The United States political landscape, for better or worse, is a two-party system, although there are often so-called “third-parties” that also try to appeal to voters based on different issues. Versions of today’s Democrats and Republicans as the two major political parties began to form in the last half of the 19th century. However, starting in the 1960s, the ideals, platforms, and issues of the two parties started to change and made an almost complete switch by the 1970s and 1980s. In this excellent article by Caroline Peterson, Summer 2015 intern, you will find some interesting facts about the switcheroo of the two parties.
The modern Republican Party is something of another species. Many try to justify it with the “Party of Lincoln” argument—that the Republican party freed the slaves, and therefore, they are actually the party that is on the right side of history, while the Democrats are actually not the progressive party they claim to be. However, such an argument completely ignores the fundamental shift the parties underwent. It seems alien to us now, but at one time Republicans favored the expansion of federal power, while the Democrats sought to curb federal power, especially in the case of civil rights for newly freed African-Americans in the south after the Civil War. But in the succeeding decades, these alignments would fundamentally shift.
Andrew Jackson, one of the more controversial figures in American history, president from 1829 to 1837, was a Democrat, but was not at all like contemporary Democrats, even though he is considered a founder of the Democratic Party. He was hostile toward abolitionism, his administration suppressing anti-slavery petitions in Washington D.C., and likewise changed the United States’ relationship with Native Americans with the adoption of the Indian Removal policy. Such a policy won favor with the South, as we would expect for something so blatantly racist.
Teddy Roosevelt, the trust-busting Republican president (1901-9) of the Progressive Era, was nothing like Republican leaders in power today. He promoted the conservation of wildlife, promised fair policies for the average citizen, and promoted proper regulation of railroads and the regulation of food and drugs. His progressive policies led him to create his own political party in 1912, called the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party.
Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt respectively represent what the parties used to be before they began to switch. According to American history professor Eric Rauchway from the University of California, Davis, the shift began after the Civil War. In the 1860s, Republicans supported the funding of the transcontinental railroad, the establishment of state universities, and promoting homesteaders in the west, all of which required extensive government power to put in place. Democrats opposed such an expansion of federal power, but, as new states were added to the nation and the new Western body of voting constituents became a political interest, Democrats likewise sought to win their vote, in the way Republicans were with their federal programs. Interestingly, Republican federal programs ended up benefitting big businesses more so than the “little guy,” leading Democrats to grab onto those constituents dissatisfied with Republican management and implement federal social programs and benefits to help them out.
Democrats and Republicans underwent a shift in focus; Republicans favored big business, while Democrats favored social programs that helped the smaller, average citizen. Democrats at the turn of the century, especially with the spirited Democrat William Jennings Bryan, who advocated for the use of federal power to promote social justice causes. And as big business developed, profits were more easily made and businesses grown without government involvement, and therefore, in keeping with loyalty to their voting base, Republicans began advocating for smaller government. When Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democratic presidency came along, with the New Deal and all of the social benefits he implemented, the black community, who had supported the Republicans up until then due to their anti-slavery position, began to shift loyalty to the Democratic Party; likewise, Democratic support for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s further allowed the Democratic Party to win African-American support. The Republican Party began appealing to Southern voters’ racism against African-Americans in order to win the votes they’d lost with the black community.
These changes did not happen overnight, however. Dwight D. Eisenhower was a progressive Republican president from 1953 to 1961. He kept New Deal programs in place and even claimed “workers have a right to organize into unions and to bargain collectively with their employers.” And in the 1964 Democratic Convention, black people were not allowed to be seated, to which Fannie Lou Hamer became famous for declaring, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!” However, with Democratic support for the Civil Rights Movement from Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy, and continued advocacy for federal social programs, the Democratic Party won allegiance from the majority of the black population. With Republican President Ronald Reagan’s radical changes in economic policy, which cut taxes and government spending to promote business (and thus cut back on federally funded social programs), the shift in political party ideologies was further solidified. Republicans became the advocates of less government, big business, and less progressive policies, while the Democratic Party became the party of social justice, government programs, and fairness, especially for minorities in America.
When people try to defend the Republican Party’s contemporary views, they will often claim that the party cannot possibly be racist or hostile to the average citizen, since they freed the slaves as the Party of Lincoln and at one point favored federal power for the expansion of business. But when we look at the history of the political parties, it is clear that the modern Democratic and Republican parties are simply not what they used to be.