Histories of the Republican and the Democratic Parties


I sent the link to this Vox article: How the Republicans went from the party of Lincoln to the Party of Trump, in 13 maps to a young friend, an independent-minded and thoughtful usually conservative voter. He and I have been discussing my claim that since the 1960s, the Republican Party has made itself a comfortable place for racists and bigots through the use of code words and dog whistles. This strategy has led to the switch of the states of the former Confederacy, once the Solid South bloc of the Democrats, to the core the Republican’s support. While it is true that all or even most Republicans are neither racists nor bigots, there are plenty of people who vote Republican specifically because the party has made them welcome. The Democrats, of course, have some racists and bigots among its voters, but, I claim, those people aren’t voting Democratic specifically because of Democratic party support for them on theseissues. The Vox article is worth reading.

As my young friend is a conservative thinker, he told that he considers Vox.com a liberal web page, and thus he is suspicious of its balance and objectivity.

He replied: “Yes, the Republican party has evolved (or devolved) over time, as most organizations do. Now, how about an analysis of the Democratic party? Perhaps coming from a conservative-biased outlet? 😃

To this, I replied as below. I told him that I’m not a conservative-biased source, but these days the facts have a liberal bias. 😃

I wrote this from what I happened to know and from what came to mind, but I am only an amateur student of history. Still I think it is accurate, or at least not too inaccurate.

Furthermore, I try to pay attention to the strand of racism and bigotry and skip over other major interests of the parties and major influences on them (such as the Depression or the World Wars, which I grant are important).

I hope you enjoy it.


Yes. You are correct that both of our political parties have changed over the years. Indeed, parties have come and gone. The earliest ones were the Federalists and the anti-Federalists or Democrat-Republicans. There were also Whigs and Know-Nothings (an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic party).

Actually, the Democrats, if I may speak for them, have no problem acknowledging their history.

Senator Byrd, for example, was embarrassed by his early days in the Ku Klux Klan, and repeatedly apologized to West Virginians. I can speak, as an amateur student of American history, to your request for an analysis. I don’t meet your request for a conservative-biased outlet, however. But you are welcome to check what I have to say. If I’m mistaken, I would like to know. Chagrined to have been wrong, but pleased to correct my ideas. The same goes for the Vox material about the history of the Republican party. It’s been written by an informed journalist who is trying to provide a middle-of-the-road report about historians’ thoughts and knowledge.

The Whigs vanished in the 1850s and northern Whigs moved to the new Republican Party. The first Republican candidate for president, John Fremont, ran in 1856. James Buchanan, a Democrat, won. That Democratic party was the ancestor of today’s.

The 1860 election, won by Lincoln and the Republicans of course, split the Democrats, a Northern wing and a Southern wing each ran a candidate.

Results of the 1860 election

presidential candidate political party electoral votes
Abraham Lincoln Republican 180
John C. Breckinridge Southern Democratic 72
Stephen A. Douglas Democratic 12
John Bell Constitutional Union 39

The split in the Democrats was about slavery, although the northern Democrats, just called Democratic in the table above, were not abolitionists. As you can see, Lincoln won fair and square in the Electoral College, but all of his support was in northern (and western) states, and he received no Electors, indeed hardly any votes, in the South. During the Civil War, the Democrats either favored war to restore the Union, but not free the slaves, or they opposed a war to preserve the Union. Northern abolitionists were invariably found in the Republican Party of that time, but not all Republicans were abolitionists. If you saw the excellent recent historical movie, Lincoln, about the passage of the 13th Amendment, you will remember that a key issue was whether that Amendment, which abolished slavery, would also create social equality between blacks and whites. General McClellan ran as the Democratic candidate for president in 1864, on a platform of ending the war through negotiations leading, no doubt to the splitting of the United States. The Democrats’ campaign was overtly racist, and not just by today’s standards. Political cartoons showing black men dancing with white women with a caption saying that this would happen if Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation stood. Indeed, by today’s standards, nearly every white person, north and south, was a racist who believed the white race superior to the African negro. For many of them, the big problem was what to do with the freed slaves, since they, obviously, could not live among whites.

