The Democratic and Republican parties have flipped their basic philosophies since being founded. Currently, we strongly associate each with being conservative or liberal. We often assume that conservatives are Republicans and Democrats are liberals. But it was the opposite for approximately the first 80 years of our nation’s founding.
Each party’s orientation was and still is primarily determined by two elements of our society: the economic structure and the social values. The economics of a market economy concentrates wealth to allow the few to magnify their interests, and the social values of a society galvanize the majority to vote in a democracy to protect those values.
Understanding why the two dominant political parties traded roles helps us understand how the economic and social forces shaped our history and will determine our future.
The intensity of the parties’ conflicting positions reached their summit just before the Civil War when the energized Northern liberals formed the Republican Party to address the social issue of ending Black slavery. The Democratic voter base was securely grounded in the conservative values of the South, which clung to each state’s freedom to own Black slaves.
The South’s dependence on slavery was an unrecognized anchor weighing down their economy’s growth potential. Although on paper, white households in the South were wealthier than their counterparts in the North at all levels of family wealth. However, 90 percent of the nation’s manufacturing output came from northern states. The North far outproduced the South in textiles, pig iron, and firearms.
After the war, the parties drifted away from their pre-Civil War position on government powers. Advocating for a social policy of racial equality was not part of either party’s political agenda.
As the social liberalism of the Northern Republicans declined, the abolitionists’ commitment to advocate for Black citizens was replaced by a weariness for doing anything more to secure a bearable future for them. Efforts to reform the Southern dwindled as the party took on new members representing Northern business interests. They didn’t need enslaved Black people. Also, due to supplying goods to the war effort, Northern businesses had grown rich. Their attention shifted to making profits, not making social change.
Consequently, they supported Republican Rutherford B. Hayes becoming president since he agreed to a compromise in 1877 that southern states could deal with African American citizens without Northern interference. When that understanding was coupled with the withdrawal of all remaining military forces from the former Confederate states, white supremacists took control of most governments. Laws and policies were then adopted, halting Black citizens’ civil rights.
Both parties began to develop membership with a balance of fiscal conservatives and moderate liberals until FDR became president. His efforts to bring the economy out of the Great Depression moved most Democrats into a liberalism that accepted a central government protecting the welfare of the general public.
His creation of public work projects set a new threshold for government involvement in the marketplace. Meanwhile, the Republicans fortified their long-time but modest conservative orientation by championing a society that promoted a market economy without government intervention.
FDR’s liberal policies did not propose any social changes that specifically addressed discrimination against Blacks or all other minorities, including women.
He did knock down discriminatory barriers, which allowed them to obtain better work and lift the U.S. economy out of the depression. He issued executive orders that forbade job discrimination against African Americans, women, and ethnic groups, using the wartime Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC).
Despite the creation of the FEPC, FDR’s administration tolerated and continued restrictions on Black citizens. As a result, racial segregation was the rule, not the exception, in operating New Deal programs throughout the country. Racial segregation was most apparent in the South; of the 10,000 WPA supervisors working there, only 11 were black. In comparison, Blacks were hired in the North during the first month of WPA’s operation.
New Deal programs were primarily economic policies designed to improve the living standards for poor and middle-income families. The most significant one was the creation of the Social Security Administration (SSA), now America’s largest government program. In fiscal year (FY) 2022, the agency expected to pay out $1.2 trillion in Social Security benefits to 66 million individuals.
Both the right and the left criticized FDR’s liberal economic policies. Senator Robert A. Taft, the leader of the Republican Party’s conservative wing, consistently denounced the New Deal as “socialism,” claiming it harmed America’s businesses by giving ever-greater control to the federal government and being the enemy of individual liberty.
Meanwhile, Senator and former Louisiana Governor Huey Long outflanked FDR on the left. Long’s proposals included a 100% tax on personal fortunes exceeding a million dollars, older people receiving pensions, and providing a $2500 yearly guaranteed minimum income for the poorest Americans.
However, these criticisms were primarily confined to the economics of balancing government and private business roles within the marketplace. They were not about cultural policy issues, although the two parties started drifting apart in protecting Black citizens’ civil rights.
The first significant opening of that gap was in the Spring of 1963, when Democratic President John F. Kennedy proposed legislation barring racial discrimination in public accommodations, according to Princeton Professors Ilyana Kuziemko and Yale’s Ebonyi. It was a transitional moment demarcating the expansion of the Democrats’ liberal philosophy from economic policies into the cultural arena of initiating social changes.
The following year, when Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law, a clean break from the past was made. It was the first shot in what the public now knows as the “cultural war.” It was the most remarkable social change legislation since Congress passed the Reconstruction Constitutional Amendments of 13, 14, and 15.
The Civil Rights Act vote took place during the presidential election when the Republican Presidential candidate, Sen. Barry Goldwater, opposed the new law. He condemned it for dangerously expanding federal government power, a message that resonated in the South.
