Republicans Used to be Liberal, Democrats Conservative

Blame it on a poorly educated populace.

In the course of everyday political conversation, there can arise counterintuitive historical facts concerning the actions and ideas of Republicans and Democrats in American history. This can throw any discourse into chaos.

Many conservatives seem very concerned with repairing the modern Republican image. Thus many leap at the chance to point out, for example, that President Lincoln, the Great Emancipator of black slaves, was a Republican, and that Republicans pushed through the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Or, conversely, that Democrats were the ones to break away from the Union to preserve slavery, and later create and protect brutal Jim Crow laws. Many conservatives either forget (or wish to ignore) that Republicans used to be somewhat liberal, Democrats more conservative. And many liberals likewise don’t know their history, and cannot provide much-needed historical knowledge.

Originally, the Republicans were the Northerners, some of them abolitionists, progressives, liberals, radicals. In fact, the Republican Party was founded by Alvan Bovay and other socialists in the former utopian community of Ripon, Wisconsin in March 1854. It was founded as an anti-slavery party, a response to political setbacks in the abolition struggle. (See The “S” Word: A Brief History of an American Tradition…Socialism, John Nichols.)

While the Republican Party Platform of 1860 does contain language familiar to modern Republicans, such as a condemnation of the “reckless extravagance which pervades every department of the Federal Government” and the need to “return to rigid accountability,” as well as the “preservation of our…Constitution [and] the Rights of States,” it set the stage for a (somewhat) liberal Republican party.

The Platform called for the passage of the Homestead Act, which gave government land to Western settlers for free or very little cost. It demanded the expansion of slavery in U.S. territories be halted and called the recent resumption of the African slave trade “a crime against humanity and a burning shame to our country.” It supported the government funding the “railroad to the Pacific Ocean” in “the interests of the whole country” (admittedly, primarily the interests of big business, Northern industry). It supported duties (taxes) on imports from foreign nations to protect Northern industry, partly because this “secures to the workingmen liberal wages.” Impressively, the Republicans even took a stand for immigrants, writing:

The Republican Party is opposed to any change in our naturalization laws… [where] the rights of citizens hitherto accorded to immigrants from foreign lands shall be abridged or impaired; and [the Republican Party is] in favor of giving a full and efficient protection to the rights of all classes of citizens, whether native or naturalized, both at home and abroad.

Free stuff? Trying to improve the condition of blacks and immigrants? Massive government spending on programs for the common good? Rejecting free trade? Liberal wages? Not the usual rhetoric of most Republican politicians today. So it was natural for Lincoln, the first Republican president, to work to terminate slavery, or say things like this in his 1861 State of the Union address:

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration… A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them.

Language like this hints at Lincoln’s friendships with Marxists exiled from Europe (see Nichols) and his positive interactions with Karl Marx.

The Democratic Party was the party of the South, the slave-owners, the conservatives.

They opposed these liberal ideas Republicans were coming up with, and of course Democrats in some states were willing to declare independence to continue enslaving black people. Thus it was natural for a Democrat like Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, to explain that the Confederacy’s foundations laid “…upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition” (see James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me).

This in no way means there were no Democrats who opposed slavery, nor that all Republicans cared about freeing slaves, much less black equality. Most Republicans did not care about ending slavery until the Civil War was well underway. However, the progressives congregated in the Republican Party. The die-hard abolitionists were called “Radical Republicans,” separating their ideology from mainstream Republicans, and they cursed Lincoln for being too slow on the issue of black freedom.

As much as modern conservatives would like to take credit for freeing the slaves, a bit of historical knowledge reveals the Republican Party was the more liberal party during that era. And the events very much make sense when you consider what it means to be conservative (preserve traditions, resist broad social change) or liberal (open to new ideas and broad social change), which aligns neatly with modern psychological research indicating the person who thinks in less abstract ways or has a larger right amygdala, which influences fear and anxiety, tends to be conservative. Fear of “the Other” is a real factor of political ideology.

Similar to forgetting the Democratic Party of the mid-1800s was made up of secessionist conservatives, present-day conservatives are likewise eager to point out Democrats opposed the civil rights acts of a century later. This fails to take into account that the ideology prevalent in the 1860s was still prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s South, and the vessel of that ideology was still the Democratic Party.

