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.