With the election of FDR most Black voters supported Democratic Presidential candidates. Democrats still held onto the Southern states with very conservative candidates who did not challenge laws discriminating against Blacks. But with the passage of the Civil Rights Act the Democratic Party was seen as too liberal because it supported the federal government to protect the civil rights of Blacks. In 1960, all 22 U.S. Senators in the South were conservatives affiliated with the Democratic Party. By 2016, there were only three Democrats as Senators.
After 1964, Black voter support for Democratic Presidential candidates always exceeded 70 percent. And at the same time, liberal Democrats lost the South. In 1960, all 22 U.S. Senators in the South were conservatives affiliated with the Democratic Party. By 2016, there were only three Democrats as Senators.
Kuziemko and Ebonya wrote a paper providing data that showed nearly all of the Democratic Party’s losses in the South from 1958-1980 were due to white voters’ racially conservative views. In effect, liberal Democrats were closing the Southern whites’ comfortable cultural divide between them and Black citizens.
Thus, white hostility to social policies that increased racial tensions extended beyond the South. Steve Phillips of the Center for American Progress notes that national exit polls have shown that since 1976, the Republican presidential nominee has received, on average, 54.8 percent of the white vote, while the Democratic nominee has garnered an average of just 40.6 percent. Others have estimated that Lyndon Johnson may have been the last Democrat to win the majority vote of white males.
The trend of Democrats becoming more liberal occurred by adopting policies reshaping the American economy and culture. The Democrats lost conservative Democrat voters. But their switch to not voting or voting for Republicans does not explain why the Republican Party became so opposed to altering social policies, particularly around race and homosexuality.
Republicans, up to the time of President Ronald Reagan, were still a mixture of conservatives and liberals open to gradually changing cultural values if that acceptance didn’t directly endanger their beliefs. There were working relationships between Republicans and Democrats around some common concerns.
The most consequential single incident was when Johnson persuaded more than one Republican, and most importantly Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen, to allow the Civil Rights Act to pass out of the Senate with Republican support. The final vote was 77–19 (Democrats 47–16, Republicans 30–2). More Democrats opposed the bill than Republicans; only senators representing Southern states voted against it.
This vote and others to follow led the Republican Party to become more conservative on social issues due to the critical support from white conservative Southern Democratic voters who would not vote for liberals of either party. Republican candidates became more conservative to win in the South. In that process, they dislodged the conservative Democratic officeholders. And the leadership in the Republican Party followed Ronald Reagan’s winning 1980 election campaign strategy of tying together religion and economics.
On the religious front, Reagan won over the white Protestant evangelicals who had voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976. Carter’s politics, while in office, reflected the growing influence of liberals by supporting the Equal Rights Amendment while opposing the tax exemptions for White religious schools. The Democrats were firmly committed to the fundamental liberal belief in separating the church and the state.
Meanwhile, Reagan doubled down at the 1984 Republican Convention, saying that religion needed to defend itself from state interests and that “morality’s foundation is religion, religion and politics are necessarily related.” Reagan’s Republican platform called for a constitutional ban on abortion with no exceptions and rejected equal pay for women. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, called Reagan’s ticket “God’s instruments in rebuilding America.”
On the economic front, Reagan convinced millions of traditionally Democratic voters to vote for him, who became ‘Reagan Democrats.’ He won a fifth of Democratic voters in 1980, 54% of the white working class and 47% of union members (Carter got 43% of them).
White workers represented more than one-third of the nation’s voters. Two years before the 1980 election, they lost close to 5% of their income and saw 700,000 of their industrial jobs lost - especially in the steel and car industries.
In this harsh economic climate, the federal government and the courts demanded that industrial companies abandon racist practices and set up preferential programs for Black workers. White blue-collar workers were asked to share a shrinking job market with Blacks, while white professionals did not feel a similar burden.
The lower-income white ethnic neighborhoods close to black ghettos had already experienced the unintended consequence of being targeted for bussing their children away from their neighborhood schools to achieve racial integration in public schools.
The Democrats’ social justice policies were greatly appreciated by the growing minority population and appreciated by liberal and college-educated white voters. These changes were seen as necessary to sustain the democratic functioning of the republic. The two political parties started to clearly pursue either a liberal or a conservative agenda that changed or preserved past social relationships.
The philosophical division between them was well set before the Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement emerged from Donald Trump’s campaign. It was merely the open articulation of that conflict, telling the “truth.” The truth is that the government was interfering with established conservative white cultural values centered around family and church. Conservatives felt that their freedom to act and speak freely was restricted; no matter how they discriminated against or economically impacted others. These were Woke liberal issues, not theirs.
The answer to why the parties switched philosophies is apparent in the above history. The political philosophy of each party reflects the shifting power of wealth and culture on the populace to vote for a party that they think best protects their interests.
Those dynamics continue, with conservatives highlighting and presenting popular political slogans promoting “small government” as David slaying Goliath, i.e. Big Government. Liberals avoid promoting “big government.” So, the next question begs, who is best served through small government?
Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials.
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