How was it that after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, 99 congressmen issued a “Southern Manifesto” condemning the decision, and 97 of them were Democrats? How was it that Eisenhower, a Republican, lost nearly all the South in 1956? The South voted for Adlai Stevenson, the Democrat. Stevenson was from Illinois, a bit on the conservative side when it came to civil rights but a supporter of labor and unions — a good example of the change occurring within the Democratic Party.

The transition from liberal Republicans/conservative Democrats to liberal Democrats/conservative Republicans was not a short one. We see that in African American voting patterns. Not surprisingly, freemen voted and held political office as Republicans after the Civil War. It was the party Lincoln, the party of freedom, the progressive party, the slightly-less-racist party. But as time went on, the Republican Party enthusiasm for equality, the idealism of the Civil War, waned. Democrats in Northern cities (blacks congregated in cities because smaller towns across the entire nation banned black residents, and it was harder for larger cities to exile larger populations) were able to take advantage of this abandonment and court black voters with public policy expanding human rights. In Kansas City, Missouri, for example, the Democratic machine in the 1920s earned African American loyalty by prosecuting police abuse and ensuring voting rights. From the end of the Reconstruction era (1890s) to the 1970s and 80s, more liberal and progressive voices arose within the Democratic Party in Northern cities and states.

Let’s consider how George Wallace, the bigot who stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama and refused to allow court-ordered integration, drawing condemnation from African Americans and liberals across the country, was a Democrat. He was the one who glorified racism and states’ rights when he declared, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” He was a Democrat until the 1980s.

Now, looking at history, you notice we had a Democrat like Wallace, and racist Democratic governors and congressmen controlling the entire South, in the 1950s but also had a Democrat like Franklin Roosevelt (from New York) become president in the 1930s and a Democratic Kennedy from Massachusetts do the same in 1961!

If you recall, the battle to integrate Alabama colleges was a President Kennedy-George Wallace showdown. On June 11, 1963, Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama auditorium with police and refused to allow black students to enter and register for classes. The Kennedy administration pressured him for months before the incident to follow federal law. When he wouldn’t, Kennedy ordered the Alabama National Guard mobilized with the famous Executive Order 11111. Wallace backed down.

Though both Democrats, Wallace and Kennedy made their ideologies clear.

In July 1964, Wallace gave a speech called, “The Civil Rights Movement: Fraud, Sham and Hoax.” He called the Civil Rights Act, just signed into law by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, banning race discrimination and segregation in employment, public places, and schools, “the most monstrous piece of legislation ever enacted by the United States Congress.” He continued:

Never before in the history of this nation have so many human and property rights been destroyed by a single enactment of the Congress. It is an act of tyranny. It is the assassin’s knife stuck in the back of liberty.

With this assassin’s knife and a blackjack in the hand of the Federal force-cult, the left-wing liberals will try to force us back into bondage. Bondage to a tyranny more brutal than that imposed by the British monarchy which claimed power to rule over the lives of our forefathers under sanction of the Divine Right of kings.

He foams at the mouth at great length over how the bill would “enslave our nation,” how it is meant to “destroy the rights of private property” and “will destroy neighborhood schools” and “destroys your right — and my right — to choose my neighbors — or to sell my house to whomever I choose.” After saying the Supreme Court has more power than Hitler ever did, and ranting about Communists, Wallace declares:

I am a candidate for President of the United States… I am a conservative. I intend to give the American people a clear choice. I welcome a fight between our philosophy and the liberal left-wing dogma which now threatens to engulf every man, woman, and child in the United States.

To Wallace, the true conservative stands for “liberty and justice for all,” opposing the “senseless bloodletting now being performed on the body of liberty” by forcing whites to allow blacks into their schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, parks, and so on.

What of the “left-wing liberals”?

On September 14, 1960, Kennedy gave a speech in which he said:

What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label “Liberal?” If by “Liberal” they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer’s dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of “Liberal.” But if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”

“Someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions” — the textbook definition of a liberal, with a mention of “civil rights” included.

