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Mike Pride: From Lincoln Republicans to Obama Democrats

During a busy week of talks about my new Civil War history, Our War, two people have asked me a timely question: How, they wondered, had the Republicans of Lincoln morphed into the Democrats of Obama?

The movie Lincoln was a powerful reminder of President Lincoln’s drive in the final winter of his life to amend the Constitution to abolish slavery. Opposition to the Thirteenth Amendment came from Democrats.

A century and a half later, President Obama began his second term with a stirring speech before a diverse throng. He called for an inclusive America, pushing immigration reform and specifically endorsing gay rights. His victory in November had sent a message to the opposing party that the public was on his side on these issues. The opposition: Republicans.

So how did the 1860s Republicans become the 2010s Democrats?

My initial thoughts centered on the racial politics of the mid-20th century, but I knew I was out of my depth in trying to give a full answer. So I did what I always do in such situations: I emailed my friend Michael Birkner.

Michael is an American historian at Gettysburg College and a former editorial writer for the Monitor. Here, slightly edited, is what he had to say about the party flip-flop:

This was not a one-step process.

In baldest terms, from the Civil War through the Progressive Era, the Republican Party was the party of government. The Democratic Party was the party of as little government as possible. It retained elements of its Jacksonian roots well into the 1950s.

Recall Democratic President Grover Cleveland’s famous dictum when he turned down a request from southern farmers whose crops were destroyed in a drought during the 1880s. They asked for seed money to replant, and this was his response: No.  Specifically, he said in vetoing a farm aid bill,  “Though the people support the government, the government does not support the people.”

I’m not making this up. That was Democratic doctrine.

Woodrow Wilson was not the only Democrat who saw the value in a more vigorous exercise of federal authority, but he was the most prominent one to do so till Franklin Roosevelt came along. It was really FDR who turned the Democrats into the party of government. Republican hostility to FDR’s New Deal contributed strongly to the Main Street Republicans’ distaste for the exercise of federal power.

That said, moderate Republicans, most notably Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, accepted the innovations of the Progressive Era and the New Deal, recognizing that they were popular.  Their policies muted the “Keep government off our backs” theme song that you have often heard from the Republican right since the Reagan era.

Nixon talked conservative and made conservative appointments to the Supreme Court as part of his southern strategy, but he governed essentially as a liberal – not because he was a liberal but because he was a pragmatist/opportunist who wanted to get things done.

The second piece of the story connects to race and is more complicated.

It’s an oversimplification to see the 1964 Civil Rights Act as the be-all, end-all of the “flip” of the South to the Republicans. The demise of the white Southern Democrat was a long process.

Yet there is a core truth to President Lyndon Johnson’s lament that in signing that measure he was consigning the Democrats of the South (ultimately) to second-class status.

Historians disagree about how much the shift from Democrat to Republican allegiance in the South depended on race, how much on broader “values” issues and economics.  I’d say the race argument still dominates.

In many instances there’s an evangelical overlay these days to Republicanism. But really, when you talk, for example, about “Christian schools” replacing public schools in a good part of the South since 1964, how do you disentangle this development from race?

One under-appreciated story about Republicans and civil rights connects to the Democrats’ slow embrace of the civil rights movement.  If you study the civil rights measures of 1957, 1960, 1964 and 1965, you will find that a higher percentage of Republicans voted for them than Democrats. That’s because of nearly complete Democratic dominance at the polls in the South up to that time.

To be sure, there were Republicans like Barry Goldwater who out of principle, not racism, refused to back the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and there were converts to the party like Strom Thurmond who were outright racists. But northern Republicans were consistently supportive of civil rights (e.g., Gerry Ford, Hugh Scott, Leverett Saltonstall, Jacob Javits, Cliff Case, and many more). They just don’t get much if any credit for this in most stories about it.

Bottom line, race cannot be ignored as a factor in these political flip-flops.  Democrats in the 1860s were the racists, as seen in Spielberg’s Lincoln; Republicans were the champions of equal rights, up to a point.

I wouldn’t impute racist motives to contemporary politicians because I have no window into their hearts, but it is clear when you look at things like attempted voter suppression in Pennsylvania in 2012 that Republicans are amply aware that black voters are not going to be voting for them. With a rare exception or two, they’re right.

(Mike Pride is the former editor of the Monitor. This column originally appeared as part of his Civil War blog,, which you can also find at the bottom of the homepage.)

