, the Whig-allied nativist populist factions disbanded, the New Republican Party formed, and ultimately the first Republican President Lincoln was “no Know-Nothing“.
Here we can note that 1. the Tea party and Progressive spirit was born in both parties, not one (this is also true for other factions like “Libertarian”). 2. the fact that the anti-Federalist / Democrat line is pro-immigrant in the North, despite its states’ rights stance in the South, is part of what results in a progressive party over time. 3. both parties’ stance on immigration, and by extension that aristocratic federalist-like nationalism, is one thing that never really changes. 4. and that ultimately, even up to the Civil War, one must concede complexities over states’ rights and slavery aside, the Democrats are to the left of the Republican line on most issues of liberty and authority (as in they wanted less government, they were ANTI FEDERALIST be they Jeffersonian Progressively Classically Liberal or Solid South Progressively Socially Conservative).
Then, adding complexity from here on, after the Civil War, elite business-minded Redeemers like Cleveland joined the Democrats, making both parties business-minded and elite in the Gilded Age (so pre-Gilded Age, Republicans were the “big business” “elite” party, but after Reconstruction and the Gilded age, both have elite factions; each just as likely to be found in NYC).
Then, adding even more complexity, the pushback against the Gilded Age led to both parties becoming very progressive by the early 1900’s (the Democrats still more populist under figures like Bryan and Wilson, the Republicans still more elitist under figures like McKinley, Teddy, and Taft).
Then, as the big-government social liberal nationalist Theodore Roosevelt left the Republican party in 1912, and figures like the small-government anti-Communists Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover took over in the 1920’s, and as figures like FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton took over the Democratic party from 1932 -1996, things changed. Many progressives left the Republicans for the Democratic party, and the Solid South faction left the increasingly socially liberal Democrats to join the increasingly socially conservative Republicans (slowly, over time, as we can see by looking at Congressional Seats over time and the voter base over time).
This Teddy to Hoover switch, oddly [historically speaking], led to the Democrats becoming a more elite party and the Republicans becoming the party of small government and states’ rights (despite the elitism of the neocons, their message of deregulation is on paper one of classically liberal “states’ rights” small government and nativist “Tea Party” populism; it is clearly a mashup of the states’ rights south, nativist north, religious right, and neocons, where even though only the States’ Rights Solid South is really out of place historically speaking, it on paper flips the map, flips some platform planks, and over time re-colors some ideology).
This general tension described above can be seen in the states’ rights and progressive parties in American history, or seen in figures like Henry A. Wallace and Strom Thurmond, and is, as noted above, [for me] best illustrated by the New Deal Coalition and Conservative Coalition.
To frame this yet another way, the nearly unified Democratic-Republicans of the First Party System aside, it used to be that part of what today call the Tea Party, Populist Progressives (like Bernie Sanders), and the States’ Rights Solid South were in one party (anti-Federalists and then Democrats) and the elite pro-business, northern-like populist nativists (later the Know-Nothing third party), and elitist progressives were in the other (Federalists, Whigs, Republicans), but as just eluded to, this is complicated by the third parties that formed around key voter issues and policy stances.
These third parties which took unique stances and add complexity to America’s political story include, as noted above: Know Nothings (pre-Civil war northern nativists who were like a precursor to the Tea Party and were sometimes allied with the Whigs; like Bryan like Progressives, these are a faction who “didn’t switch”), Free Soilers (a pre-Civil War party, who once nominated former Democratic President Martin Van Buren for president, who wanted to end slavery at its own pace by looking to a states’ rights solution), War Democrats and Southern Unionists (Democrats allied with the North during the Civil War), and the People’s Party (a progressive populist party of the northern and southern worker, popular in the mid-west, which had its roots to the reform movement, these type of Progressives were always Democrats). These Third Parties represent the key voter issues of nativist nationalism, states’ rights, and progressivism and reformism which impact all the major parties.
Voter issues and Third Parties before the 1850’s aside, the events leading up to the Civil War forced everyone into parties based on positions on slavery and expansion. Then, as noted, confusingly we have the Gilded Age where both parties become elite and pro big business (we can here-forth call these elite factions neoliberal/bourbon liberals and neocons… which at times can be impossible to tell apart). Then, again, there is the progressive era where both parties return to being progressive, again showing us the different types of progressives (just compare Wilson, Teddy, Taft… and you know, the Socialist Debs too while you are at it).
Then, it is after this that the major switching happens, which just so happens to leave us with Populist Progressives, elitist Progressives, and Bourbon Neoliberals on one side, and Tea Party populists, the States’ Rights South, and Neocons on the other side (a side that is today more statist than its Libertarian cousin and, eventually, in the modern cycle, long after Bryan’s Scopes Monkey Trial and the rise of the Reformists, includes the faction “religious right”).
In words, social progressives like William Jennings Bryan and states’ rights supporters like Strom Thurmond might both share a populist anti-elite liberal ideology and a long party history (with both having more in common with a Jefferson than an Adams), but this is not the era of Jefferson or even Jackson, and today those factions are not in the same party (in modern terms, the Tea Party of the South and liberal Progressives of the South aren’t in the same party, nor do they agree on the use of the state).
Likewise, Hamilton, Lincoln, Cleveland, the Roosevelts, Hoover, and Reagan may all share history and aspects of elitist classically conservative ideology, but just like the parties were different in the Gilded Age and Progressive era, they are again different today (in any era the elite factions are as diverse as the populist factions, Reagan is elite in favoring deregulation and business like Hoover or Cleveland, but Lincoln and the Rooselvets were elite in their use of the state to ensure social justice at home and abroad; remember it’s more about factions and voter issues than just being elite or progressive alone… sometimes).
To add one more note before we move on, figures like Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton can all be described as conservative-liberals. Some are more like Wilson and Cleveland, some are more like Taft and Hoover, but in all cases the differences are less pronounced than the differences between the Tea Party, States’ Rights, and the Progressive Left factions on a given social issue. This is to say, when looking for clear signs of changes in the parties, it always helps to look at a President, Party, Faction, or Voter’s views on divisive social issues first, and then to move on to positions on trade, banking, taxation, subsidization, etc.
Moving On, and Notes for Skeptics
With the above said, any shorthand way to describe how “changing factions” led to what we can call “changing parties” it is bound to leave out key details, as the full story is as complex as American history.
Below we tell the long and complicated history of the American parties and party systems in order to illustrate the changing platforms, parties, members, and factions and to find out what did or didn’t change. The idea is to prove a point (like the Democrats are now “the good guys”), it is to accurately portray our history.
I would say to the skeptics: we can have a real conversation here about what did or didn’t change in each party, but the history presented here, the changing Congressional seats over time, the changing voter base of the parties over time, and more show that there are many very real and important changes to discuss.
Let us not rewrite the history of the South (or any other faction) for modern political expediency (the way Ted Cruz tried to with the KKK), American history is already well-documented (V. O. Key’s classic Southern Politics in State and Nation comes to mind; as does Calhoun’s 40 years in Government; as do the well-documented justifications for the Civil War.)
Sure today we all want to identify with Lincoln the First Republican President, but does this not do a disservice to the half of the nation that succeeded in the name of States’ Rights and small government in response to that Republican won election?
We might be tempted to look at the Union and Confederates as “bad guys” and “good guys”, but that view is overly simple. This isn’t about “good” vs. “bad”, this about different American factions, with different opinions on liberty and equality (with different “states” of mind), dealing with the reality of a liberal and Democratic Republic, ideally trying to find Unity and “Good Feelings” despite their differences… who sometimes “change parties”, including changing to third parties, often over single key voter issues, like Civil Rights and States’ Rights.
Of course, if there is one bonus in everyone trying to appropriate Lincoln, it is that perhaps we will all heed his advice that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” (or in modern terms, we live in a Democratically minded Republic in which the nature of our government requires compromise between the powers, the two major parties, and their many factions in any era).
So, in the interest of not dividing the house due to a forgotten history, let’s examine our 240 years of American history carefully. In doing so we will better be able to spot the populist and elite, left and right, city and rural interests that differ by regions of north-east, south-east, mid-Atlantic, mid-west, south-west, north-west, and west which we in any era call “the North” and “the South”, or after the 1860’s, Democrats and Republicans (see 2012 election maps by county for a true feel of where the actual blue/red divides are).
To fully understand our complex history we will need to consider how each party’s stance on the issues (including their official and unofficial “platforms” and the “planks” of those platforms; see Historic Political Party Platforms for examples) evolve though the “Party Systems” as the parties change (for example how positions on trade, banking, religion, currency, military policy, and social welfare and general ideologies change from the Gilded Age to Modern Age), how specific changes in Congress and the voter-base denotes changes, and how third parties like the “states’ rights” and “progressive” parties change things as well.
To see a visual of how this all results in the “red and blue states” switching, simply watch the video below. For an alternative viewpoint, check out the story of William Jennings Bryan, the father of modern American left-wing and right-wing populism (as his story explains Jackson, the Redeemers, and the populists and elites of the Gilded Age and Progressive era; this thus makes him one of the most telling figures in history next to Jackson, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts).
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 above (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 our history in video form, see Keith Hughes’ series on American Elections, CrashCourse American History, and Tom Richey’s American history videos…. and don’t hate me but see also: Growth, Cities, and Immigration: Crash Course US History #25 (slavery is an issue in the south, but in the North it is more about immigration of Irish, Germans, Italians, Catholics, etc), Nativism History (in the North it is nativism as a response to immigration, from this comes groups like the Know-Nothings), John C. Calhoun (an old Southern Conservative Democrat, he begins the states’ rights argument), Calhoun’s Prophecy, The Compromise of 1877 Explained: US History Review (Reconstruction ends before the Deep south is “redeemed”), The Gilded Age (Redeemers, Party Bosses, Carnegie, and Setting Civil Rights back 100 years), APUSH Review: Tammany Hall and “Boss” Tweed (Party Bosses speak to these gang-like entities who run the DNC, constantly giving the progressive wing a hard time from Bryan, to FDR, and Sanders, and help explain why the major cities have inequality issues, some southern party bosses were Solid South Confederates; the rest were northerners allied with the North in the War), MOOC | The Redeemers | The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1865-1890 | 3.9.2 (the Neoliberal Bourbon liberals “Redeem” the south AKA show them how to replace slavery with “northern business practices”; they aren’t the Solid South, they are more like Carpetbaggers and Scalawags), The Election of 1896 Explained (enter Bryan and the Populists), Woodrow Wilson Distinguishes Between His Democrats and the Progressive Party of 1912 (Wilson the Southern Conservative Progressive is different than the Nationalist Teddy), The 1920 Election Explained (Harding begins the Republican small government party as the progressive wing leaves), Untold History: The Rise and Fall of a Progressive Vice-President of the USA (Henry A. Wallace, what a real progressive looks like), America First Explained: US History Review (Red Scare, Anti-Communism, and America first; of course the Nationalist Nativist South is going to ally with the growingly right-wing Republicans… after the States’ rights parties fail from the 40’s to 70’s), The 1968 Election Explained (if we have to name one cycle that ends the union between the South and Bryan-like or Kennedy-like Progressives, it is 1968), Lester Maddox -George Wallace – Ross Barnett- part 1, Exclusive: Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy. Really, really, history backs up our point of view, the Walrus wasn’t Paul and the idea that the parties didn’t switch is an alternative fact… comments welcome below, happy to debate what history means or help clarify a question that hasn’t been answered.
CONSIDER: Andrew Jackson (the first Democratic Party President – 1829) was a southern states’ rights populist and “Jacksonian” Democrat, which (in terms of individual rights, small government, and economic ideology) is similar to today’s socially conservative libertarian. Said plainly, Jackson had a little bit of Bernie Sanders in him, but essentially he was a Tea Party guy that can be contrasted his contemporaries Clay and Calhoun. Lincoln (the first Republican President – 1861) was an anti-slavery Republican in his day. In terms of pushing for social justice, using federal power, and taxation his position was similar to today’s progressive social liberal. In modern terms, Lincoln was a bit of an “income tax supporting” “elitist” “social justice warrior” who can be contrasted with his contemporary War Democrats and Southern Unionists like Andrew Johnson and more Conservative or more Radical Republicans (Lincoln was a moderate). Add in figures like Bryan, Calhoun, Cleveland, and Coolidge, or Byrd, Gore, and Thurmond, look at the Great Triumvirate, and consider Teddy Roosevelt is a Republican and FDR and Democrat, and we know that something changed. This page and our related ancillary pages are about “what exactly changed” and “what the changes mean” from a modern perspective in a way that respects all of America’s diverse factions.
TIP: Both the Tea Party and modern left-wing progressivism have roots in both parties, they don’t share ideology on how the state should be used any more than Andrew Johnson or Lincoln did, but they both generally favor liberty. Differences between key figures like Jefferson, Hamilton, Lincoln, Bryan, and the Roosevelts add complexity to conversations of individual and collective liberty, equality, and rights… but such can be expected in a country founded on the principles of liberalism in which the founders still managed to disagree then as much as we do today. See an essay on the types of American populism, an essay on the types of American Progressivism, and an essay on the American left and right for a better understanding on the different types of American ideologies which form the factions that comprise the political parties. For more reading, see also: How the 19th-Century Know Nothing Party Reshaped American Politics From xenophobia to conspiracy theories, the Know Nothing party launched a nativist movement whose effects are still felt today.
NOTE: From Hoover to Bush, the “southernization” of the Republican party speaks to a melding of solid south states’ rights conservatives and Tea-party-like northern conservatives, both of who are allied with “elite neocons” (why it is pro-Dixie, anti-immigrant, and pro-big business… it is states’ rights south, nativist north, and gilded age conservative mixed with the old Federalist roots). The charge used to be that it was easier to divide the nation by prejudice than it was by class. Perhaps this explains why neoliberals and progressives find themselves on the same side despite the class divide, and of course the same is perhaps true for their conservative counterparts. Or, maybe some voter issues simply divide us at our core more than class, and no visible hand is needed to stoke the fire? Perhaps this relates to Plato’s ideal city-state where the division is by “type of citizen”, and not by “economic class”? Maybe the South is still just waiting for the North to show them respect? I don’t fully get the implications, but history seems clear enough.
TIP: Hitler was a despotic right-wing fascist, despite being in the National Socialist party on paper. On the other hand, Teddy Roosevelt was (in many ways) actually a Nationalist Socialist despite being of the more aristocratic Federalist, Whig, and Republican party line. He had the nationalism so often found in that line in any era down to a “T”, but was literally (not rhetorically like Hitler) also a progressive socialist, pushing hard for positive social policies at home, while using the Monroe doctrine abroad. Here we should note he wasn’t purely nativist, as he was fiercely pro-immigrant, but he had that Federalist spirit, demanding immigrants embrace Americanism completely (see his “assimilation” quote). In all cases, he held a “mixed” progressive-conservative ideology that really speaks to the changing parties and different kinds of progressivism (especially that old Federalist-line Progressivism found in figures like Morris and Hamilton). Specifically, Teddy’s “mixed” ideology speaks to a mash-up of left and right that is not as common in these days (and really it hasn’t been too common in America since Teddy left to form the Progressive party back in the 1910s followed by figures like Henry A. Wallace, although Eisenhower perhaps speaks to this as well and perhaps Bush and McCain are spiritual ancestors of it too). FDR continued Teddy’s ideology in spirit, but at that point it was in the Democratic party and part-Wilson Neoliberal (which is notably different than Teddy’s “New Nationalism Progressivism”).
CONSIDER: The KKK are and were a confederate faction, and they still sport the confederate “battle” flag as one emblem of their ideology. That was a flag of the old Democrats when they were called the Confederacy in the Civil War. The KKK became prominent in the Deep South during reconstruction as they pushed back against the forced “military ” reconstruction policies of the northern Republicans. We know parties change, that is what the page is about. However, we also know that factions change parties, and this is the case for the KKK and some other states’ rights factions once found in the Democratic party (as it is the case for other past factions described on this page). See: The Democrats were the Party of the Ku Klux Klan and Slavery.
CONSIDER: Today it may seem like “the American Religious Right” has a monopoly on religion, and that their form is the American value, but that isn’t correct (especially not globally). The Religious Right is, at the best of times, an alliance of Religions that forms over key voter issues like abortion. However, it just as often seems more evangelical and political than simply “religious”. Its evangelical Protestant first tone, especially when paired with American nativist nationalism, can even at times seem to alienate other Christians like Catholics and Christian Democrats as much as it does liberal atheists. This is like how the old anti-Masons publicly shunned the Masons or how others shunned the religious groups of the Great Awakenings like the Mormons. From this lens, the Religious Right is a bit like the Know-Nothing Version of religious politics. Here one should note that the movement doesn’t really arise until the 1970’s and 1980’s, and its rise goes hand-in-hand with the rise of the New Conservative Coalition. Sure, the old anti-Masons were Whig-like and so the term “right” isn’t misplaced, but it doesn’t do the 1st Amendment much justice to equate the right alone with religious correctness. Religion is historically tied to politics, so these points, and others about the Holy Roman Empire, Reformers, Masons and the Revolutions, Catholic immigrants, witch trials, the Spanish inquisition myth, anti-semitism, socialists and atheism, and more are vital to grasp to place this conversation in historical context (although we tread lightly on the subject here).
