(It’s a long one today. Perhaps you’re prefer podcast form? Available at Apple and Spotify)
I’d like to describe you the geographic base and general ideology of an American political party, and see if you can guess which one I’m talking about. This party is stronger in the north than in the south. It’s more popular in urban areas than rural ones, and it’s more popular on the coasts than it is in the heart of America. The party stands for a centralized government with national policies. On civil rights and other social issues, this party is seen as the more liberal, or progressive, of the two major parties. This party has also historically advocated for an income tax to help redistribute money to help pay for government initiatives.
Which American political party did I just describe?
You actually don’t have enough information to answer. You must first ask a follow-up question.
Now I’ll describe another party. This party is more popular in the south than it is in the north. It is more popular in rural areas than urban ones, and it’s more popular inland than on the coast. The party advocates for states’ rights and therefore resists nationalized policies, including high income taxes that fund an overly powerful and expensive federal government. It resists the government legislating on who businesses hire, who universities accept, and what the Supreme Court can tell states to do. On cultural and social issues, this party is conservative, favoring traditional value systems over new ones.
What party did I describe this time?
Again, to answer the question, you first must know the answer to that follow-up question. When in American history did this party exist?
The party I first described sounds a lot like the modern Democratic Party. However, it also sounds like the Republican Party from the mid-nineteenth century into the early part of the twentieth. That second party I described sounds a lot like the modern GOP, but it also could describe the earlier Democratic Party.
So what’s the deal? Have you ever wondered why and how did the parties switch?
You came to the right place.
Before we go any further, we need to do what PPFA probably does way too much — give an agonizing amount of context. I think we must first define some terms and understand the history of political parties, especially in our own country. Only then will we be prepared to study the very complicated history and evolution of America’s modern two parties. To that end, I’m splitting this topic into seven parts written across three posts:
- Making sense of the words “liberal” and “conservative”
- A brief history of political parties
- Political trends in colonial America
- How the fight over the Constitution laid the foundation for our two parties
- The Federalists and Democratic-Republicans (and Whigs!)
- The Democrats and Republicans
- How Our Parties Switched
Phew! It’ll take a while to get there, but the journey will be worth it. I hope.
Let’s start with Part I…
Part I: Making sense of “liberal” and “conservative”
I think it’s important to know that the words “Democrat” and “Republican” don’t mean anything. They’re just names the parties give themselves, and they’re in no way descriptive beyond that. The parties could call themselves anything — Democrats, Republicans, Smarties, Dumbies, Billies, Phillies, Chunkies, Monkeys, whatever — it doesn’t matter. Although some parties do have descriptive names (the Greens, the Socialists, the Libertarians, et cetera) our main two parties do not. Capital-D Democrats don’t stand more for little-d democracy and Capital-R Republicans don’t stand more for little-r republicanism. This reality helps understand why neither has been tied down to an ideology.
That said, while I don’t think the terms “Democrat” and “Republican” have any value, I do think the words “liberal” and “conservative” do — or at least they should. Longtime readers of this website know my annoyance at the modern American usage of the words “liberal” and “conservative.” These uses are nearly unique to modern US politics. They’ve so thoroughly been mangled by politicians and talking heads trying to drive wedges between us that they’ve lost their true meanings.
So let’s better understand them.
Deep into history, we’ve had liberals. From the Latin “libertas,” or freedom, liberals across most of history believed in an expansion of freedom and personal choice, most notably through a shifting of power from the state to the people. Liberals therefore promoted more democratic means of government so the people can directly impact the direction of a state. They endorsed freedoms of speech and conscience, wanting the ability to criticize the government. We see these political liberals from ancient Greece and Rome to the American and French revolutions and at many points between.
In order to shift the traditional dynamic between the government and the governed, political change was necessary, and so liberals also became promoters of change. Being open to change in the political sphere often gibed with being open to social change as well. Either political and social liberals found common cause to upend the status quo, or more likely they were one in the same. In sum, liberals have always been much more open to an evolution of political and social norms.
