29 September 2018

Why did America's Republican Party lurch to the right, and the Democrats lurch to the centre?

Over the past 150 years, The Republican Party/Grand Old Party moved from a racially prog­res­s­ive, Northern party.. to one that that domin­ates the South and gets almost no support from non-white vot­ers. These changes are totally counter-intuitive to a non-American historian, so I have examined three historians: Annabelle Quince, Natalie Wolchover and Tim Stanley.

The Whigs formed in opposition to the policies of Democratic Pres­id­ent, Andrew Jack­son (1829–37). The Whigs supported the suprem­acy of the US Congress over the Presidency, and favoured a programme of mod­ernisation, banking and pro­tectionism for manufacturing. It appealed to entrepreneurs, planters, reformers and the growing urban middle class, but not to labourers and farmers.

Slavery was only one of many issues in the country’s politics then, usually rel­atively minor. The American South based its econ­omy on the en­slavement of non-whites, and the two major parties, Democrats and Whigs, were willing to let the Southern states be. But when most Whigs eventually quit politics or changed parties over slavery, the northern voter base moved to the new Republican Party.

America acquired a vast amount of territory from Mexico in 1848. There was a struggle between the northern and southern states over whether the new territory should be settled with slavery, and not. If slavery had expanded, it could have undercut free workers. America would have become a nation that was controlled by 1% of the very wealthy, educ­ated, white, male population. Northerners worried about America privileging equality for whites.

The Republican Party, founded 1854 in Mich­ig­an, opposed slavery. And northerners did not know if Kansas and Nebraska would enter the Union as free or slave states. They feared that the South would dominate US pol­itics, in­stituting slavery everywhere. It would also cut off opport­unity for free white labour­ers. While not abolish­ing existing slavery, the new northern Rep­ublican Party stopped it expanding.

By 1858, Republicans dominated the Northern states and es­poused “free labour, free land and free men”. The Repub­lican Party won both houses of Con­gress in 1860 and the party’s first cand­id­ate, Abraham Lincoln, became president.

Southern slaveholders still wanted to ignore the northern Republican Party. In 1861 11 states se­ceded from the Union to form a new nation, the Confederate States of America. And when Northerners would not toler­ate secession, the Civil War began. The North’s first aim was merely to restore the South to the Union, not to free slaves. But as the war dragged on, strat­egic imp­eratives pulled Lincoln and the Republicans tow­ard Abolition.

The American Civil War  of 1861-5 left hundreds of thous­ands dead and the South's infrastructure destroyed. Lincoln success­fully steered the country through the crisis and was loved by northerners. But immediately after the southern army surrendered, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
The Civil War was the focus of President Lincoln’s speech, 
delivered to a joint session of Congress in 1862.

Republican President Lincoln's vice president, Andrew Johnson, was a Democrat (sic) from Tenn­essee. He prohibited governments from abolishing slavery!

With the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Lincoln freed all slaves in the Confederacy. And as the war was ending in early 1865, Congress approved the 13th  anti-slavery Amendment. The GOP had abolished slavery outright in the USA, and had pres­er­ved the Union. In fact the Republicans required some Southern states to ratify the 14th Amendment, just to be readmitted to the Union.

In the 1860s, northern Republicans organised a determined ex­pan­sion of federal power, helping to fund: a] trans­continental railroad, b] state universities, c] set­tle­­ment of the West by homesteaders, and d] a national curr­ency and protective tariff. Southern Democrats opposed these measures. It was the Republicans who passed laws that advanced social justice!

Republicans supported gold standard money, high tariffs to promote economic growth, high wages, high profits and pen­sions for Union ex-servicemen. As the north­ern post-war economy boomed with heavy and light industry, railroads, mines, fast-growing cities and prosperous agriculture, the Repub­licans promoted policies to sustain the fast growth.

But when the states were readmitted to the Union in the Rec­on­struct­ion Era 1865-77, Republicans gave up on reform­ing the South and many of the gains they had made seemed impermanent. And white bus­in­essmen in the North thought they'd done enough for black South­ern­ers at this point and wanted their own inter­ests to be given priority.

Admission of new western states to the Union created a new voting bloc. Nev­ada and Nebraska joined the Union in the 1860s, Colorado in 1876, the Dak­otas, Montana & Washington in 1889, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah in the 1890s. Repub­lican federal expansions in the 1860s and 1870s were fav­ourable to northern businesses, especially banks, railroads and manufacturers. But small farmers who had moved out west received very little. Who would win western voters?

After 2 terms of Demo­crat Grover Cleve­land, the election of William McKinley in 1896 saw a resurgence of Repub­lican dominance. President McKinley promp­tly ended high tariffs, to help the owners of small businesses and farmers.