Legacy Comments28

For Bruce: Do not ask me for a response then dictate how that response should be framed with your guidelines. Last time I checked, you were not the CM Moderator. If you attempt was to intimidate me, it failed. As far as your statement about the 10/1 ratio. That was the laugh of the day for me. You actually believe the Dems would ever agree to that? Why don't you chat about what Turbo Tax Geithner offered? 1.6 Trillion in Taxes. 50 Billion immediately for more stimulus spending. An end to Congressional control over spending limits. Yeah, history shows us that Dems are always willing to cut spending.

My, aren't we defensive! You again missed the entire point of my post. Which was to point out the extremism and dishonesty of the Republican presidential candidates, who refused a theoretical spending deal with $10 worth of cuts to every $1 of new revenue--a much better deal than anything the Republicans were actually proposing at the time--which I think was something like 7:3. So unalterably opposed are some Republicans to ANY tax increase that they have made any deal before sequestration difficult if not impossible to achieve. And we're not dealing with reality here: income tax rates are at historic lows, tax revenues as a % of GDP are 2/3 those of the other developed nations. Taxes are the price we pay for civilization. What I fear we are witnessing is the slow unraveling of the nation to barbarians who know the price of everything, and the value of nothing. Many of them were at the State House today.

So when your called out you respond with the poster as being defensive right! Your guidelines to me where to be clear of the definition of the word extreme, and make sure I have a good grasp on 20th century history. Like the teacher dictating to the student. So you not only gave me guidelines you insulted me, but then again you insult everybody. You are right about the theoretical spending deal of 10/1 though. It was definitly theoretical and meant nothing. The reason was that the Dems never offered it, they just used it as a way to promote the idea they would actually offer that. And the Reps did screw up. They should have held the Dems to it. The reason they were able to pull it off is because the Dems never do what they say they will do and they knew the Reps do not trust them. Kinda like the budgets we are still waiting for.

Once again: this offer was made by the moderator of a "debate" among Republican presidential hopefuls as a hypothetical. All of the candidates rejected such a deal outright, as insufficient. This is simply one of many examples of the anti-tax extremism of the Republican "mainstream" who've chosen to adopt libertarian/supply-side pipe-dream economics to justify their all-purpose answer to any problem: just cut taxes. And when that doesn't work, cut taxes some more. BTW; still waiting for that definition of 'extremism', and examples of Democrats who in your judgement are "extremists". Given the fact that right-wing posters on here seem clueless about what the word means (you too?) and call anyone who has the temerity to disagree with their positions extremist, it's clear that we're not in Kansas any more. I used Truman as an example of someone decidedly mainstream, who would, from the way you and others on here throw around the word "extremist", be labeled as such. Their language and yours is debased because you've forgotten what it means, and worse, can't tell how far out of the mainstream your thinking and posting is.

nashua-mike wrote: Hey Van, when you try to go to sleep at night are you kept up by having to count all of those "gays" and "immigrants"? Just curious. Because the Monitor won't let me answer your question here is your answer. I have absolutely no issues with the 2 groups you mentioned and I reported your gratuitous baseless personal attack. It is not how you treat people like elitist snobs do trying to make everything a photo op but is how you treat people when no one is looking that matters.

Well Bruce, many believe the Dem party has also become extreme. The fact is both parties have. For every extreme stance you deem the Reps take, the Reps could list extreme stances the Dems take. What we all should be upset about is that instead of compromise, solving problems, getting our economy back on track, and many other issues, both parties are acting like kids in a schoolyard. He said, She said, does nothing to fix anything, all it does is prevent compromise and stop problem solving. And the fact they we all have become divided as a nation is the real issue that seems to be overlooked.

Again with this "many believe" stuff. There are "many" in the Republican Party who believe all kinds of nonsense. They can believe whatever they want, but more's the pity they can't marshall facts to support their beliefs. Romney and the Repubs "believed" they'd win the election too. Their hold on reality would seem to have slipped a bit. Yours too? Your repeated attempts at drawing equivalence between the 2 parties doesn't hold water--the equivalence is false. You just have to follow the news--from Scott Walker to Sam Brownback to Paul Ryan to the rightists on here and their positions on virtually any issue and the actions they advocate and support.

