In recent years, America’s two party system has seemed more intractable than ever: Democrats vs. Republicans. Now, we have a clear idea of each party’s location on the political map: Democrats are liberal, Republicans conservative; Democrats are left-leaning, Republicans right-leaning. Right now, those truths seems so deeply entrenched that they seem almost natural – it’s always been this way and always will be. But if historians know anything it’s this: things change. In this episode, we’re thinking about change over time by looking at the long history of America’s political parties.

Transcript for: The History of America’s Changing Political Parties

Written by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD 

Recorded and produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Marissa Rhodes, PhD 

Sarah: In recent years, America’s two party system has seemed more intractable than ever: Democrats vs. Republicans. Now, we have a clear idea of each party’s location on the political map: Democrats are liberal, Republicans conservative; Democrats are left-leaning, Republicans right-leaning. Right now, those truths seems so deeply entrenched that they seem almost natural – it’s always been this way and always will be. But if historians know anything it’s this: things change. In fact, in the American Historical Association’s definition of the discipline of history includes the requirement that historical study “requires the ability to identify and explain continuity and change over time.” The concept of change over time is central to what we do as historians. 

Marissa: And yet, the very idea that things change over time is anathema to some people. For literally centuries, conservative people, groups, and movements, have gained power by arguing that change over time is not just unnatural, but inherently threatening, degrading, and generally bad. So while scores of US historians have written hundreds (maybe thousands?) of books on the various stages of American party politics and the parties’ shifting platforms and ideologies, there are folks who vociferously insist that many of those changes never happened, and are actually just an insidious, leftist myth. 

Sarah: Take for instance, the classic tweet from Charlie Kirk, which seems to have now been deleted, maybe? But which I screenshot in 2019, and show to students just about every semester. Charlie Kirk tweeted on Feb 1 2019: “Facts: 100% of Republicans voted to free slaves; 23% of Demoracts did. 94% of Republicans voted to give former slaves citizenship, 0% of Democrats did. 100% of Republicans voted to give freed slaves voting rights, 0% of Democrats did.” First, are these facts? I’m not exactly certain of the stats here and frankly, I’m not interested in the immense amount of data crunching that would require to fact-check – I’ll leave that to other historians. But more importantly, setting aside the exact numbers, is old Charlie right? Well … sort of! But is this a good faith representation of party politics in the post Civil War era? Absolutely not – because of – say it with me – change over time. 

Today, as part of our series on change over time and our ongoing exploration of the 5 c’s of historical thinking, we’re doing a sweeping overview of the American political party systems, from the feud between Jefferson and Hamilton to, well, Charlie Kirk. 


I’m Sarah 

And I’m Marissa 

And we are your historians for this episode of DIG 

Marissa: Before we begin, we want to thank all of our Patreon supporters, and especially our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Karl, Hanna, Lauren, Colin, Edward, Iris, Susan, Denise, Agnes, Jessy, Karen, Maria, and Audrey! Your support is hugely helpful to our being able to do this work, from helping us have great sound and an accessible website to letting us order books. We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more

Sarah: I want to start with an acknowledgement of the books that I relied on to write this episode. I really enjoyed James Reichley’s The Life of the Parties, which isn’t exactly an academic history but which is highly readable and offers a great overview of the synthetic history of American political parties. I also used Eric Schickler’s Racial Realignment to learn more about the party switch that happened around the issue of civil rights in the mid 20th century. I also referred back to Carol Berkin’s A Brilliant Solution about the drafting of the Constitution, which I return to over and over again and which has become one of my favorites. I also want to say really briefly: this episode is a synthesis, which means we’re going broad and shallow. There are lots of smaller, local and state political trends, third parties, and other details that we just will not get into here. That’s not to say they’re not important or relevant, but only that they were outside of our scope here. 

Sarah: In September 1796, George Washington chose not to run again for reelection to the presidency – a powerful decision that set a precedent into the 20th century that an American president should only be elected president twice. Knowing that his retirement was a turning point for the very young nation, Washington wrote – with the help of his close confidants Alexander Hamilton and James Madison – a farewell address, which expressed to the American people his hopes and fears for the future of the United States. The biggest takeaway of the speech was Washington’s advice to Americans about foreign affairs, advising them not to get into foreign entanglements or try to punch above its weight on the global stage. But he had another worry: that Americans would allow partisan politics to divide them. He implored Americans to remember that they were, first and foremost, Americans: “For this you have every inducement of sympathy and interest. Citizens by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.” Washington spoke not only to differences in feelings about political issues, but also recognized the partisanship that came with region, reminding Americans that the North, South, and West had to work together or fail individually. 

