What are the historical differences between major US political parties?
March 30, 2017 5:06 PM   Subscribe

I always kind of had it in my head that Republicans and Democrats switched beliefs after the civil rights act passed in the 60s, but I think it may be more complicated than that, so what did the parties believe at various times in history?

Somebody on social media posted a graphic saying that republicans controlling the congress and presidency led to the great depression, and my first thought was but wouldn't those have been more like the democrats of today? Basic research says no. Hoover was mostly government out of business and FDR was mostly government take an active role, so what policies did switch after the 60s? Was it just the racism or was it broader than that, and what did the various parties believe at various points in US history?
posted by willnot to Law & Government (8 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You might like this chart from the often amazing xkcd of political parties and their left/right tendencies as well as the number of seats in house and senate.
posted by metahawk at 5:19 PM on March 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

The short version is that there was a sizable contingent of racist Southern Democratic senators that stymied civil rights legislation for decades, and when LBJ pushed through the various civil rights acts, the Republican Party got all the racists. Aside from that, on the whole, the Republican and Democratic parties have remained relatively ideologically consistent since the early 20th Century.
posted by Automocar at 5:28 PM on March 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Vox on youtube:


posted by Bistyfrass at 5:43 PM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Here is an excellent memo to Truman which lays out the political calculus that argued for poaching minority voters from the Republicans. It was a tricky and slow process, since the Democratic South was an important voting bloc. You can find Nixon talking about courting the black vote basically up until the Civil Rights Act passed, when he pivoted to court the disaffected Southern vote.
posted by politikitty at 6:09 PM on March 30, 2017

Best answer: It might be helpful for you to think of the parties not as ideological entities with unified beliefs, but as coalitions of interests clustered together (sometimes uncomfortably!) that change over time.

I don't know the whole history of both parties, but here are some bits of it. I won't talk more about the Southern Strategy and the changes that resulted, since you're already familiar with it. However, it did have an impact on a couple of the things that I will mention.

The Republicans have been the party of business and the Democrats have been the party of the urban poor/working classes since at least the late 1800s. Those two things have remained relatively constant. Usually, that has meant that the Republicans have supported low taxes, small government and minimal safety nets while the Democrats have supported high taxes, large government and strong safety nets. However, a number of other things have changed in that time:

- The Progressives had an impact on both parties. I'm not an expert on them, but my impression is that they were in favour of active government but opposed to the Tammany Hall corruption that characterized the Democrats of the late 1800s. In the Republican party, they became the "responsible businessman" wing exemplified by Nelson Rockefeller. That wing was mostly extinguished by Richard Nixon when he embraced the Southern Strategy. The anti-monopoly ideas of the Progressives were first taken up by the Republicans (mostly via Teddy Roosevelt), while the pro-government-regulation ideas were mostly absorbed by the Democrats. Progressive ideas usually appeal more to the highly educated, and as the educated moved in large numbers to the Democrats in the 1960s, Progressive ideas moved with them. (Not all Progressive ideas were good ones, mind you; eugenics was popular with many early highly-educated Progressives who thought that the poor and stupid shouldn't be allowed to breed so much, for example.)

- Patriotism, flag-waving and war-making have an interesting history. For most of the 20th century, the Democrats were the party of war and Republicans were isolationist. Wilson took the US into WWI; Republicans wanted to stay home. Roosevelt took the US into WWII; Republicans wanted to stay home. Truman started the Cold War and got the US into the Korean war; Kennedy and Johnson were responsible for Vietnam. That's exactly the opposite of how we think of the Democratic party now; when large numbers of male blue-collar voters switched to the Republicans as a result of the Southern Strategy, the Republicans became the primary party of massive defense spending and spreading democracy by bombing. The Democrats have an uncomfortable alliance on this issue between most of the anti-war voters and an establishment which believes in the occasional "military intervention".

- Socially conservative religion in politics also has an interesting history. Socially conservative religious voters weren't always economically conservative as they (mostly) are today. Especially in rural areas, a preacher could rail against both the greed and the immorality of the big-city businessman. That was a core part of the Populist message. Farmers, especially Western farmers, were mostly Populist and Democratic. In the late 1800s, the Republican "cross of gold" and Eastern business interests were seen as keeping farmers poor. But as small, struggling family farms disappeared over the following century and the remaining farms became million-dollar family businesses, farmers became solidly Republican. The social conservatism and distrust of Eastern elites that characterized Populism remained, though, and Republicans were able, eventually, to tap into both of those currents. This led to the uncomfortable Republican alliance between socially conservative fundamentalists and Republican libertarians.

- Many people moved into cities. Most of those people became big-government Democrats.

- Many people moved into suburbs. Many of those people became swing voters with a Republican lean. They were a big part of the Reagan Revolution. The impact of suburban voting is one of the most complex and interesting parts of the story, and I won't be able to do justice to it. Home ownership, cars, megachurches, insular libertarianism, government safety nets that were an invisible bedrock of suburban life, and families prosperous enough to give higher education to both their sons and their daughters were all part of the changes related to the massive growth of suburbia. Since suburban voters are usually the swing voters who decide elections, they are responsible for most of the compromises and hypocrisies and saying-we'll-radically-transform-America-but-actually-only-tweaking-it that both parties regularly do.

I've gathered these ideas about the changes in the parties from bits and pieces across a number of books. I'm no expert, and I may have misremembered some parts of it, but hopefully it gives you some leads for your own research. Populists, Progressives, social conservatives and suburbanites have all had a complicated impact on both parties over the course of the 20th century. The Southern Strategy is the biggest single change, but it's not the only one.
posted by clawsoon at 7:00 PM on March 30, 2017 [24 favorites]

As a non-USian I probably learned the most I ever have about American history by reading a book on the Eisenhower years. I can't remember what it was called but there are a lot of excellent ones. In a lot of ways he was the first modern president and a lot changed during his time in power in terms of the way the country worked. I also learned of the immense amount of things Nixon did as his VP, which I had no idea about before that since Nixon is kinda scrubbed from the books and all. I'd start there and work your way back or forwards since there is no way to write about the Eisenhower years without a lot of comparative information.
posted by fshgrl at 7:50 PM on March 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

2016 was a very interesting election in coalition terms. Business interests, outside of the energy industry, swung emphatically to the Democrats depsite being poised to benefit hugely from Trump's cuts in taxes and regulations, which benefits are being realized in the stock market since the election. It will be very interesting to see whether business switches back to the Republicans out of habit / gratitude or decides to keep biting the hand that feeds it.
posted by MattD at 8:37 AM on April 1, 2017

I would highly recommend Richard Hofstadter's "The Idea of a Party System" for the background.
posted by aspersioncast at 6:08 PM on April 3, 2017

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