Not only did political parties split or disappear or appear over slavery, but religious denominations did too. Nearly all American religious groups split into a northern and southern branch. Although most of them reconciled in the years after the War, the Southern Baptists never made peace with their brethren. Their modern history of the issue of civil rights was deplorable until recently. The arguments, among other things, had to do with whether or not the Bible sanctioned slavery. There are plenty of slaves in the Bible, and plenty of rules about how to treat them, depending upon whether they were Jewish or not, and nowhere does God or anyone else condemn slavery. In Philemon, Paul directs a slave to return to his master and to accept his lot. Paul tells the master to be nice to his slave. Others found Jesus’ teachings, such as the Golden Rule, to demand that no person keep another as a slave, although he never specifically says so.

I’ll just mention that the Whigs and their successors were in favor of an active government: money for roads, subsidies for building railroads, public education (the Morrill Act founded the land grant system for each state’s public universities), whereas the Democrats were the party of small government, leave it to the states, people. The Democrats opposed this “big government” of the Whigs and the Republicans.

Reconstruction came to an end with the famous contested election between Tilden, a Democrat, and Rutherford Hayes, a Republican. It’s entertaining to read about this, and it ended with vote shenanigans in Florida, leading to Hayes taking office although he had lost the popular vote. But the upshot was to allow Southern whites to vote again without restrictions or requirement to pledge allegiance to the federal government. This began the famous Solid South, a period of nearly 100 years during which no white person throughout the South would vote for any Republican.

It was also the period of the Lost Cause, the first incarnation of the KKK (the 1870s), and the second (the 1920s). Terrorism in the South against black people led to their disenfranchisement and in many ways their peonage (as share croppers). The KKK was a white Protestant terrorist group that opposed blacks, and Catholics and Jews too.

During this era, the Democratic Party in the South were out and out segregationists and white supremacists.

The presidency and control of Congress went back and forth over the years. I think such agencies as the FDA designed to protect consumers against the depredations of unregulated industry, which you may have read about in the great muckraking books, such as The Jungle, were put in place by Republicans. The same for the great anti-trust laws that broke up such predatory firms as Standard Oil, US Steel, some of the big railroads and banks, and so on.

Woodrow Wilson, the president from 1913 to 1921, ended a string of Republican presidencies. So he was a Democrat. He was born in Staunton Virginia in 1856. That’s in the Shenandoah Valley, scene of famous Civil War battles. While the Shenandoah Valley was staunchly Confederate, just west of there, the mountain people were Unionists, and there were few slaves among them. They seceded from Virginia, and became the Union state of West Virginia. (Unionist East Tennessee almost seceded from the rest of that state too.) But Wilson was a Southerner, although he made his adult career in New Jersey at Princeton Univ. as an historian, President of the University, New Jersey gov. I think, and then US President. He was a racist, but didn’t see himself that way. He just thought it was an apparent fact that Negroes and whites shouldn’t be together, for the benefit of both races. He was not conscious of an animus toward black people. He segregated the Civil Service! This was entirely consistent with the position of the Democratic party, mainly because of the Solid South, but also its northern wing. He also arranged for a White House showing of D W Griffith’s notorious The Birth of a Nation, in 1915 or 16. He pronounced the movie to be a fair and honest historical portrayal (of the heroic KKK protecting the chastity of Southern womanhood from the grasp of ravening black men). You would enjoy watching this movie, famed among cinephiles. A silent film in which many important new film techniques appeared for the first time, including a battle scene (but if you want to see what a Civil War battle was like, a historian I read recommended the movie Glory about the famous 54th Massachusetts regiment. That regiment was one of the earliest all black regiments, led by white officers. The Ken Burns documentary the Civil War is good too.) But Google or otherwise read about The Birth of a Nation.

Next we have Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover, a string of pro-business Republicans during the Roaring 20s. During this time, thousands of black people fled the South because of the oppression there. This is the Great Migration. Thus northern politicians began to find that many of their potential voters were black people (although there was discrimination against black people in the North too.)

The stock market collapse of 1929 and the subsequent depression (the typical result of Republican economic policies, which I’m adding as an extraneous editorial comment), led to FDR and the New Deal. Well, FDR was a Democrat, but his party in the Congress comprised Southern Democrats and the rest of the Democrats. The Southern Democrats were united in their white supremacy and racial hatred. They would vote for the New Deal policies only if they provided no benefits for black people. Thus, the first version of Social Security and of government unemployment benefits were designed not to cover typical black workers (farm workers and domestic servants) in order to get the votes of Southern Senators and Congressmen.