Marissa: This didn’t come from nowhere. We sometimes talk about Washington’s address as if it came from a moment where partisanship didn’t already exist, and as if Washington was simply a visionary who could see a divided American future. But Washington was actually speaking both from experience and to the current moment. When he warned about regional factionalism, Washington was hearkening back just a couple of years to 1787, when delegates from the new states were in the process of drafting the Constitution. Regional partisanship was one of the most significant challenges to drafting the Constitution, with states divided largely north vs. south over the issue of enslavement. All Northern states except New York and New Jersey had already abolished slavery, and even those were fast on their way to abolition. Southern delegates worried that newly free Northern states would move against slavery in the South and wanted to ensure their enslaved property was protected. Maybe even moreso, they wanted to use the enslaved population to their advantage, specifically in terms of counting population for representation in Congress. Northern states, on the other hand, worried that their lower population would mean they would be at a constant disadvantage. The Constitutional Convention bogged down in protracted debates over how to move forward without alienating one faction or another and at times, threatened to derail the entire process until the Constitution’s drafters agreed on compromises. 

Sarah: But Washington was also referring to the factinalism of political parties. Even before Washington left office, competing ideologies about American citizenship and governance were already had already coalesced into rival factions. The first party system came together during the Consitutional Convention, as delegates began to fall into two rough camps over whether or not the Constitution should be ratified. Alexander Hamilton was easily the most outspoken in favor of the new founding document, and led the charge on a series of essays collectively called the Federalist, now generally called the Federalist Papers. In the essays, which were co-written with John Jay and James Madison, the Federalists defended the newly written Constitution and advocated for its ratification. The Federalist papers were written in response to another series essay collectively called the Anti-Federalist, which were criticisms of the new Constitution. The Anti-Federalist papers were published under pseudonyms like “Brutus” and “Cato” but were likely written by some combination of George Clinton, Patrick Henry, Melancton Smith, Robert Yates, Samuel Bryan, and Richard Henry Lee. These two camps grew out of disagreements about the document itself. The Anti-Federalists, for instance, argued that the Constitution didn’t do enough to protect individual liberties and thus already needed to be amended.The Federalists disagreed, thinking that these rights were already adequately respected by the document as written. (The Federalists failed; this is why we have a Bill of Rights that clearly codifies the rights of all Americans.) 

Marissa: Ultimately, the Anti-Federalists failed in their attempt to stop the Constitution from getting ratified, but the ideological difference of the two groups didn’t disappear. Instead, during Washington’s presidency, the Anti-Federalists and Federalists solidified into two rival political parties. The Anti-Federalists, having failed to stop ratification and succeeded in getting a Bill of Rights added to the document,no longer styled themselves as Anti-Federalist. With George Wsahington – who leaned Federalist – as president and their arch enemy Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of Treasury, the group began to think of themselves more in terms of their opposition to the current administration. Jefferson did serve as Washington’s Secretary of State, but he and Hamilton clashed so dramatically over Hamilton’s plan for the federal government to assume state debts and establish a national bank that Jefferson left the administration in 1793.  

During the early 1790s, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison transformed the old Anti-Federalist faction into the Democratic-Republican political party. (Well, I’m going to call them Democratic-Republicans, but they were sometimes called Democrats, sometimes called Republicans, and sometimes called Jeffersonians…)  Most of the founders had expressed concern, like Washington did in his farewell address, that parties were a danger to the young nation, but Jefferson’s thinking shifted in light of his rivalry with Hamilton. Jefferson wrote in 1795: “Were parties here” (meaning the United States) “divided merely by a greediness for office, as in England, to take a part with either would be unworthy of a reasonable or moral man, but where the principle of difference is as substantial an as strongly pronounced as between the republicans and the Monocrats” (meaning Hamilton’s Federalists) “of our country, I hold it as honorable to take a firm and decided part, and as immoral to pursue a middle line, as between the parties of Honest men and Rogues into which every country is divided.” 

Washington’s Farewell Address

Sarah: Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans were the opposition party during both Washington’s and John Adams’ administrations. The Federalists, with strongholds in the Northeast and in urban areas,  in favor of a very strong central government, a national bank, and tariffs on foreign goods. The party was in favor of good diplomatic relations with Great Britain, as demonstrated by John Jay’s successful treaty with the British 1797 that helped ease some unresolved tension after the Revolution. Further, the Federalists were pretty anti-French, disturbed by the messiness of the French Revolution. The Democratic-Republican party on the other hand, had more rural and Southern support and supported a less robust central government. Jefferson was deeply worried that the Federalist party was dangerously anti-democratic and with aristocratic tendencies. The Democratic-Republicans, influenced by Jefferson’s strong personal relationship wit the French, supported the French over the British. These differences over which European power to back weren’t just ideological – France and Britain were soon embroiled in war and which side the Americans supported had big consequences. When the Washington adminstration backed the Jay Treaty with Great Britain, the infuriated French started causing trouble, demanding bribes from American diplomats and attacking American trade vessels leading to the Quasi-War, an undeclared two year conflict between the American navy, with support from the British, and French Navy. 

