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How did the Dems become the liberal party?
April 25, 2006 8:10 PM   Subscribe

[AmericanHistoryFilter] How did the Democratic Party go from being the conservative party to being the liberal party?

I just finished reading Robert Caro's Master of the Senate, the third volume of his biography on LBJ (IMHO, a bit of a let-down compared to the first two volumes), and one of the things I was struck by was how the Democratic Party in the 1950s seemed to be composed of people from both the far-left and far-right. What was a fire-breathing, civil-rights-supporting, bleeding-heart liberal like Hubert Humphrey doing in the same party as a deeply reactionary segregationist like Strom Thurmond?

From what I can recall from high school American history, around the period of the Civil War, the Republicans were the "liberal" party and the Democrats were the "conservative" party. Moreover, it was misgivings over the Civil War that kept conservative southerners in the Democratic party until the Reagan presidency.

So when did liberals start switching over from the GOP to the Dems? And, more importantly, why? Why didn't liberals just stay in the GOP? What was the point of joining the Democratic Party in the early 20th century, if the values of half of the members were completely different from yours?
posted by alidarbac to Law & Government (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'll let someone with a better understanding than me answer, but, as you probably have imagined, It's even more complicated than that. You may as well go back and start from the federalist and antifederalist papers. The issues of civil rights and a strong federal government start right there.
posted by miniape at 8:17 PM on April 25, 2006


I guess I always bought LBJ's line "We have just lost the South for a generation" after signing the Civil Rights act. But you know all that if you've read this biography. Do you feel this isn't enough to explain it?
posted by Aknaton at 8:42 PM on April 25, 2006


It really depends on what you mean by "liberal." A better (or at least more easily answerable) question might be "When did the Democrats become the party that favored a strong federal government over states' rights?"

In any event, it was around the Great Depression.
posted by maxreax at 8:44 PM on April 25, 2006


Check out the 2004 bookWhat's the Matter with Kansas, for a pretty good basic understanding of this. Interesting reading, though with a "liberal" bent.
posted by thebrokedown at 8:48 PM on April 25, 2006


FDR.
posted by LarryC at 9:08 PM on April 25, 2006


I guess I always bought LBJ's line "We have just lost the South for a generation" after signing the Civil Rights act. But you know all that if you've read this biography.

Caro's written close to 3000 pages about LBJ, and he has to get to his presidency, so I don't know about that.

A better (or at least more easily answerable) question might be "When did the Democrats become the party that favored a strong federal government over states' rights?" In any event, it was around the Great Depression.

Yes, I'm aware of how FDR's presidency conpletely transformed the role of the federal government. But that doesn't explain why so many southern conservatives, whose most defining belief was their abhorence of a strong central government, remained Democrats so long after the New Deal. Or put another way, why was FDR even a Democrat in the first place? Throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century, weren't the Democrats the "states' rights" party?
posted by alidarbac at 9:14 PM on April 25, 2006


Haven't the dems always been the more economically liberal party, while the republicans have always been big-business, etc?

Also, remember that anti-slavery was always seen as a moral calling, with strong support among the religious, similar in tenor to the abortion debate today (although much more divisive, probably).
posted by delmoi at 9:52 PM on April 25, 2006


From what I can recall from high school American history, around the period of the Civil War, the Republicans were the "liberal" party and the Democrats were the "conservative" party.

That doesn't match the data I've seen, which are based on roll-call votes. The median congressional Democrat has been to the left of the median Whig or Republican since Andrew Jackson.

So when did liberals start switching over from the GOP to the Dems?

They didn't, to a first approximation. The change since the 1950s is mostly due to conservatives leaving the Democratic party because the Democrats stopped helping them oppress black people. Though there is a smaller component of the Republican party shedding the last of its liberal wing.

A relevant book is Rohde's Parties and Leaders in the Postreform House, which talks some about the electoral underpinnings of these shifts.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:08 PM on April 25, 2006


But that doesn't explain why so many southern conservatives, whose most defining belief was their abhorence of a strong central government, remained Democrats so long after the New Deal.

No Southern politician could get elected as a member of the party of Lincoln (i.e. the Republican party). For 100 years, Lincoln and the Republicans were representative of the loss in the Civil War and the difficulties of Reconstruction.

Southern Democrats were Dems in name only, however. They often voted along "conservative" lines, especially on social issues. A splinter group, the Dixiecrats, were democrats that were against desegregation.

It took the reaction against the Civil Rights Act and the subsequent Reagan Revolution for them to cast off any pretensions of being Democrats.
posted by frogan at 11:46 PM on April 25, 2006


During the Reagan years - before the full blown "neocon" era - Republicans spent a lot of hot air attacking policies that had their origins in the Roosevelt new Deal era. When the South was finally persuaded that their enemy was Roosevelt - for having pushed forwartd with civil rights - it became easier to asttract them to Lee Atwater's new GOP:

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 [that] 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."