TIP: If you want to see a shorter alternative version of this article, see: A Summary of How the Major Parties Switched (that page also deals with the whole “ideology” question that some of Dinesh D’souza’s followers have). In simple terms, I’ll say this: don’t confuse Confederate ideology with the ills of social welfare or Northern inequality. Just because a northern ghetto is troublesome, doesn’t mean social liberalism is equatable with slavery. Firstly, one of Calhoun’s arguments for slavery was [paraphrasing]: “The slave system of the South is superior to the ‘wage slavery’ of the North. By slavery intertwining the economic interests of master and slave it eliminates the unavoidable conflict that existed between labor and capital under the wage system. The amount of money a master invested in his slaves made it economically unfeasible to mistreat them or ignore their working and living conditions.” So here we see “Northern inequality” is not a new problem, and it is not a Confederate-caused problem. To be very clear, there were northern Ghettoes in the 1800’s. It is what the movie Gangs of New York is about. Which is, as noted above, the story of the Know-Nothings in NYC, a precursor to the Tea Party. A faction who would have allied with the Whigs before the Civil War. These being just two examples on what did and didn’t change. (This issue is discussed more below, i’m happy to address it in a comment, and we discuss it elsewhere on the site, but unlike D’souza, I don’t want to conflate it with this story… as the answer is “both parties have issues of economic and social inequality in any era”, not “Bernie Sanders Progressives are Confederate Rebel flag waving Nativist nationalist populists”)…. To be clear, in that Gangs of New York era (and we do mean Gangs), Party Bosses in the Democratic Party would have been on one side and Know-Nothings on the other. Why does NYC have ghettoes? Lots of reasons, one is the longstanding inequality of the north, one is the great migrations, another is opposition to desegregation and busing, but few of them are “because of the Solid Socially Conservative South is voting the Democratic ticket in a secret plan to enslave everyone with welfare”. One can argue that some conservatives or Bourbons in the Democratic party have mixed-intentions in terms of welfare, but it is hard to argue that the dominate faction of Bernie or Obama Progressives do given their record on social justice. Pair this with the fact that the Solid South votes lock-step Republican for the most part today (as we can see on a map), and we can work out the rest of the logic from there. See Wage Slavery and Chattel Slavery are Different for more.
TIP: If you love uncomfortable stories, you’ll love hearing about the argument over “slave power and black suffrage“. You see there has always been a thought (as a conspiracy theory) that whomever controlled “the black vote” had a political advantage. Now consider this for immigrants. At first the Federalists / Whigs were annoyed with the South for their embracing of immigrants and controlling the voting of slaves. Then the South thought the northern Radical “Progressive” Republican elites were trying to enslave them by ending slavery and winning over the votes of freedmen. Then, the mass of immigration and migration of non-Protestant and/or non-Whites to the Democratic Party was more about factions within the Democrats (the Solid South faction not wanting to get voted out of its own party by progressives in eras like the FDR era). Then, it was about Republicans struggling against the Irish Catholic Kennedy, then LBJ’s Civil Rights. Then Carter and Clinton try to win back some of the South (’94 Crime Bill, law and order)… but now, in the W. Bush and Obama era and into the Trump era, with the South in the Republican party, it is about accusations from the right-wing of “illegals voting” and “voter ID” and that welfare is akin to “enslavement”. So from the three-fifths to today, this is still a major political issue (for the politically expedient, progressives, and social conservatives). This is largely what the Ciivl War was really about, and Civil Rights (although obviously the progressives reject the argument that their moral cause is about politics). Very uncomfortable issue, but vitally important and at the core of the States’ Rights argument. See the History of the Black Vote.
TIP: Republican is a reference to a Republican form of government, Democrat is a reference to individual focused Democracy. Both are liberal ideologies. Forget about slavery and segregation for a second, and think about “the people, not the state, choosing who gets to do what”. Here you’ll see that the original Democrats were more for individual and states’ rights, and the original republicans more for elite state control and order. Add slavery back into the equation, now it makes the Republicans look like the social liberals… and… they were. They were, in many ways, “Teddy Roosevelt like social liberals” (social liberals who want to use the state to ensure social welfare and justice)… until Teddy left the party to run in the 1912 election and then Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover reshaped the party into a individual focused small government prior to FDR’s era. Remember though, there was a moment where there was only one major party, the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. We are all Democrats, Republicans, Federalists, and liberty loving liberals… we just don’t agree on specifics, you know like “federation vs. confederation”. The United States is a Constitutional Federal Republic (a federation of states with a Representative Democracy). The Constitution ensures the liberal values of Republicanism, Democracy, and Federalism. Hence the names of the American political parties.
TIP: Just so libertarians understand where they fit in. What we today call “libertarian” can be found in both historic parties, it is found in Jefferson’s Democrats in the early years (although both parties were “classically liberal” and thus somewhat libertarian). However, in the Gilded Age, one could find small government and classical liberal sentiment in both parties. Then starting in the 1920’s it was Harding, Coolidge, Hoover who really begin to define modern small government conservatism with their return to classical liberal economics after Teddy’s split. Then, the spirit begins in earnest with Goldwater States’ Rights Party (which is an alliance of Solid South and Libertarians; they ally on the small government part, not over social issues as much to be fair). This is to say, at one point what we today call progressives, libertarians, and states’ rights confederates were all in the Democratic party “because liberty”. Today states’ rights and libertarians tend toward the neocons “because not social liberal Progressivism and Neoliberalism”. In all cases, libertarians are pro-Gilded Age, anti-State, classical liberals who are different enough to form their own party (as they tend to be socially to the left of their States’ Rights South and Nativist North “small government” allies).
“Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires.” – James Madison
The Founding Federalists and Anti-Federalists of the First Party System
To see how the parties have evolved properly from the founders to 2016, we can start by comparing pre-Civil War factions such as the founding Federalists and Anti-Federalists in the First Party System.
Here we can compare figures like the North Eastern Federalists Alexander Hamilton and John Adams to the Virginian Anti-Federalists Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry to get a sense of the two general types of ideologies that color America’s future parties and factions (as illustrated by the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers).
Here we can see the roots of progressivism and states’ rights populism in the Democratic party and the roots of traditional pro-business conservatism in the Federalists. Here we can also note that, despite none of the founders supporting slavery, it is the small government mentality to Democrats that allows for slavery, while the Whig-like conservatism of the Federalists is more geared toward global trade and banking and less tolerant of the nefarious institution.
Although we can put the founders in two big tents and understand American history that way, looking at the nuanced views of the founders allows us to better understand the roots of the different types of liberal and conservative / elite and populist positions that we find in each party system.
Notable anti-Federalists and Federalists include: the southern Thomas Jefferson who was a radical liberal progressive who championed democracy, federalism, and republicanism, the northern Alexander Hamilton who was a conservative-liberal who helped establish the first national bank and favored global trade, the northern Gouverneur Morris who was a socially minded elitist progressive who hated slavery but came from a family of loyalists, the southern Patrick Henry who quoted Cato, a Tragedy saying “Give me liberty, or give me death!”, the northern Benjamin Franklin who was a centered polymath and Freemason who favored a tax-based commonwealth model for states, the northern John Adams who was a rather elite conservative Federalist from Massachusetts who was respected by everyone (much like the southern George Washington was), the southern James Madison who was a Federalist and Anti-Federalist who wrote both the Federalist favored Constitution (which replaced the anti-Federalist favored Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union between the States) and the anti-Federalist favored Bill of Rights (which he based on the Anti-Federalist George Mason’s Virginia Bill of Rights), the southern Samuel Adams who was a radical Anti-Federalist from the North who served as Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts under the anti-Federalist John Hancock (showing us that in any era ideology in any era can be found in both the north and the south), and more.
All the founders were classical liberals, as they were certainly not loyal conservatives of the Crown, but they were all very different types of liberals (having little more in common than an Elephant and a Donkey as it were). It was these differences that divided them by North/South, City/Rural, and Federalist/Anti-Federalist, and that divided them over related key issues like slavery, banking, military size, and trade. However, in as many ways in which they disagreed, they were United against King George III and for liberty, federalism, democracy, republicanism, and the principles of the enlightenment, finding compromise over the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and other important matters… until the propaganda war between Adams and Clay vs. Jackson and Van Buren in the 1820’s when mounting tension split the country.
“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties.” – Thomas Jefferson
“National debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing.” – Alexander Hamilton
TIP: All the founders shared a love of reason. Their debates weren’t based on emotion driven talking points, but on empirically backed evidence and critical thinking. They didn’t just rebel against a King based on an aversion to Monarchy, they provided a mutually agreed on philosophical justification for their actions today known as the Declaration of Independence. It was the tools handed down by past rationalists and empiricists of the Age of Enlightenment (AKA Age of Reason), including by their predecessors like Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu, and by their contemporaries like Smith, Hume, and Kant, that allowed for such wildly different patriots to join together to form a great nation. With that said, although the anti-Federalists generally favored a more democratic society than the Federalists (hence their future name as Democrats, their support of the Confederacy, their support of the bicameral Virginia plan, and their support of the Bill of Rights) the founders ultimately agreed that they did not expect the common man to apply the same level of reason they did, and this is a large part of why they created a Republic with an electoral college, rather than a direct democracy.
“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” A woman asked Franklin upon leaving the Constitutional Convention. “A Republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin said (half joking).
The Democratic-Republicans and the Second Party System
Now that we have the founders covered, we can examine the next generation of Americans starting with the tension between two types of Democratic-Republicans in the 1824 and 1828 elections, the “establishment” North Easterner John Quincy Adams (John Adams’ son) and the “populist” Southerner Andrew Jackson. In these divisive races, we can see the start of modern party politics, the end of the Era of Good Feelings, and the start of the Second Party System. In the Second Party System, Adam’s supporters become National Republicans before becoming Whigs, and Jackson’s supporters become the “Second Party Democrats”.
Finally, in terms of pre-Civil War factions pertaining to the two major parties, we can examine key figures like the southern pro-slavery intellectual John C. Calhoun and the centered Democrat Martin Van Buren and compare them to the spiritual father of the Republicans and leader of the Whigs the Kentuckian Henry Clay. We can also look at key policies like the Missouri Compromise and Kansas-Nebraska Act and other events leading to the Civil War, and examine the general mounting tension over issues of states’ rights, popular sovereignty, and manifest destiny, to see the role of each in the splitting of the Whig and Democratic parties from the 1820s to late 1850s.
Here we can see clearly, a Jacksonian Democrat is not the same thing as a Calhoun states’ rights Democrat (and neither are fully Jeffersonian). Where Jackson is a more right-leaning populist version of Jefferson, the sort of states’ rights Calhoun and his pre-Confederates are calling for is a step beyond even this.
Finally, we can relate all this to the Civil War era factions, the Union and Confederacy, at the start of the Third Party System when the Whigs become the Republicans… In fact, here we can’t compare two parties (as the Democrats didn’t exist from 1861 -1865), but can instead compare two Americas: 1. the southern Confederate States of America (and their copperhead allies in the North) and 2. the official United States of America (and their War Democrat allies in the North like Andrew Johnson and their Southern Unionist allies in the South) who went to war with the former southern Democrats over their attempts at secession.
We can classify all these the pre-Civil War factions by saying that the Federalists, National Republicans, Whigs, and Union were pro-north, pro-trade, pro-banking traditionally-conservative classical liberals focused on the collective and modernization (AKA “City Interests“) and the Anti-Federalists, Second Party “Jacksonian” Democrats, and Confederates were pro-south, anti-central power, pro-state-power, anti-bank, socially conservative radical classical liberals focused on individual liberty and rural America (AKA “Rural Interests“).
Meanwhile, we can note that “third parties” like the Free Soilers, who attracted pre-Civil War moderates from the north and south, and the People’s Party, who attracted post-Civil War progressives from the north and south, tell an important part of the story of changing politics.
“Foreign powers do not seem to appreciate the true character of our Government. Our Union is a confederation of independent States whose policy is peace with each other and all the world… The world has nothing to fear from military ambition in our Government.” – Polk describing Monroe Doctrine politics.
“The bank, Mr. Van Buren, is trying to kill me. But I will kill it.” – Andrew Jackson. When asked if the two term President had any last regrets, Jackson responded, “[That] I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.” (I.e. the nativist populist regretted not killing the southern and northern party leaders of the time, including his VP Calhoun). Likewise he said, “John Calhoun, if you secede from my nation, I will secede your head from the rest of your body.”
Understanding the Changes in Pre-Civil War America
To recap before moving on: In the late 1700s the American factions won their independence from Britain and formed a new country by compromising and coming together as Federalists and Anti-Federalists, in the early 1800’s they found some unity under Jefferson as Democratic-Republicans, but from Jackson to the Civil War their differences pulled them apart with greater force than their commonalities united them together. The divisive new platforms of the parties create two polarized groups splitting America into Democrats/Confederates of the South and Republicans/the Union of the North by the start of the Civil War in 1861 under the Republican Lincoln who ran on a platform which opposed the expansion of slavery.
To understand how things “went south” so quickly, one has to understand how classical liberal positions can become socially conservative over time. The classical liberalism of Jefferson did not allow individual freedom for everyone, as it allowed for “the freedom to own slaves” and “the freedom for states to be slave states”. Thus, what was once progressive had become socially conservative over time, it was still technically liberal in the classical sense, just certainly not socially progressive… but of course, let us not paint any party in any era with a broad brush, as both parties in any era are compromised of factions who agree only to varying extents.
When the North decided it wouldn’t tolerate slavery any more (a position that can be seen as progressive from one angle and despotic from another), it became more than a human rights issue, it became an issue of cutting off the only means by which the south had to compete with the north economically. The same is true for those “sons of Samuel Adams” (Northerners from the anti-Federalists line) in the North who were Northern nativist populists and Know-Nothings, they were against the new immigrants, Catholics, and the blacks. They weren’t slavers like the South, but they dealt with many of the same issues.
So the tension isn’t just about the morality of slavery (or otherwise inclusive policy), it was about old views not fitting in to a new progressive and modern world (a world more accessible to an upper-class urbanite) and the pushback against this (as seen in everything from the Young America movement to Bleeding Kansas). This theme will play out again to account for the changes in the upcoming party systems where modernization spurs on progressivism which spurs on social conservatism, only leaving everyone all the more bitter, speaking of which, this brings us to “Reconstruction” (which at times is less about construction, and more about enforcing the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and the Enforcement Act of 1870, pushing back against black codes like “apprenticeship laws” which re-enslaved and “disenfranchised” Freedmen, pushing back against paramilitary rebel factions like the Red Shirts and Ku Klux Klan, and military occupation of the south via the Radical Republicans’ Military Reconstruction polices).
“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
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” – Abraham Lincoln
“Let us have peace.” – Ulysses S. Grant
The Third Party System: Reconstruction and the Gilded Age
Post-Civil War era politics in the United States can be understood by examining the Third Party System factions of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.
In the Gilded Age things change in a major way due to both parties embracing cronyism (supposedly)… but before we get there we need to understand Reconstruction.
The changes in the Republican party in this era are best explained by looking at the conservative, moderate, and radical Republicans of Reconstruction (who were split over how to treat the Southern rebels, with radical meaning those with harsh views toward the south, with conservative meaning those who wanted a quick return to normalcy even at the expense of social justice, and with moderates like Lincoln and Grant falling somewhere in the middle). Meanwhile factions like “carpet baggers” and ex-Southern Unionist “scallywags” are illustrative of different reconstruction Democrats.
Here it is vital to note one of the hardest things to talk about in American history, but I’ll say it plain. The South didn’t want to lose the war, they wanted to win, they didn’t want to stop slavery, they wanted to continue it. They did not respond well to losing the war. Lincoln was immediately executed, Andrew Johnson took over, he was impeached, and the military had to occupy the south while the KKK committed what was frankly genocide against Freedmen.
As noted above, Reconstruction was part rebuilding, part Civil Rights (for example the Reconstruction Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1866), part enforcing actual “law and order” and preventing forced slavery under different names and murder (the murder of Republicans and Freedmen by southern conservatives, such as in the Colfax massacre), and part (back to our story) “Redeemers“.
The Redeemers completely changed the Democratic party by unifying the non-racist factions (like the scallywags and carpet baggers) and moving the Democratic party toward business interests (the Redeemers helped to modernize the party and helped them to move away from the slave economy and into the Gilded Age).
This is where the linage of Cleveland, Wilson, LBJ, Carter, and even Clintons arguably come from. When people think “the Democrats didn’t change”, they are confusing Bourbon liberals with Solid South radical liberals. Yes, they are both from the south, no they are not the same faction!
Anyway, before the south can be fully “redeemed”, Reconstruction is ended abruptly by the “Compromise” of 1877 in which the South won the election but traded the Presidency for the end of Reconstruction (see: why it takes another 100 years to get a voting rights act; see: what marks the beginning of the corruption and cronyism of the Gilded Age; see: 1876’s United States v. Cruikshank setting a president).
Generally in this era we can look to war hero Ulysses S. Grant and all the above events to confirm the Republicans are still “the party of Lincoln” going into the Gilded Age… but the upcoming Gilded age in which everyone is pro-business changes everything, especially given Grant’s sometimes laissez-faire attitude toward the crony factions in the Republican party (see Grant, Gilded Age corruption and reform).
After Reconstruction, in the Gilded Age of industrialization and cronyism after the war, we can see changes in the Republican party by comparing Stalwart conservative “crony” Republicans to the Progressive “Civil Service” Half-Breeds. Likewise, we can see changes in the Democratic party by comparing William Jennings Bryan’s Progressive Silver Movement of the 1890s – 1910s (a progressive populist movement that arose in a response to industrialization, and which “swallowed up” the Democratic Party and fundamentally changed it), to Grover Cleveland’s pro-gold classical liberalism (which today we might describe as libertarian and will see in the Republican party, not the Democratic party, from Harding and Coolidge forward), to the traditional southern conservatives still in the party.
The Panic of 1893 marks the decline of “robber baron” era politics and marks the rise of socially minded movements like Marxism and the populist and progressive pro-worker and farmer movements of the north and south (like those led by the Mid-Western progressive populist William Jennings Bryan whose story is one of the most telling in American history in regards to the changes).
Following the Gilded Age, with different types of progressives being in both parties, and workers’ rights and social welfare taking precedence over issues of race, a new “Progressive Era” began.