Marissa:  George Washington was never openly a member of the Federalist party, but everyone knew he was influenced by Hamilton and agreed with Federalist principles. But while Washington was a popular president, his successor, John Adams, was not. Hamilton – the Federalist heir – chose not to run for president because of his tarnished reputation stemming from his sex scandal. In 1800, two Democratic-Republicans defeated Adams in the presidential election: Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who tied, and Jefferson was ultimately elected in what was effectively a run-off. Jefferson’s election elevated the Democratic-Republicans over the Federalists, and their popularity remained until 1824. In his first inaugural address, Jefferson stated: “We are all republicans; we are all federalists.” It would be tempting to take this as a declaration of unity, but really, it was a declaration of victory. As historian James Reichley noted, Jefferson “really meant the party wars were over; that the Republicans had won; and that the Federalists should fit themselves intot he new regime as best they could.” 

Sarah : During the 1820s, both the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans started to change. In 1824, Thomas Jefferson – by then an elderly man – wrote that while the names of the parties might change and the specifics of their platforms may shift, they would always be more or less the same. “Their constitutions,” he wrote to Henry Lee, “are naturally divided into two parties: one, those who fear and distrust the people, and draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes, and two, those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests.” By 1820 or so, the Federalist party was practically nonexistent. After Jefferson, the next two presidents – James Madison and James Monroe – were also Democratic-Republican stalwarts. The Federalists ran their last candidate – Rufus King – in 1818. In 1824, four Democratic-Republicans ran for president with no opposition party at all. With no one earning a clear electoral college majority, the decision went to Congress, who voted for John Quincy Adams. Henry Clay, one of the candidates who was also Speaker of the House, helped to use his influence to ensure that JQA won the vote – and when Adams took office, he elevated Clay to Secretary of State. Despite winning the popular vote and the simple electoral college vote, Andrew Jackson lost the election. 

Marissa: Jackson was, as you might imagine, livid and declared the election a “corrupt bargain.” He turned John Quincy Adams, who as the son of a former president was the definition of nepo baby, into a symbol of old fashioned, aristocratic, and anti-democratic power. Jackson was determined to run – and win – in 1828, so spent the following four years building a new coalition that would become known as the Democrats (though sometimes historians clarify that by calling them Jacksonians or Jacksonian Democrats). Jackson found allies in young politicians who had begun their careers as Federalists, including Roger Taney of Maryland – who would later write the majority opinion in the Dred Scott decision – Martin van Buren in New York,  James Buchanan in Pennsylvania. He also found enthusiastic support for evangelical Christians, particularly Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and the Disciples of Christ, all groups invigorated by the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening. Jackson himself was a rough and tumble character – he’d served in the War of 1812 as a commander of volunteers and helped to win the battle of New Orleans, and then turned into an “Indian fighter,” turning his military force against the Muscogee Creek and Seminole, as well as against the Spanish in Florida, with an eye toward clearing territory for American settlement. But he was also an ardent Christian, which appealed to these new evangelicals. 

Sarah: The Jacksonian Democrats used political success to effectively buy loyalty – when they won office, they used patronage positions to reward those who had helped them win, implementing a “spoils system.” Further, as the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans had used pamphlets to wage a written war, they used newspapers as organs of the party, more or less controlling the message that readers received. In terms of platform, the new Democrats embraced racial politics and agrarian populism: the Jacksonians pledged to return power to the individual, ordinary – read white and male – Americans through their embrace of universal white male suffrage, meaning that all white men could vote. The election of John Quincy Adams cemented for many that there was a ruling class made up of a few rich, powerful families, effectively disenfranchising and ignoring regular Americans. Jackson on the other hand, made much of his humble beginnings, born to Irish parents in relative poverty somewhere in the Carolinas. He was a self-made man, studying law and slowly working his way up through politics in Tennessee while enriching himself buying and selling enslaved people and speculating on land stolen from Native Americans. Certainly nothing problematic there at all! 