Like so much in American politics, opressing black people - or at least protecting your God-given right to choose oppress Black people in the state where you vote and pay taxes - defines democracy in America.

I'm going to go back to my chair on Trent Lott's porch now...
posted by zaelic at 3:16 AM on April 26, 2006


I personally sensed a sea change about the time Ronald Reagan introduced a new means of coding the tenets of bigotry under the umbrella of economics. I agree with zaelic, the current crop of conservatives has been able to couch what formerly would have been seen as racially-based discrimination in economic terms, and in the process, figured out how to add new groups to the mix, such as environmentalists, gays, women, intellectuals.
posted by FauxScot at 3:28 AM on April 26, 2006


The Dixiecrats splinter group actually formed before the 1948 election, when Truman started to talk Civil Rights. Since someone mentioned Humphrey upthread, the Dixiecrats actually walked out of the '48 Democratic National Convention in protest of his speech on civil rights -- Humphrey's first big moment, first literal break in the party.

So Thurmond--at the top of the Dixiecrats-- was gone by the 50's, but it took another generation for the rift to complete and the south to fully leave the dems. Ironically, though, Thurmond's general positions were actually somewhat liberal -- he just wanted the federal government to stay out of the south's 'bizness'

Decent, quite readable book about the 1948 election here.
posted by greggish at 5:28 AM on April 26, 2006


Definitely things were different during the Civil War. I watched the recent PBS documentary and the Dems were the conservatives emracing slavery while the Republicans were pushing for freedom.
posted by JJ86 at 6:33 AM on April 26, 2006


This is an interesting question, and I wish people would answer it instead of derailing into recent developments like Reagan and the neocons. Nothing more recent than FDR is relevant to the original question. At the time of the Civil War, the Democrats were conservative; by the time FDR was done, they were liberal (aside from the Southern wing). What happened?
posted by languagehat at 7:39 AM on April 26, 2006


I think it might be better to think of this in a different way. For more than a century after the Civil War, the Democrats were effectively two separate parties, one in the South, another everywhere else. Plus, it has usually been a party of shifting coalitions, without a strong ideological center.

In the South, the Democrats dominated for so long becuase they were not the party of Lincoln, who was of course resented for the war and events following. It was basically a socially conservative party with a pretty wide range of economic views. The South was a one-party state, so it had to accomodate a relatively wide range of (white) opinion.

In the rest of the country, the Democrats became the "left" party because of William Jennings Bryan and his allies. They took over the party from the Bourbon Democrats in 1896 and pushed a strong populist agenda. Things calmed down in the next few years, but the party was more or less progressive in both social and economic policy after that. The Southerners were more conservative and especially did not want segregation touched, but in other arenas were willing to work with the more "left" Northern elements.

Wilson was progressive in most areas, but a terrible racist. Then FDR came along, and the party started to move slowly along its current path.
posted by lackutrol at 7:51 AM on April 26, 2006 [1 favorite]


Lackutrol nails it--the Democratic "party" was a many-headed beast for most of the 20th century.

FDR won the white house with his New Deal Coalition, that consisted of three main groups: 1) southern whites, who were Democratic by birth and by Robert E. Lee, 2) northern cities, especially the blacks and immigrants who lived there, and 3) labor unions. Southern blacks were not electorally relevant since they had been deprived of the franchise during Reconstruction.

So the Democratic Party of the north, with its blacks, unions, and especially immigrants, tended to be pretty progressive on a lot of issues. But even a Democratic president could not count on the votes of southern Democrats in the House and Senate. And they tended to be scared to death of racial issues, which threatened to (and sometimes did) split the party asunder.

It was FDR more than anyone who used the Depression to move the Democratic leadership to a "progressive" stance and who created entitlements that cemented a whole generation of Americans to the party.

(In a hurry this morning, hope this makes sense!)
posted by LarryC at 8:26 AM on April 26, 2006 [1 favorite]


At the time of the Civil War, the Democrats were conservative; by the time FDR was done, they were liberal (aside from the Southern wing). What happened?

Nothing. The initial supposition -- that Democrats were on the right in the 1860s -- is what's wrong. They were to the left of the Whigs, and to the left of the Republicans after 1856. You can tell this from their voting patterns -- Democrats in 1840 were voting similarly to Democrats in 1880 who were voting similar to Democrats in 1920, etc etc right up to now, at least on the primary left/right dimension. Likewise, Whigs in 1840 can trace similarities in voting patterns right up to Republicans in 2006.

