A reader says, “Republicans used to be liberal, Democrats conservative.
“Conservatives are the new RINOs.
“I understand that it was a Southern Democrat who killed President Lincoln.
Democrats, conservative and Republicans, liberal. I was having an identity crisis
and confused. I am independent or would like to think so.
I believe in both conservative and liberal thinking.”
And he asks me to explain how that happened. That’s a good idea, because lying, racist rightwingers have made a habit of jeering at Democrats for being the party that started the Ku Klux Klan. The claim is so stupid it is hard to believe anyone could make it honestly, but then rightwingers are really stupid. But also really dishonest, so I cannot decide.
It is not correct to say that Republicans were liberal and Democrats conservative. It would be ore correct to say that both were mostly conservative for most of their existence. And not in the good sense that the word conservative can be used.
To back up, the first parties, Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, were reactionary and revolutionary, respectively, at least philosophically. (In the context of the time, both were radical — no king.) Or, if you prefer, the Federalists were the party that defended property, the Democratic-Republicans the party that aspired to bring those with no property into the propertied class — always excepting that neither pary had any intention of seeing colored people enjoy any of it.
You might say that the Federalists were the party of creditors (Hamilton and his crooked friends) and the Democrat-Republicans were the party of debtors (Jackson and his antibank friends).
Have vs. have-nots is a universal split, but in America slavery jumbled up the normal alliances. The Whigs (successors to the Democratic-Republicans) splintered over slavery, and the antislavery faction formed a new party in 1854 dedicated to free labor, free soil and free men.
These were the first Republicans, but they were not in other respects particularly liberal. They tended to be against free trade, while the proslavery Southern Democrats liked low tariffs but were in most other respects reactionary.
The proslavery Northern Democrats tended to straddle. Thus in 1860, there were 4 major candidates for president, each faction representing an uncomfortable mix of antagonistic desires.
Early Republicans were not racial liberals but hardly anybody was then.
After 1865, the Republicans divided sharply between the punish-the-South Radicals and the business-oriented (and pro-tariff) regulars. There we no liberal presidents elected before
Roosevelt in 1936. (It is forgotten that FDR ran as a conservative Democrat in ’32.)
The only Democratic president in the postwar, Cleveland, was solidly conservative.
Liberals (though not usually racial liberals) after the Civil War had to form a new party (several, actually), who called themselves Progressives (or Greenbackers or Free Silver etc.). They had sympathizers within the conservative parties (Teddy Roosevelt among the Republicans) and took over the Democratic Party (at the presidential level only) leading to the three failures of William J. Bryan.
Thus, although the main parties were still primarily conservative, the United States elected three consecutive Progressive presidents in 1904,1908 and 1912 — although Wilson was a queer mix of Progressive and racist policies.
The Progressive moment, such as it was, was submerged in the rightwing, antiliberal war hysteria of 1917.
For historical reasons, the reactionary South voted Democratic, even though following the collapse of both progressive policies and the economy in 1921 (when the Depression started for the 40% of Americans who were still linked to the agrarian economy), the rump of Progressive voters stuck with the Democrats in most of the West, Midwest and parts of the north. (There were odd outliers still within the Republican Party like Hiram Johnson in California.)
It was FDR’s political acumen that welded an electoral coalition of racist Southern Democrats, northern blacks, and liberals. It wouldn’t have happened, however, if Coolidge Prosperity hadn’t wrecked the economy.
The Southern Democrats were split between poor whites, who could be induced to vote for liberal programs like TVA if race were not at issue, and better-off whites. The national Democrats, led by Truman, headed off in a liberal direction. The Southern racists were distressed and began moving toward the Republican Party, their natural philosophical home, in the ‘50s. (They did not go directly but through the John Birch Society.)
In 1964, only 5 states voted for Goldwater, 4 of them because they hated the liberal, civil rights direction of the Democratic Party. The Republican Party had been, mostly ineffectively, for civil rights from its start, but the Goldwaterites were more concerned about communism than rights.
Nixon recognized this and with his Southern Strategy he made a naked appeal to racism. (Nixon was a profound if circumspect racist.) It worked and all subsequent Republican leaders have made their peace with the white racists. (Romney was a partial exception, and he lost.)
That is, by feats of electoral coalition-building in both parties, the insurgents in each managed to detach a disaffected portion of its opponent’s coalition: the Democrats shed their racists, allowing the liberal elements elbow room; and the Republicans absorbed the racists, simultaneously driving out their racial liberals (who had successfully catered to minority voters — Jews and blacks — outside the South).
(Similar flips occurred in other democracies; in France the onetime Radicals became a conservative party without changing their label.)
So in 2017, the Democratic Party ends up uniformly racially liberal and somewhat less uniformly liberal in other respects — and therefore the minority party in a self-satisfied conservative society; while the Republicans find themselves in the predicament faced by the Democrats up through the ‘30s — a hardcore of virulent racists (represented by the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus) and a mass of members who are willing to stay with the racists for the sake of an electoral coalition.