From 1896 on, Democrat Congressman William Jen­nings Bryan became pro­minent. Standing three times as the party's nominee for Pres­ident, he blurred party values by emphas­ising the gov­ernment's role in social justice, through expansions of fed­eral power. This had tradit­ionally been the Republican philosophy!! Re­p­ublicans didn't automatically adopt the opposite position of fav­our­ing limited govern­ment. Instead both part­ies were promising an augmented federal government, various­ly devoted to social justice values.

Republican President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-9) urged his progress­ives to take control of a united party at the state and local level. The Republicans had cemented their position as the party of big bus­iness and Roosevelt added more small business support via trust busting. Defeated by Taft in 1912, Roos­ev­elt led a third-party Progressive Party ticket.

Progressive reformers who wanted to check the power of corporations and the wealthy briefly had support from Republican President Roosevelt. When Demo­c­rat Woodrow Wilson won the presidency (1913-21), the Repub­lican Party opposed many of his progressive re­f­orms, which they came to believe expanded government’s power too much. Only grad­ual­ly did Republican rhetoric drift to the Nasty Right.

Republican presidents Warren G Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover were easily el­ected in 1920, 1924 and 1928 respect­ively - the party of big business, high tar­iffs and wealthy fam­ilies. That worked out quite well for them during the 1920s, but not so well with the Great Crash in 1929 and Depression.

Then Democratic President Frank­lin D. Roose­velt (1933–45) swept into power and expanded the size and role of the federal govern­ment. His New Deal was a set of reforms that could save ordinary families, including regul­at­ion of fin­an­cial inst­itutions, founding of welfare and pension pro­g­rammes, infra­st­ructure development etc.

Naturally Roosevelt's New Deal divided the GOP - while many Republic­ans were will­ing to accept some parts of the New Deal, other more conservative Repub­lic­ans never agreed. The Old Right sharply attacked the Second New Deal because it “rep­resented class warfare and socialism”. Nonetheless Democrat Roose­velt won in a landslide again in 1936.

The economy improved, so South­ern con­servatives and most Republicans formed a conservative coal­ition in reaction; Roosevelt won further terms (1940 and 1944) anyhow. Conservatives abolished most of the New Deal during the war, but did not attempt to reverse Social Security or the agencies that regulated business.

Domestically Repub­licans were anti New Deal, anti community-development, pro limited Federal govern­ment and pro free mar­k­et economics. Republicans had become conservative, and southerners had become Republican.

Except for Republican Dwight Eisenhower's 2 terms in 1946 and 1952, the Democrats contin­uous­ly elected majorities to Con­gress, but the Conservative Coal­it­ion blocked practically all major liberal domestic policies. After 1945, the GOP's internationalist wing cooperated with Harry Truman's Cold War foreign policy, funded the Marshall Plan and supported NATO, despite the continued isolationism of the Old Right.

A civil rights bill was designed by Democratic President John Kennedy in 1963. When President Lyndon Johnson signed that Act in July 1964, it received over­whelming bi-partisan supp­ort, except for south­ern segregationists and white supremac­ists. So those same southerners championed Republican Barry Goldwater, the Ariz­ona senator who had voted against the Civil Rights Act, for President. He was defeated by Lyndon Johnson in the Nov 1964 election.

Cities across America exploded in Race riots in 1963-65. When Republican Richard Nixon won in 1968, he focused on a Law and Order platform, lashing out against the Black Power movement. And Republican Ronald Reagan cared only that the Federal gov­ern­ment did nothing except protect business, support a strong military and protect Christianity.


Andrew said...

I recently had my mind refreshed with some US history. You have summed it up consisly. It it so interesting about how the parties began and where they are now.

Hels said...


Australians are used to politicians changing their policy priorities and having two choices: they can join an existing party that matches their values better (eg Mark Latham moved from Labor to the Liberal Democrats) or they can create their own NEW party (eg Robert Menzies created the Liberal Party).

But it is difficult for us to understand how American politicians stay in an existing party and radically change the policies from within.

Deb said...

Franklin Roosevelt was the most popular president, and the most successful in saving the nation from the depression. Yet even he was despised by the conservatives and his works were undone. A divided nation, indeed.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, There have always been extremes in politics. What I would be interested in finding out is how much of the efforts of former politicians were devoted to building up a political structure they truly believed should be the direction of a greater country, versus catering to extreme opinions with the sole intention of garnering votes and amassing personal power.

Hels said...


Following the stock market collapse in 1929 and the start of a catastrophic economic depression, FDR was elected in 1932. FDR's campaign was based on a promise to help ordinary families, so he won all but two states. With perhaps 25% of the population unemployed, Roosevelt had three great winners: 1. wide legislation that would alleviate the depression, 2. protective entitlements for the struggling eg Social Security and 3. the end of Prohibition.

There were no constitutional limits to the number of terms a President was allowed to serve, so Roosevelt remained very popular, and in power, until he died. The only people who hated him, it seems, were conservatives who claimed his policies to help struggling families were socialist.

Hels said...