Yes, it was the Republicans that adopted an anti-slavery position. This does not make them leftist, as the issue doesn't seem to have mapped onto a liberal/conservative dimension. That's just projecting a current understanding of race-relations and racial policy onto dead people.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:41 AM on April 26, 2006


What Lacutrol said. I saw this question last night and wanted to follow the thread, but I kept racking my brain tying to remember the name "William Jennings Bryan." All I could recall was his "cross of gold" speech.

Remember both parties had liberal and conservative elements. Think of Robert La Follette, Teddy Roosevelt, etc. The "Progressive" movement of the early 20th century was in large part a Republican phenomenon.

Having said all that, I'm really struggling with the concepts of "liberal" and "conservative." Over time, they are definitely moving targets, and they have different meanings for different people and contexts.
posted by Robert Angelo at 8:56 AM on April 26, 2006


Wikipedia has decent articles on the Solid South, Nixon's Southern strategy, and the Dixiecrats.

Strom Thurmond won the electoral vote in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina as the Dixiecrat nominee in the 1948 election. The Democratic Solid South is apparent in the electoral maps of the 1952 and 1956 elections. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina were Republican standouts in Johnson's landslide win in the 1964 election. George Wallace won the electoral votes of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Arkansas in the 1968 election.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:15 AM on April 26, 2006


Yes, it was the Republicans that adopted an anti-slavery position. This does not make them leftist, as the issue doesn't seem to have mapped onto a liberal/conservative dimension. That's just projecting a current understanding of race-relations and racial policy onto dead people.

It's worth pointing out that economically, Democrats have since their inception been more "left" than Republicans. They were always a populist party (think Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan) while the Republicans were much more aristocratic.

It's more that, as ROU points out, civil rights (in general) were never attached to economics in the way we might think. You could support (what were for the time) "leftist" economic policies while still supporting slavery.
posted by maxreax at 10:15 AM on April 26, 2006


Whigs? Didn't they even stop becoming contenders pre-civil war? I like to get the big picture and compare election results on the Leip site. The center today obviously wasn't the center 100 years ago, so no, you can't make direct comparisons.
posted by JJ86 at 10:45 AM on April 26, 2006


This is not a trivial question, and I am not a scholar of the Civil War. A fully satisfactory answer to this would take some time to write, but I'm going to try to shine a little light on the historical roots of the current two party system, as I understand it.

I'm borrowing quite liberally in my response from arguments found inLessons from history: the 2000 elections and the new "irrepressible conflict" by David North, and to some extent from Hayes-Tilden dispute of 1876 foreshadowed eruption of class conflict by Shannon Jones. I suggest you read those for a more thorough discourse.

It's essential to examine the class interests that were influential in the founding and rapid rise of the Republican party. The Republican Party was founded in 1854 in the aftermath of the collapse of the Whigs. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska act, as well as the Dred Scott decision (which threw out the power of Congress to restrict the expansion of slavery), reflected more agressive attempts by the Southern slaveocracy to expand the influence of "Slave Power," which was irreconcilable with the development of the rapidly industrializing North and it's basis on "free" labor. The Republican Party was not a party of the slaves, far from it; its opposition to slavery was in the interests of the Northern ruling class. There's a lot more to this than I have the time to go into right now, but the Civil War was in essence a second American Revolution - the overthrow of the economic, political, and social rule of agricultural capitalism and the establishment of a new economic and social order based on industrial capitalism.

During the Reconstruction, the Republican party codified the free labor system, both in measures to subsidize railroads and other infrastructure, in the establishment of a national banking system, and most essentially in the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. The Democrats continued to represent the former slave-owning class, drained of it's economic power, and they were weak, struggling for a power base.

The turning point for the two parties was the Compromise of 1876, in which the Republicans essentially made a power-sharing pact with the Democratic Party, giving it the role of suppressing all threats to the new economic order, in particular the nascent labor movement. At that point the Democratic Party began a evolution towards a vaguely populist party, albeit based on the acceptance of a capitalist order.

What we commonly think of as "liberalism" and it's association with the Democratic Party did not come into being until FDR's New Deal. It came into being due to the major upheavals and social discontent caused by the Great Depression, and was a farsighted attempt by FDR to protect capitalism from the threat of social uprising. However, FDR did not and could not simply reshape the entire Democratic Party and the majority of the party, especially in the South, was still firmly rooted in the relationships established in the wake of the Compromise of 1876.

I've had to cover way too much ground in too little time, but I hope you can see the point I'm trying to make here. In essence, these relationships and ideologies are inseparable from the social interests involved. I can attempt to develop the post-FDR history a little later (I have work to do!) but if you look at the comments of previous posters through this lens you ought to glean further insight.
posted by Charlie Bucket at 2:30 PM on April 26, 2006


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