Let’s have a history lesson today. History is a fascinating topic because, in studying the events of the past, you can observe the way societies and people change, and the human drama that plays out as a result of those changes. One of the reasons I love history so much is because the stories of the past – of the fall of the Roman Republic, of the American Revolution, of the tumults of Tudor England and the emergence of Protestantism across Europe, just to name a few of my favorites – are better and more exciting stories, full of pathos and intrigue, than any fiction writer could ever conceive. Reading about these great moments in history, and the people and decisions that shaped them, reveals that change is an inevitable part of the human condition, that not only do circumstances change wildly, but also people and institutions change constantly, often much more rapidly and unpredictably than we could ever envision.
I’ve been thinking about these things recently as I have watched the debate rage again about Confederate statues, the legacy of the Civil War, and the role of our two major political parties across that time. So I wanted to take a few minutes today to address that last topic. Here’s the main thing you need to understand: the parties today are very different, both ideologically and in composition, than they were 50 years ago, 100 years ago, or 150 years ago. If you think the Democratic and Republican Parties that we have today are basically the same as they were when they emerged from the Civil War, well, have I got a story for you. Buckle up.
The two parties we have today formed before the Civil War. The Democratic Party finds its roots almost at the beginning of our nation, in the wake of the Era of Good Feelings, when Jefferson and Madison’s Democratic-Republican Party had a monopoly on national electoral politics for the better part of 25 years at the beginning of the 19th century. As that single party rule proved untenable and began to crack, Andrew Jackson burst onto the scene, and he and Martin Van Buren crafted the Democratic Party in opposition to Henry Clay’s Whigs. Democrats were the party of the frontier person, of small-holding farmers, and of southern agriculturalists, including almost all of the nation’s slaveholders. As the Party coalesced over the thirty years leading up to the War, the locus of power in the Party shifted further and further southward, until in 1860, at the Party convention to select a candidate for President, the Party split across sectional lines, with Northern and Southern Democrats both nominating their own candidates for President that year (Stephen Douglas and John Breckenridge, respectively), both of whom lost to Abraham Lincoln. With the onset of the war, and in the aftermath, northern Democrats basically disappeared, and the Democratic Party became a regional party of Southern interests, as many former Confederates moved back into the party. James Buchanan, a Democrat, left office in 1861; over the next 65 years, only one Democrat (Grover Cleveland) would assume the Presidency, as their regional coalition could never amass the national political power needed to win office.
One thing that is important to know about the Democratic Party in the South is that, yes, they were the Party that supported and benefited from the rise of the KKK and other White Supremacist groups. Founded by six former Confederate officers in Tennessee in December of 1865, the group was led by former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, and one of its main goals was pushing out “carpetbagger” Republican politicians across the South. The Democratic Party supported the group, and viewed them as allies in their fight for power and white supremacist politics.
The Republican Party, on the other hand, formed in the decade leading up to the Civil War, from the remnants of the Whig Party as it collapsed, and as more Westerners joined the Union. The Party ran its first candidate for President in 1856 in John C. Fremont. From the beginning, the Republican Party was primarily concerned with stopping the spread of slavery any further west; Fremont’s campaign slogan was “Free Soil, Free Speech, and a Free Press.” Abraham Lincoln, in his 1860 campaign, doubled down on this; his election was a clear sign to the southern states that anti-slavery forces were aiming to halt and even end the practice of slavery. Their secession was a direct response to the election of Lincoln. Following the war, and the death of Lincoln, the party was largely dominated by a group of Radical Republicans, who pushed for full and equal rights for black Americans. The first black elected officials in the South during Reconstruction were all Republicans. For the next 65 years, Republicans would dominate national politics, even as they compromised with Democrats and made the conscious decision to abandon Reconstruction and build the Jim Crow system of “Separate but Equal.”
Let’s jump to 1932. While the nation technically had only two parties, in reality there were really four parties operating in electoral politics. First, you had Southern Democrats, the Party of George Wallace and Strom Thurmond and other unrepentant segregationists, a group predicated on white supremacy, Lost Cause mythology, and the maintenance of Southern power in electoral politics. Next, you have Northern Democrats, folks like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Al Smith, and Woodrow Wilson, folks who are more interested in building up working class power in the labor union movement and protecting the gains of the Progressive Era. Third is the Liberal wing of the Republican Party, mostly concentrated in the Northeast and out West, the party of folks like Norman Rockefeller and Dwight Eisenhower and most of the Presidents of the first quarter of the 20th century – people like Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, Coolidge, Harding, and Hoover. This group is focused on pro-business policies and a strong military. They are, through and through, the Establishment. Finally, you have conservative Republicans, folks like Barry Goldwater and Robert Taft, concerned with state’s rights and rolling back the Progressive Era and then the New Deal. These four groups, for the sake of electoral success, grouped into the Parties; Southern Democrats ceded ground on labor rights and working class policies in return for maintaining the racial status quo in the South; Liberal Republicans ceded ground on national government power in return for large military budgets and business-friendly policies. This system worked well to create political stability for the better part of 60 years, albeit at the expense of black and brown bodies, who were forced into segregation and official discrimination in order for a white peace to be kept in the nation.