I had no idea that the term many believe was so upsetting to you Bruce. Silly me, I thought the term reflected a belief that you should never put folks in the same box because of their political party. There are radicals in every political party that like to take issues to the extreme. My post was about nothing getting solved or fixed because of the dialog we use these days. A concept that you obviously do not get. A forum is about discussing issues and trying to solve problems. That cannot be achieved if some have tunnel vision. An exercise in futility many believe. Whoops I used that term again. What was I thinking!

Vague generalities, pious platitudes, expressions of false equivalence: "on the one hand...on the other hand..." go a long way to say nothing. Nothing gets solved because one party has gone off the rails into the thicket of political extremism, and has no interest in compromise with a president they viewed (before what to them was his surprise reelection) as both illegitimate and extremist. What are they smoking? Early in the campaign, all the Republican candidates were asked if they would accept a deficit/spending bill that had a ratio of spending cuts to tax increases of 10:1. Every single one said they would NOT accept such a plan. One party continues to pretend that dramatic spending cuts on the discretionary side can be done, while the Pentagon can't bear any cuts, and that the 1%--whose tax rates are at historic low rates, can't have their taxes raised. Is it any wonder they lost the election, yet they still refuse to accept that most Americans do not share their extreme views on these issues.

It's as simple as this: What party were most southerners in during the 1860s? What party are most southerners in now? There's your answer!

NH's fiscal crisis is as simple as this. What party did most NH residents belong to in the 60's, 70's and 80's and where were they from? (hint: New Hampshire and Republicans). Wat party do a little over half of NH residents belong to or sympathize with and where are they from now? (hint: New York, Massachusetts, Vermont). Yes, they escaped the mess they made in their own state and brought it here.

I think native NHer-ites were quite capable of making their own messes, though they received plenty of help from the likes of carpet-baggers like Wm. Loeb and his charming Nacky. Recall the reason NH is subject to the Voting Rights laws that mostly apply to the South--New Hampshire's endearing habit of damping down/suppressing the votes of "Canucks" in the first half of the 20th century. And plenty of those pesky migrants from southern New England have contributed mightily to the coarsened dialogue that you seem to think epitomizes NH at its finest--John Sunnunu, for example, and strongly endorse NH's regressive tax structure and the petty meanness epitomized by Bill O'Brien--another transplant who's improved MA by his leaving to the same degree he's lowered the quality of life here.

Dan, you are a good guy. Why do you attack Southern People? Anyone with any historical reference knows the KKK was directly affiliated with the Extreme Democrat party. If you don't know history you are destine to repeat it.

And that affiliation ended in the 1950's and 1960's. While you weren't paying attention, the extreme right migrated, thanks to Nixon's Southern strategy and the Civil Rights era, into the ranks of the Republican Party. And since the late 1970's, the GOP has been engaged in a quest/purge of ideological purity--driving moderates from its ranks--those they call "RINOs"--a term I think you have yourself used on this forum in the past. You keep evading the issue--and putting up facts that have nothing to do with the modern GOP and Democratic parties--because the facts don't fit your "narrative". The Mike Pride piece is accurate history--and you know it.

Actually Bruce what you accuse others of doing you do. You never address the radicals in your party. Why is that? Instead you are under the assumption that your party does nothing wrong. But I guess you would have to believe that, because if you were honest enough to say that all pols are agenda driven, than that would also hold your party responsible as part of the problemo. Your never going to believe that your party is just as much screwed up as the Rep Party. That would require you actually aceepting the fact that must Pols are agenda driven, power mongers and look out for themselves not the folks they represent. I would think that the state of our economy and the divide in this country would give you a hint, that our Reps are not looking out for us.

Response to rabbit below: Please single out those you consider "extremists" in the Democratic Party. Please be specific. Before you do, be clear on your definition of "extreme" and have a good grasp on 20th century U.S. history--for instance the fact that "extremist" Harry Truman proposed a national health care plan during his term over 60 years ago.

The Republican Party Freed the Slaves, The Republican Party delivered Civil Rights to Blacks in the Mid Sixties where loser Democrats Like Al Gore Sr., Robert KKK Byrd, George Wallace , and Bull Connor all stood in the Way. So Nixon went after the Southern vote so what? Extremist democrats lynched blacks comparing the two is outrageous and extreme but standard operating procedure for democrats.

Reply to van below: the Civil Rights legislation of the 60's would not have passed w/o the support of Republicans--who then had a significant moderate block--mostly in the East and Mid-west, while southern Democrats voted against the legislation. But all that changed after 1966. Wallace ran as an independent. Nixon ran to the right to check him, with his "Southern strategy, and Southern Dems were drawn like flies to excrement to the newly conservative GOP, with its appeal to "Middle America". And ever since, moderate Republicans have become a vanishing breed in the GOP. Now they're nearly extinct.

