Republicans have an obvious racial problem – one they’d rather not admit, even to themselves. The party’s electoral base is predominantly white, and Republicans are now actively trying to suppress black voters (and other voters of color) through a range of Jim Crow tactics. They reflexively support the police even in the most egregious cases of racist violence (like the murder of George Floyd last year) and have always described Black Lives Matter as a subversive and anti-American movement. But they cannot win an election without moderate, independent voters who are uncomfortable with overt and blatant manifestations of racism, so they claim that Democrats and Liberals are the “real racists.”
It seems like everyone on the right, from nutcase filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza to The Federalist, likes to point out that the Democratic Party was the main political vehicle of white supremacy in the United States. They assume that their readers will pretend not to notice that decades ago Democrats and Republicans “switched sides” (at least on the issue of race), as that would nullify this attempted “trap”. . In fact, the Democratic and Republican parties did not come to terms with their current identities of “liberal” and “conservative”, respectively – and as we understand these terms today – until the middle of the 20th century, and no of the two parties does defend what it once did, especially but not exclusively on racial issues.
Three presidential elections play a key role in this story: those of 1912, 1932 and 1964.
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The modern two-party system began to take shape in the 1850s, with the demise of the Whig Party and the birth of the Republicans (the Whig anti-slavery faction, more or less). But in the decades following the Civil War, neither party looked much like its modern version. As Abraham Lincoln’s party, Republicans theoretically supported black citizenship rights (at least to some extent), as well as other vaguely âliberalâ policies as a more centralized approach to policy making. economic policies, expanding the retirement system for post-civil war veterans. to create what some scholars claim to be an early welfare state and to lavish government support on burgeoning industries in the United States. Democrats like Grover Cleveland – the only late 19th-century Democratic president and somewhat libertarian by modern standards – thought these ideas were unnecessary and dangerous.
But the Democrats of the day, inconsistent heirs to Andrew Jackson’s populist tradition, were a chaotic mix of ingredients: big-city political bosses and urban white immigrants, agrarian populists like William Jennings Bryan (some of whom would be ‘liberal’ or even radical today), Jeffersonian idealists who preached bromides about limited government, business interests that favored lower tariffs and opposed protectionism, and southern white supremacists, who often supported progressive economic policies alongside Jim Crow’s vicious segregation. In essence, the Democrats were a motley team made up of all those who weren’t Republicans – a situation that perhaps echoes strangely today, but without so many jarring philosophical contradictions.
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Then came the 1912 election. Republican President William Howard Taft ran for office, but was challenged by former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, who believed the GOP had veered too far to the right on economic, environmental and of good government. Roosevelt lost the nomination fight to Taft, but still ran as the newly invented Progressive Party candidate – and won the highest percentage of the popular vote of any third candidate in American history. In fact, he got more votes than Taft and won six states – but both were overwhelmed by Democrat Woodrow Wilson. In the process, Americans suddenly became aware of the ideological schism of the Republican Party, and over time the self-proclaimed “progressives” would feel increasingly unwelcome in the GOP.
With Democrats returning to power after decades in the wilderness, Wilson realized he had to face the progressive and reactionary wings of his own party. He advocated for antitrust and labor rights legislation, lowered tariffs and then attempted to start the League of Nations, a precursor to the UN. The Virginia native also extended Jim Crow’s policies (and turned a blind eye to racist violence in the South) and clamped down on the free speech rights of socialists and other dissident groups. Wilson identified with the progressive movement when it was politically convenient, but he was also a white Southerner deeply invested in the mythology of Confederation’s âLost Causeâ. Although there are other contenders for this award, Wilson was perhaps the most overtly racist American president; his attitudes seemed extreme even to other white Americans at the time. He turned out to be the practical embodiment of deep internal tensions within his own party and, unsurprisingly, ended his widely despised second term.
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But the point is, while Democrats were certainly still racist in 1912 and thereafter, both parties were losing their respective identities since the Civil War. The words “liberal” and “conservative,” which were used very differently before the Wilson presidency, have started to take on their modern ideological associations. But there were a large number of Liberals and Conservatives – in this modern sense – within both parties, and that would take several decades to resolve.
The big triage began in earnest 20 years later, with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s landslide victory over President Herbert Hoover, a Republican widely blamed (rightly or wrongly) for the 1929 stock market crash and trauma of the great Depression. Roosevelt set out, literally, to save capitalism with his ambitious program, known as the New Deal. Politically, the New Deal allowed Democrats to forge a majority coalition by becoming the party that provided economic security to America’s most vulnerable citizens and by dramatically expanding government aid and assistance in many other areas of life. . The basic premise of this agenda was summed up by Roosevelt himself in his State of the Union Address of 1944:
We have clearly understood that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Needy men are not free men.” People who are hungry and unemployed are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
Roosevelt’s economic and political innovations laid the groundwork for decades of American prosperity which, among other things, enabled the baby boom generation to flourish like no other generation had before (or before). has done since). They also dramatically expanded the Democratic constituency, which now included union workers (a much larger fraction of the population at the time), âwhite ethnicâ immigrants, students and intellectuals – and blacks in cities across the country. North (which were pretty much the only places they could vote). Whites in the South have continued to vote Democrats for several decades, partly on the basis of tradition, but also because the New Deal has done so much to improve living conditions in the South. But no doubt the die was cast: rural white supremacists, leftist intellectuals and rapidly growing black populations in big cities could not stay in the same party forever.
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And indeed, that all changed after 1964, when Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, who took office the day after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, began pushing through landmark civil rights legislation and the right to vote – partly out of sincere conviction and partly under tremendous pressure from the civil rights movement and leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. As Johnson himself clearly intended, the rights law Civilians of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – which established full racial equality, at least in law – drove white Southerners out of the Democratic Party, apparently forever. A conservative insurgency within the Republican Party began immediately, resulting in the nomination of Barry Goldwater (essentially a segregationist, although not from the South) in the 1964 election. Goldwater lost to Johnson in an epic eruption, the Democrat receiving a higher percentage of the popular vote than any other candidate before or since – but, again, that’s not the important part. Black voters and other minority groups almost unanimously backed Johnson and the Democrats, who were now officially the Civil Rights Party. In practical terms, and given ideological outliers like Clarence Thomas and Candace Owens, Republicans were indeed an all-white party after this election.
So it is actually too simplistic to say that Republicans and Democrats “have switched sides.” It was clearly a little more complicated than that. From the pre-Civil War era to the administration of Woodrow Wilson, Democrats were truly a white supremacist party – with a whole bunch of other things more or less incompatible. But in a gradual process that started with Archiracist Wilson and accelerated through FDR and LBJ, Democrats assembled what we would now call a “liberal” coalition, with support for racial equality (at least in principle) as a central pillar. Even after 1964, the transformation was not complete, and some “conservative Democrats” and “liberal Republicans” dragged on until the end of the 20th century. (George Wallace was a Democrat, for example, while Nelson Rockefeller was a Republican; the two would absolutely switch parties if they were alive today.)
You probably already knew that, but the bottom line here is that it’s either ignorant or dishonest (and probably both) to claim Democrats are the âreal racistsâ based on history. There is a lot of context – especially involving landmark events like the elections of 1912, 1932, and 1964 – that pretty much invalidates the claim. Perhaps the real answer is that neither party is more like it used to be. The Democrats were once an absurd coalition that housed many white supremacists (and other groups that looked more or less the other way), so in that sense the accusation contains a little grain of truth. But then again, the Republicans were a bland pro-business party, not a fascist personality cult. They should think twice before encouraging any other political party to juxtapose the present with its own history.