Marissa: The Democrats were powerful – Jackson won two terms followed by one for his lieutenant, Martin van Buren. During those presidencies, new opposition was coalescing. There was some opposition from the fringe right wing under John C Calhoun, but that remained largely a South Carolina phenomenon. In the northeast, left-leaning parties also started to organize. In New York, the Locofocos (officially the Equal Rights Party) emerged to advocate for labor rights and push back on the state’s powerful Democratic political machine known as Tammany Hall. In the 1820s, a somewhat deranged panic in the northeast about the Masons led to the emergence of the Anti-Masonic party. (We talked about anti-Masonry in our episode on fraternal orders.) While not hugely powerful on the national stage, the Anti-Masons had lots of success in Vermont, where they embraced evangelical goals like temperance and laws that required the closure of businesses on Sundays. But while the party wasn’t nationally viable, it did provide a political starting point for future leaders like Thurlow Weed and William Seward in New York and Thaddeus Stevens in Pennsylvania. It was the Bank War – an extraordinarily boring conflct between Andrew Jackson and the Bank of the United States – that helped solidify a new opposition party. Jackson refused to sign the a bill renewing the bank’s charter, and the resulting conflict plunged the country into a recession. Frustrated with the dissolution of the bank, conservative Democrats, Anti-Masons, former Democratic-Republicans, and others came together to form the Whig party. 

Black and white political cartoon of boxers
Harpers Weekly, 1834

Sarah: The Whigs were primarily concerned with economics, inheritors of Alexander Hamilton’s vision of a industrious nation with robust business and manufacturing. They supported high tariffs on foreign goods, federal spending on infrastructure like roads. But unlike their predecessors Federalists, the Whigs also embraced a social and moral vision of the United States. Influenced by the Second Great Awakening, the Whigs became the party of the genteel middle class, religious (but not radical, and certainly not Catholic) and reformist. They also thoughts of themselves as conservative, which they understood as meaning solid, traditional, and cautious. To quote a Whig newspaper editor wrote, assessing politics in the 1840s :“There is a law and order, slow and sure, distrustful and cautious party – the Whig Party, and there is a radical, innovating, hopeful, boastful, improvident, and go ahead party – a Democratic, Locofoco party!” This Second Party system wasn’t just about ideological differences, but about different ways of living entirely. The Democrats were more associated with the white, working class, the rough and tumble, and rural. The Whigs styled themselves as genteel, moral, upright, and middle class. Democrats were drinkers; Whigs were teetotalers. And the Whigs were successful – they won the presidency in their first attempt in 1840 with William Henry Harrison – though he died after only a month in office. Even John Quincy Adams became a Whig toward the end of his career in Congress. 

Sarah: It was also during th 1830s and 1840s that your association with a political party became a your identity. Politics was no longer the purview of educated elites like Hamilton, Jefferson, and Adams, but something that regular folks participated in. Campaigns were a form of entertainment. After Martin van Buren joked that old William Henry Harrison was like a granny who would be happy to live out his life in a log cabin drinking cider, the Whigs started literally setting up fake log cabins at campaign events and even had a newspaper called The Log Cabin. The era of Whig power was shortlived. They managed to elect two presidents – Harrison who died immediately, who was succeeded by his vice president John Tyler. They lost in 1844 to Democrat James K. Polk, then succeeded with Zachary Taylor, who also died after just a year. His term was completed by his vice president, a proud son of Buffalo, Millard Fillmore.  (So there were four Whig presidents, but only because two died during their terms and were succeeded by their VPs). 

Marissa: Ultimately it was slavery that shattered both the Whig and Democratic parties. We won’t go into too much detail about the sectional crisis here only because we just covered it in our recent episode on the causes of the Civil War. But even as the Whig party was enjoying success, it was already being threatened by third parties. The Know Nothings were anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant disgruntled Whings who felt the party wasn’t hard enough on those issues and hoped to see a party do something other than argue over slavery. In 1839, the Liberty Party was established in rural upstate New York, solely focused on the immediate abolition of slavery. It didn’t poach many voters from the Whigs, but it did run a presidential candidate, James Birney, in 1840 who not only received an impressive number of votes but also spoiled the election for Whig Henry Clay in his third and final run for the presidency. In 1846, the Wilmot Proviso – the proposed bill that would have banned slavery from any lands potentially received from Mexico in the Mexican War – split the Democrats. Southern Democrats were enraged that some Northern Democrats supported the measure, and increasingly looked to radical slaver John C. Calhoun for leadership. 

Sarah: In New York, the party split into “Hunkers,” who supported the Southern Democrats knowing they held the most power in the party and thus were the ones to look to for patronage, and “Barn Burners,” who were willing to “burn down the barn to get rid of the rats.” As the possibility of annexing Texas, and then later the possibility of gaining new territories through a war with Mexico loomed, the question of extending slavery became the dividing issue in American politics. In 1844, Martin Van Buren – who you might recall helped Andrew Jackson to found the Democratic party – opposed the annexation of Texas, switched parties entirely, and ran for president as a Barnburner Whig. The schism was so bad in New York that they actually fielded two entirely different delegations to the national convention in 1848, and ultimately didn’t take part at all. The Whig nominee in 1848, Lewis Cass, tried to take a centrist position on enslavement, but centrism only angered the hardline, proslavery Calhounite wing of the party as well as the Barn Burner wing. Another third party emerged: the Free Soil Party, which opposed the extension of slavery into any new territories.