The laws of accumulation will be left free; the laws of distribution free. Individualism will continue, but the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor; intrusted for a season with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, but administering it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself. – Andrew Carnegie
The Fourth Party “Progressive Era”
The aptly named “Progressive Era” or Fourth Party System can then be understood best by examining the events leading up to the 1912 elections. Here we can compare the northeastern social liberal Republican Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism plan (and his split from Republican Taft as a Progressive Bull Moose) to Woodrow Wilson’s progressive southern Democrat mixed-market New Freedom plan (and his Populist-Progressive pro-income tax supporting liberal Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan).
Ending the progressive era in the 1920’s, with Teddy’s progressives now largely absent from the Republican party, we we can see a changing Republican party under Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover (we even see a “Lilly white southern strategy” under Hoover which sets the precedent for the southern strategies of later Republicans like Nixon). The changes can be seen both in their favoring of classical liberal Cleveland-like Gilded Age economics to big government social justice, and in their related reaction to the Red Scare which had resulted in anti-Communism becoming a major voting issue for a growing base of Republican conservatives in post-WWI and Prohibition era America.
“You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” – William Jennings Bryan
“Political parties exist to secure responsible government and to execute the will of the people.
From these great tasks both of the old parties have turned aside. Instead of instruments to promote the general welfare, they have become the tools of corrupt interests which use them impartially to serve their selfish purposes. Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government, owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.
To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.” – Teddy Roosevelt ‘s Bull moose Progressive Party Platform
The Fifth Party System and American Liberalism and Conservatism
In more modern times we can to look at the Fifth Party System in which race, social justice, the currency debate, religious issues like Temperance and Prohibition, and other issues of modernization seen in earlier systems had already split the parties into many factions. In this era, we can see a telling split by comparing the socially conservative anti-communist classical liberal Republican Hoover (who had a “southern strategy” and ends the Fourth Party era following the Great Depression) to the big government pro-worker social liberal Democrat FDR (who begins the Fifth Party era after barely winning his 1932 contested convention due to his strong progressive streak, which he shared with Republicans like the New Deal Progressive Henry A. Wallace, and which had at that point been out of style for a decade, and which was opposed by conservative party bosses in the Democratic party).
To fully grasp what happens from Hoover and FDR on, it’ll help to quickly discuss American liberalism and conservatism and how they relate to other ideologies like progressivism.
Although we can see shadows of most modern political ideologies in any age of recorded history by looking to old nation-states like Sparta, Athens, and Rome or to revolutionary Britain, America, and France, American liberalism and conservatism undergo a noticeable change in the Gilded Age and Progressive era. Given this, the general tension over social issues, and thus the use of government, can be described in modern times as being between a few general political ideologies:
- Classical liberalism, the original liberal philosophy of liberty, individual rights, and small government, like Jefferson, Hamilton, Cleveland, or Coolidge. This ideology comes in a number of forms including a radical form like Jefferson or the Jacobins in France, a social form that can be seen in the works of Rousseau for example, a religious form which simply wants religious freedom, and an economic form that favors Smith-style neoclassical economics as can be seen in the Bourbon liberal Cleveland in the Gilded Age, Bourbon liberal Wilson in the 1910’s, Coolidge in the 1920’s, or Ron Paul in modern times. The economic form of classical liberalism itself comes in a few different flavors. The dominant forms being libertarianism, which is pro-free market (the Ron Paul Kind), and a type of Hamiltonian conservative-liberalism often called Neoliberalism (the leftwing version) or Neoconservatism (the rightwing version). Here Clinton is a Neoliberal, Bush a Neocon, and Goldman Sachs a dash of both. In other words, this is a liberal position in that usury used to be a sin under the old church states. Its primary focus is markets, not social issues (even when it seeks to solve social issues via the market).
- Classical traditional conservatism, a complex ideology based on hierarchy, order, and tradition. It comes in three general flavors, each opposing a type of classical liberalism: authoritative, economic, and religious. The authority flavor favors the classic power structure of aristocracy, Kings, and order. Our executive branch “deep state” agencies exemplify this classical type of conservatism and certainly, King George III did way back when. The economic flavors include, but aren’t limited to forms of fiscal conservatism and a state controlled mercantile economy. Meanwhile, the religious flavors can be found on the left and right and include movements like Prohibition and Temperance, strict Catholic views on abortion or charity, witch trials, prayer in school, ideas like “America is a Christian nation“, and more. In words, if it stands against liberal ideals of any kind in any era, its a type of conservatism, and if it stands against the classical forms of liberalism, its a type of classical conservatism.
- Social liberalism, an ideology which grows out of classical liberalism and classical conservatism with a focus on social equality. It supports progressive pro-government social justice like Teddy, Bryan, or FDR. Social liberalism is a bit like the old church states and kings. In other words, although it is the most progressive of all the ideologies, being the most focused on equality and social justice and compassion, it needs a really big stick to get social conservatives, classical liberals, and classical conservatives to play ball. Thus, it can be oddly authoritative despite being compassionately left-leaning, as can be seen in the war time tax rates under FDR for example.
- Social conservatism or paleoconservatism, an ideology focused on individual liberty and a romantic vision of “what America used to be”. It grows out of classical liberalism and classical conservatism and stands against big government and progressive social movements and modernization, like Andrew Jackson or George C. Wallace (they want to “conserve” socially). Social conservatism is essentially classical liberalism in the modern age with a dash of strict classical conservatism on issues of immigration, protectionism, and religion. Small government is a classical liberal position, but when used in 2016 to strip protections from a minority group, it becomes a socially conservative position.
TIP: Yes, that “Leave it to Beaver” “ol’ Eisenhower” Americanism is a type of Conservatism, and we can see it in modern Presidents like Bush 41 and Nixon, and many who identify as Conservative identify as this, but this isn’t what the outward message of the Republican Party of 2016 is. A majority faction of the current Republican party (what people call “the new guard” or “new right”) has a mostly socially conservative message, both on social issues and religious issues, thus they have far more in common with ol’ Dixie or McCarthy than with a “real conservative” like Winston Churchill. John McCain is an Eisenhower, sure, and Romney and Bush are those business-minded Gilded Age Republicans or even 1920’s Republicans… but Palin and Trump… their message is nativist populist, and that is no more classically conservative than Bernie Sanders is classically liberal. Sure the new right has flairs of Taft and Hoover, but it is really very Confederate in nature (historically speaking) and the dominance of that factions has really changed the party. How can a rebellious agrarian sentiment that can be traced back to the Confederates be the same as the sentiment of a five-star general and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces whom both parties wanted and who proposed Civil Rights Act of 1957 and of 1960? It isn’t, but, remember the rebellious non-elite agrarians are as much a part of William Jennings Bryan’s and Wilson’s base as they were Andrew Jackson’s, as they were Jefferson’s, as they were a portion of patriots who helped defeat George III. The Civil War wasn’t fought to beat the South, it was fought to preserve the Union and ensure rights for each type of minority in America. This is to say, we can respect each faction without pretending that Eisenhower would have tolerated the antics of New Guard Republicans like Palin or that old Guard Republicans like McCain and Bush aren’t falling out of favor with the base. Again, our goal here is to show factions, so we can understand how factions affect what we call “changing parties” and “party systems”.
NOTE: Many “elites” are classical liberals and/or conservatives, yet most issues discussed in politics between voters are social issues (this is true in any era). For example, almost everyone on K street and Wall Street are neoliberals and neoconservatives, yet the average voter votes on social justice issues. Think about it.
NOTE: One may ask, “just what is the difference between a Hamiltonian, a bourbon liberal, a neoliberal, a neoconservative, and a libertarian?” And, without going into a meta-essay I can answer, “not much, as they all put business first, but but generally each term denotes which party ideology they generally support and whether they are a type of neoclassical or a type of Keynesian, globalist or protectionist on trade, and what industries they favor, Agriculture and oil or finance and factory”. Do we say the Clintons or Bushs grew out of the bourbon liberals, or do we say Wilson and Coolidge did? I could make a case for each. The Gilded Age was all business, so most factions have a business ideology that can be traced back to those times and earlier. The more social ideologies are often more vocal and divisive, and their lineage is much easier to spot than their business-minded counterparts.
TIP: With the above terms in mind, the central idea here is that the social conservative Democrats of the American South switched to supporting the Republican Party as party platforms changed in response to the rise of Social Liberal Progressivism between the Third and Fifth Party systems. This resulted in modern Democrats being a coalition of Progressive Social Liberals, Neoliberals, the Religious Left, and Conservative Classical liberals in terms of authority and state-controlled economics, and modern Republicans being a coalition of Social Conservatives, Neocons, the Religious Right, and Radical Classical Liberals in terms of authority and free-market economics. See “Understanding the American left and right” for more details on the factions in the two major parties, also note that most Presidents have “mixed” ideologies in practice. See also a discussion on the types of liberalism and conservatism, or see a discussion on classical and social liberalism.
The Fifth Party System and the the New Deal and Conservative Coalitions
Now that we have clearly illustrated the above factions and ideologies, we can move on to the last round of changes which happened from roughly the 1930s, to WWII, to the 1960s, to the 1990s as the FDR supporting Progressive Social Liberal New Deal Coalition faced off against the Socially Conservative anti-New Deal Conservative Coalition (with each coalition consisting of members of both major parties).
From the 1930s to the 1990s, from Hoover to Goldwater, to Nixon, to Reagan, to Bush, the “Conservative Coalition” drew southern “solid south” “Dixiecrat” conservative Democrats out of the Democratic Party via their “southern strategy.” By the 1990s, this resulted in the modern American “social conservative” and “sometimes classical liberal” Republican party. Likewise, the New Deal coalition, which opposed the conservative coalition, drew progressives into the Democratic Party and out of the Republican party under FDR’s New Deal, LBJ’s Great Society program, and Clinton’s New Democrats. This resulted in the modern American “social” liberal, and thus necessarily traditionally “classically conservative in terms of authority” party during the same time.
Although the tension between these two factions starts in the 1930s with the New Deal, it comes to a boiling point over issues like States’ Rights, the Second Red Scare, and Brown v. the Board of Education following WWII in the late 40s and 50s.
WWII fundamentally changed America in terms of its status in international politics (including its relationship with the world’s old superpower Britain), in terms of modernizing the country, and in terms of its political parties. With the focus off of the war, and with an expanding population of baby boomers, the national conversation turned toward social issues related to the fascist and communist ideologies that pervaded the war, to old issues of race, and new issues of social welfare.
The new focus on social issues created a split in the party that can be seen in 1948’s Truman vs. Dewey vs. Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond vs. Progressive Henry A. Wallace (where everyone except the Anti-Communist New Yorker Dewey was once a type of Democrat) and 1960’s Kennedy vs. Nixon vs. Harry F. Byrd and Thurmond (where the southern conservative states’ rights party of Thurmond once again makes its differences with the Democratic party shown).
“We have undertaken a new order of things; yet we progress to it under the framework and in the spirit and intent of the American Constitution”. – FDR
The Sixth Party System and Seventh Party System
The changes leading up to Kennedy’s Presidency resulted in the Sixth Party System beginning in the 1960s, when LBJ and MLK worked to bring the Kennedy inspired Civil Rights ’64 and Voting Rights ’65 to life. From this period forward, progressive Republicans like Teddy and Henry Wallace are very rare, and a few select Democrats like Strom Thurmond begin to officially join the Republican party.
After LBJ’s Presidency, as Nixon and Reagan era “southern strategy” politics pushed back against changes of the 1960s, and progressive social liberals pushed for even more change, it arguably results in the Seventh Party System by the Presidencies of the neoliberal / social liberal Bill Clinton and the neocon / social conservative George W. Bush (both of whom are illustrative of the two modern parties, even though they both arguably offered a mix of liberal and conservative values found in earlier factions within past Party Systems).
In this era, most of the old solid south states that had supported the Democratic party, in terms of Congress and voter base, support the Republican party as is evidenced by the 1992 – 2000 elections (where in each election a progressive southern Democrat faced off against a conservative southern Republican).
This doesn’t mean all Republicans identify with solid south politics any more than all Democrats in LBJ’s time did, it only means their faction became part of the Republican party just as they had once been part of the Democrats in response to the changing platforms of the parties.
“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!“. – Ronald Reagan
NOTE: Here we have to be careful to note that Clinton, while southern, is from the line of Wilson, Gore, and LBJ, an ally of Northern Democrats like Kennedy and Obama. He is not from the Deep South, but of course that lineage did ally with the Solid South prior to the split. Likewise, we have to note that the Bush family is from Texas. We haven’t touched on it much, but Texas is not South Carolina. If one were to redraw the states into a few big groups, I’m not sure Texas would really want to be grouped in with the ol’ Dixie Deep South. See: In Texas, history of slavery unique — but not ‘brief’. Texas has large desegregated populated cities and mixed-political views, yes they lean right of course, but a Bush is not a Wallace, a Jackson, an Andrew Johnson, or a Trump.
Modern Party Politics
Finally, we look to what could be the start of a new Party System. The Trump vs. Clinton race largely mirrored the realigning elections of Jackson vs. Adams in 1824 and 1828. In this analogy, Trump is like the nativist populist anti-establishment Jackson who was favored by the South, while Hillary and Jeb Bush to some extent were like the northern establishment liberal John Quincy Adams who was favored by the North. Adams was pro-trade, author of the Monroe Doctrine, and his father was “a Washington insider,” if that helps make the connection clear.
It’s too early to speculate on what the 2016 election means, especially as the November 8th election was an advisory election and electors, who haven’t voted yet, elect the President and VP in our Republic. Certainly, we could comment on strong support for Trump in the north and his celebrity status to draw parallels to Reagan, consider how Trump won with a “law and order” like message typical of the party of the Nixon era, or consider the ways in which Trump harkens back to conservatives like Hoover. It could also be helpful to examine the differences between progressives like Bryan and Sanders and establishment Washington liberals like the Clintons and the Bushs to see changes and lack of changes within the parties.
We might also think whether this was a populist (progressive populist like Bernie Sanders or nativist populist like Trump) election pushing back against the alienation inherent in globalization and if this will have an effect on the future platforms of the major parties.
In fact, even now things are changing. Consider this article which expresses a truism: In Trump era, Democrats and Republicans switch sides on states’ rights. What other changes will happen in this cycle under the new-guard Tea-Party Republican dominated government? What key voter issues, ideologies, and platforms will switch? Great questions, we can assume things will switch, but only time will tell. However, we can assume one thing that won’t switch: the party’s stance on immigration…. and it is an ability to be aware of these things from a 3,000 foot view where our studying of American history will pay off.
“Finally, let us understand that when we stand together, we will always win.” – Bernie Sanders, perhaps speaking as Bryan would have to his farmers and industrial workers crushed under the heel of the Gilded Age; the social populist spirit of Jefferson is alive in any age, but it isn’t always found in one party.
“”In the end, you’re measured not by how much you undertake but by what you finally accomplish.” Donald Trump
TIP: Donald Trump is one of the most abnormal Presidents in the history of the Country, and arguably the least traditional (thus he, like a modern party, is complex). His outward message is slightly neocon and certainly he is from New York, but most of his “traditional” Republican qualities are overshadowed by a strong nativist populist socially conservative message (a Tea Party message). This is why we talk about him as being like a Jackson or Wallace, and not like a Bush, Romney, or McCain. It isn’t an insult, it is simply a truism, he appointed Bannon, not Bush, right? He has qualities of Hoover and Reagan, for sure, but the way he plays to the base is not reflective of the Gilded Age or an Eisenhower Republican, it is reflective of the sentiment of the populist conservative north (like the Know Nothings) and south.
TIP: The Trump vs. Clinton election also mirrors the 1876 election. The fact that it mirrors the two “corrupt bargain” elections shouldn’t be understated given the voting system in our Republic. However, Trump is oddly complex and many more parallels can be drawn than noted depending on what aspect of his character we are talking about.
Summarizing the Party Systems as a Two-Party System
Current events and complexities (like the elements of each past Party System which can still be found in each modern party) aside, there has almost always been a two-party system in the United States. The mentality of each party can be expressed as “northern interests” and “southern interests,” although I strongly prefer “city interests” and “rural interests” (as both have roughly the same meaning in this context). Sometimes we see both interests in the same party, as with Humphrey and LBJ, and sometimes it is less clear cut, but we can always spot it in any era.
Thus, we can use a simple “two party” answer as to which factions held which interests over time, which I hope will be seen as helpful, and not divisive. Remember the U.S. is a diverse Union of 50 sovereign states and commonwealths where the need to get a majority divides us into “red states and blue states” as a matter of custom, not as enemies, but as a United Republic with a democratic spirit.
- Northern (and later coastal) “City” Interests: Federalists, Whigs, Third Party Republicans, Fourth Party Progressive era Republicans (like Teddy), Fifth Party Democrats (starting in the 1930s under FDR, then culminating with LBJ and then Clinton), Modern Democrats.
- Southern (and later middle) “Rural” Interests: Anti-Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, Third Party Democrats, Fourth Party Progressive Era Democrats (Like Wilson), Fifth Party Republicans (starting in the 1920s under Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, then culminating with Nixon and then Bush), Modern Republicans.
The south is still the south, the north is still the north, a city is still is a city, and rural voters are still rural. That isn’t what changed. In any era, geopolitical voters still have their unique vices, like those evidenced by shameful Jim Crow Southern politics or the under-represented Southern Black Belt, or those evidenced by Northern Ghettos filled with refugees from the great migration and working class immigrants. They also have their unique virtues, be they fighting for individual rights, fairness for the farmer, and protecting jobs at home, or for fighting for collective social justice, workers rights, minority rights, and the global trade and central banking that ensures America’s status as a Hegemonic superpower. Sure, at times the divide in America is a single voter issue or economic class struggle, but the basic city/north vs. rural/south split is nearly constant. Thus, it is a good metric for tracing a line through 240 years of factions.
