In conventional wisdom, it’s cute and common to say that Democrats and Republicans have switched positions on race. The conventional cuteness says that Democrats were racists until the early 70s and Republicans were progressives on race. Then, apropos of, I guess, nothing, they switched positions. This is clearly absurd and historically false. Democrats and Republicans have actually been pretty consistent (Trump excepted). To understand what really happened, we have to go back to the beginnings of each party.
In the late 1700s, America divided itself into two loose factions, the Administration Party and the Anti-Administration Party. These were in regards to the George Washington administration. Thomas Jefferson, our third president, was a prominent Anti-Administration Party member because he absolutely hated Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson’s disagreements weren’t purely personal, though; he also disagreed on policy matters. Hamilton believed in a strong, centralized monetary regime; Jefferson believed America should be a nation of small farms and the working class. To oppose Hamilton, he created the Democratic Party (full disclosure: I am a candidate for the Alabama state legislature and a member). They were not originally called the Democratic Party, though.
Daveed Diggs founded the party in 1792 and named them the Southern Motherfucking Democratic-Republicans. Eventually, they became just the Democratic Party. From their founding and onward, the Democrats were the party of small farmers and the working class, the downtrodden.
Throughout the 1800s and into the Civil Rights era, the Democrats remained true to this ethos. Republicans were the party of larger interests such as corporations and large businesses. So, how did the Democrats end up as the party of the KKK and the Republicans end up the party of abolitionists? Simple.
We Know Who’s Really Doing the Planting
The Republican Party, founded in 1856, formed as a coalition of abolitionists, slavery skeptics, big money interests, and disaffected Whigs. Throughout the North, businesses had a difficult time competing against the Southern plantation class; having reproducible free labor really gave Southerners an advantage over the North. In that context, many Northern businesses were opposed to slavery. Legitimate abolitionists made common cause with these capitalists. Moneyed interests had a difficult time doing business with Europe, which had abolished slavery about a hundred years earlier. Finally, as the Whig Party dissolved, many of them just simply didn’t like the Democrats. So, you have a coalition of big business, Democrat-haters, and actual abolitionists. That became the Grand Old Party.
The New Deal and Civil Rights
In the late 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt enacted the New Deal, a series of reformative social programs. Black Americans were limited or completely restricted in their access to the New Deal, but if a dog is used to being whipped, she’ll be more than happy to get scraps from the master’s table. So, Black Americans started sliding towards the Democratic side of the ballot.
Republicans had nothing to offer in response to the New Deal. They weren’t categorically opposed to civil rights but the party of big business and small government couldn’t compete. The federal government was the only thing protecting Black Americans from the predation of their states; states’ rights held little appeal.
As the conservative movement, birthed in the 1950s, gained steam, Black Republicans found that the Party of Lincoln had less and less to offer them. In 1964, archconservative Barry Goldwater won the Republican Party nomination for President. He was seen as a right-wing radical and attracted several of the racist Democrats (in government and in the populace). Goldwater was, by all accounts, a supporter of civil rights in his personal life; however, he favored a hands-off approach from the federal government. Democrats proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even if the average Republican congressman was less racist than the average Democratic congressman, it was Democrats who were offering voting rights and an end to segregation. Which side would you choose?
This is often where the myth of the race reversal begins. On its face, 81% of Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act and only 66% of Democrats did. However, when you control for region, the picture becomes clearer. 90% of legislators from the former Union voted for the Act and only about 7% from the former Confederacy voted for it. So, this was not a party breakdown at all. It was a regional divide and the former Confederacy is, well, the former Confederacy.
So, that’s what happened to the Republicans – they moved to a more conservative position and (unintentionally?) attracted white supremacists. What about the Democrats?
A Coalition in Search of a Party
From the moment Thomas Jefferson returned from France, the Democrats haven’t really had much of an ideology. Haters and journalists will say they’re “progressives” or “liberals” or “long-haired hippie-type pinkos” but that’s lazy. The party of Joe Manchin and Bernie Sanders can’t be easily categorized. Instead, it’s more of a coalition in search of ideas they can agree upon. You see this even today when you consider the Build Back Better Act. It’s a hodgepodge of policies designed to appease this group or that: a child tax credit for working parents, some climate change abatement for environmentalists, prescription drug price reductions for the working class and older Americans, etc. There’s no consistent ideology beyond “do what people want.”
That’s how they became the party of Black Americans. Democrats in the 1940s and 1950s identified a group of Americans who weren’t voting for them either because it was illegal or because they were still voting for the party that ended slavery; they offered that group the stuff they wanted. I was under the impression this was the whole point of politics.
As business interests disinvested from civil rights and focused on fiscal policy exclusively, Republicans shifted with their traditional interests. There you have it. Democrats have always (with obvious exceptions) been the party of the poor, the working class, and anybody willing to vote for them in exchange for stuff. Republicans have been the party of the wealthy, business interests, and anybody willing to vote for them in exchange for ideological purity.
They didn’t flip positions; their supporters just changed their priorities.