Marissa: Most of Northern middle class Whigs weren’t abolitionists. But that didn’t mean that they liked slavery or enjoyed the idea of it spreading. The South already seemed to wield undue power in politics – if enslavement were to spread, that power would only grow. The Free Soil Party, also born in New York, effectively joined the moral antislavery of the Liberty Party with the economic interests of the mainline Whigs to make the argument that slavery shouldn’t spread because it would interfere with free labor. “For both moral and economic reasons,” James Reichley writes, “the majority of northerners were simply not willing to accept the extension of slavery into the developing West.” The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed those territories to vote on whether or not they would allow slavery, created significant unrest and inflamed sectional tensions further. The Free Soil party was too small and too focused on labor issues to appeal to Northerners, both Whig and Democrat, who wanted to vote for a party that wasn’t beholden to the Southern slavepower. A new coalition party was born in 1854, likely somewhere in Wisconsin. (No one’s exactly sure.) An attendee wrote: “We went into that little meeting held in a schoolhouse Wigs, Free Soilers, and Democrats. We came out of it Republicans.” The birth of the Republicans especially highlights the idea of change over time when it comes to political parties. To quote James Reichley again: “the more equalitarian of the two parties, the Democrats, had become the defenders of slavery; while the Republican party, descended from the relatively conservative Federalists and Whigs, championed human rights and social justice.” 

Sarah: By 1855, the Whigs had dissolved entirely. Most former Whigs joined the new Republican Party, along with some antislavery Democrats, Free Soilers, and the remains of the abolitionist Liberty Party. The brand new party elevated the handsome and dashing John C. Frémont, an antislavery explorer whose wife Jessie Benton Frémont, served as his unofficial advisor, ran his campaign, and was probably as famous, if not moreso, than he was. (An unofficial slogan for many during the 1856 election was “Frémont and Jessie, too!”) The party’s slogan in 1856 summed up their central tenets: “Free labor, free speech, free men, free Kansas, Frémont!” Frémont was not elected, though, and instead Democratic stalwart James Buchanan became president. By the 1860 election, the Republican party had ballooned and grown significantly in power. Just mere years after it was first organized, the Republicans fielded 7 candidates in the 1860 National Convention. It was chaotic madness as the now huge coalition party tried to agree on a candidate that could stand for their party, which included everyone from abolitionists to wealthy urbanites to blue collar midwesterners. We could – and maybe should! – do an entire episode just on this convention, but we’ll be brief: the outcome was that Abraham Lincoln, a little-known former Congressman from Illinois, won the convention. No Democrats ever became antislavery, but Northern Democrats, like Stephen Douglas, had been forced to hedge their positions in order to keep Northern votes. Southerners wouldn’t vote for anyone who wasn’t explicitly proslavery; Northern Democrats wouldn’t support someone who would advocate solely for Southern interests. The result was a completely bisected Democratic party. Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckenrige, vice president to James Buchanan and later to Confederate Secretary of War. Northerners nominated Stephen Douglas. Without even appearing on the ballot in ten Southern states, Abraham Lincoln and the new Republican party won the 1860 election. 

Marissa: The Republicans themselves changed over the course of the ensuing Civil War and postwar period. Lincoln, of course, was assassinated, which lent the party loyalty and sympathy, not to mention the bragging rights inherent in winning a civil war. At the close of the war, the radical left wing of the party, known as the Radical Republicans, managed to hold Lincoln’s racist vice president Andrew Johnson to account and flexed their new political muscle to reconstruct the not just the South, but American society. They created a massive social services system – the pension bureau – that provided needed cash payments to widows, orphans, and veterans of the war and set the stage for later programs like social security and welfare. They amended the Constitution three times in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and revolutionized what it meant to be an American citizen. After Lincoln’s assassination, Grover Cleveland was the only Democrat elected president – twice. The Democrats were unable to shed their association with disunion and their refusal to support the war effort and, without the votes of thousands of former Confederates who had been stripped (at least temporarily) of their voting rights, struggled to maintain political power. 

Sarah: Into the Gilded Age, the Democratic party was able to build some of its power back up through political machines. Political machines are strongly controlled and organized political organizations that use the spoils system, patronage, and sometimes straightforward corruption to maintain political control. The most famous was Tammany Hall, the Democratic-Republican and then Democratic machine in New York State. By the 1880s, Tammany had changed its approach to winning votes as cities filled with impoverished immigrants  – less spoils and more social services. Tammany offered “a bucket of coals and basket of food, a rent payment, funeral expenses, clothing and material benefits…[along with] interventions with the law such as providing bail, cutting the red tape to receive a license or permit, or getting charges dismissed.” 