Liberals’ ancient enemies are conservatives. Conservatives see themselves as citadels monitoring the tumultuous masses. Conservative ideology, historically, worried about transferring too much power from the state to the people. They saw merit in the strong, steady hand of a centralized government guiding society in a unified, coherent way. They felt that the masses, typically less educated and experienced in the complicated issues of political, economic, and military policy, could not be trusted with decision-making authority. Conservatives, therefore, advocated for traditional monarchies with predictable succession processes.
Socially, conservatives also worry about eroding social norms, and so they resist change. They’ve typically supported religious values, a common set of morals, and sometimes even racial homogeneity, or perhaps racial stratification, so as to not lose the coherence necessary for a successful society. Conservatives want to be tethered to history, seeing value in time-tested values and consistency over rapid change and disorder. (In the words of William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the conservative National Review, the publication “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.”) Evolution of political and social norms is okay, says the conservative, but it should be slow and deliberate, not rushed and haphazard.
Confusingly, US politics doesn’t mirror this paradigm. On the social issues, we do fit. As seen with issues such as immigration, marriage, drug laws, and criminal justice reform, among many others, American liberals seem to embrace the “change” and “personal choice” part of their historical ideology, while American conservatives do indeed resist a culture changing too quickly.
When it comes to political and economic issues, however, things get a bit more complicated. Although historic liberals want power and choice distributed from the central government to the people, American liberals advocate for a big, powerful federal government, funded by taxpayer dollars, with lawmakers and bureaucrats creating any number of laws, rules, and regulations that businesses, schools, and private citizens must follow. Liberals won’t frame it that way, of course; they’ll instead argue that old people need Medicare, poor people need Medicaid, and that everyone should be guaranteed good public schools, affordable health care, safe working conditions, healthy food and drugs, high wages, protection from gun violence, and an environment not heading toward catastrophe, all of which justifies more government intervention, often funded by taxes. Still, regardless of these noble ends, the means still require considerable government intervention into people’s lives, which presupposes we can trust the government to competently and ethically oversee our lives in these ways. That had always been the conservative position — that increased government control and reduced choice was for the greater good.
Instead, on these issues, it’s the American conservative who fights for a weaker government and more power to citizens, a stance that contradicts historical conservatism. Just in the last two years we saw the American conservative take the liberal position of allowing people to choose whether masks and vaccinations were right for them rather than having creeping tyranny force them upon us with claims of a public good. Modern American conservatism wants to redirect power from the federal government to state and local governments to make decisions for themselves. This decentralized brand of politics would reduce the power and expense of federal government — and our taxes along with it. True, there wouldn’t be the kind of robust social programs for which modern American liberals advocate, but conservatives are more open to states and municipalities crafting their own programs that reflect their own citizens’ priorities, but only if the people in those states and municipalities want them. That would be local people making local decisions — a historically liberal position, but in the US a confusingly “conservative” one.
And yet, modern conservatives do indeed share strands of DNA with their forbearers. Modern conservatives, like historic ones, do worry about rapidly changing norms, the pollution of children’s minds with new ideas, a lack of decency in media, and a multiculturalist mindset replacing the meaningful nationalism of days gone by. These days, we see issues like marriage, drugs, policing, trangenderism, Critical Race Theory, border control, and English as a national language, among many others, reflect this traditionally conservative ideology. Modern and ancient conservatives alike expect the government to play a role in upholding law, order, and traditional values — but only on social and cultural issues.
Part II: A brief history of political parties
I started with those thousand words so we could make better sense of the next thousand. I promise I’ll eventually get into How Our Parties Switched, but before I do, we should understand why parties exist at all.