On the evening of June 11, 1963, Kennedy addressed the nation concerning the crisis at the University of Alabama, which ended mere hours before:

This afternoon, following a series of threats and defiant statements, the presence of Alabama National Guardsmen was required on the University of Alabama to carry out the final and unequivocal order of the United States District Court of the Northern District of Alabama. That order called for the admission of two clearly qualified young Alabama residents who happened to have been born Negro.

He made several inspiring calls for integration and equality, before calling for legislation that would soon be called the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened…

The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?…

One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression…

The division between Northern liberal Democrats and Southern conservative Democrats explains why most blacks consistently voted Democrat since the 1920s and 30s. According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the percentage of blacks voting Democratic has been 70-90% since the 1930s. Rest assured, they weren’t voting for the segregationist conservative Democrats of the South, but rather Northern liberal Democrats.

One might infer that if blacks voted for Republicans (and even held office as Republicans) after the Civil War, but after a time shifted support toward Democrats — and overwhelmingly vote Democratic today — something must have changed in party ideologies.

During a transition like this, it is expected that the Democratic Party would for several decades be a mix of ideologies. That mix was largely determined by geography: liberal Democrats in the North, conservative ones in the South. Likewise, you would have liberal Republicans in the North and conservative ones in the South. A wonderful example is Everett Dirksen, who helped push the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He was a Republican from Illinois, the North. And Eisenhower himself, while born in Texas, grew up in Kansas, and was certainly a more enlightened Republican in matters of race, thanks to where he was raised, but also to his interactions with black soldiers in the Army.

Having more liberal Northern Democrats and more liberal Northern Republicans meant that these groups could come together to work for racial progress. In 1938, for example, they joined forces to try to pass a federal anti-lynching bill. This enraged the southern Democrats, of course, one of whom (Senator Josiah Bailey) declared:

Just as when the Republicans in the [1860s] undertook to impose the national will upon us with respect to the Negro, we resented it and hated that party with a hatred that has outlasted generations; we hated it beyond measure; we hated it more than was right for us and more than was just; we hated it because of what it had done to us, because of the wrong it undertook to put upon us; and just as that same policy destroyed the hope of the Republican party in the South, that same policy adopted by the Democratic party will destroy the Democratic party in the South.

His prediction would quickly come true.

However, this does not mean the transition was solely driven by divisions over black dignity and equality. Eric Rauchway of the University of California – Davis believes William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat who started preaching social justice through government action, served as the tipping point:

One of them has to be the 1896 election, when the Democratic Party fused with the People’s Party, and the incumbent Grover Cleveland, a rather conservative Democrat, was displaced by the young and fiery William Jennings Bryan, whose rhetoric emphasized the importance of social justice in the priorities of the federal government. The next time the Democrats had a Congressional majority, with the start of Wilson’s presidency in 1913, they passed a raft of Bryanish legislation, including the income tax and the Federal Reserve Act. And the next Democratic president after that was FDR. So from Bryan onward, the Democratic Party looks much more like the modern Democratic Party…

Rauchway also points to the mix of ideology:

Oddly though, during the first part of this period, i.e., the time of Bryan, the Republican Party does not immediately, in reaction, become the party of smaller government; there’s no do-si-do. Instead, for a couple of decades, both parties are promising an augmented federal government devoted in various ways to the cause of social justice. It’s not until the 1920s, and the era of Coolidge especially, that the Republican Party begins to sound like the modern Republican Party, rhetorically devoted to smaller government. And that rhetorical tendency doesn’t really set in firmly until the early 1930s and the era of Republican opposition to the New Deal.

During this time, both parties tried to win voters in the West with promises of government aid and programs. Republicans eventually abandoned such promises, favoring free markets and fiscal conservatism.

Things came to a head when liberal Democrats embraced the Civil Rights Movement, to the delight of liberal Republicans but dismay of conservative Democrats and the small but growing number of conservative Republicans. As The New York Times writes,

When President Lyndon B. Johnson championed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, some Republican strategists saw a potential bonanza in the South. They thought their party could reap the votes of white people uneasy with Democrats, or downright hostile to them, for advancing the cause of black people.

