A Brief History of How the Republican and Democratic Parties Swapped Ideologies

There has been much discussion regarding the Republican Party’s ideological transformation from its inception in the mid-1850s to its modern ideological platform. Unfortunately, most of the discussion comes from the misinformed, painting the Republican Party with a Lincoln-like grandeur while painting the Democratic Party as a historical villain.

In fact, much has changed from the time the party was established to the Republican Party we know today. There are some people in our country who push the false narrative that the Republican Party is still “the party of Lincoln.” This false narrative also serves to stain the modern Democratic Party with our greatest national sin and our greatest internal conflict: slavery and the Civil War, respectively.

ORIGINS OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY


In 1846, the United States was split in half over slavery: it was illegal in the thirteen northern states and legal in the thirteen southern states. The southern economy was completely dependent on slave labor; the northern economy was fueled by the Industrial Revolution.

Since abolitionists didn’t yet have the power to take on the slave states, they tried to ensure that the U.S. territories would remain free. However, with the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, slavery was now an option for the territories. This was the event that led to the founding of the Republican Party.

The Republican Party was founded on being anti-slavery, pro-civil liberties, as well as being in favor of economic reform. Within a few years of its founding, the Republican Party had its first president: Abraham Lincoln.

Before he even took the oath of office, slave states were already succeeding from the United States. They feared Lincoln would not only prevent the expansion of slavery into other territories, but that he would seek to abolish it all together. Once the slave states started succeeding, they had crossed the proverbial Rubicon. Lincoln had to fight to keep the Union intact, which led to the deadliest war in American history.

SWAPPING POLITICAL IDEOLOGIES


The Republican Party, originally a party in favor of a large and powerful federal government, would become the party of limiting the power of the federal government. The Democratic Party, in the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, opposed a large and powerful federal government and supported states’ rights.

This sounds strange to us today because it’s exactly the opposite of the modern Republican Party’s and Democratic Party’s respective ideologies. How did this happen? Well, as with any study of history, it’s complicated.

The following events played critical roles in completing the ideological swap:

  • During the Reconstruction Era, the Republican Party, which had always been a supporter of big government and big business –the two not necessarily being mutually exclusive– broke into different factions. Some Republicans had greater interests in big business than others, leading to more alternative viewpoints within the party. The factions within the party were at different ends of the political spectrum; some more progressive, while others more conservative.  
  • Around the turn of the century, William Jennings Bryan, a powerful Democrat, muddied the political waters between the two parties. He was in support of giving the federal government more power when it came to pursuing social justice. This gave the Democratic Party a more progressive faction, which was one of the first steps in its transition.
  • In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt (R) became president. He was a more progressive member of the Republican Party, at least as far as big business is concerned. He imposed sweeping regulations against massive business trusts, such as John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. After serving his two terms, Roosevelt tried to make a political comeback, leaving the Republican Party and founding the Progressive Party (also known as the Bull Moose Party). While he didn’t succeed with his run, it did have consequences. The progressives Republicans in the party lost their influence and power within the party, which led to the Republican Party taking on more conservative leadership.
  • The ideological swap made a quantum leap when Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) became president in 1933. When he took power, the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. FDR created the New Deal, which was his strategy for economic recovery. It used the power of the federal government to impose regulations on banks and big business, financial protections for citizens, and created numerous federal programs to promote economic recovery. He also initiated a second wave of the New Deal which focused on social safety net programs, such as establishing the Social Security Administration.
  • In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson (D) is president and civil rights is a major social issue. Johnson, being a Texan, was a southern Democrat. The southern Democrats (known as the Dixiecrats) were a powerful faction of the Democratic Party. They were pro-segregation and therefore opponents of civil rights. Johnson pushed for, and finally signed, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This was the final shot across the bow for most white southern Democrats. As a result, the party was losing the support of white Americans in the south, but at the same time had gained the support of black Americans since the Democratic Party was now seen as the party leading the fight for civil rights.
  • With the democratic fallout in the south from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Republican Party initiated the Southern Strategy. It appealed to the racist sentiments of southern whites –angry that their society was changing since black Americans now had the protection of civil rights, backed by the federal government. This paved the way for a mass exodus: turning southern Democrats into southern Republicans.

CONCLUSIONS


The ideological swap didn’t happen in one fell swoop. The swap wasn’t nefarious or conspiratorial, but simply a reflection of changing attitudes over long periods of time. It was a slow, incremental process swayed by the winds of history.

There’s a significant amount of misinformation and disinformation on this historical topic, which has been confusing the public’s understanding of the history of America’s two preeminent political parties.

The topic has been misunderstood for some time, but with the ascension of President Donald J. Trump, millions of Americans are operating under a different set of facts –“alternative facts,” as one Trump advisor put it. And it’s become a ripe source for propaganda peddlers who argue the Republican Party is still “the party of Lincoln,” the Great Emancipator and Savior of the Union. And using this faulty logic implies the Democratic Party is forever branded as the party of slavery. These are troubling times we live in when propagators of disinformation seek to distort history for their own personal or political gain.

So, the Republican Party being regarded as “the party of Lincoln,” while technically true since he was a republican, is nonetheless a misleading and manipulative statement. Lincoln’s ties to the modern Republican Party exists only in name and not by any meaningful ideological or rhetorical virtues.

“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Abraham Lincoln

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