In school, something I heard from classmates was the Democrat and Republican parties used to have opposite platforms. Thankfully, my history teacher didn’t simplify the situation to this extent. But I also wasn’t taught the history of our modern two parties, either. I often wondered how Democrats went from Pro-Slavery to Pro-Civil Rights in a century. If you’re reading this, I hope you have wondered the same thing.
Let me begin by saying that the Democratic and Republican parties were the only parties to exist in our history. The both actually stemmed from the Democratic-Republican Party. This party was formed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, that favored states’ power. It operated in opposition of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party, which favored federal, centralized power.
The Democratic Party
Although the Republican Party is called the “Grand Old Party,” the Democratic Party is actually the world’s oldest political party. It was formed in 1828 behind Andrew Jackson. This early Democratic Party, splintered from the Democratic-Republican Party, still kept the same ideals. They favored smaller governments and focused on individual liberty. Government was viewed as corrupt and would harm ordinary farmers by supporting big business. Public schools were a problem as they undermined the freedom of religion and parental responsibility. This Party staunchly opposed reforms, as reforms required a more active government.
The Party fractured around the Civil War between Northern and Southern Democrats. This splintering allowed Abraham Lincoln, a Republican candidate, to come to power.
The Republican Party
The Republican Party formed in 1854 by anti-slavery activists in the North. They viewed slavery as a great evil. Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1960 put the party in power for the first time. Their platform was anti-slavery and pro-economic reform. They opposed the plantation system as they believed it harmed smaller farms and their farmers. They supported high taxes to fuel economic growth. They supported businesses, pensions for veterans, and high wages. They wanted a stronger federal government to subsidize the transcontinental railroads, create a national banking system, and offer land grants for higher education. This party was more reflective of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party.
The Republican Party began to struggle in the early 20th century. Taft and fellow party member Teddy Roosevelt butted heads. Republicans were originally the party of big business, but Roosevelt supported small business. He was a liberal who supported social reform. He left the party to form the Progressive Bull Moose Party. His followers went with him, weakening the Republican Party.
The New Deal and Franklin Delano Roosevelt
It was the next Roosevelt that would cause another massive fracture in the American party system. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, came into office during the Great Depression. The Democrats were perceived as the people’s party. Its goal was to support and represent the poor and the farmers of America. Previously, they supported the disenfranchised South, which was weak in the face of Northern industry.
During the Great Depression, Roosevelt and the Democratic Party took a new approach to helping the less fortunate in America. They called it the New Deal. Roosevelt was a liberal Democrat and used Federal aid to push for social reforms. He formed the foundations of the modern welfare state with a number of new government programs enacted to support farmers, the unemployed, the youth, and the elderly. This included the Social Security Administration. They enforced more regulations on the banking industry to ensure another Great Depression would not happen. He implemented public works to employ millions of Americans. He invigorated the rural U.S. and launched the T.V.A. Roosevelt supported the redistribution of wealth.
This is where both parties began to fracture along the lines of liberal and conservative. Liberal and conservative were not synonymous with Democrat and Republican. Both parties had liberal and conservative segments until the 1920s and 30s, when this began to break down.
Republicans were social liberals and economic conservatives; Democrats were social conservatives and economic liberals. However, FDR promoted a social liberal platform that empowered the poor and minorities.
The Republicans were divided between the Conservative Republicans in the Midwest and the Liberal Republicans in the Northeast. Democrats were still rifted between Liberal in the North and Conservative in the South. Conservative Republicans began to feel more aligned with the Conservative Democrats, who were also opposed to FDR’s New Deal actions. Liberal Republicans supported Liberal Democrat FDR’s measures. FDR’s power as a successful and respected president, followed by the election of Liberal Democrat Harry Truman, caused a shift wherein the Northeast, for the first time, became Democrats. The Liberal Republicans changed their support to the Democratic Party. At the same time, the South swung Republican to distance themselves from the overwhelmingly liberal party.
Over time, the Liberal wing of the Republican party faded away, until it was essentially extinct in the 1970s. In the 1980s, the modern Republican Party was cemented with Ronald Reagan acting as the paragon of new Republican, conservative ideologies.