Since much legislation is acceptable to both sides of the aisle, I cannot see why politicians couldn't accept new proposals, as long as they were not offensive to the individual or to the party. For example, I cannot imagine a politician (here) saying that Universal Health Care was an abomination and that he/she would vote for its destruction. Of course they could easily argue about the details, but they would leave the central principles in place.

However we know that the political world doesn't operate that way. Absolute loyalty to one party or other makes Question Time vulgar and it makes Legislative Votes totally predictable.

I think the last comment about extreme views is more of an issue for some countries only. In the USA, for example, adopting extreme rightist views might well be to AMASS personal power. But in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Britain or all the Scandinavian, extreme rightist or leftist views would LOSE most votes.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - thanks for this excellent summary ... I really need to spend more time learning American history ... but am glad to read this. Thanks - cheers Hilary

Hels said...


This was too long a post, since I almost always limit myself to 1,000 words. But I could not find any political principles to expand upon, and was therefore forced to give decade by decade examples instead.

I wonder what Lincoln would think of Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan and Trump, if he was alive in the modern era.

John Tyrrell said...

Hi Hels

I think the simply answer to your "why" question is that the Republicans consciously decided that the best way for them to dominate US politics was to appeal to the American South.

A number of southern states broke with the Democratic Party in 1948, supporting a third party candidate, and in 1964 when they alone supported Goldwater.

In 1969 Kevin Phillips, Nixon's strategist published a remarkably prophetic book, "The Emerging Republican Majority" which argued that the Republicans could dominate US politics if they abandoned the black vote and courted the white majority in the American south who were alienated by Democratic support for civil rights and desegregation. Since then the only Democrat to have substantial success in the American south was Jimmy Cater in 1976, but in 1980 Reagan won all the South apart from Carter's home state, and that has largely been the story since.

Incidentally I started a PhD thesis on the Republican Party in 1967, and nearly everybody asked why - they thought that the New Deal coalition would last forever, and that the Republican Party was doomed to irrelevance!

Hels said...


Many thanks for a detailed response which seems perfectly sensible to me.... as the theatre people always say, what counts is bums on seats.

But why did a number of southern states only break with the Democratic Party in 1948 and not decades earlier? If it is true that the Democrats were blurring party values by emphas­ising the gov­ernment's role in social justice, it suggests that both Democrats and Republicans were changing policies from WW1 on. The New Deal only clarified and consolidated the changes in both parties.

John Tyrrell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Tyrrell said...

An interesting question. The southern states benefited greatly from the New Deal, and because of the seniority system southern congressmen had a great deal of legislative power throughout the era and and a number of major pieces of legislation such as the Agricultural Adjustment Act were modified to support white dominance in the south. The situation in the south was an international embarrassment to the US as it embarked on its anti-communist crusade, and in 1948 the Democrats adopted a Civil Rights platform that triggered the defection of many southern Democrats, led by Strom Thurmond. But the Republicans did not go out of their way to court the south until Goldwater in 1964. Thereafter it made a conscious effort to do so. Strange that a young Hillary Clinton supported Goilwater in 1964. Strange too that Strom Thurmond who switched to the Republicans in 1964 and remained in the Senate until he reached 100 was revealed to have a mixed race daughter. At the age of 22 Thurmond impregnated her 16 year old mother who was a maid in his family's household. A bit of gossip for you!

Hels said...


Thank you. I am finally understanding about how slow and piecemeal the changes were! But I still do not understand how Clinton could have supported Goldwater nor how Thurmond could have been a Democrat for 10 years, then switched sides in the middle of his time in the Senate.

John Tyrrell said...

Clinton is hard to understand I agree. This article may help a little - it is a very complex issue - but it indicates that the southern Democratic Party did not change much in the 1950's, and of course Kennedy's choice of Johnson as running mate was a recognition of the importance of the South to the Democratic Party. Lyndon Johnson had not been a supporter of Civil Rights.


John Kennedy and the Democratic Party opposed Eisenhower's 1957 Civil Rights Act - for a variety of reasons, but Kennedy seems to have "discovered" Civil Rights during the 1960 campaign when he made a famous call to Coretta King when Martin Luther King was in prison. The cynics would say that he realised he needed black votes in an exceptionally tight election against Richard Nixon!

I don't know how you manage to engage with such a multiplicity of topics.



Hels said...


good question. I use my lecture notes for any topic I know very well, subjects that I read and wrote about since 1990 - European and British Empire history and art history.

Any other topics outside my comfort zone, like medical stories or Chinese history, require loads of support from others. So I am very grateful to you.

John Tyrrell said...

Well worth reading:

Hels said...


Thank you. I had a good look at this: William Buckley Jr, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan etc were revolting not against a liberal administration but against the moderate conservatism of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ideological conservatives viewed Eisenhower as a sellout! Why the animus against this war hero? Conservatives were furious that Eisenhower made no attempt to liberate the captive nations of Eastern Europe or repeal the New Deal, and that he did not support Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare.

Good grief!