Below we tell the story of the evolution of the American political parties to better describe how figures like Strom Thurmond impact history, and how key issues like popular sovereignty, segregation, free-silver, and civil rights impact the country. We’ll also see how the party of Jefferson became the party of Confederates and only later to became the party of modern social liberalism. First, we’ll summarize how the platforms, members, and names of parties changed and factionalized. Then we’ll explore the party systems and their prominent figures in-depth to illustrate key “political realignments” and realigning elections in United States history.
NOTE: While party officials and members, party ideologies, and party platforms switch between the 1930s and 1990s, it doesn’t all happen at the same time, and some elements are retained by the parties after the changes, and these nuances seem to cause confusion. The Democratic party’s voter base and stances on key issues started switching under figures like Bryan in the early 1900s long before any officials left. Meanwhile, key figures like Strom Thurmond aside, officials were the last people to change in many cases. Many of them remained until they retired like Byrd, while the next generation ran under a different party. In this same vein, one should not mistake somewhat progressive southern figures like Wilson, the Gores, or LBJ to be “the same” as more conservative figures like Thurmond, Byrd, or Wallace. Not everything changes between the 60s and 90s, but what does is enough to flip the red and blue states and reshape American politics. See the 88th United States Congress – 104th United States Congress and compare that to historic elections in that same time for some examples of the slow change from the 60s to 90s. Or, see the 1968 Presidential Election for a symbolic change where the “yellow” states’ rights states in the south were soon to be red, and the blue northern states were soon to stay blue.
The History of the Republican Party (1854-2016). This video does a fair and balanced job of describing the shifting platforms. It pairs well with our points while telling different bits of the story. Keep in mind all videos on this page are curated to help tell the overarching story of the changes. They aren’t made by us, and as such, they don’t necessarily express our views.
TIP: See the voting records of each Presidential election from 1789 to 2012, see the voting record of the “solid south.” see the home states of Presidents, see how expansion and slavery divided the country leading up to the 1860s? See how “red” and “blue” switch over time? These “switches,” which can be verified against the major American political party platforms over time, is what this page will discuss.
TIP: One way to summarize all of this is by saying the changes happened under, or as a result of, key figures including Jefferson and Hamilton, Adams and Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, Bryan, the Roosevelts, Wilson, Hoover, LBJ, and Clinton. See a comparison of the political ideology of each President from Washington to Obama.
TIP: Try not to get sidetracked by the modern day usage of terms like liberal and conservative, this page seeks to use the proper meaning of the terms in each era (with consideration to differentiate between historic meanings, past American meanings, modern American meanings, and types).
An Overview of Platform Switching Between Republicans and Democrats
Above we gave a summary of the party systems, below we will look at key changes, key voter issues, and provide more details and justifications (i.e. if you stop reading now, you can walk away knowing you have covered the basics).
With the above said, there isn’t one change that results in the political realignments and platform switches that define the Party Systems; instead, there are many.
Below is an overview of the most important changes alongside a quick history of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.
The Ideology of Old Democrats and Modern Republicans
Andrew Jackson (the first Democratic Party President – 1829) was a southern states’ rights populist and “Jacksonian” Democrat, which (in terms of individual rights, small government, and economic ideology) is similar to today’s socially conservative libertarian.
Early factions like Jeffersonians and the Young America movement were rather progressive. The Copperheads and War Democrats in the North were non-Confederate conservative factions during the Civil War. A Bourbon Democrat is essentially a Libertarian. Thus, we can say the pro-states’ rights Democrats of Lincoln’s time held both the beliefs of their predecessors the Anti-Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, and those of today’s modern Libertarians and Republicans.
Compared to their opposition the above major parties are roughly pro-south, pro farmer, pro-state-power, anti-central-bank, anti-debt, and anti-taxes. They tend to favor individual rights over collective rights, typically choosing deregulation over government enforced social justice. Thus, they are liberal regarding authority but conservative in terms of social policy. They are, as a party, classical liberals and social conservatives. Today they might be called neocons, libertarians, and paleocons.
TIP: Want to understand modern Republicanism? See this documentary on the Tea Party.
How the Democrats Became Socially Liberal
The Third Party Democrats began to change from social conservative to social progressive in the 1890s at the end of the Gilded Age under the progressive populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan. Under Bryan, the Democratic Party became increasingly socially progressive and necessarily authoritative. From Bryan to Wilson, to LBJ, to Clinton the Democratic Party increasingly favored progressive social liberalism regarding “government enforced social justice and economic intervention” over laissez-faire governance, this attracted progressive Republicans and drove social conservatives from the party over time.
The Ideology of Old Republicans and Modern Democrats
Lincoln (the first Republican President – 1861) was an anti-slavery Republican in his day. In terms of pushing for social justice, using federal power, and taxation his position was similar to today’s progressive social liberal.
The Federalists and Whigs who became the Republicans were often classically conservative in terms of trade, taxes, and general authority. However, factions like Conscience Whigs, Half-Breeds, and Radical Republicans worked along with the fact that Republicans were not the Confederate pro-slavery South and drew a lot of progressives in America’s first 100-or-so years especially in the mid-1800s at the height of tension over slavery.
With that noted, we can say the anti-slavery Republicans of Lincoln’s time roughly held the beliefs of their predecessors the Federalists and Whigs, but (again confusingly) also of today’s modern Progressives and Democrats.
Compared to their opposition the above major parties are roughly pro-north, pro-banking, pro-federal power, pro-northern factory, and pro-taxes. They favor collective rights over individual rights, typically using Federal power to ensure the welfare of the collective. Thus, they are classically conservative in terms of favoring authority, but liberal in terms of social policy. So they are, as a party, classical conservatives and social liberals (today neoliberal “Reagan Democrats” and progressives).
TIP: See this documentary from 1992 to understand New Democrats.
How the Republicans Became Socially Conservative
The Fourth Party Republicans began to change when the Progressive Republican Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt broke from the party in 1912 (with Teddy being one of the forces, along with Bryan, Taft, and Wilson, that gave the “Progressive Era” its historical name). Following the break, the Republicans increasingly embraced social conservatism and opposed social progressivism (they especially opposed Communism). From Harding to Hoover, to Nixon, to Bush they increasingly favored classical liberalism regarding “individual and states’ rights” over central authority. This attracted some socially conservative Democrats like states’ rights Dixiecrat Strom Thurmon. It resulted in a Southernization of the Republican party and drove some progressive Republicans from the party over time.
The Conservative Coalition Vs. The New Deal Coalition
The Conservative Coalition was a coalition between the anti-Communist Republicans like Nixon and Reagan (both Californians) and conservative Southern Democrats. It arose to oppose FDR’s New Deal progressivism, and it blocked a lot of the progressive legislation the New Deal Coalition tried to pass from the 1930s to the 1960s. The socially conservative solid south was still its own entity. It sometimes voted with other Democrats, and sometimes broke off into its own factions. See the 1960 election Kennedy v. Nixon v. Harry F. Byrd. The Coalition tellingly dwindled post 64′ Civil Rights and ended in the Clinton era as conservative southerners became Republicans and formed the modern construct of “the Red States” and “the Blue States.”
Meanwhile, the New Deal coalition (which drew progressives into the Democratic Party, and away from the new American conservative party, making the Democrats the modern American liberal party) explains the progressive coalition of Democrats and Republicans the Conservative coalition opposed. Today the two parties largely resemble these coalitions.
The Rise of Modern Social Liberalism and Social Conservatism
Later we get “a third way” with Bill Clinton’s New Democrats. This “third way” is an extension of the “progressive bourbon liberal” (neoliberal) wing, but mashed-up with the “progressive social liberal” (progressive) wing, and Reagan-era conservatism. These three “social liberal” ideologies which Clinton embodied can collectively be referred to as an American liberalism. These factions, which we can today denote as progressive, neoliberal, and social liberal, can be used to differentiate types of liberals on the political left from the New Deal Coalition and the modern Democratic party of today.
TIP: As noted above in the introduction, there is no one way to understand America’s political ideologies, but each angle we look at things from helps us to better understand bits of the historic puzzle.
Three Factions of Modern Republicans to Oppose This
Although conservatism is complex, it is defined well as an opposition philosophy to liberalism. Through this lens, there is a type of conservatism that stands against for brand of liberalism. Modern American conservatism wants to “conserve,” which means not being progressive on a given issue and which by its nature is not conservative. Thus we get modern social conservatism which says no to social programs and federal power, except when it upholds conservative social values. There is also a more liberal version that we call libertarianism. It is against all uses of state power for any reason and is a form of radical classical liberalism, combined with traditional classical conservatism, which is willing to use federal power to keep order, but not inherently against social programs. These factions (libertarian, neocon, and social conservative) can be said to become allies the conservative coalition mentioned above, although “the establishment” of both parties tends to favor aspects of traditional classical conservatism.
TIP: When either party uses government power, they are traditional conservatives, when either party deregulates and lets the private market and individuals handle it, they are classically liberal. More than one ideology uses classical liberalism, and more than one uses classical conservatism, as all political ideologies grow out of these foundational ideologies.
Other Factors of Note Regarding Switching Platforms – Progressivism, The Red Scare, Immigration, Religion, and Civil Rights in 54′
Other key factors involve the Red Scare (the first and second), the effect of immigration, unions, and “the Catholic vote” (which culminates with Kennedy’s election in 1960) on the parties.
The Republican party changed after losing to Wilson and moved away from progressivism and toward classical liberal values under Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. In this time they also became increasingly “anti-Communist” following WWI (the first red scare). While both parties were anti-Communist and pro-Capitalist, Wilson’s brand of progressive southern bourbon liberalism and his New Freedom plan and then FDR’s brand of progressive liberalism and his New Deal were opposed by Republicans like Hoover due to their use of the state to ensure social justice. Then after WWII, the Second Red Scare reignited the conversation, further dividing factions and parties.
Another important thing to note is that the Democratic party has historically been pro-immigrant (one of the few platforms that didn’t change). Over time this attracted new immigrant groups like Northern Catholics (see the Know Nothing party) and earned them the support of Unions (who were increasingly opposed by Republicans). Big City Machines like Tammany Hall also play a role in this aspect of the story as well. The immigrant vote is one of the key factors in changing the Democratic party over time in terms of progressivism, unions, religion, and geolocation (as many immigrants immigrated to northern cities), and it is well suited to be its own subject.
Another important thing to note related to liberalism and immigration is religion. Religion has always played a role in American politics, but the conversation is complex. Some religions have favored social liberalism, some the individualism, and traditionalism of conservatism. The Jewish, Catholic, Mormon, and Evangelical voters all have an important story to tell in terms of changes in the parties, as do key issues like Temperance and Prohibition.(see Religion and politics in the United States).
Lastly, although race had long been an issue, Civil Rights had been somewhat stagnant as a voter issue since 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson, with other progressive policies and the world wars taking precedence politically. However, after Brown v. Board of Education Civil Rights began to split the Democratic Party between progressives (who were typically pro-Civil-Rights) and southern conservatives who opposed desegregation (see African-American Civil Rights Movement 1954–68). TIP: Listen to the Lee Atwater interview below, he explains this from the viewpoint of a GOP strategist.
Given all the above, we can say, over time, the progressive populist sentiment of the party of Jefferson pulled in progressives and pushed out social conservatives, which resulted in new policies, members, and geographic changes for both parties, which in turn attracted other factions to each party. Today, the effect is that the parties have nearly completely switched platforms aside from a few issues like immigration.
Each party has historically contained a Northern (and later coastal) and Southern (and later middle) faction (what we today call “red states” and “blue states”), and each party has split into conservative, moderate, liberal, and progressive (often called radical) factions.
It is these factions, and the ongoing disagreement over how government should look, that explain the shifting platforms from the Civil War to the Gilded Age, to the Progressive Era, to the World Wars, to Civil Rights, to the Reagan and Clinton eras, and then to today.
The Evolution of America’s Major Political Parties. Another video looking at the History of the Major American political parties like we do on this page.
TIP: This page is general. Below we offer vital details on the above, curated videos, and significant proof. If you want to stop reading here, you now have the bare minimum needed to understand the history of the American political parties. Please comment below with any questions or insight!
An Overview of the Platform Switching By Party System and President – From the Founders to Eisenhower
The First and Second Party Systems (1792-1854) included some important changes and debates. Examples included the argument over the Federalist favored Constitution, and the Anti-Federalist favored Articles of Confederation and Bill of Rights and debates over slavery, modernization, and banking. Major changes began at the end of the Second Party System.
The Second Party system ended with the Whig Party dissolving in 1854. They were critically divided by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the related debate over manifest destiny and popular sovereignty (states’ rights regarding slavery). The heated battle over whether Kansas should be a slave state, and the debate over whether the south could keep expanding southward creating slave states, resulted in the country being split. This had happened in the Mexican-American war. One faction became the Northern Republicans and their allies the Union, who wanted to hold together the Union under a strong central government. The other became the Southern ex-Democrats and their allies the Confederacy, who wanted independence and wanted to expand southward, to for instance Cuba, creating new slave states. By the time Lincoln took office in 1861, the division was inescapable
FACT: The tension was so great the Democratic party ceased to exist from 1861 – 1865 as the Confederacy rejected the concept of party systems; which is why we refer to them ex-Democrats above.
Political fragmentation led up to Civil War. The main “switching” of platforms happened after this divisive war. It occurred in phases over the next 130 years, between the start of Civil War Reconstruction (1865) in the Third Party System, and into the Clinton era (mid-1990’s) in the Sixth Party System. Thus, platform switching took place from Grant to Wilson, to FDR, to LBJ, to Reagan, to Clinton. Often one issue at a time was critical. These included race, states’ rights, the role of government, subsidization, taxation, religion, prohibition, the middle class, banking, immigration, cronyism, progressivism, workers rights, civil rights, voting rights, and social welfare.
When the major parties didn’t embrace a popular voter issue or a specific stance on an issue, a “single issue” third party often did. These parties included the pre-Civil War Free Soilers and Know Nothings, and the post-Civil War People’s Party and Prohibition Party.
During Civil War Reconstruction the parties split into many conservative, moderate, and radical factions over disagreements as to how to treat the South and the Freedmen after the war. This Third Party split resulted in legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and the politics of the Gilded Age when Northern Republicans, and their private market counterparts, dominated politics and industry until the moderate conservative Democrat Grover Cleveland took office for the first time in 1884. During this period America became an industrial superpower under the “Robber Barons” (or, more respectfully, the “captains of industry”). This transformation resulted in two further divisions between factions, specifically a split over the government’s role in the private market (AKA civil service vs. cronyism) and a split over silver vs. gold vs. green-backed money.
The perceived and real corruption of the Gilded Age led to the formation of progressive third parties. One of these was the Progressive People’s Party, a populist party of southern farmers, western Republicans, and northern factory workers who favored silver-backed money for its perceived inflationary properties. They later joined the Democrats under Bryan, and this was one of the key events that pushed the Democratic Party toward progressivism from the 1890s on.
The era ends with the panic of 1893 under the Democrats and President Cleveland (who favored gold-backed money). Cleveland had to borrow money from J.P. Morgan and the international banks, which angered the southern farmers in the Democratic party and pushed the Wall Street crowd and industrialists back toward the Republican Party. The industrialists had tended to support the Union during the war but supported the moderate pro-gold north-easterner, Cleveland.
The post-Reconstruction Gilded Age and Third Party System resulted in a progressive populist era aptly known as the Fourth Party “progressive” era 1890’s – 1932 (an era in which all parties were progressive regarding social and economic justice).
During this Fourth Party WWI-era, America became a superpower via progressive militarism. Women got the right to vote carried by a wave of progressive feminism. The unions and trust-busters were coming in swinging for progressive worker rights. The “great migration” began due to the north favoring social progressivism over social conservatism. America saw another type of progressivism with the economic policies surrounding the Federal Reserve which was established on the back of the Panic of 1907 in which J.P. Morgan personally bailed out America. Even Prohibition was a progressive movement in a sense. Good or bad, this was an era in which new approaches tried to combat existing problems, and it all started with the union of Bryan and the People’s Party.
As the Fourth Party formed in the 1890s, the Democratic party began embracing the Free Silver movement under William Jennings Bryan. As a result of this stance, and with the support of the former People’s Party behind him, the populist Bryan began “swallowing up” the Democratic party and pulling them to the “left” on many issues.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party also moved “left” on many issues, making both major parties resemble factions of today’s Democrats for a brief moment (AKA progressive populists and pro-banker liberals). Eventually, Republicans would start moving “right” again over disagreements between progressive, moderate, and conservative party members.
The splitting of the Republican party had begun during Reconstruction, but finally culminated in the progressive era with Republican Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt forming his 1912 Progressive “Bull Moose” Party. Roosevelt’s move fundamentally changed the Republican Party and resulted in a win for the progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson and a loss for the progressive Republican Taft.
As noted above, from the end of the Gilded Age on the Democratic Party became increasingly progressive. First, it was Bryan and Free Silver, then Wilson’s economic, social, and militaristic progressivism in the 1910’s, then Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and the New Deal coalition in the 1930s.
Despite the increasing populist progressivism of the Democratic party, the socially conservative Solid South Democrats didn’t begin to leave the Democratic Party until LBJ’s Civil Rights Act of 1964. Instead, the parties largely changed under their member’s feet while Republicans slowly moved right and issues like Prohibition, the Great Depression, and WII took center stage.
After Wilson, but before FDR, who was the President during most of WWII, deep splits over progressive religious movements like temperance and prohibition had weakened the Democratic party. This is true even though both Democrats and Republicans supported the Eighteenth Amendment. The split over progressivism cost Democrats three elections in a row: Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, with each Republican President moving further “right,” especially over issues like Communism. The first Red Scare became an issue starting near the end of Wilson’s Presidency, and then we had three Republicans in a row reacting to it while Democrats lost power.