During the 1930s and 1940s, some Democrats began supporting civil rights for Negroes. Eleanor Roosevelt lobbied her husband on this issue, in private and in her widely syndicated weekly column. This caused him troubles because he needed to keep the Democrats together, but any sign of friendliness to blacks might cause the Southern Democrats to bolt.

In 1948, at the Democratic convention that nominated Harry Truman to run for a full term, Hubert Humphrey, the mayor of Minneapolis, gave a famous speech calling for black civil rights. This, and other actions, led Democrats from Southern states to leave the Democratic party, forming the Dixiecrats, who nominated Strom Thurmond for President. He carried a few of those Southern states with an overtly racist and segregationist platform, but Truman beat the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey. One of Truman’s executive orders was an important one that desegregated the US military.

During the 1950s, the split within the Democratic Party widened, primarily because of civil rights issues, but the Southern Democrats tended to be economically and socially more conservative, and would ally themselves with Republicans on particular issues.

In the 1950s William F. Buckley, wealthy, urbane, opinionated, founded the National Review as a central intellectual arena for what is now known as movement conservatism. Among Buckley’s other qualities was that he was a white supremacist. You could Google for some of his famous editorials, in one of which he asserted that it would be justified for a white minority to overturn a democratic election by force so as to preserve the justified ruling prerogatives of the white race. But at this time the general run of Republicans tended to support civil rights for black people, as they were the party of Lincoln, and black people tended to vote Republican.

A couple of major civil rights laws passed during the Johnson administration, and as a skillful politician he was able to persuade some Republicans to vote with some Democrats to pass these laws over the ferocious opposition of white Southern Democrats. In those days a filibuster was a test of a politician’s endurance and bladder control. Some, famously, spoke many hours, 10, 12, or more. (If you look up the meaning and history of filibuster, you will learn that in antebellum America the filibusters were freebooters and soldiers of fortune who tried to take over various Latin American nations, through armed invasion, to spread the plantation system and slavery.) (You will also find that modern Senate filibusterers are wimps compared to those guys from the 1950s and 60s. Today, a Senator just notifies the Majority Leader that he’s filibustering this or that, and the Senate suspends action on the bill.) But, if you saw the excellent recent movie Selma, you heard Johnson remark that by signing the bills into law the Democrats would lose the South for a generation.

It is telling that in the presidential election of 1964, the year after President Kennedy’s assassination, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, a Republican, lost in a massive popular vote and Electoral College landslide (due to many factors). Although he had previously voted for civil rights bills, he voted against the major law of 1964 (I forget which is the Voting Rights Law and which deal with public access.) He said, as do many conservatives today, that he personally had nothing against Negroes, but he thought that the Constitution prevented the federal government from enacting or enforcing such laws. Here’s the result:

Well, he won his home state. Do you notice anything in common about the other states he won? These were states that hadn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since the 1870s. But the white voters of those states understood the meaning of the assertion that the federal government could not enact or enforce civil rights.

Other Republicans noticed.

This was the beginning of the so-called Southern Strategy invented by Richard Nixon and his campaign and followed by nearly every Republican presidential candidate since. It’s a long story, and you should Google “the Southern Strategy”, which involved “dog whistles” and “code words” designed to let white racists and bigots know that there was a home for them in the Republican party. We know about this strategy, that it was an actual thing and not something invented by Democrats to insult their enemies, not only because we can see it in action and see its results, but because some of the architects have described their ideas and later in life publicly apologized to the American people and to black people. (Google Lee Atwater, for example.) But it is the reason why the states of the former Confederacy have switched from the Democratic Solid South to the Republican party.

While there are, no doubt, some racists and bigots who vote Democratic, they are voting so because of the totality of other issues. But Southern racists and bigots vote Republican specifically because of the Southern Strategy. There are enough of them to reliably put Republicans into office in all levels of government. Not all Southern white people are racists and bigots. Jimmy Carter was a Southerner, and he argued that racism and segregation hurt white people almost as much as it damaged black people. Of course, he was a Democrat.

What Trump does differently than all earlier Southern Strategy Republicans is he is an outright and unapologetic racist.

I’ll say that, of course and as you well know, there was a lot of other stuff going on too.

I’ve run on pretty long, so I’m going to stop.


Leave a comment

Filed under Politics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s