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

Importance of a Free Press

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution gives American citizens a variety of protections, focusing on the freedom of speech and expression.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

First Amendment to the United States Constitution

The First Amendment grants the following protections:

  • Freedom of religion
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of the press
  • Freedom to peaceably assemble
  • Freedom to petition the government to address grievances

HISTORY


When the Constitutional Convention convened in 1787, the idea of constitutional amendments were proposed as a way of protecting the civil liberties of American citizens. The first ten amendments became known as the Bill of Rights –amendments specifically drafted to guarantee the civil liberties of American citizens.

Initially, there was some debate as to whether or not it was necessary to even include amendments. Some founders didn’t think the federal government would ever become big enough to warrant them, believing the constitutions of individual states would suffice. However, there was significant opposition to the proposed constitution from the states, which was a problem since the federal government needed state governments to ratify the constitution.

James Madison, revered as “the father of the constitution,” was initially in the no-amendments-necessary camp. His mind was changed by his mentor, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was famously wary of a powerful, centralized federal government. Amending the constitution with a Bill of Rights would ensure the civil liberties of citizens were protected at the federal level. So, in 1789, when the constitution was submitted to the states for ratification, it included the Bill of Rights.

FREEDOM OF THE PRESS


‪The very fact the founders decided to grant protection to the free press is indicative of the value and importance they attributed to it.‬ The constitution was created as a blueprint for how to best deploy a representative democracy. It was critical that the constitution would not only provide a framework for governance, but also to embed protections to ensure its survival. The freedom of the press is the most important protection since without it, citizens wouldn’t be informed that their other liberties were in danger.

IMPORTANCE OF THE PRESS


The power of the government comes from its citizens: government by the people, for the people, and of the people. It’s the people who elect their representatives, senators, and president. And it’s therefore imperative that the people are well informed to make the decisions that affect not only their lives, but also the lives of their fellow Americans. It’s the press who’s tasked with gathering, vetting, and delivering information to the people.

We have the three co-equal branches of government and each is responsible for checking and balancing the others. The executive, legislative, and judicial branches are the pillars that hold our democracy in place. The press –that is, the summation professional journalists– serves as the fourth pillar of our democracy. The press is sometimes referred to as the fourth estate for this very reason. It’s not an official branch of government; it’s an independent institution. Calling it the “fourth branch” would be unfitting, but calling it the “fourth estate” is a way of equally conveying both its importance and independence to our democracy.

The free press is the guardian of the people. It keeps a watch on the corridors of power, ensuring those who wield the power are holding true to their oaths of office. We, as the people, need to know when an individual or institution is not acting in our best interest. The press doesn’t have the power to dispense justice, but it does have the power to investigate immoral or unethical actions. They report their findings to the people, which includes the people who do have the power to dispense justice.

It’s our civic duty to stay informed by using reliable press sources. If we’re not getting reliable information we cannot make reliable decisions. And it’s our decisions that shape the future of our democracy.


Quotes on a Free Press


“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

Thomas Jefferson

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

James Madison

“Freedom of conscience, of education, of speech, of assembly are among the very fundamentals of democracy and all of them would be nullified should freedom of the press ever be successfully challenged.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

News versus Opinion

In order for a citizen to make informed decisions, it’s critical to understand the difference between news and opinion. The unsuspecting news consumer could easily be confused by the two. Some news and media organizations have clear designations between the two, while others don’t. News is an objective process; opinion is subjective.

News


News is the reporting of objective, fact-based information by journalists. They investigate a story using tried and true methods –citing public records and documents, interviewing persons relevant to the story, and corroborating the facts between their sources, among other processes. Once enough information is gathered, a news story is produced. The report is then scrutinized editors and by a fact-checking process. When a story is green lit, it’s then released to the public.

While the vast majority of news stories are factually solid, journalists aren’t immune to making the occasional mistake. If a mistake is made, a correction or retraction is published to reconcile the integrity of the reporting.

Opinion


Opinion is a subjective interpretation of a particular story or topic. The opinion piece is produced by someone knowledgeable of the story or topic. In print media, it’s typically done through columnists, editorial boards, and Op-Ed (i.e. opinion editorial) contributors. Newspapers clearly identify the opinion section, ensuring the reader doesn’t confuse an opinion article for a news article.

On television news, the line between news and opinion can be blurry, sometimes very blurry. It’s very easy for the uninformed news consumer to mistake an opinion show for a news program. The viewer tunes into a “news” channel, sees an anchor, and then assumes they’re receiving a rundown of cold-hard facts. Some shows are entirely opinion-based –taking current events and then sermonizing on them through the lens of their own worldview. Other shows have a mixed format: an anchor will report on a fact-based, objective subject, but then turn to a panel of pundits (e.g. analysts, experts) to share their personal opinions on a story.

The difference between news and opinion


It’s incredibly important to understand the difference between news and opinion when consuming media. If someone doesn’t understand the difference, it could potentially lead to becoming misinformed. For example, watching a strictly opinion-based show doesn’t necessarily give the consumer all of the relevant facts. It’s as if you’re listening to a one-sided debate, but never getting the opportunity to hear the other side of the debate. This is akin to reading a review of a horror movie by someone who detests horror movies. It’s highly unlikely that you’re going to walk away with a well-rounded review.

The best approach to truly understanding a story is to always start with the news. The news will give you the facts, the context, and any other relevant information required to understand a story. Moreover, it’s always a healthy practice to use more than one news source. From there, you can then –based on the facts– form your own opinion. If you want dive deeper into a story, you could read or listen to qualified pundits to find out their take.

It’s important to remember that we’re all entitled to our own opinions, but we’re never entitled to our own facts.


Note: this article was edited for grammar, as well as providing some additional content.