Hoover sought to capitalize on the split in the Democratic Party in 1928 by pursuing a “lily-white Southern strategy” to resuscitate the Republican Party in the South. He did this “[by] purging black Republicans from leadership positions in the Southern wing of the G.O.P.” This move appealed to lily-white Republican factions but angered the “black-and-tan” factions. Unsurprisingly, this caused white Southerners to gravitate toward the Republican party while black and progressive Americans gravitated toward the Democratic party.
Hoover’s race-related tactics aside, it is largely the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and Hoover’s classical liberal laissez-faire response that opened the door for FDR and his New Deal, which Hoover opposed. The Great Depression had gotten so bad by the 1932 election that many Republicans became Democrats as a response. Just compare 1928 to 1932, this was one of those key realigning elections and the Great Depression a key aligning event.
FDR, whose Presidency marks the start of the Fifth Party system, may have been a progressive Democratic President in practice, but he ran as a fiscal conservative, called Hoover a socialist, couldn’t get the vote in the “solid North,” and relied heavily on progressive Republican support. This is to say, that while the Civil Rights legislation in the 30’s and 40’s was passed under a progressive Democratic President, both parties still contained both progressive and conservative factions. This is also true after FDR under Truman in 1948 when the States’ Rights Democrats run under Thurmond. Of note is Truman’s “Fair Deal,” which was unable to pass due to lack of support from conservatives and Southern Democrats. Also of note are the Jim Crow laws of this era, and the lack of action against them, which is historically attributed to solidly Democratic South, not to moderate-progressive Democrats like FDR or Truman. Civil Rights aside, as with Hoover, other issues were seen by many as more pressing in this time, specifically the New Deal and World War II.
After WII and Truman we get the Republican-led Civil Rights legislation under moderate Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower who has a sweeping win in 1952. Eisenhower was a friend to the New Deal and tried to pull his party back to the center, but was largely unsuccessful. His effort failed partially due to conservative populist forces in the party like Joseph McCarthy, who had switched from Democrat to Republican in 1944.
An Overview of Platform Switching in the Modern Era – From LBJ to Today
The growing tension between progressive southern Democrats (who empathized with northern Democrats and progressive Republicans) and social conservative southern Democrats (who favored segregation and disliked social liberalism) came to a boil with 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education. This Supreme Court ruling led to divisive issues like Desegregation busing causing further splits in the Democratic Party, which Republicans capitalized on as they did under Hoover.
Tellingly, progressive Southerners like Albert Gore, Sr. (Al Gore’s dad), Estes Kefauver, Ralph Yarborough, and Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) refused to sign 1956’s Southern Manifesto (a pro-segregation document which most conservative southern Democrats signed, including its author Strom Thurmond).
By the 60’s, the tension was mounting around LBJ’s Great Society programs; specifically 64’s Civil Rights. Some conservative “Dixiecrats” like Strom Thurmond began to leave the Democratic Party for the Republican Party and the George Wallace-led American Independent Party. (NOTE: “Dixiecrats” is a term used to describe southern Democrats, specifically those who would have ideologically been part of the States’ Rights Democratic Party of 48′).
Other southern politicians and voters followed Strom Thurmond over time. Their exit left the now social-liberal (rather than classic liberal) Democrats to support the increasingly socially conservative Republicans under Goldwater-Reagan-Nixon. The “southern strategy” these leaders developed was continued into the 80’s under Lee Atwater, and even extended into the 2000s).
The last major shift happened slowly from the 60s to the 90s and is denoted by groups like “The Reagan Coalition” and Clinton’s “New Democrats.” These groups represent an increasingly modern political realignment, and a tug-of-war involving appealing to different types of blue-collar and conservative populist sentiments. Other key groups of the era include Nixon’s “Silent Majority” and “Reagan Democrats.”
In the transition period of the mid-to-late 60s, progressive Democrats and Republicans usually carried the less progressive Dixiecrats and Republicans on social issues like Voting Rights 65′ and Civil Rights 68′, but over time, as the Republicans moved further to the political right, this became increasingly less true.
Over the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the southern strategy pulled in white southerners and conservatives to the Republican party, and the Republican party also embraced the religious right.
Meanwhile, the Democratic party pulled in movements growing out of Civil Rights. Issues such as Workers’ Rights, LGBT rights, and Roe v. Wade were increasingly allied with Northern big businesses. As they gained popularity in the North and on both the east and west coasts, they embraced the northern economic policy which had traditionally been with the Republican party outside of Cleveland, Wilson, and FDR.
Changes that started with Reconstruction and developed during the period from LBJ to Clinton led the 90’s Democrats toward change. They became the Northern and Coastal party of progressive movements, big business (especially finance and tech), big subsidies, and big taxes (to support it all). Meanwhile, the Republicans, favored in the South and Middle of the country, became the party of individual rights, specific businesses (small business rhetorically, but also big business in terms of tax breaks and deregulation), and religious interests. This is essentially the complete opposite of how things were at the start of the Third Party System.
Although Strom Thurmond left, and the solid south began voting “red” in 68,’ many southern Democrats including the Gores stayed with the Democrats past 1964 – 1968, especially in the Senate (see 88th United States Congress – 104th United States Congress). Likewise, not every progressive Republican became a Democrat. More than politicians changing parties, or the ideology of those politicians changing, the parties and their voters simply changed under them.
Some Dixiecrats, like Robert Byrd, never left the Democrats, and some Republicans retained the spirit of figures like Hamilton and Eisenhower especially under Reagan and H. W. Bush. Despite this, by the time the 105th United States Congress impeached President Clinton, and the GOP turned to W. Bush, the changes are apparent. By the mid-90s the parties finally resembled the parties of today in terms of voter base and positions in the House and Senate.
In the post-90’s era, we saw the second wave of “New Democrats.” These Democrats, like the socially progressive, but pro-trade and business, Barack Obama, stand next to many modern southern Democrats (either reformed or not, depending on who you believe). Groups like the “New Democrat Coalition” (a coalition in the House which contains southern Democrats, pro-trade Democrats, and some progressives) provide an example of this movement.
Did all the “Dixiecrats” “change parties”? No. Did some conservative southern Democrats swap Jim Crow for social liberalism? Maybe, to some extent (Byrd renounced his past, Strom never did). Despite theories that touch on those last points having some weight to them, the voter base and platforms did change over time. Notably, this page is a statement on changing platforms and members of parties, and not on the consequences of social policy, the ideology of the Dixiecrats still in the party, or whether a socially conservative policy from the south is more detrimental to Civil Rights than a given economic policy in the north.
Meanwhile, the nativist populist sentiment of Trump, and recent legislation like the Republican favored voter ID laws, recall the attitude of the socially conservative Democrat George Wallace (“the American populist“), more than the moderate Republican Eisenhower.
Ultimately, the parties did swap many platforms (issues) between the 1850s – 1990s as a matter of record, but not all platforms, members, or ideologies switched. Consequently, we have to explain what it means that Teddy was a Republican and FDR a Democrat, or that Lincoln was a Republican and Obama a Democrat. We also need to consider the way third parties led to changes in the major parties including the 1890’s People’s Party (the Free Silver progressive party who joined the Democrats under Bryan) and the 1912 Progressive Party (where Teddy Roosevelt broke away from the Republican party to run on a more progressive agenda).
The 1960s – 1980s are a little less clear-cut than other eras, but since 1992 the North has mostly voted Blue and the South Red. Compare that to 1860, 1960, 1976, 1984, and 2016, and you can decide what this means for yourself. The voting record is clear, and so are the platforms; much of the rest is a matter of perspective.
For everything we didn’t touch on in our summary, from our perspective, we have Lee Atwater’s infamous 1981 interview which analyzes the same story, but from the perspective of one of the most important Republican strategists of all time:
Now that we have the post-1960’s segregation issue clear let’s get back to the rest of American history starting with Hamilton’s Federalists so we can understand the platform shifts from a historical perspective. If we don’t have a clear picture of the split between Federalists and Anti-Federalists, we won’t be able to see how issues like states’ rights evolved throughout American history and what that means in context.
Remember, America is not a single group and the major parties aren’t single issue parties. We will be dealing with factions, changing times, and changing viewpoints. Below we detail each party system to explain the changes, which go far beyond social issues or what the Dixiecrats do in 64′.
TIP: For more reading see our series on American Politics, our breakdown of major American political party platforms over time, or our pages on the basic types of political parties (and how the modern American parties compare), how to understand the political left and right, liberalism and the founders fathers, or why the founders chose a Republic.
“Republican candidates often have prospered by ignoring black voters and even by exploiting racial tensions,” and, “by the ’70s and into the ’80s and ’90s, the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African-American community, and we Republicans did not effectively reach out. Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.” – RNC Chief Ken Mehlman 2005.
NOTE: For those who want further proofs and details, read on. Much like our history, this page keeps going despite the complex details.
A Summary of the Party Switching by Looking at the Presidents: From the Founding Fathers, to Civil War, to Civil Rights, to Today
In the introduction we provided a chronological summary of the parties by looking at the Party Systems, this section expands upon the story by focusing on the Presidents.
As noted in the introduction, to prove the parties switched platforms clearly, we need to consider at least four political types (if not more), not just liberal and conservative. We also need to think about the single issue “third parties” like the Free Soil Party, the People’s Party, and the American Independent Party, and the difference between collectivism and individualism. This is necessary as collective rights vs. individual rights is the issue at the heart of the debate.
Although the political ideologies are best applied to each issue, some issues don’t arise until the late 19th or even 20th century. The parties have been factionalized throughout history. We can describe the parties, using modern language, as Social Liberal (like Clinton or Lincoln), Conservative (like Eisenhower or Cleveland), Populist/Socialist (like the Roosevelts), and Libertarian/Classic Liberal (Like Jefferson or Reagan).
Social liberals (meaning modern Keynesian social-liberals) favor social progress, globalization, taxes, corporations, and big government. Populist-Socialists (often called progressives in history) favor the people, civil service, and government-backed social justice over big business (a less “corporate” version of social liberalism). Traditional Conservatives want traditional nationalism, oppose progressivism and social-liberalism, and favor specific big businesses like the military, church, and specific aristocracy and oligarchy. Libertarians or those with a classical liberal ideology with right-wing leanings removed want a small government with limited federal power, free trade, and low taxes even if it means powerful plutocrats and injustice. With that in mind, it is best to start off by comparing the first two political factions the Federalists and Anti-Federalists (and then Democratic-Republicans) in the First Party System 1792-1824:
Hamilton, who roughly favors Northern interests and a strong government, was a hands-on Federalist (which is, very roughly, like today’s Washington Liberal-Conservative, he wants a central bank, strong military, and is conservatively loyal to Britain). Jefferson, who roughly favors Southern interests and less government, was a hands-off anti-Federalist (which is roughly today’s Libertarian-Populist, he wants individual liberty, state-rights, and is against big Government for any reason). In terms of England and France, Hamilton is Whig-like (or a Tory if you ask Jefferson) and Jefferson is a Jacobin supporting admirer of the French Revolution (if we ask Jefferson himself).
To further illustrate the divide, Hamilton’s Federalists favored the collective rights (and authority) of a Federal Republic and supported the Constitution (as opposed to the Articles of Confederation). Jefferson’s Anti-Federalists opposed replacing the Articles of Confederation (which called for less central power) and later wanted the Bill of Rights (a bill of liberal human rights to amend the Constitution), which Hamilton and the Federalists opposed.
There were Federalists and Anti-Federalists in both the north and south. The Anti-Federalists favored individual rights, Democracy, no debt, and small government (ideas popular in the south). The anti-federalists favored collective rights, a Republic, debt and credit, and federal power (ideas more popular in the north). Consider compromise positions like the Second Amendment which allowed for gun ownership, but also calls for a militia which can put down an uprising like Shays’ Rebellion or the Whiskey Rebellion. Although the views of both men and factions are much more complex than can be summed up quickly, these facts paint a clear picture of the first political factions.
Not every issue that is important today was important historically. Specific religion, race, immigration, gender, women’s rights, and gun rights weren’t always as divisive in the past (although they were discussed at times). Freedom of Religion was pushed for by Jefferson as it is a fundamental principle of liberalism and the Age of Enlightenment, and Jefferson generally wanted less bureaucracy and looser immigration laws (see the Alien and Sedition Acts and Nativism in the U.S.). Neither took a clear stand against slavery. Hamilton was hardly to the far-right on religion; his main interest was in trade and monetary policy. Issues like these, although discussed since the beginning of our country, don’t become fully divisive (even to the extent of creating third parties) until later due to an influx of Catholic immigrants (see 1854’s Know Nothing Party), the expansion of new territories, and the debate over whether they should be slave states, see 1848’s Free Soil Party.
With the above in mind, in summary, Hamilton’s party is for a British-style central government (a more authoritative liberalism), while Jefferson’s party favors a hands-off, individual rights focused, French-style approach to liberalism.
This division between Federalists (pro-trade, pro-bank, pro-collective rights, and pro-authority) and Anti-Federalists, and then Democratic-Republicans, (pro-farmer, anti-central bank, pro-individual rights, and anti-authority) will come to represent a consistent ideological divide between the North and South, as well as the two major parties. This ideological divide never changes, but new ideologies, platforms, party names and party members will revolve around this divide all the way until the Present day.
Thomas Jefferson | 60-Second Presidents | PBS. This PBS 60 second Presidents series will help illustrate how platforms and parties change over time. Let us start with the obviously Social-Libertarian by governance-style and ideology, anti-Federalist by name (the party that would become the Democrats), Jefferson (a French-style classical liberal). Although Jefferson expands America and accomplishes a few other important feats, Jefferson’s hands-off approach makes his Presidency otherwise lack-luster.
This First Party era also contains the era of good feelings during which the parties worked together from about 1815 to 1825. It also included Henry Clay’s 1820 Missouri Compromise between anti-slavery and pro-slavery factions to balance the number of “slave states” and “free states” (which itself helped balance the south’s dominance in this era which had resulted from the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787). The era ends with the formation of the John Quincy Adams supporting National Republicans of 1825 (who disband in 1833 and become Whigs in the next era).
John Quincy Adams | 60-Second Presidents | PBS. Adams, Clay, and Jackson’s stories intertwine to describe the end of the First Party and start of the Second Party system.
The next era, Jackson’s era, is the Second Party System: 1828-1854. It begins with Jackson’s Presidency, which contrasts the hands-off Jefferson to the more hands-on Jackson, and also marks the start of “the spoils system, as well as a growing tension between North and South over whether or not the new states should be slave states.
Andrew Jackson | 60-Second Presidents | PBS. We call Jackson a “Jacksonian Democrat”, that essentially means a pro-south Libertarian in Jackson’s day. Jackson says states’ rights and individual rights trump the collective rights favored by of the anti-slavery factions. Slavery aside, Jackson resembles Jefferson in his dismantling of the big banks and otherwise populist message.
In the Second Party System, the newly formed Democrats (previously Anti-Federalists and Democratic-Republicans), start to show roots of what we today call conservatism. They use classic liberal principles to support slavery, but use federal power when it suits them.
Meanwhile, the Federalists (after a brief stint as National Republicans) become the Whigs in 1833. They take on some more socially left issues under “the great compromiser” Henry Clay. Despite this being true, the Whigs remain conservative regarding federal power and economic policy (the term Whig comes from the English Whig party, a liberal party, split into two factions one more conservative and one more radical, they opposed the conservative Tory factions).
During this Second Party System, some third parties arise to promote issues (often “single issues”) that lacked strong support in the major parties. These third parties included the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party, the anti-Mason Anti-Mason Party, and factions of anti-slavery Democrats and anti-slavery Whigs who formed the Barnburners, the Liberty Party, and the Free Soil Party led by the notable Martin Van Buren.
Martin Van Buren | 60-Second Presidents | PBS. Martin Van Buren “one of the most important Presidents we never think of” was an anti-slavery community organizing Democrat. He later went on to head the unsuccessful Free Soil Party which contained both former anti-slavery Democrats and anti-slavery Republicans who wanted new states to be “free” and thought that slavery would phase itself out over time if this were done.
The Second Party System ended when platforms and members change as a result of the tension over the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. During this time, the “states’ rights” advocates in the north and south join forces with the pro-slavery south to push for a state’s right to choose to be a slave state, AKA popular sovereignty.
This divisive bit of legislation, and the argument over popular sovereignty caused some southern individual rights and conservative Whigs to join the Democrats (or the popular Know Nothing Party) and caused some of the northern anti-slavery Democrats to join the newly forming Republicans (or the Free Soil Party).
The result was a split between the North and the South leading to the Third Party system, the formation of the Republican party from ex-Whigs and Free Soilers in 1854 (whose first President was Lincoln), and of course the Civil War.
How one piece of legislation divided a nation. This video describes how the Kansas-Nebraska Act resulted in the Whigs becoming Republicans, and how members changed parties around this time.
While some platforms and members change during the First and Second Party Systems and help to define the divide we see during the Civil War, most “switching” doesn’t happen until after Lincoln’s Presidency in the Third Party System starting with Grant. Given this, we can draw a rough, but clear, line from the Federalist party of Hamilton to Clay’s Whigs, to Lincoln’s anti-slavery Republicans (who favor tradition and are pro-social justice, even if it means taxation, big government, and big banks). And, we can draw a clear line from Jefferson’s anti-Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, to Jackson’s Democrats, to the pro-slavery Democrats (who favor states’ rights and human rights [for white men], and are pro-farmer and pro-small government, even if it means social injustice).
The Era of the Third Party System: 1854-1890’s marks the start of the parties shifting platforms and splitting into the factions. Lincoln, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, along with issues that gained new importance like immigration, worker’s rights, temperance, and importantly silver v. gold v. green (backed money) resulted in many changes for the nation.
