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How & Why the American Political Parties Switched Ideological Platforms

In an age when the president has no problem inserting hyper-partisan rhetoric in a veto signing statement of an ultimately bipartisan rejection of one of his emergency declaration, why not examine what happened in this country that would make it possible for the party of Abraham Lincoln to become the party of Confederate monument defending (largely) southerners?

I wasn’t being all that hyperbolic, actually. Lincoln literally put the GOP on the map. In the mid-19th century the 16th president was the very first Republican to win. Just barely. But if you think they were ideological parallel to the Republican Party of today, you’d be a little shocked to see how different the Republicans were in Abe’s day. The Republicans of yore weren’t the “kill the government at all costs” kind at all. Quite the contrary.

During the 1860s, Republicans, who dominated northern states, orchestrated an ambitious expansion of federal power, helping to fund the transcontinental railroad, the state university system and the settlement of the West by homesteaders, and instating a national currency and protective tariff. Democrats, who dominated the South, opposed these measures. After the Civil War, Republicans passed laws that granted protections for African Americans and advanced social justice; again, Democrats largely opposed these expansions of power. (LiveScience)

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When people discuss the “big switch” in party platforms, a lot of people only think about the 1968 presidential election between Republican Richard M. Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey, who had been Lyndon Johnson’s VP. When the pressures of losing the Vietnam War forced Johnson to rule himself out of the running, his vice-president stepped in, and Nixon defeated him. During that election, Nixon employed what was deemed the “Southern Strategy” Nixon seized on racial tensions in the south and sought to get more white southerner’s into the GOP’s fold by hinting at sympathy to their resistance to the civil rights movement.

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Things like desegregating schools, and the Voting Rights act of 1965 left conservative Southerners who made up the Bible belt and other conservative enclaves throughout the country susceptible to voting for a candidate that was was not a Democrat, the party that had traditionally been in the majority in the south up to that point. If the map below, taken from an academic paper on the Southern Strategy below, wasn’t labeled for the 1968 election, you might believe it was a map of the highest concentrations of Trump supporters, except the Rust Belt probably isn’t quite yellowish/red enough. But you get my point.

Wallace was a hard line segregationist. That’s a racist to you and me, and he also ran in ’68 as an Independent.

Political analyst and Nixon campaigner Kevin Phillips, analysing 1948-1968 voting trends, viewed these rebellious Southern voters as ripe for Republican picking. In The Emerging Republican Majority (Arlington House, 1969), he correctly predicted that the Republican party would shift its national base to the South by appealing to whites’ disaffection with liberal democratic racial and welfare policies. President Nixon shrewdly played this “Southern strategy” by promoting affirmative action in employment, a “wedge” issue that later Republicans would exploit to split the Democratic coalition of white working class and black voters. (University of Michigan)

In reality, the 1960’s were a continuation of the ideological shifts being felt within the parties that started decades earlier. Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican that crusaded for — and eventually succeeded in — breaking up big industrial monopolies like Standard Oil. He was known as a “Trust Buster.” It’s hard to imagine a Republican today being in favor of putting such restrictions on the almighty free market, isn’t it? His distant nephew, Franklin, when he became president, was similarly more economically progressive like Teddy, but he belonged to the Democratic Party, not the Republicans like his uncle.

Fast forward to 1936. Democratic president Franklin Roosevelt won reelection that year on the strength of the New Deal, a set of Depression-remedying reforms including regulation of financial institutions, founding of welfare and pension programs, infrastructure development and more. Roosevelt won in a landslide against Republican Alf Landon, who opposed these exercises of federal power. (LiveScience)

But we can even trace the roots of the Big Switch all the way back to Lincoln’s time.

During the 1860s, Republicans, who dominated northern states, orchestrated an ambitious expansion of federal power, helping to fund the transcontinental railroad, the state university system and the settlement of the West by homesteaders, and instating a national currency and protective tariff. Democrats, who dominated the South, opposed these measures. After the Civil War, Republicans passed laws that granted protections for African Americans and advanced social justice; again, Democrats largely opposed these expansions of power. (LiveScience)

Between the 1860’s and 2019 the Republican Party has gone through the kind of radical ideological shift they seem to think Democrats and progressives are pushing for, just in the opposite direction. But, why? Some historians think it might be all thanks to a Democrat who jumped party lines to plea for compassionate government assistance for the economically disadvantaged. He basically bit the Republicans’ style a little bit.

Eric Rauchway, professor of American history at the University of California, Davis, pins the transition to the turn of the 20th century, when a highly influential Democrat named William Jennings Bryan blurred party lines by emphasizing the government’s role in ensuring social justice through expansions of federal power — traditionally, a Republican stance. (LiveScience)

This of course begs the question why Democrats would start to switch their ideological point of view economically. The answer? Western votes.

According to Rauchway, they, like Republicans, were trying to win the West. The admission of new western states to the union in the post-Civil War era created a new voting bloc, and both parties were vying for its attention. (LiveScience)

Now, if we jump-cut to 2019, and the people who belong to the Republican Party, they are more socially conservative. They are also more fiscally conservative and against the very same kind of big government expenditures that the president who gave them political life — and ultimately gave his life for them to hold onto. The Democratic Party continues to push for those Lincoln-esque big government programs — he might actually be impressed with attempts to bring high speed rail to the country — and they are more socially liberal. For some reasons there are pockets of Republican Land that deny this connection and obvious ideological shift. People like author/film maker Dinesh D’Souza, who wrote a book just last year denying the Southern Strategy or party platform switch.

Much like climate change, which D’Souza also denies, though, the party platform switch is real. It is observable. It is documented, and it is quantifiable. It’s not, to borrow a phrase, “Fake News.”


Writer/comedian James Schlarmann is the founder of The Political Garbage Chute and his work has been featured on The Huffington Post. You can follow James on Facebook and Instagram, but not Twitter because he has a potty mouth.

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