Marissa: The Republicans also had political machines, though it tended to be more centered on federal rather than state or local machines, with senators often serving as the heads of machines. While the Republicans were very successful during the Gilded Age and did continue to do much to protect human and civil rights – such as the severe crack down against the KKK in the Enforcement Acts – they also took bribes in exchange for political favors in scandals such as Credit Mobilier. Farmers and laborers, especially in rural areas, started to feel alienated from the Republicans, who it seemed were focused entirely on the problems of the former Confederacy and greedy big businesses. They also felt no connection to the Democrats, who they felt were controlled by urban political machines. Starting in the 1870s, some farmers in the midwest and west began to create Farmers’ Alliances to serve as advocacy groups. In 1890s, when their concerns were exacerbated by a recession, they turned these associations into a new third party: the Populists. Populists were focused on economic policies that would benefit farmers; socially and culturally, they preached a return to homespun American values and rejection of the ‘melting pot’ cultures that existed in immigrant-heavy urban areas. The Populists didn’t manage to elect many folks to federal positions, but they significantly affected the 1896 presidential election when a former Congressman from Nebraska William Jennings Bryan gave a speech – forever after known as the Cross of Gold speech –  at the Democratic National Convention powerfully endorsing the silver standard, a position popular with Populists who hoped to stimulate the economy. Bryan was elevated to the party’s nominee and Populism was more or less absorbed into the Democratic Party. 

Sarah: Republicans continued to more or less hold federal power through the remainder of the Gilded Age, and the era from 1896 to about 1925 is considered the fourth American party system. While the Populists had failed, they drew attention to the excesses and corruption of the Gilded Age. In the first quarter of the 20th century, both parties shifted again in response to wide variety of popular demands for reform – a movement we refer to collectively as Progressivism. The Civil War generation was aging out, being replaced by energetic younger politicians interested in reform. Muckracking journalists drew attention to collusion between moneyed interests and politicians, as well as the abuses of workers in industries like textile manufacturing and meat packing. Other Progressives were interested in dismantling political machines and protecting democracy, while still others were more interested in using political capital to alleviate poverty, clean up filthy cities, protect children, and expand civil rights. Both Republicans and Democrats were influenced by the Progressives, but the Republican party was more affected. In 1908, former president Theodore Roosevelt split from the Republican Party to create the Bull Moose Progressive Party, frustrated with his old friend and current president Willam Howard Taft’s cozying up with big business. Roosevelt filled the party leadership with reformers including Jane Addams, the feminist and social reformer, as well as environmentalists, ‘trustbusters’ and industry regulators. The party adopted liberal, progressive planks such as income programs for the elderly, unemployed and disabled, expanded worker’s compensation, an eight hour work day, women’s suffrage, and many more. The Progressive party was short lived, but did get candidates into Congress. They also managed to spoil the 1912 presidential election for the Republicans, helping get Democrat Woodrow Wilson into office. 

Marissa: It’s important to add a note here to say that something different, politically, was happening in the South The former Confederacy was a bastion for the Democratic party referred to as the ‘solid south,’ with a single issue that motivated voters: white supremacy. The political scientist V.O. Key described southern politics thus: “The predominant consideration in teh architecture of southern political insittutions was to assure locally a subordination of the Negro population and externally, to block threatened interferences from the outside with these local arrangements.” These Southern Democrats worked tirelessly to dismantle the liberal advancements of the Reconstruction Republicans. In 1904, Georgia political Tom Watson went so far as to propose “a change in our Constitution to which will perpetuate white supremacy in Georgia.” Southern Democrats expanded their definition of white supremacy to include anti-Catholicism, anti Semitism, and anti-immigrant positions. 

Sarah: So let’s take just a minute to clarify something: while the American parties have not always mapped easily on to the left-right paradigm we’re familiar with today, we’ve seen how the the parties have shifted their positions in terms of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ over time. If we wanted to get really deep, we’d have to interrogate how the concepts of “liberal’ and ‘conservative’ have changed over time. But in fairly simplistic terms, we’ve seen a more ‘liberal,’ democratic Democratic party emerge in the 1830s, which was always contingent on whiteness but which became increasingly more conservative as they doubled-down on white supremacy and proslavery toward the midcentury. The Republican party emerged as liberal, advocating for abolition (in its most radical wing) and stopping slavery’s spread (in its more moderate wing). After the Civil War, the Republicans became more radically left-leaning as they abolished slavery and enshrined civil and human rights. Then again, during the Progressive era, Teddy Roosevelt demonstrated how the Republican party could embrace liberal policies, though the two-party structure made it difficult for his party’s left wing ideas to break through. So we can say – generally – that the Republican Party was the left-leaning or liberal party, and the Democrats were the right-leaning or conservative party. 