Going into the Civil War, the pro-slavery, small business, small government Democrats (and temporarily Confederates), oppose the anti-slavery, pro-industrialization, big business, big government Republicans (and temporarily the Union) led by Lincoln. It isn’t that the President wants war, it is that manifest density has left the country unable to advance properly into the next industrial era due to disagreement over states’ rights in regard to slavery. The south is for the farmer and individual liberty, and the North is seeking modernization and collective liberty (which stands to crush the south’s business).
Every past President had ignored slavery to focus on expansion, but Lincoln would not as “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Abraham Lincoln | 60-Second Presidents | PBS. Lincoln, a long-time progressive Whig, is the first President of the new Anti-Slavery Republican party. Lincoln was a moderate Republican, but a true progressive-social-liberal. He created the first income tax and wasn’t afraid to use his power to ensure prosperity for the North and social justice for all. For the next 30 years after his death, the Stalwart Republican crony capitalists who oppose civil-service will run Congress. This angers the progressive-liberal civil-service Whigs and the libertarian-Democrats, and paves the way for corruption in the Gilded Age. That is, until the great Bourbon-Democrat-Conservative Grover Cleveland comes to end the corrupt cronies in congress.
The Civil War lasts from 1861 to 1865. On April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, a Southern sympathizer. The next morning, moderate Republican Andrew Johnson took office. Following the Civil War is Civil War Reconstruction, which explains the start of the major switches.
During Civil War Reconstruction, withPresidents like Grant, the Republicans split into many factions (conservative, moderate, and radical/progressive; and crony capitalists and civil service). They were divided over new Civil Rights legislation and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments (the Reconstruction Amendments), and especially over a disagreement on how to treat the South.
This split results in the moderate Andrew Johnson (who was proceeded by Lincoln and succeeded by Grant) almost being impeached by radical and conservative Republicans (he avoided impeachment by one vote).
During this time Freedmen (freed slaves), joined with more radical Carpetbaggers (a pejorative term used by opponents for new arrivals to the south from the North), and Scalawags or “allies,” who were native white Southerners in Republican factions in the south. Many Scalawags became Democrats joining the conservative Democrats in the 1870’s.
The conservative, moderate, and radical wings of the Republican party aside, two main factions stayed with the Republicans into Grant’s era. These factions were the Stalwart Crony Capitalist Republicans and the Civil-Service “Half-Breed” Progressive Republicans. Meanwhile, other former Republicans, mostly conservative Republicans, left the party for the already factionalized Democrats. By this time, the Democrats included the Libertarian-Liberal Bourbon Democrats who favored states’ rights and became today’s liberals starting in the early 1900’s and the Southern Conservative Democrats who favored slavery and remained with the Democrats until their faction became Nixon or Wallace supporters following Civil Rights in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Other factions of this time (1864-1877), who weren’t part of the major parties, include Victoria Woodhull’s Equal Rights Party, a socially left-leaning feminist and equal rights party, and the People’s Party.
The People’s Party was a populist party that started in the 1870’s but rose from the 1890’s to 1900’s under the free silver movement and Democrat William Jennings Bryan. The People’s Party represents a growing pro-worker populist sentiment outside the major parties in both the North and South throughout the late 1800’s. It fully merges with the Democrats by 1908 creating a solid progressive wing of the Democratic party (who organize behind free silver, which is seen as pro-agrarian, pro-miner, and factory worker due to its perceived inflationary properties. See Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech). The pro-collective rights stance of Bryan stands in contrast to the earlier Democrats who favored individual rights no matter what.
Another faction from the 1870’s, the Liberal Republican Party, represent an offshoot of civil-service minded Republicans that leave the party. The Liberal Republicans are moderate Lincoln-like Republicans who attempted to distance themselves from the “Radical Republicans” who wanted harsher punishment for the South after the Civil War and emphasized equality, civil rights, and voting rights for the “freedmen” (recently freed slaves).
Meanwhile, the Prohibition party shows a more puritanical party that will later find a home with the Republican party during the temperance movement.
These factions (in the major and minor parties) are part of what results in what we call “switching” as they allow large groups of people and politicians, and the issues they support, to go from major party to third party or faction, and then back to major party again. For example, some pro-immigration Liberal Republicans, who are ideologically at odds with their party, move to the Democratic party following the 1872 election, and many of the populist Equal Rights and People’s Party become progressive Northern Democrats in the early 1900’s. See the United States presidential election, 1872 results for an idea as to where the country is at in this era.
Now that we have an idea of what else is going on post-Civil war, let’s get back to the two major parties and Grant.
Ulysses S. Grant | 60-Second Presidents | PBS. Grant, a Half-Breed Republican / Radical Republican opposed by the Liberal Republican party, but popular with Stalwarts, is progressive on social issues like Lincoln and is a popular and moderate politician. However, Grant’s moderate and laissez-faire style ushers in the age of crony capitalists and corruption, his Stalwart friends just weren’t as trustworthy as the rather Progressive Grant.
The Democrats of Grant’s time (1869 – 1877) were split into factions like the Republicans. They began to welcome immigrants and support workers (left), but also enacted new Jim Crow laws (an extension of earlier Black Codes) that worked to segregate the country for the next 100 years (right). Those who remained Republicans embraced issues like religion and temperance, nationalism, and anti-immigration (right), but often also embraced civil service (left).
Many new immigrants in this time are Catholic. This influx of Catholics is part of what make Religion and Immigration major issues in the US, and it is also one of the main things that turn the Democrats into social liberals (along with the free silver movement, the New Deal coalition, and finally the South moving out in 1964). These Catholic Democrats become the Kennedy’s and Biden’s of the world after getting behind Unions and social programs (workers rights and social justice are becoming more important in this new post-war era of industrialization).
One should keep in mind that the Democrats haven’t always had a good track record with immigrants. FDR was no champion of those trying to escape Europe during WWII. Despite the line of Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans being historically strict on immigration, there have consistently been pro-immigrant factions of the Republican party in all eras.
The rest of the Third Party System was marked by weak executive power, further party splitting, a corrupt Congress (see corruption in the Gilded Age), and the rise of the industrialists like J.P. Morgan (who is instrumental in the upcoming progressive era). Not all the issues that matter to the American parties today are with the parties of the late 19th century, but when they are, they are typically split between the many factions of the day (including third parties like the People’s Party). This divisive political environment was exemplified by the post-Compromise of 1877 presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes pushed against the Stalwarts for Civil Service reform, and the Presidency of James A. Garfield, which was sadly cut short by an assassination spurred on by the tense relationships between the Civil Service and Stalwart factions of the Republican party.
James A. Garfield | 60-Second Presidents | PBS. Half-Breed politics and James A. Garfield lead to Civil Service reform before the next round of changes ensues. Garfield was shot by a self-proclaimed “Stalwart of the Stalwarts”, Charles J. Guiteau, on July 2, 1881. Despite Guiteau’s intentions, the assassination led to Chester A. Arthur creating civil service reforms in his term, apparently in-part an effort to finish Garfield’s work.
The divisions of the Third Party System largely remain until the upcoming progressive era, but there is some unity in the interim under the pro-business, anti-free silver, anti-imperialism, and anti-tariff, Bourbon Democrat, Grover Cleveland.
Cleveland won popular support of both Democrats and Republicans three times (1884, 1888, and 1892), due to his commitment to classical liberal principles and his willingness to fight against political corruption, patronage (the spoils system), and bossism. This went well until issues surrounding the Panic of 1893 lost him the Presidency.
The end of Cleveland’s presidency and the Panic of 93′ can largely be seen as the end of the Third era, and the start of the next wave of political realignment.
Grover Cleveland | 60-Second Presidents | PBS. Grover Cleveland is one of the more impressive conservatives in history (a Democrat), but he is a progressive in the same style as Teddy Roosevelt (a Republican). America was, in ways, rebelling against the perceived Corruption of the previous era by all parties favoring progressivism of sorts (in this progressive era social liberalism will trump classical liberalism and conservatism).
The Fourth Party System: 1896-1932 begins as Cleveland leaves office for his second time (after replacing the progressive, but lack-luster Benjamin Harrison). This marks the start of the Progressive era, the era in which the parties begin to reunite and become the parties of today.
This “Fourth Party switch” starts with the Democrats. The Democrats begin to move away from the idea of fighting against Civil Rights due to being pro-individual rights and pro-farmer party and start fighting for the collective rights of immigrants and workers while gaining additional populist support by embracing the free silver movement.
Meanwhile, Republicans are still more progressive than the Democrats on many social issues such as Civil Rights, and this results in wins for Republican William McKinley in 1897 and 1901.
As noted above, figures like William Jennings Bryan, the Populist Free Silver Democrat, give us signs of important changes in Democratic party during this era. While still a Jacksonian Democrat, Bryan is also progressive (running on a more populist message than Cleveland). He fights against big banks and monopolies and generally fights against elites and for the working class.
Bryan is never elected President, partially due to the Solid South Democrats “disenfranchising Progressives, Republicans, and Blacks following the Reconstruction Era“, but his Progressive Republican opponent McKinley does get elected. McKinley’s unfortunate assassination then leads to the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, which can be thought to mark a major change in the Republican party.
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt serves from 1901 – 1909 as a popular moderate-to-progressive Republican. Teddy is very similar to Cleveland in centeredness, principle, and popularity. He does some good and some bad, including notable state intervention and trust-busting, but it is his split from Republicans, and not his Presidency, that marks a change for the Republican Party.
Teddy Roosevelt left the Republicans in 1908 and started his “progressive” Bull Moose party which ran in ’08 and ’12. He wanted to “reverse the domination of politics by business interests, which allegedly controlled the Republican and Democratic parties.” He also wanted “to destroy this invisible Government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day”… it is a clear sign that the Republican party-by-name is losing its more progressive members to the Democrats and retaining more conservative Republicans who, like Taft, support “progressivism by rule of law”, are weak on civil rights, and are pro-business. This sort of mindset will, over time, will lead to Republicans losing some of their support of populists and progressives, but gaining the support of conservatives.
Theodore Roosevelt | 60-Second Presidents | PBS. It’s worth noting, that while Democrats and Republicans have some dark history here, the Populist party of the 1890’s, and the Progressive party of Teddy, generally avoid the most negative issues and are favored by the disenfranchised. Check out the Bull Moose Platform of 1912; the “progressive” party is what we today call social-liberal.
This split between Taft and Roosevelt happens at a time the other Progressive of the day, Woodrow Wilson, is barking up a Hamiltonian-Liberal tree of pro-banker, progress, and Globalization. Wilson is in many ways more progressive than Taft when it comes to social justice (spurring on the first New-Deal-like programs), and very notably supports a central bank (creating the Federal Reserve with industrialists like J.P. Morgan, despite Democrats historically being against this and Republicans historically being for it).
These changes in this era help explain how we get both progressive populist, and a pro-banker and big business, wings of the Democratic party, and how the Republican spirit, which had historically been both elite and progressive, begins to shift.
In the next era, a string of Republican Presidents will mark a new type of Republican, and FDR will marry the progressivism of Bryan, Wilson, and Teddy, with the neoliberal economics of Wilson, helping to cement in the Democrats as the party of the New Deal.
Despite the shifting views of Democrats, the elephant in the progressive room, otherwise known as “the Solid South,” will stay with the Democrats until Kennedy and LBJ push for Civil Rights, and Nixon pushes his “southern strategy” as a countermeasure. This can be seen clearly in the South’s voting record (see the Solid South voting record here).
Despite this truth, FDR was the last Democratic President the Solid South stood behind en masse. Over time, some of the Wilson-like Libertarian Bourbon Democrats will start shifting over to the Republican party in a response to the new liberal-progressive Democrats, while the rest will join FDR and the New Deal Coalition.
Wilson is the last Bourbon Democrat to be President, and he is only that by name in many respects. I consider him the first modern Democrat.
Woodrow Wilson | 60-Second Presidents | PBS. Woodrow Wilson is arguably the first proper Progressive Democrat. The pro-south stance has tapered down, but the Democrats still have the southern vote, the next Democrat will be FDR the staple liberal-progressive who starts the New Deal coalition.
After Wilson, and before FDR, we get a string of Republicans who can be seen as the first modern, moderate Republicans.
With Teddy’s exodus of progressives from the Republican party of the 1910’s, and the progressive Taft losing (in large part due to this), Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, step in to create a new “less progressive” era of the Republican party.
Harding famously promised “a return to normalcy” after beating the socialists, who were increasing in popularity, and the Democrats. Harding is the first true modern conservative, and Coolidge and Hoover largely follow in his footsteps.
Harding is critical of Communists and immigrants but favors civil rights and fights against lynching (yes, that was a thing that was still happening and needed to be fought against).
Harding fought organized labor, supported big business, and fought to lower taxes. While he isn’t a modern Republican in every sense, he and his predecessors are a clear shift away from Teddy and Taft.
Warren G. Harding | 60-Second Presidents | PBS. Harding and Coolidge are the first true modern Conservatives. Conservatives favor the Libertarian hands-off style; the Republicans won’t fully embrace modern right-wing views until Nixon/Reagan. Republican conservatives of this era are more Eisenhower-style Republicans.
Like Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover are moderate conservatives (with each arguably shifting the party a bit to the right).
They support lower taxes, are friendly to Civil Rights, and promote the middle class while supporting business. They also generally favor small government classic liberalism like the old Democrats and today’s Libertarians do. Hoover specifically was put to the test over this ideology with the Great Depression (remember the classic liberal position is to do nothing, i.e. zero state intervention in the free-market).
These three Republicans are, in ways, small government Libertarians just like Jefferson and Jackson, but some of their policies and attitudes mark a shift to the modern right in sentiment, as the Republican party also includes the anti-union voters, the anti-immigration voters, and some religious voters too. A third party of the time, the Prohibition Party, represented the more puritanical religious left and right. Although the Republicans of the late 1800’s were friendly to temperance, these 1920’s Republicans lost some of their favor. The Prohibition party notably considered endorsing Republican Herbert Hoover in 1928, but didn’t.
As the Republicans shift further to the right under Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, a faction of progressives (a New Deal Coalition) is forming inside and outside the major parties, and their formation marks one of the last major political realignments.
Herbert Hoover | 60-Second Presidents | PBS. Hoover “was a different kind of Republican progressive” (i.e. the Republicans are still not yet a “right” party in many respects despite the growing modern Republican spirit). The change is harder to spot on a Presidential level due to the string of Democrats leading up to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953.
Even though we can consider the Progressive Wilson the first modern Democrat in some respects, and we can see the birth of the modern Republicans from Harding to Hoover, the Fifth Party Systems: 1933-1964 starts with the progressive Franklin D. Roosevelt, and not Wilson.
FDR marks the start of the Fifth Party, but more than just FDR, it is the official formation of the New Deal coalition (that began in the progressive era as different factions) that explains what drives the south out of the changing Democratic party from 32′ to 64′.
FDR forged a “New Deal Coalition” of bankers; those in the oil business; the Democratic state party organizations; “Big City machines;” labor unions; blue collar workers; racial, ethnic, and religious minorities including Catholics, Jews, and Blacks; farmers; white Southerners; people on relief; and intellectuals. Essentially everyone who had been oppressed in America joined together in a group, alongside some of their former oppressors.
This pro-business and progressive faction of former radical Whigs, civil-service Republicans, Federalists, Bourbon Democrats, Unions, populists, and other “social and economic progressives” previously found in both major parties, and the third parties, become a single unit under the Democrats. When you wonder why a modern Democrat is pro-business, pro-North, pro-city, and pro-worker and holds a progressive spirit, your answer starts properly in 32-33′ at the start of the Fifth Party.
We know that a modern conservative doesn’t favor New Deal legislation or the big banks like today’s social-liberal Democrats even with Jackson breaking up the first central banks, the Anti-Federalists running against central banks, etc. We also know the libertarians dislike large social programs and union-like entities. So, it’s clear much of the switch has already happened between Wilson and FDR’s time (aside from the southern bloc, which is still voting Democrat, and still has some of the states’ right ideologist in its midst).
Suffice to say, from 1933 to 1945 FDR doubles down on the social-liberalism and progressive politics found in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and Progressive party of his cousin, uniting the two forces in support of a New Deal.
Franklin D. Roosevelt | 60-Second Presidents | PBS. FDR changes everything. The Democrats become the New Deal party; we can only assume this would have been the party of Lincoln.
After FDR we get Harry S. Truman. Truman’s Presidency is largely based around the war, but we can understand the subject of switching by understanding that he pushed for Civil Rights which was opposed primarily by Southern Democrats (rather than Republicans). So we can confirm, despite the Republicans shifting to the right on some issues, in 1948, “the right wing” (in terms of civil rights) was in the Democratic party sitting right next to the progressives.
Meanwhile, the traditional conservative character of moderate Republicans is found in one of the nation’s greatest leaders, a five-star general, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, and 34th President of the United States, the last “progressive-moderate-conservative” Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Eisenhower was a war hero like Jackson and Grant, but unlike those two he was centered, motivated, and a friend to conservatives and progressives alike. He supported the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which was notably opposed by the South, supported the New Deal, and fought against segregation in Washington DC and the Armed forces.
Instead of marking changing times, Eisenhower simply marks the last Republican who didn’t have overwhelming southern support. Other Republicans of the time include those Joseph McCarthy-esque far-right wingers, so these folks exist, but this sort of character isn’t seen in a President, and especially not a President like Eisenhower.
Dwight D. Eisenhower | 60-Second Presidents | PBS. The last of the “progressive” Republicans is best described as a “moderate” or “conservative’ (at the time) Republican. He is an ally to the New Deal, but most certainly a modern Republican in many respects. He famously was pushed to run for both parties, as he was very popular.
By the time the progressive Democrat Kennedy pushes Civil Rights starting in the 50’s as a Senator, and then in the 60’s President, the southern Democrats and northern Democrats are in a tense relationship.