Political parties existed well before the United States. As long as there have been democratic ideas, there have been political parties with ideologies trying to win votes. In the context of democracy, parties make a lot of sense. When a political direction is determined by a majority vote — whether that’s a public vote or an elected body’s vote, both of which were used by the ancient Athenians and Roman Republic — it’s natural that potentially disparate factions come together to work for common interests. Since strength in numbers decided a political course of action, it’s logical to try to piece together 50%-plus-one of a voting body. Two politically motivated individuals might agree only 80% of the time, but they’re stronger if they vote together 100% of the time. Lone wolves with unique voices have a hard time in a democratic system.
As a result, democratic governments often see two dominant factions emerge, each trying to put small differences aside so they can become a majority and get most, if not all, of what they want. The latter era of the Roman Republic, for example, had two major factions: the optimates and the populares. The optimates, Latin for “good men,” were a faction who wanted to uphold the power of the Senate and Italians by limiting the power of urban poor, farmers, and foreign allied states of the Republic. In other words, they were conservatives, and they were popular with the wealthy patrician class. Meanwhile, the populares, meaning “favoring the people,” were a faction who wanted to break the Senate’s power and transfer more authority to popularly elected assemblies. They wanted common Romans to have more of a voice. In other words, they were liberals, and this faction was more popular with the poor plebeians. Each faction organized together to vote for their issues in the branches of the Republic.
Although political parties all but disappeared with the absence of democracy for the feudal Middle Ages and absolutist early modern era, they began a comeback in the seventeenth century. As Parliament’s power rose in England, parties re-emerged. Some members of Parliament wanted to limit the monarch’s power and even claim the right to deny monarchs the throne. These liberals consolidated under a party they called “Whigs” for reasons best explained by Wikipedia. Of course, others in Parliament wanted to defend political traditions, including the power of the monarch and hereditary succession. They were the conservative Tories.
Interestingly, England’s rivals across the Channel helped us create the modern political “spectrum” that we now use to place ideologies. In the wake of French Revolution, the new government, the Legislative Assembly, had political factions inside of it. The most liberal among them, the radicals, wanted a lot of change and they wanted it fast. This change focused on wiping away the Old Regime, acts that included executing King Louis XVI, subordinating the Catholic Church to the state, and even tossing out the traditional calendar and units of measurement and replacing them with measurements that made more sense and reflected their enlightened progress. In the Legislative Assembly, these people sat on the left of the chairman.
Those that opposed this tumultuous change wished to protect certain traditions, including maintaining some semblance of a monarchy and other religious and social norms. They were rightly aghast at radicals run amok, most notably during the subsequent Reign of Terror. In the Assembly, these conservatives sat on the right. Keeping these political rivals at bay were a group of moderates who sat in the center.
To this day, we describe liberals as being on the “left,” conservatives on the “right,” and moderates as “centrists.”
Part III: Parties in Colonial America
Across the Atlantic, the American colonists were not immune to ideological and partisan tendencies. Like their English brethren, the American colonists, depending on their political leanings, also identified with Tories or Whigs, although they weren’t able to vote for either. It’s also in colonial history where we start to see the interconnectivity of American geography and ideology.
Conservatives in the colonies, like in England, had a great deal of respect for the power of the King. Here, there was a religious connection as well. Conservative colonists were typically Anglican, or members of the Church of England, a Christian denomination that dated back to Henry VIII’s English Reformation. This church recognized the King of England not only as the as head of the state, but of the country’s church as well. Notably, Anglicanism was more popular in the southern colonies. From Maryland down to Georgia, the Anglican Church was an established, tax-supported church.
The south’s reliance on slavery also made them conservative insofar as they wanted to protect the old institution upon which their economy relied. The decision-makers in southern colonies were frequently wealthy slave-owners motivated by that economic status quo. New York, too, was Anglican, and it had by the far the highest enslaved population of any colony north of Maryland, so it also had a conservative bend outside of the city.
Come American Revolution time, these conservatives were more reluctant to support the rebellion. This should come as no surprise considering all I’ve said about conservatives today: pro-monarchy, pro-tradition, anti-change, and in colonial America doubly loyal to the king as head of the state and church. As a result, conservatives, especially in the south — and New York — made up most of the colonial Loyalists, or Tories.