Marissa: But all that changed in the 1930s. Though the Republicans put three more presidents in office – Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover – their failure to respond effectively to economic problems through the 1920s led to frustration from western farmer voters. While other parts of the country were experiencing boom times, farmers were struggling with low yields and were trapped in cycles of debt. In 1929, the stock market collapse made these economic problems widespread. Unemployment was rampant, and by 1932, things were only getting worse. Herbert Hoover’s approach – basically to let the economy fix itself –  was not cutting it, and in 1933, New York Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigned for the “little man,” and whole-heartedly embraced liberalism. He proposed a “new deal” for Americans, which would put people back to work, infuse federal money into public works and services,  and fight back against the depression that was plaguing Americans. The 1933 election was a landslide for Roosevelt and for Democrats, and it revealed a new political alignment that historians call the New Deal Coalition. Roosevelt’s proposed New Deal brought in votes from suffering western farmers, poor Southern whites, immigrants, labor unions, and liberal, coastal intellectuals. This can’t be understated: Roosevelt realigned party loyalties that were previously considered entrenched. For instance, Black Americans, who had been Republican loyalists since the Civil War, became overwhelmingly Democrats after 1932. Once he was in the oval office and as he made his New Deal promises a reality, Roosevelt only became more liberal, taking his coalition with him.  As voters benefited personally and directly from programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority’s efforts to bring electricity to the rural South or the Works Progress Administration’s construction projects in urban areas, those voters became liberal, Democratic, FDR devotees. The parties had begun the process of switching their positions on the political map. 

color photograph of U.S. President F.D.R.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1944

Sarah: That’s not to say there was no opposition, of course. The Democrats weren’t leftist enough to the small American Socialist Party, for instance. Hardline racist and anti-Semitiic Democrats, like the vitriolic radio personality and priest, Father Chris Couglin, led the criticism of FDR from the right wing of the party. But for the most part, those conservatives didn’t abandon the Democratic party. James Reichley suggests this was because many conservative Democrats were happy enough with what the party offered and because it was just too difficult to give up the benefits many of them got from remaining spoils systems. But he also points out that allegiance to the Democratic party continued to be important to white supremacists’ efforts to keep Black Americans out of political power. Rooselvet actually tried to use the 1938 primaries to push these conservatives out of the party, but mostly failed – which only reassured those conservative Democrats that they had a place in the party. 

Marissa: Between Roosevelt’s death in 1945 and the John F. Kennedy years of the 1960s, the Republican party gradually grew in strength and enthusiasm. Republicans had succeeded in getting Eisenhower elected in 1952. In 1960, young conservatives had tried to get Barry Goldwater, the hard right Arizona senator, nominated at the national convention. Goldwater and his supporters thought that the government had grown too large and was too involved in individual lives. Under FDR and again under JFK (and soon under LBJ, too) the federal government had increasingly grown to provide social supports (think of things like New Deal programs, welfare, medicare, medicaid). Conservatives started to style themselves as free-market libertarians, focused on an extreme definition of personal liberty and boot-strap economics. They were warhawks who wanted a large and powerful military, and also tapped into racist and xenophobic anti-immgration sentiments.  While they failed to get him nominated in 1960, Goldwater continued to be a powerful, hard right force in the Republican party and was easily nominated in 1964. In 1964, Goldwater’s hardline conservatism – exemplified in his famous statement that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” – persuaded the ‘solid south’ to finally abandon the Democratic party. While Lyndon Johnson won the 1964 election handily by winning the Northeast and midwest, and earned the votes of nearly every demographic except Southern whites, Goldwater showed that those white Southerners were attracted to extreme hard right politics. In Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Georgia, Goldwater won by between 50-70%, even though those states hadn’t even had an active Republican party just four years earlier. 

Sarah: While many historians suggest that it was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that cemented that the formerly Democratic ‘solid south’ became the new Republican ‘solid south,’ others point out that this was a process underway as far back as the 1930s. Since FDR’s election, Black Americans had been streaming out of their traditional place in the Republican Party, and most, though not all, Republican party leaders felt no need to try to get them to return. Wendell Wilkie, the party’s candidate in 1940, had spoken directly to Black Americans by calling for antilynching measures and ending discrimination in civil and military service. By 1944, Thomas Dewey’s campaign was more ambivalent. By the time Eisenhower ran in 1952, the planks related to race were even more mealy-mouthed, calling only for generic ‘federal action toward the elimination’ of lynching, for instance, and he was the first Republican in decades to actively campaign in the South. The Black people still active in the party were unhappy, but also found themselves increasingly isolated and without the political capital to make change. Eisenhower’s attempt to win back the South concerned Black Americans, who worried that the Republican party was flirting with segregationist and white supremacist talking points. A cartoon from the Chicago Defender depicted Eisenhower – or ‘Ike’ – holding his finger in a dyke that just barely held back a flood of white supremacist policies. But Eisenhower had showed up, at least in limited ways, to protect civil rights, sending out the National Guard to enforce the Brown v. Board decision and signing the Civil Rights Act of 1957. 