Johnson knew it, too, saying to a White House aide after the 1964 act passed: “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.” Seizing on this crisis was Republican Richard Nixon, and allies like Harry Dent, Howard Calloway, Clarke Reed, and Strom Thurmond.

As William Greider writes for The Nation, Nixon

brokered the deal with Dixiecrat leader Strom Thurmond at the ’68 convention in Miami, wherein states of the old slave-holding Confederacy would join the Party of Lincoln. It took two election cycles to convert the “Solid South,” but Nixon and GOP apparatchiks made it clear with private assurances that Republicans would discreetly retire their historic commitment to civil rights.

This was Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” which allied “traditional wing of the party — ‘country club’ Republicans, who include corporate leaders, financiers and investors…with poor, rural, church-going voters, among them the Southern ‘segs’ who had previously always voted for Democrats.” Appealing to race hatred was key. H.R. Haldeman, a Nixon advisor, said Nixon “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” Nixon’s special counsel, John Ehrlichman, said that “the subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches,” and summarized Nixon’s 1968 campaign strategy as “We’ll go after the racists” (see Alexander, The New Jim Crow).

However, large cracks already existed in the foundation of the Democratic Party itself. Bitterly racist politicians (like Thurmond, who once screamed about how equal rights for the “nigger race” would lead to “totalitarianism”) were already leaving the Democratic Party after the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 and joining the Republican Party. Barry Goldwater, a Republican, won several deep South states in 1964 (a first since Reconstruction) but lost miserably elsewhere, both due to his opposition to black rights.

With more Republicans and fewer Democrats preaching segregation, the South gradually switched its allegiance. Nixon, who advocated “states’ rights” and other ideas pleasing to white supremacists, won even more of the South in 1968 than Goldwater before him. Any liberals or blacks who still sided with Republicans started rethinking things. At the time of the Goldwater campaign, in fact, the number of blacks voting Republican “dropped to near zero.”

Even some leading conservative intellectuals will speak honestly about what happened. Avik Roy admits:

Goldwater’s nomination in 1964 was a historical disaster for the conservative movement because for the ensuing decades, it identified Democrats as the party of civil rights and Republicans as the party opposed to civil rights… The fact is, today, the Republican coalition has inherited the people who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the Southern Democrats who are now Republicans.

Looking at the electoral maps of U.S. elections, you can watch the change taking place. One might infer that if Democrats had strong support in the South from the Reconstruction era to 1960, but then witnessed a transition to strong Republican support that something changed within party ideologies:

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via Metrocosm

In 1981, Republican political strategist, advisor to Reagan, and future head of the RNC Lee Atwater gave an interview (at first anonymous) that was quite honest about the strategy: “As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry S. Dent, Sr. and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South.” He went on to describe the “coded” appeals to racist attitudes that served a similar function as “blatant” discrimination, while saying Reagan’s 1980 campaign didn’t rely on this and indeed had “washed [it] away”:

So what you have is two things happening that totally washed away the Southern strategy, the Harry Dent type Southern strategy, and that is, that whole strategy was based, although it was more sophisticated than a Bilbo or a George Wallace, it was nevertheless based on coded racism. The whole thing, busing, we want a Supreme Court judge that won’t have busing, anything you look at can be traced back to the issue [of race], in the old southern strategy. It was not done in a blatantly discriminatory way.

His interviewer asked if Reagan’s slashing of welfare appealed to the “racist” voters. Atwater gave a “maybe,” but argued since coded racism was growing so coded and as Reagan and the Republicans no longer needed to use it (“race was not a dominant issue” in 1981), the issue was moot:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

The transition continued through the 1980s and even 1990s, until the polarization became complete (with perhaps the exception of conservative Blue Dog Democrats).

That is our history. The number of liberal Republicans waned as more and more progressives voted or ran as Democrats, and the number of conservative Democrats lessened as the Republican party took up the mantle of protector of the white race.

Without this history lesson, it is impossible to understand American society, to separate party name from ideology. How could Democrats support segregation, but a 2013 ABC News poll find a pathetic 5% of conservative Americans support more non-whites in Congress, vs. 50% of liberals? How could Republicans oppose Jim Crow laws, but conservatives today be slightly less likely to approve of interracial marriage, according to polls? And so on.

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