This carefully constructed system all started to come apart in 1948. At the Democratic Party Convention that year, as the Party re-nominated Harry Truman, Northern members led by Hubert Humphrey and Sen. Paul Simon fought for and won a Civil Rights plank in the platform, causing Southern delegates to walk out and form their own Dixiecrat Party for that election, nominating Strom Thurmond for the Presidency (Truman won the nation election any ways.) Over the next twenty years, a phenomena known as Realignment played out in electoral politics. Northern Democrats gained control of the Party, nominating Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960, both of whom were strongly pro-Civil Rights. As this happened, and Southern Democrats left the party, they saw an opening in the nonexistent Republican Party in their states. Able to align their own state’s rights stance on segregation and racial issues with the pro-small government ethos of big business Republicans, many moved into the Republican Party, which lacked any real power in the South and was thus open for anyone willing to give it winning prospects.
A few important dates in the history of Realignment: first, in 1968, the Democratic Party nominates Hubert Humphrey, replacing a retiring Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner who nonetheless throughout his long political career had been pro-Civil Rights, culminating in his spearheading the push for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and his working relationship with Martin Luther King Jr and other Civil Rights leaders. Meanwhile, Southern Democrats have one last gasp, nominating George Wallace as a Segregationist candidate who wins the South and helps usher Nixon into office. Next is 1972: in his national landslide, Nixon becomes the first Republican to ever sweep the South. Next: 1976, Democrats nominate Jimmy Carter, the first time the Party nominated a candidate from the Deep South since the aforementioned Breckenridge, in 1860. Democrats felt confident nominating Carter because Southern segregationist forces in the Party had mostly left by this point, and the few that remained were basically powerless in presidential politics. This would be the last time Democrat are ever competitive in the South. Reagan basically sweeps the South both times he won (Carter won his home of Georgia in 1980) and Republicans have had a stranglehold on the region ever since. One more date: 1994, the Gingrich Revolution, wherein Republicans win the House for the first time in 40 years by completing Realignment, as Republicans win across the South at the Congressional and state level.
So what does all this mean for politics today, for our current debates over Confederate monuments and naming things after racists and the fight for Black Lives? The main thing it means is that American history is complicated and messy and full of compromises and shifts and intricacies. It also means that if you are looking at the ideological makeup of the parties in, say, 1888, or 1924, or even 1967, to decide which party aligns with you today, you are doing everything wrong. The Parties today are wildly different from the Parties of the past. In politics, things change often, they change fast, and they change in ways that can’t be predicted ahead of time, but which have massive reverberations through time. There is a reason the Republican Party is powerful in the South and among white voters, and why the Democrats win the Northeast and the black vote, and it’s not because Democrats are still the Party of John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis, and Republicans are still the Party of Thaddeus Stevens and Abraham Lincoln. That rapid change over time, and the shifting of political currents and priorities, and the contingency of political circumstances at any one moment, means that politicians and leaders from 150 years ago would have a hard time finding a home in either political party today, not because those parties have degenerated or something, but because things are just different today than they used to be. The priorities of people in the past were simply different from ours today, even if some similarities across time still exist. You can’t define the Parties of today by who they used to be, whether that was one hundred years ago, or four years ago. Parties are fluid, evolving, and changing institutions, reacting in real time to the realities of group interactions within their ranks.
At the same time, this isn’t an attempt to relativize or neutralize the importance of ideas and policies in the face of difficult and shifting historical currents. In fact, I’m aiming at the just opposite idea with all of this: ideas matter. Truth matters. Historical knowledge matters, because it informs our world today. The Republican Party of today is not the Party of Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Abolitionists of the mid-19th century. That Party was rabidly anti-slavery, and it kick-started the movement that eventually coalesced into the Civil Rights movement, even as that movement left a compromising and equivocating Republican Party behind. The Republican Party made a conscious choice, in the 60s and 70s, to align itself with the interests of Southern segregationists, making a similar compromise the party had made with Liberal Republicans, to safeguard free markets and military might at the price of ceding the black vote. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party today is not the Party of George Wallace any longer. And while the Democratic Party in 2020 is far from perfect (don’t even get me started on its problems) one thing the Party has done somewhat well is embrace the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, which was left abandoned in the wake of the Realignment, and become the party of diversity and the use of federal power to ensure the civil and human rights of all people.
So here is your takeaway from this: the next time someone tells you the Democratic Party is the party of slavery and the KKK, you can look at them and say “yes and no, it’s much more complicated than that” and watch their black-and-white, highly ordered worldview start to crumble. You can educate them on the intricate and complicated nature of American political history. You can stand up and say, yes, we should take down Confederate statues and remove the names of racists from things, not because we are erasing history, but because history is complicated, and because we should honor and highlight people who have worked for justice and equality and the ideas enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (go read it) and Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (go read that, too), that we remember history in books and museums, and we honor and commemorate people by naming things after them and putting up their statues, not the other way around. And you’ll be able to say that you don’t care if the names and statues being replaced align with our Party identification today or not, because the past was a whole different place, and your mind is large enough and open enough to hold those complicated facts and ideas all at once.
Most of all, you’ll know that Party politics are only one aspect of American history, and that even as the Parties jostled and fought for power and courted different interests in that pursuit, that throughout history one thread of justice and equality has run down through time, from the abolitionists of the pre-war era, to the work of emancipation and then Reconstruction, to those who fought Jim Crow and Segregation, into the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s, on into the expansion of civil rights to include other minority groups, down to today, to the on-going fight for Black Lives and LGBTQ rights today. Want to stand in the tradition of Lincoln? Don’t worry about your party ID. Instead, remember that he was a voice for radical and scary changes to the social makeup in pursuit of, in his words, “a new birth of freedom”, and look for that same radical and scary fight today, remembering always that change is scary, but it’s also completely necessary if we are going to live up to our finest ideals as a nation and people.