New England colonists followed a different path. The founding of New England colonies was closely tied to their Puritanism, an English movement that criticized the Anglican Church for being too Catholic during a time when the rest of the Protestant Reformation was trying to purify Christianity. Many of these Puritans, including the Separatists that boarded the Mayflower in 1620 and had the first Thanksgiving in 1621, left old Europe behind to start a new life away from Anglican persecution and corruption of their families.
Once settled, these Puritans developed Congregational churches that ran themselves rather than taking orders from a pope, a king, or anyone else. These anti-Anglicans naturally felt less loyal to the King and more consistently wanted to govern themselves. Although quite conservative socially (think fiery jeremiad sermons and the Salem Witch Trials), politically they favored more local control. Their political system of choice was the town meeting, still felt throughout New England today. Even the Virginian Thomas Jefferson recognized the New England town meeting as “the best school of political liberty the world ever saw.”
And so, when it came time for the American Revolution — an attempt to separate the colonies from the British Empire’s micromanagement and restore colonists’ natural rights of life, liberty, and property — these northern political liberals were the most supportive of the movement. The hotbed of rebellion was without question Massachusetts, a fact recognized by the Crown with its Coercive “Intolerable” Acts aimed at the colony in 1774. The New England “Patriots” were always on the forefront of pushing for liberty, often needing to bring along a more reluctant south. (This fact is among the reasons why a shrewd John Adams suggested that the Virginian George Washington lead the continental army and the Virginian Thomas Jefferson draft the Declaration of Independence. If the south’s largest colony had this kind of representation, the region would be more likely to support the movement.)
Once America’s Patriots earned independence, liberals had not only won the war, but they had also won the argument. Conservative loyalists either moved (to British Canada, British Florida, or England) or kept quiet out of fear of social retaliation. Consequently, liberals took control of the country, including the national government created by the Articles of Confederation and most state governments as well.
The Articles of Confederation, our first attempt at a national constitution, was a purposefully weak document that created a nearly powerless national government. During a time when monarchs, royal governors, and admiralty courts were detested by the victorious liberals, they created a national government that had no executive or judicial branch. Only a legislative branch loosely bound the colonies, but it was generally toothless, lacking the power to tax or enforce laws. Americans reasoned that getting taxed and taking orders from Philadelphia or New York wouldn’t be all that different than getting taxed and taking orders from London, so their government instead allowed states to run themselves. Indeed, the word “state” can confuse internationals who often consider a state its own country, and yet in America we are a state of many states, each with their own state governments and laws, a tradition that goes back to these early days of independence.
The states’ constitutions, meanwhile, succumbed to the same liberal vision. These state governments gave legislatures nearly all the power, with considerably weaker governors and judges exercising minimal authority as secondary branches. These powerful legislatures, in turn, were directly elected by the people. The result was state governments nearly totally controlled by voters — a liberal utopia.
It didn’t work. In a nice reminder that good government probably needs a strong dissenting voice to keep the majority on track, liberals had veered too far left. The 13 states had a terrible time creating a cohesive economy. States were competitors on the trading market; they erected tariffs against each other and competed for overseas markets. Varying currencies carried varying values. British merchants were easily able to undercut fledgling American businesses with little help from a weak American government. A recession set in for several years. The American liberal experiment was failing.
And yet, with the trauma of British micromanagement and the war still fresh in everyone’s memory, there was a reluctance to admit mistakes and make any changes. The breaking point finally came in the colony-turned-state that had been central to the American Revolution. In 1786, Massachusetts farmer-veterans, who had been underpaid during the war and then hit so hard by the recession that they had trouble paying taxes and mortgages, responded to state taxes (instituted to help Massachusetts pay back war debts) and foreclosures with the armed Shays’s Rebellion. Taking out their old muskets from the revolution, they again demanded liberty; more specifically, they wanted an end to foreclosures and the passage of debtor relief laws. The Massachusetts militia tried to break them up, but it didn’t go well. Nine were killed and many more were injured. In the next elections, the Massachusetts governor was run out, a loss accompanied by turnover in the legislature as well. The new state government then gave into many of the rebels’ demands. The mob won.