Lincoln and Obama do not belong in the same conversation. Lincoln should be talked about and compared to Washington, Jefferson, Kennedy and Reagan. Obama should be talked about and compared to Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Jimmy Carter and Nixon.

What a joke. Has the Monitor turned into the Onion? Lincoln freed the slaves, Obama is enslaving America. Lincoln is the best president Obama is the worst. Lincoln amends the Constitution to make it better Obama shreds the Constitution because it doesn't fit his socialist agenda. America is better because of Lincoln America is far worse because of Obama. Obama speeches are divisive Lincoln's speeches were unifying. It looks like the left wing nut jobs are out there trying to rewrite history with their mantra of comparing Obama to Lincoln: Chris Matthews is the biggest left wacko out their and he is saying the exact same thing.

Another reading comprehension failure from a member of the right-wing commentariat. Nowhere is there any comparison of Obama to Lincoln. But however much Van may wish or pretend otherwise, the two parties have flipped in their committment to civil rights and equal rights for all citizens. Pride's article documents that transition over the last 4 decades, with Lyndon Johnson's civil rights legislation and Nixon's Southern Strategy marking that transition. And like it or not, Van's posts demonstrate how far to the right the Republican Party has traveled in the last 2 decades.

Oh really Bruce?, It is clear that is the left wing extremist Neo Communist is the one that has reading comprehension failure. Lets just look at the first paragraph: Republicans of Lincoln morphed into the Democrats of Obama? Now lets go to the second and third paragraphs: The movie Lincoln was a powerful reminder of President Lincoln’s drive in the final winter of his life to amend the Constitution to abolish slavery. Opposition to the Thirteenth Amendment came from Democrats. A century and a half later, President Obama began his second term with a stirring speech before a diverse throng. He called for an inclusive America, pushing immigration reform and specifically endorsing gay rights. His victory in November had sent a message to the opposing party that the public was on his side on these issues. The opposition: Republicans.

Hey Van, when you try to go to sleep at night are you kept up by having to count all of those "gays" and "immigrants"? Just curious.

Nowhere do you offer a cogent defense of the modern Republican Party as the party of Lincoln. Instead your screed is another vitriolic attack on Obama. Pride does not compare Lincoln to Obama. He make the case--undeniable to the objective reader, that the parties have indeed changed places. The "modern" (loosely described) Republican Party has become increasingly extreme, as its Tea Party wing has all kinds of links to the far-right--Oath-Keepers, Christian militias. The party has become intolerant, replete with apologists for corporations, the rich and regressive tax schemes, anti-immigrant, anti-science, anti-woman, anti-democracy, anti-working man. In short, about as far away from Lincoln as one can imagine. And much closer to the ideals of the Confederacy in its fealty to a perverted and limited notion of freedom that worked for plantation holders but treated slaves as less (3/5 of?) than human ("makers and takers"?)--with malice toward nearly everyone not an angry white male.

voter suppression in Pennsylvania....what a joke.....can any truth telling democrat name the voting precincts in Democrat controlled Philly & Pittsburgh & Scranton that had more people voting than were registered?

Please supply a link to your allegation regarding voter fraud in PA. The evidence that voter suppression was a Republican strategy during this election is clear-cut, and demonstrated in several states--Florida being the best known. It relies on much more evidence than simply "anecdotes" from anonymous or alleged posters on Facebook or elsewhere. And then there are the post-election actions of Republican legislatures in Va. And the suggestions by Republican legislators all over the country to revise electoral college votes so that they go with counties rather than be winner-take-all. While 3 or 4 states, including ME., I think, have this method, its adoption by more states would skew the electoral college even more significantly to favor rural voters over urban voters.

And Obama and Democrats are not "extreme". They resemble the bunch in the bar scene from Star Wars.

it would be nice to know exactly how you define "extreme", given your own views are far to the right of mainstream Americans. You disguise your extremism with empty rhetoric in your letters and posts, but the moment you try to get specific--your extremism is unmasked. The best you can do in response to specific examples of Republican extremism (that you endorse) is try to distract with name-calling or claims that "they do it too". It's just so much noise--sound and fury that signifies hollow positions based on falsehoods on any number of topics--from climate change to taxes and the budget to the war on poor women.

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