By the time LBJ passes his Kennedy-inspired Civil rights act in 64′, it is the last straw. Even the most loyal pro-south Democrats, like Strom, begin to leave for both the Republican party and the pro-segregationist American Independent Party (led by their famously “pro-segregationist” party leader George Wallace, who notably comes back to the Democrats, not the Republicans, after his loss).
The southern voter base, the House, and other Senators follows the shift over time, with the Republican Nixon seeing a sweeping win in 1968 with the support of the South won via his “southern strategy” after Civil Right 68′ under LBJ.
Despite the changing times, many Dixiecrats (like Byrd and eventually Wallace) remain with the Democrats (under southerner’s like Jimmy Carter, whose family had been a staunch John F. Kennedy supporters since the 60’s) until they begin to be swayed by Reagan and H.W. Bush’s southern strategy.
It won’t be until the Clinton era that the exodus of the south mostly completes (i.e. the shift takes 30 years, and some Dixiecrats never leave), despite all the changes to the Democratic platform since the early 1900’s after Cleveland. Ironically, or not, Bill Clinton is (like Carter) a southern Democrat and make no mistake, southern Democrats are alive and well today. Despite this, the platforms and voter base have most certainly changed under this new generation of “New Democrats.”
Lyndon B. Johnson | 60-Second Presidents | PBS.
The next era, which we might call the Sixth Party system, is less agreed on by historians (some stop at the Fifth Party). If we consider the Sixth party, we can say that the Sixth Party system starts with Civil Rights in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which ended most “Jim Crow” laws and resulted in the major shift of the south leaving the Democratic Party over time.
After Civil Rights, we get the new states’ rights Libertarian party of Goldwater and Reagan (making the same “states’ rights” argument made during the pre-Civil War era in regard to slavery). This party now has at least part of the southern vote and tout being “small government.” They stand against socialism, progressivism, and big government, and do so even if it means opposing social justice reforms. Thus, the Libertarians and the Libertarian-Conservatives are the day’s anti-Federalists. Their counterpart is the new party of (some of) the South, the religious right, the big business and military right, anti-immigration, and traditional conservatives who team up in a “big tent” after Wallace’s third party falls apart. This party is, of course, the Republicans. They are similar to the Democrats of Lincoln’s time but are also easy to equate to some of those factions that sprang up like the Know Nothings and Prohibition Party.
Meanwhile, the Democrats retain some Dixiecrats alongside their progressive wing. They rally around a string of moderate leaders like McGovern and Carter in an era during which the country is oddly almost split by east coast and west coast. Eventually we saw a compromise forming in a New Democrat Clinton era where social justice and the semi-regulated private market held equal importance. They embraced social liberalism, despite the costs and taxes associated, which was opposed by the increasingly classic liberal opposition. Their counterpart was the progressives, who represented the populist, pro-worker, pro-collective rights sentiment found in third parties like the People’s Party and the New Deal Coalition.
Between 1992 Clinton V. H.W. Bush and W. Bush, following the Reagan era, the parties are pretty much in their modern form and are “big tents” of sorts, housing all of America’s still existing factions, each party now resembling a modern version of their former opposition parties from past Party Systems.
Ronald Reagan | 60-Second Presidents | PBS. Reagan is a liberal, er um, classic liberal, er um, essentially a libertarian with conservative leanings. George Wallace, he is not, but some of his party is of Wallace’s flock. Some would argue that Wallace’s faction is dominant in the Republican party of 2016.
One could argue that a Seventh Party System begins with liberals like Clinton and Obama (the first modern Northern Democratic Party President since Kennedy), and is contrasted by Republicans like Reagan and the Bush’s.
I feel that the Seventh Party Begins in 1992 as 64′ – 92′ is pretty clearly its own thing with Dixiecrats considered. One could also argue that a Seventh Party begins with the 2016 election cycle, a time when the establishment of both major parties seek types of globalization. They are pro-business despite their opposing ideologies, while Libertarians like Ron Paul, nativist populist factions of Republicans, and Socialist-Progressives like Bernie Sanders represent some of the nationalist, populist, progressive, classically liberal, and even extreme stances found in earlier eras.
Regardless of specifics, in this post 64′ era (if we consider the factions noted above), and especially in this post Reagan-Bush-Clinton era, we can see that a lot of complex changes have occurred.
When we consider that Democrats and progressives typically vote Democrat, and Republicans and Libertarians typically vote Republican, we can say the two major parties have almost fully switched platforms, members, ideologies, and even geographic locations over time, especially between Grant and LBJ (see the issue-by-issue breakdown below).
Bill Clinton | 60-Second Presidents | PBS. Wait, is this a Seventh Party system?… hmmm maybe. Clinton does call himself a “New Democrat,” and some like Noam Chomsky point out that the modern Democrats are split between New Deal social justice populist FDR types and the free-market Neoliberal big business “New Democrat” Clinton types (their Republican counterparts being the Bush-style Neocons).
“We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace… If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity…, if you seek liberalization… Tear down this wall!” – A message of unity and liberalization from the conservative hero Ronald Reagan.
Summary of Platform Shifting – An Issues-by-Issue Breakdown
The platform switching, evidenced in the above sections, can be explained a few ways. Below we summarize it by contrasting key platforms of each major party in the First to Third Party Systems with the Fifth Party systems onward:
- Federalists/Whigs/Third Party Republicans: Strict on immigration, pro-tradition, anti-slavery, no need to separate church and state or offer a bill of rights, pro-globalization, and trade, a central bank, big government, big business, pro-foreign-military-policy. Regulated economy based on the finance industry and global economy.
- Anti-Federalists/Democratic-Republicans/Third Party Democrats: Pro-immigration, anti-tradition, separate church and state, want bill of rights, limited government, no central bank, pro states’ rights (even if it means slavery), pro-farmer, and anti-war. An unregulated economy based on production at home and farming.
- Modern Post 64′ Democrats: Pro-immigration, anti-segregation, separation of church and state, want bill of rights (today a second bill of rights for education and healthcare for example), big government, pro central bank, pro subsidization (be it to farmer or corporation), and anti-war in sentiment (albeit generally pro-defense). Regulated economy based on finance industry and global economy.
- Modern Post 64′ Republicans: Strict on immigration, pro-tradition, no need to separate church and state or offer bill of rights, pro-farmer and certain big businesses, small government, pro-south, and pro-strong military. Unregulated economy based on production at home and farming.
As you can see the Third Party Republicans essentially become Post 64′ Fifth Party Democrats, and the Third Party Democrats essentially become Post 64′ Fifth Party Republicans on many (not all) key issues.
It is worth more than a note to mention that fitting all America’s factions into two parties will always cause some splitting on issues. For instance, some modern Democrats favor private industry, are laissez faire and pro-foreign-military-policy, and some Republicans favor trade-based big business and are pro-foreign-military-policy. This pro-private industry and globalization is largely what the terms neocon and neoliberal denote. In other cases environment or religion is the primary issue for a voter, and this can result in third parties (like the Green party for instance).
With the above said, ignoring minor factions, today we can break down the current major American political factions into a few basic groups (see a more detailed model here):
- Neoliberal Democrats: Big business Democrats who favor the private market as a means to achieve social justice, tend to favor big government.
- Populist Social-Liberal Democrats: Favor a less privatized version of social liberalism, social justice and environmental issues take precedence over free-market economics and big business.
- Neocon Republicans: Big business Republicans who favor the private market and traditional conservative values and aspects of free-market libertarian ideology.
- Libertarian Republicans: Limited government classical liberals who tend to organize around right-wing ideology. As noted in the first section, sometimes a classical liberal position is seen as socially conservative today.
- Modern Conservative Republicans: Social and classical conservatives who are voting only on modern conservative issues of religion, immigration, gun laws, etc.
Exactly what party has taken which stance on each issue has changed over time, but as displayed above and detailed below, some common threads can be traced throughout history to clearly illustrate “switching.” Of course, the exact changes that occurred are complex, and involve many third parties.
We can’t always trace a neat line between issues or major parties, but the underlying arguments of “how authoritative should government be?” and “should we sacrifice individual liberty for collective liberty?” will always remain the same. This is what ultimately allows us to spot the factions and platform switching in any era so we can compare that to today.
If we make the above summary into one simple chart, it might look something like this:
“I have just one purpose … and that is to build up a strong progressive Republican Party in this country. If the right wing wants a fight, they are going to get it … before I end up, either this Republican Party will reflect progressivism, or I won’t be with them anymore.” – Eisenhower on being a moderate Republican and “progressive” friend to the New Deal Coalition, a stance that harkens back to Lincoln, but isn’t found again after Republicans like Nixon or Reagan.
Better Understanding the Changes in American Politics
Above we summarized the switching of ideologies and platforms between the parties by looking at the party systems and Presidents.
Below we explore details, clarify semantics, answer questions, present curated videos, and illustrate some of the key telling moments regarding the changes described above.
Please consider sharing your insight below, our summing up of the history of American politics is an ongoing effort, see the videos for supplemental content from other authors.
For deeper reading:
- Check out this in-depth article from The Department of Political Science University of Illinois-Chicago.
- See TIME’s top 10 political defections if you want to know about “American politicians switching parties.”
- See a breakdown of major American political party platforms over time.
- Also, see a breakdown of each party and President and how they would be placed on the “left” and “right”.
Did the American Political Parties Switch? – Clarifying the Semantics
People often ask, “did the American political parties switch?”, but this question is semantically wrong, and thus we should address it before moving on.
- People can switch parties (like Strom Thurmond switched to a Republican in 1964 when Dixie Democrat LBJ was preparing to sign his Kennedy inspired landmark Civil rights legislation).
- Parties can switch general platforms and ideologies (which is why Strom left for the GOP).
- Voters can switch parties (like when the white Southern conservatives, slowly over time, left the Democratic party along with Strom).
- However, the parties themselves only switch when they hang-up their hat to become a new party (like when the Federalists became the Whigs).
Where US Politics Came From: Crash Course US History #9. This is one of many videos from CrashCourse. American history is long and complex; if you want to really understand things, I suggest watching the CrashCourse series on U.S. politics.
When Did the Democratic and Republican Platforms Switch?
As noted above, the planks, platforms, ideologies and even the names of the American political parties switched often, and at many different points. We call these changes: the first party system, second party system, third party system, fourth party system, and today’s fifth party system (and potentially sixth and seventh).
Some changes stick out like a sore thumb, but most of the changes between party systems happened slowly over time. It’s hard to summarize or detail every issue, but the keys are names like Free Soil, Free Silver, Bourbon Democrats, anti-slavery Republicans, Stalwarts, Half-Breeds, American Independent, and other telling titles of factions or third parties whose members inevitably have gravitated toward a major party over time.
When we can’t cut through the rhetoric, we can look at voting records to see which party favored what.
It’s important to note, that the current parties weren’t established until the 1850s (third party). From this point forward is when the major “switching” happens, but it is also when issues we consider important today take center stage for the first time. When Lincoln takes office, the Republican party is only a few years old, prior to this the ideology is roughly the same and they are called Federalists, and then Whigs. The same is true for anti-Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, and Jacksonian Democrats.
Perhaps the best answer to, “when did the platforms switch,” is: under Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and LBJ.
In each case, the President took actions which we would see as “liberal” today (meaning social liberal like Keynes and Mill, not classical Jefferson and French revolution style liberal). They used their authority to favor the collective at the expense of individual liberty, even if it meant war. Since Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln are Republicans and LBJ and FDR are Democrats, we have no choice to face a simple and powerful proof of “a switch.”
TIP: Sometimes switches seem to happen because we try to treat the complex political spectrum like it is two simple groups. Almost all American political parties and factions hold “mixed views.” See our breakdown of the basic political parties or our page of left-right spectrum explainers and models.
Why Did Parties Switch Platforms and Members?
The common thread of each major switch, aside from war, was civil rights. Or maybe we could more fairly say, state-enforced social and economic justice (collective liberty) versus individual liberty as is illustrated by the charts on this page.
Civil rights aside, since before the first party was formed, our founding fathers have fought each other tooth and nail over the direction of the country. The biggest issues have been: big business versus small business, big government versus small government (in size), big government versus small government (in authority), whether or not to have a central bank, and how much local and foreign credit and debt was the right amount.
We can see how some of the above values are consistent for a given quadrant of the political sphere, but not for a specific party in a two party system or even a faction or member of a party at a given time! We can also see how specific groups have shifted their interpretation of these things over time, and how some groups simply pay lip-service to the overarching ideals.
There is also the overarching question that has shadowed the debates between parties and led to switching, “should our Republic act more like a Direct Democracy or a Republic” (why the parties are called Democrats and Republicans). Do we look to Athens or Rome? To what extent do we mix these to protect the Republic from the special interests that arise as a natural artifact of liberty?To what extent do we mix this to avoid an overly authoritative state? Or really, to what extent do we embrace democracy in our Republic. Today you may think of one party or the other as wanting all the above things, but that has never really been the case.
The “planks and platforms” (issues) of each opposing group (regardless of name) have changed over time, as specific stances on these issues were taken, and as public opinion changed with the times.
How Can We Tell What Switched, if Anything?
If we want to more accurately see what is happening with the parties we have to look at each political, party, faction, and platform in regards to each issue. We can take any issue, from any major American political party platform over time, and see how it compares to other issues of other parties. This can help us see how parties like Federalists, Whigs, Republican-Democrats, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Progressives did or didn’t change over time, and what that means in perspective.
Below is a chart we created showing one way to view the complex political left-right spectrum (it is similar to the chart above but this time lists basic government types and asks a different set of questions).
A left-right paradigm using a four point graph to show how common government types relate to left and right in terms of “who has authority” and “who says so.”
If one had to place historical figures on the “left” and “right”, in terms of the chart presented above (where we consider the commonly excepted definition of left and right circa America in 2016), then VERY loosely we might say:
- Right Wingers: Hamilton (Federalist), Cleveland (Democrat), Hoover, (Republican), Reagan (Republican)
- Left Wingers: Jefferson (Democratic-Republican), Lincoln (Republican), Teddy Roosevelt (Republican), FDR (Democrat), Johnson (Democrat)
If one had to place historical figures on our more complex 4-point spectrum, then VERY loosely, but more accurately than above, we might say:
- Social Libertarian (left): Jefferson (Democratic-Republican). Favoring a socialist democratic republic with limited power.
- Social Liberal (left): Johnson (Democrat) and Lincoln (Republican). Favoring authoritative Democracy for the benefit of the collective.
- Conservative Libertarian (right): Reagan (Republican). Favoring authoritative conservatism for individual liberty.
- Liberal Conservative (right): Hamilton (Federalist). Favoring authoritative conservatism for the collective.
Again, we find that party names are spread out over political leanings (pointing again to switching platforms). From here forward we will focus on telling the history of each Party System in detail, discussing platforms and political views to better illustrate the changes.
NOTE: The first part of the page presents almost all of the story and our argument. The rest of the page contains the original essay written for this page and as such reiterates some points. The aim will be to combine the sections over time. This page has been an ongoing effort to find truth we can all agree on, and perhaps it only makes sense that attempting a feat like that would spawn a long evolving essay inspired by readers ‘ comments. Remember to comment below with insight!
A Final Summary the American Political Parties
The section below puts everything together one last time to recap the story.
The American political parties take many twists and turns, but we can trace the history of “left” and “right” in American politics to better understand people, times, issues, and the parties of today.
The First Party System: The Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party 1792 -1824
Alexander Hamilton favored central Government and had ties to Britain, and wanted centralized banking. He favored national power over state power. He is today’s “Washington” Liberal/Conservative. Hamilton wanted free-market capitalism and globalization with Britain/America, as a world leader hundreds of years before his time. He is an impressive character.
The Democratic-Republican Party, headed by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, generally opposed Hamilton and his views (favoring state rights and democracy). In simple terms, they are today’s Social-Libertarians (not Reagan-style, the far-right doesn’t emerge in party politics yet). They are more in-line with what people think when they think “rebelling from the authority of the King to be free.”
In this scenario we can say the “big government aspect” of the current American left is with the Federalists, and the “socially liberal” of left, and “anti-big government” of the right, part is with the Democratic-Republicans. But remember, the who far-right thing simply doesn’t exist yet. So the divisive politics of today aren’t anywhere to be found (that happens over slavery and temperance later in Lincoln’s time).
If you had to examine these men, you would say Jefferson is left wing and Hamilton is right wing. Today we would probably call Hamilton a Neoliberal or traditional Conservative, Jefferson more a Democratic-socialist, and Madison more of a centrist (probably truest to the Democratic-Republican name). As noted above, none fully share the beliefs of the current parties, but Hamilton is certainly more “traditional” and Jefferson more “radical.” Hamilton leans toward being “a liberal elite” or even “big business conservative” economically, while Jefferson tends to be a left winger philosophically.
The duality of the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party is well displayed in the clip below in a discussion between Hamilton and Jefferson (which you must watch through YouTube or HBO as it’s from an HBO’s John Adams).
Hopefully after reading the above, and watching the video below we have a clear foundation of our founding fathers from which to move forward. If we confuse these men, we will struggle to draw a line from them to today. So make sure you have this one down.
HBO John Adams – Alexander Hamilton takes Jefferson to school. Hamilton pushed for a central bank since day 1, while Jefferson was much more of an idealist. Adams plays mediator. It’s hard to use the terms Democrat and Republican at this point in history. Rather, our founding fathers had a mix of views corresponding to different aspects of the current Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians.
NOTE: The ideas of the parties changed over the years. It’s important to understand history so we don’t think of Thomas Jefferson as a “right winger” loyal to Britain who would rather have a duel than a debate to protect his honor. That was Hamilton, another of our great founding fathers. If I have to make the call, Hamilton is clearly a Republican and Jefferson a Democrat, but this is more in-line with the actual meaning of the words than today’s political parties.