This event taught two lessons that redirected our country’s history. The first is that state militias were weak by themselves; a mob of farmers was of nearly equal strength. Second, it was clear that in a successful rebellion, where demands from a mob led to a new legislature giving in to demands, incentivized a “mobocracy” controlling state governments. If the people ever didn’t like a law, they could just rebel. They did it across the colonies in 1776, they did it in Massachusetts in 1786, and they probably wouldn’t wait ten years to do it again. The great American experiment was under assault from within.
The liberals had it their way, and it failed. Thankfully, enough prominent leaders from across the 13 states recognized this problem and came together to solve it. In the summer of 1787, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia.
Their faith in the people lost — and their worry that their life, liberty, and property may one day be targeted by the mob, as intimated by James Madison in Federalist No. 10 — the delegates drafted a considerably more conservative document. In the delegates’ hope to form “a more perfect union,” the Constitution greatly centralized authority into the hands of a new federal-style government — as opposed to the failing confederal-style — where the national government would be placed over the states instead of the other way around. Although states would still be permitted to have their own state governments, Article VI of the Constitution included a “Supremacy Clause” that stated, “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States . . . shall be the supreme Law of the Land,” and no state legislature or state judge decision could contravene it.
Further, fearing the mob, the Constitution put considerable distance between the government and the people. Only half of the bicameral legislative branch — the House of Representatives — would be directly elected by the people. The other chamber — the Senate — would be picked by state legislatures. (This method was changed by the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, which mandated direct elections of senators. This important change will come up in a later part of this series.) This Senate would have “staggered terms,” with only a third of the Senate up for re-election every two years, ensuring two-third of the Senate would remain in office even if any given election year succumbed to the popular will.
Meanwhile, an Electoral College would pick the chief executive, a “president,” with no expectation that the people would weigh in with a vote for the electors. (That expectation develops later.) Finally, a judicial branch would be appointed by the unelected president and confirmed by the unelected Senate! In mathematical terms, the people only directly elected only one-half of one-third of the branches, or one-sixth of this considerably empowered government.
And if Americans wanted to amend the document? That would need overwhelming support: two-thirds of each chamber of Congress and three-quarters of the states. Change, in other words, would be difficult, possible only after extensive deliberation and approval from a broad range of Americans.
It was, without question, a course correction. The overzealous liberals, after picking the right horse in the American Revolution and leading the colonies to independence, erroneously determined that if Britain is bad, then the opposite of Britain must be good, and they launched the country in the other political direction. Yet, they had gone too far. In time, more moderate adults had to steer the country to a more centered position.
But the liberals didn’t acquiesce without a fight. The Constitution did not become the law of the land merely because a few dozen men signed a document. In the rest of 1787 and for much of 1788, a national debate ensued, one that asked a simply question of the American people: to ratify or not to ratify? Each state was instructed to schedule a ratifying convention. Elections in each state would pick delegates to this convention, and these delegates would then debate and vote on whether to approve of the new document. If nine states agreed to ratify, those nine states would create a more perfect union, with others welcome to join in time.
It is this debate that gives birth to the first two major factions of US politics, and it is from these two factions that our modern parties descend. One faction was more popular in New England and other coastal and urban areas, and it favored a strong federal government. The other faction was more popular in the south and in rural, inland areas, and it wanted decentralized government.
Sound familiar? Although they weren’t quite organized political parties, they did become the progenitors of the first two parties — parties whose founding is less than a decade away in our story.
This is a good place to end today’s post. Next week, we’ll look at why these two factions drew from the geographic areas that they did. We’ll also see how they evolved into our first two parties, and then we’ll see how those first two parties evolved into our own.
We’ll then finally be ready to talk about How Our Parties Switched.
I hope to see you then.
Today’s images of the 1920 and 2020 elections come from Wikipedia.
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