Sarah: But even though it was a process begun many years earlier, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, signed by Democrat Lyndon Baines Johnson, was the death knell of the New Deal Coalition. White Southerners, who had been the center of the Democratic party going back to the days of Andrew Jackson, left the party and joined the Republican Party, which had jettisoned its earlier positions of advancing and protecting civil rights through federal intervention. Instead, the Republican party became one of small government, bootstrap economics, and military boosterism. But they also became the party of white supremacy, racial identity politics, and preserving the status quo. They learned in 1964 that they won votes by catering to white supremacists, and leaned into that by stoking racial division in order to keep that a viable source of political power. In 1981, Lee Atwater, the Republican political strategist who worked for Republicans like Strom Thurmond, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, gave an interview to a political scientist in which he tried to explain the Republican Party’s strategy for using racism to their advantage. This quote includes a racial slur, which we’re not going to say. I think you’ll still get the picture: 

Marissa: “You start in 1954 by saying ‘N-word , n-word , n-word ’ By 1968 you can’t say N-word.’ That hurts you. It backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states rights and all that stuff and you get so abstract. Now you talk about cutting taxes and these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that’s part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract and that coded, we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. Obviously sitting around saying we want to cut taxes and we want this, is a lot more abstract than even the busing thing and a hell of a lot more abstract than n-word n-word. So anyway you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.

Ronald Reagan (left), George H.W. Bush (right), 1967

Sarah: This, to me, is the most powerful indicator of party realignment, and the most important reason why our old pal Charlie Kirk’s tweet was misleading. While the Republican Party of the 19th century can’t be described as anti-racist, it was a liberal, forward-thinking party that revolutionized the very definition of an American and helped to complete the unfinished revolution begun by the framers of the Constitution. They exploded concepts of citizenship and expanded democracy in ways theJacksonian Democrats, oft touted as the authors of popular democracy, never could because of their attachment to white supremacy and enslavement. They created the first public support systems in the form of pensions and the Freedmen’s Bureau. But one hundred years later, the Republican party’s bread and butter was on using racial division to stoke white grievance to win votes, and their modern day goals include chipping away at the very strides the party made in the 14th and 15th amendments. They moved, inarguably, from a left-leaning position to a right-leaning position. 

This doesn’t work for Charlie Kirk though, because he wants, desperately, to believe that the past is uncomplicated and unchanging, and that his party – the Republicans – is the inheritor of a proud tradition. For instance, they are very proud to claim themselves as the ‘party of Lincoln’ – and admitting that the modern Republican party doesn’t look anything like Lincoln’s party would mean having to accept that they don’t own Lincoln. If Charlie Kirk thought historically, he’d of course know that his tweet made no sense – but he can’t, because thinking historically is a threat to his, and his party’s, worldview. After all, Donald Trump rode into office on his promise to “make America great again” which relies on an inability, or refusal, to think historically. Not only does it refer to an imagined, idealized past, it also styles change over time as intrinsically bad. The Republicans need the party switch to be a myth because they rely on a constructed past to sell the simplistic patriotism, white grievance, and moral panics about a degenerating society that they use to stay relevant.  

I could continue to rant about this, but I’ll end by saying this: historical thinking isn’t just about passing your freshman history survey. They’re critical skills that you need to be able to interpret and understand the world around you. 

Marissa: Thanks for joining us today! We invite you to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at dig_history, or join our Facebook group – Dig History Pod Squad – for all kinds of memes and historian hijinks. If you have a comment or question or want to share some kind words with us, you can always email us at hello@digpodcast.org – we love listener mail! If you’re an educator, we’ve got a compendium of episodes you can use in the classroom – and free teaching resources, including full lesson plans! – on our website, digpodcast.org. You’ll also find full bibliographies, the scripts for all of our episodes, resources, and a link to our swag store at digpodcast.org. 

Bibliography 

Aldrich, John and Ruth Grant, “The Antifederalists, The First Congress, and The First Parties,” The Journal of Politics 55 (1993): 295-326. 

Berkin, Carol. A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2002. 

Reichley, A. James. The Life of the Parties: A History of American Political Parties. New York: The Free Press, 1992. 

Schickler, Eric. Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism 1932-1965. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. 


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