Second Party System: Enter The Jacksonian Democrats 1828 – 1854
In 1829, the very popular with the people, Andrew Jackson split the Democratic-Republican Party. The new party Jacksonian Democrats were born from this, and that movement would grow into the current Democratic party. If you are looking for the America’s first true liberal Jackson hardly fits the bill. Jackson was a man of the people, and his party was out to take power away from “elites” and “monopolies” and put it in the hands of the people. In practice, his presidency was more like President Obama’s where intentions of change get muddled by the practicalities of the political environment.
Despite many being classical liberals, Jacksonian Democrats in many ways mark the start of right-leaning conservative-libertarians. These Democrats will split into two factions over the 1800’s, one the Bourbon Democrats (social-libertarians) and the other (the solid south pro-slavery). Other Democrats will join third parties like the anti-slavery Free Soil Party as a response to the far-right faction of pro-slavery Democrats of the Jackson era.
Meanwhile, the Whig Party led by Henry Clay came into power around Jackson’s time. The Whigs wanted a national bank, higher taxes, and power for Congress and importantly they want to end slavery. These social-service lefty Republicans are 1/2 today’s progressive, 1/2 Hamiltonian Globalization liberal.
In this time, the Democrats usually want lower taxes and less power for the President on paper (although, lip-service warning, Jackson uses lots of power). For instance, Jackson succeeded in dismantling Clay’s Second Bank of the United States. So, Jackson is opposed to a central bank, is anti-executive power on paper, but is pro-executive power in action. Like Reagan, he uses executive power to deregulate. Jackson was generally anti-tax, but the taxes he does pass damage the south more than the north (the Tariff of Abominations, which tellingly started with John Quincy Adams and had support from Northern Jackson supporters).
Going into the 1830’s, the anti-central bank Democrats in the North anger the pro-slavery Democrats in the South with their general support of the Tariff of Abominations, which specifically hurt the states who put their investment in slavery, instead of industry as in the North. While it is hard to place the blame solely on Jackson, the issue of tariffs favoring the North or South will continue to be a divisive issue that all Presidents have to deal with moving forward.
Voting on “Tariff of Abominations” tally of votes (from Wikipedia).
|House Vote on Tariff of 1828||For||Against|
|Middle States (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware)||56||6|
|West (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky)||29||1|
TIP: If you have to choose, Jackson is the left winger ideologically believing in small government and farmers, and Clay is the right winger who ideologically favored big banks and big government. On social issues Clay is a progressive Liberal; he wants modernization and social justice. Jackson would sooner duel with you than pass a law that tells states and farmers what to do. That means Jackson is essentially running on Barry Goldwater’s platform and it is certainly still the party of Jefferson albeit a more militant version.
Age of Jackson: Crash Course US History #14.
TIP: The Jackson era marks the start of a pro-tax America. Some presidents will be more willing to tax for social justice, like Lincoln and future liberals (by any party name), and some will tax for conservative reasons, but Jefferson’s era was the last era of truly tax-free Libertarians. See history of the income tax (especially if you think modern Republicans have lowered taxes). The parties throughout history have all wanted to tax different things, namely the cash cows of the other party, but it’s been a long time since a party wanted to reduce taxes. This is partly a strategy for the security of the nation (friends by debit and credit), and partly a side-effect of a growing super-power.
QUESTION: Was Lincoln a Democrat or Republican? He was a Republican by name, but today we would consider him to share many qualities with a socially left-leaning Democrat. Learn more about Lincoln.
Third Party System: Republicans Versus Democrats, the Battle Begins 1854-1890s
By 1854, the Whigs had disbanded. Now we had the Democrats, who were split in factions, the The Southern Democrats, who supported the federal protection of slavery in the western territories; and The Northern Democrats, those Libertarian Bourbon Democrats, who wanted all questions of slavery left up to the U.S. Supreme Court. We also had the newly formed anti-slavery Republican Party, who are the old Whigs and Federalists (today’s progressive liberal, in regards to most issues).
The Democrats of this era were against “big government” telling states whether or not they can own slaves, and they don’t want big banks. See the Democratic Party Platform of 1856. The Democrats still saw themselves as the Liberal party of Jefferson and Jackson, the small business farm owning “libertarians.” Meanwhile, the Republicans were a new iteration of the parties of Hamilton and Clay, but with different factions supporting them then when they were Whigs.
The Republicans are for modernization. They are against slavery, for central banks, and for bigger industrialized business. They embrace ideas of taxes, credits, and debts in the interest of prosperity and social justice. They embrace many of the economic policies of the Whigs, such as national banks, railroads, high tariffs, homesteads, and aid to land grant colleges (where the first free public Universities in America come from).
The Republicans also become known as a “pro-business” party at the time (meaning industry, not plantation). The Republican coalition consisted of businesspeople, shop owners, skilled craftsmen, clerks, and professionals who were attracted to the party’s modernization policies.
Meanwhile, the race issue pulled the great majority of white southerners into the Democratic Party as “Redeemers.” The Republicans want a more northern style of commerce and banks, and Democrats want a smaller farmer-based economy, with less government and no central bank. See the Republican Party Platform of 1856 here
By the time Republicans elect former Whig Abraham Lincoln in 1860, it’s pretty clear that the Republicans are leaning toward the left wing and the Democrats are leaning toward the right wing by most of today’s standards, but the Civil War changes this.
TIP: In 1861, Lincoln signed the Revenue Act of 1861, creating the first U.S. income tax. Learn more about the history of the income tax.
The “Switch” that Starts With Civil War
The Civil War and Civil War Reconstruction caused a three-way split in the Republican party. The Conservatives wanted the Confederate States to quickly rejoin the union with no consideration for racial relations. The Radicals wanted to punish the Confederate leaders confiscate Confederate property, and protect the rights of former slaves. The Moderates didn’t want to punish the Confederate leaders, but did want some protections for former slaves. This split effected Democrats, and the formation of new minor parties led to the start of the major change over the next 100 years. See a visual of the split here.
From the end of the Civil War until the 1890’s the Republican party becomes anti-immigration, and pro-religion (embracing “the temperance movement”), and those who we would consider “left” today migrate over to the Democratic party. With this in mind, the Solid South will remain active in the party for the next 100 years. This will help explain the emerging Populists and Progressive led by figures like the Roosevelts.
Starting with Lincoln and the newly formed Republicans, throughout the industrial revolution, and then until Teddy Roosevelt quits the Republicans and forms the “Progressive Party,” is when the major switching of people, parties, names, and ideologies happens. The full switch is in swing when LBJ pushes Civil Rights, Strom becomes a Republican, and the Goldwater-Reagan movement begins.
Take a look at the evolution of the Republican platform here, you can see “the switch” plain as day. It happens as a result of Lincoln and the Civil War.
Lincoln “Now” scene. Like LBJ, Lincoln lost his supporters on “the right” over sweeping Civil Rights legislation. This is only one instance where the battle over Civil Rights and State Rights in a free democracy ends in bloodshed.
TIP: If we trace the parties of the anti-federalist Jefferson, to the Democratic Jackson, we get a rather clear timeline of socialist/libertarian politics. Conversely, if we trace the parties of Hamilton, to Clay, to Lincoln we see the roots of the traditional conservative and the liberal parties. Following Civil War Reconstruction, the switch happens. After Reconstruction issues of Race, Immigration, and Temperance pushed the social-liberals to the Democrats and the libertarian-conservatives to the Republicans. The full switch took 100 years and was cemented under LBJ.
Third Party Part 2: the Industrial Revolution to the Progressive Era
The string of Presidents between Lincoln and Grover Cleveland includes some important stories of “know-nothing parties” and “populist parties” (where those socialists and libertarians go when they are without parties, as they often are), but we can’t cover everything here.
Importantly, this era ends with Cleveland’s second presidency and the Panic of 1893 (which produced a severe national depression). Cleveland is a right-wing President, who was very popular and supported by the South, ultimately his downfall, the height of the industrial revolution, and an upcoming war set the stage for more changes in American politics.
TIP: Cleveland is a great example of a true Conservative, he is a Democrat by name, but this Bourbon Democrat is great like an Eisenhower, he should be a model for today’s Libertarian who sometimes gets side-tracked by their cousins on the right. The end of his Presidency is arguably more about the changing times than the man.
Gilded Age Politics:Crash Course US History #26. The corruption pointed out in this video starts after Lincoln and continues into the late 1800’s and, of course, some of the arguement hasn’t gone away. At the very, least figures like Cleveland and Roosevelt do a bit to get politics back on the right track before the upcoming Progressive era (which is in many ways a response to the post-Civil War Gilded Age).
The Progressive Era: Crash Course US History #27. The Progressive era, named due to all the parties embracing progressivism to some extent.
Fourth Party System: The Progressive Era – McKinley and Teddy 1896 – 1932
The election between Theodore Roosevelt William McKinley was pretty heated over social issues, but the parties stay the same. Republican Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1901-1909) is arguably the last of the “left wing” Republicans. Roosevelt is a very progressive president, and he even started his own “progressive party” after breaking away from the Republicans. The parties are more or less still the same as they were since the split over reconstruction, but the lines are much less clear due to the changing tides of the time.
As progressive as every President hopeful is at this time, Taft and Teddy lose to the first modern Liberal and last of the Bourbon Democrats, Woodrow Wilson.
Between Wilson’s time, and the time when Teddy’s cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) comes into power on the back of the Great Depression, the Democrats become increasingly progressive (despite the southern segregationist) while the Republicans move to the right after Teddy and Taft under figures like Harding and Coolidge.
Century of Enslavement: The History of The Federal Reserve. Finally, the dream of Hamilton and JP Morgan comes to life. It starts with the Panic of 1893 and culminates under Wilson, the first modern liberal (progressive as a Lincoln, modern and big thinking as a Hamilton).
Fifth Party System: The New Deal Era – FDR to LBJ 1933 – 1964
There was no single moment when the Democrats and Republicans switch platforms. This is because America is a country of many people with a wide array of views and alliances. The big hint is that the Roosevelt family is so liberal that the right wing still curses their name before breakfast today. We might take that as a joke, but the northern Democrat Kennedy and Roosevelt families are not GOP favorites.
The Fifth Party System begins with FDR, the first modern social liberal.
By the time of FDR, the Democrats are at least in-part a left-wing progressive-liberal party (home to some populists and socialists, who sat alongside the Dixiecrats), and the Republicans move toward being a right wing conservative party in response.
New Deal legislation hammers the first nail in the coffin for the right-wing supporting Democrats, and by the time Dixiecrat Johnson passes the very liberal Kennedy-supported Civil Rights Act of 1964, the parties we know today are born.
Despite the tension over Civil Rights bills of the 50’s and 60’s, many Southern Democrats continued their strained alliance with the progressive Democrats into the Sixth Party system and many civil service minded moderates remain with the Republicans.
At the end of the Fifth Party, modern-Libertarianism (a right-wing movement sometimes, and other times an intellectual states’ rights Bourbon Democrat movement) was born (or re-born) with supporters like Goldwater and Reagan.
It is in this era that Democrats start supporting collective rights and collective authority, and the traditionally conservative Republicans start embracing the classic liberal states’ rights stance of the earlier Democrats.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act Explained: US History Review. Johnson lost his right wing Democrat over his sweeping Civil Rights legislation. In this context, the words Civil Rights and State Rights become buzzwords of sorts for the parties (despite their inherent altruism). (TIP: State rights are super important, but also a tactic to retain bad laws at a state level. Civil Rights are important, but also a tactic to expand government. This is an age old battle that manifested since Hamilton and Jefferson and still manifests today).
NOTE: Dixiecrat was a short-lived segregationist political party in the 40s, but also a term used to describe a right leaning pro-south Democrat at the time.
Sixth Party and Seventh Party Systems: LBJ to Today – The New Deal Coalition V. the Reagan Coalition
The Sixth party (although less agreed on by historians, some stop at the fifth party) can be said to start after LBJ.
By Clinton’s “New Democrat” era, the south favors the GOP and the parties resemble the parties of today. These parties are split by north and south, much like we saw back in 1854. Otherwise, it is hard to remember a time when the nation was as divided by geographic location.
Americans are still fighting old ideological battles, still licking old wounds, still indebted to the banks and other countries, and still trying to use taxes as a weapon against each other. Americans, divided by their parties, are still fighting over rich and poor, still fighting over small business and big business, and still fighting over small government and big government, They are still fighting over who should have what rights.
Despite all this, by looking at American history, we can see that America is a country that is strongest when it comes together, despite seemingly unrecognizable differences. “A house divided…”, as Lincoln said.
If you did have to divide the house, you would divide it as “The New Deal Coalition V. the Reagan Coalition”. That is to say FDR, LBJ, Carter, Clinton, Obama V. Nixon, Reagan, Bush. Of course, we might say New Deal is “left,” and Reagan-Bush ideas are “right,” but even today, don’t we all pay lip-service to the same ideals? Most Americans say that they support small business, a strong middle class, freedom, liberty, and justice for all. What is it exactly that divides us? The answer is complicated, but history can shine some light on the question.
Revealing the Truth about the Democratic Party Part 2: The Parties Switched. This video is giving a counterpoint.
The American Political Parties Didn’t Switch Myth – The Author’s Perspective
The platforms of the parties constantly switched throughout history, or at least they evolved constantly attracting different types of followers by embracing different stances on key issues. You can twist those facts to say “the parties didn’t change at all” and still be moderately correct, but it is much more accurate to describe the changes honestly and leave the absolutist judgements aside or debate.
Twisting history and presenting half-truths to manipulate people is pretty human, it’s a technique called “rhetoric” which Aristotle wrote about along with Republics and Democracy, and this sort of rhetoric-based politics is clearly laid out in the Powell Memo and utilized by today’s media and politicians. It’s important to respect the hard-won battles the country fought, and the people who fought them, but its also important not to look for heroes and villains when discussing great men and women in a great country.
In most cases, the “switches” resulted from debates about how much power a President should have, how many rights particular people should have, taxation, “race,” North V. South, economic ideas, and what it means to live in a free country (i.e. the meaning of liberty). These aren’t new issues, and can be embraced in different ways by people of different ideologies, as they have been throughout all recorded history.
In all the switches and evolutions of planks and platforms, change was slow, and came with politicians (state and federal) and their constituents made gradual changes.
Figures like Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, and Johnson tend to be considered “left.” While figures like Hamilton and Reagan are considered “right.” But as we noted above, this is a complex subject and rather semantic (especially when we consider single issues instead of trying to paint a party with a broad brush). We can trace rough lines from the revolution to modern times, but it’s hard to compare current politicians with old ones in any overly-simple and still meaningful way. Thus, it is hard to sum up any “party switching” in a mere sentence (or even a long essay such as we have done).
You’ll hear half-truths like “Lincoln was a Republican,” or “Republicans freed the slaves,” or “Democrats fought against civil rights in the 60s.” These statements are all true historically, but very unclear when said without detail in modern times. For instance, Lincoln and the Civil War Republicans represented the North, and some pro-South Democrats like Strom Thurmond fought against Civil Rights before becoming Republicans between 1964 – 1994. We know what these things mean when we think critically about the players, but they come across as dishonest in a rhetoric filled soundbite that is trying to appropriate politicians for parties they wouldn’t have been a part of ideologically.
This sort of stuff is political spin for marketing and ad campaigns. Don’t believe the hype. If you want to know what Lincoln thought, read what he wrote. He wasn’t a modern day Liberal, but he certainly wasn’t a modern day Conservative either. Calling Lincoln a modern day Republican is a little like crediting Reaganomics to Martin Luther King, but calling Lincoln a modern Democrat insinuates that he may have been a Clintonian (and I don’t think that is 100% correct either). King was a progressive Democrat fighting the conservative segregationist Democrats in the South, trying to ensure a progressive Democratic party. Lincoln was a conservative Whig and then Republican, trying to unite the country with Federal power and taxation. Reagan was a classic liberal who teamed up with conservatives to defeat the growing social liberal left. We can debate their character, and we can see aspects of left and right in the character of each, but there is something slightly off about any one party trying to appropriate any American hero in any era.
So, suffice to say, I see a switch, and I see the old Dixiecrat mentality as being with the modern Republicans, but I also respect the many valid counterpoints and value debate and unity over some need to appropriate a specific President and spark more division.
Democrat “Party Switch” Myth Debunked. People like to spin the idea of the parties switching as a myth; they have fair points, which is why these types of videos are featured here. I don’t buy it based on what I know about history. The change was gradual, but the parties switched platforms and planks over time. Given this, it’s fair to simplistically say, “the parties switched,” but more accurate to say, “the parties switched platforms and members.”
To end this, I’ll reaffirm, that there is always more than one way to look at one event. Was Lincoln like a modern Republican? I don’t think so personally, but my perspective on the matter doesn’t magically make him a modern Democrat. Likewise, are not aspects of Hamilton more Republican and aspects of Jefferson more modern Democrat, honestly, I could make a case for it. Perhaps the key to better understanding how things changed is to move away from labels, and move toward understanding we are one America who has no better ally in the world then our political opponents themselves. Did things change and evolve? Yes, certainly a Gilded Age politician is not the same as a Progressive Era politician. But, is this best summed up by “they changed platforms” or “they changed ideologies”? Lots of room for debate there. Who am I to tell someone how to read the facts? Or, as Montaigne said, “What do I know?” and “By diverse means we arrive at the same end”.
If we all agree on the general truths, that is enough for healthy debate.
Life is complex, but for all the grey areas, many truths regarding politics are ultimately black and white when you dig deep enough. We can trace a line from Athens to Rome, to the European enlightenment, to America’s founders, to today. Let’s get the facts straight so the next generation can do the same. We don’t agree on everything, but we all agree on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as ensured by the Republic, and that means a healthy respect for ethics, political history, and each other. For every frustrated American of one kind, there is an equally frustrated one of the other. We have a duty to each other and the next generations to work our stuff out and never let 1861 happen again. If that means sharing Lincoln and Jefferson, and Byrd and Johnson, then so be it.