Wednesday, November 4, 2009


My Introduction to American Politics class is having a mid-term tomorrow night. I told them that I would post a brief overview of my lecture on political parties here on my blog. What I present below is also from an earlier, more contentious, post.


The history of the two major political parties in America is not well known and often misunderstood. Up front we need to understand that political parties are nothing more than a coalition of interests. On their own these interests are often categorized simply as interest groups (among other names). As interests and groups change so do coalitions and alliances. This is an all too brief history of political parties in America.


A brief introduction to the history of the republican and democratic parties requires that we understand two basic points about each party. First, what we see as the Democratic Party was founded largely by anti-federalist, state’s rights supporters, and led initially by Thomas Jefferson. Since most of America was dominated by small farmers it should come as no surprise that the Anti-Federalists were early supporters of small farmers, local political issues, and states’ rights. This was the forerunner of the Democratic-Republican Party, which would become simply the Democratic Party.

The modern Republican Party, on the other hand, is a product of industrial Northern interests who were partial to the Federalists. This group was originally led by Alexander Hamilton. They focused on the need for a strong federal government to help deal with emerging industrial and growing business interests (like the value of money, tariffs, etc.).

In the first phase of party growth you generally had the Jeffersonians (anti-Federalist, small farmer supporters) and the Hamiltonians (Federalists, business supporters). Because the South was dominated by slave trading farmers, and the north was the home of emerging industrialists, we begin to see the basic contours of our current Democratic-Republican-party split: Democrats supporting local interests and small players, Republicans supporting money and business interests.

Led by Thomas Jefferson, the Anti-Federalists (soon to be Democratic-Republicans and, later, simply “Democrats”) focused on small farmers who did not want the federal government intervening in their affairs or undermining their sovereignty. This helps us understand why the south, filled with slave-holders, would embrace states rights and gravitate to “Jefferson’s Party.” Later, southerner and war hero Andrew Jackson united southern farmers and urban workers under a party that focused on a populist message, emerging machine politics, and city patronage (which grew significantly as immigrants streamed into the east coast’s cities). His personal style attracted newcomers, while westerners and the “New Frontier” advocates (Manifest Destiny, and all that) gravitated to Jackson, which allowed the party to consolidate a number of disparate interests into a strong Democratic party.

On the Federalists side things weren’t going as well. In fact, Jackson was so popular that opposition to Jackson was the real driving force behind the emergence of the Whig Party (the immediate predecessor to the Republican Party). The Whig Party broke down and reemerged as the Republican Party, putting together enough supporters from industrialists, Whig hold-overs, and Northern Democrats opposed to slavery. This coalition – and not simply the Republican party – got Abraham Lincoln elected in 1860.

And here lies a key point. First, Lincoln’s majority was really a coalition of anti-slavery Whigs, emerging business interests, and anti-slavery Democrats. Second, it was at this point that the Democratic Party began to split along two lines. Those who supported slavery (the south) and those who opposed it (the north), choosing instead to focus on machine politics, patronage, populist policies, the working class, etc.

The Republican Party begins its history after the Civil War as a supporter of the business class (the northern industrial elites) and, when it suited them, opposition to emerging Jim Crow laws in the Democratic, slave-holding south. I say this because people often forget – or never learn – it was the Republican Party that agreed in 1876 to sign away the protective Reconstruction Troops placed throughout the south in the post-Civil War era. They did this so that they could get southern Democrats to concede the contested 1876 presidential election and get the incompetent Rutherford B. Hayes in office.

With the removal of federal troops from the post-civil war south the region was free to create its own social system. Jim Crow was on his way, as the Black Codes became a part of the southern law and culture (e.g. it was illegal for black men to be unemployed in some states, black men could not look at white women, etc.). It was at this time that the Civil Rights legislation of the 1870s (yes, there was a Civil Rights revolution then) was either ignored or broken down by the push for state’s rights in the south. Once established, Jim Crow pushed to every part of the country, and the southern caste system was generally accepted by the early 1900s (Democrat Woodrow Wilson was especially no help).

Southern Democrats continued to remain an integral part of the larger Democratic Party not because the party embraced their view on race (as did the Republicans), but because the party sided with southern farmers on the issue of tariffs and prices. Tariffs were key because northern industrialists needed them to keep out competition, which Republicans supported. But tariffs also hurt southern interests as importers of southern farm goods also kept tariffs artificially high, thus blocking out or reducing the profits of farmers.

It is at this time that the Republican Party becomes entrenched as the party of Big Business. Placing high tariffs on imports, the United States had the highest overall tariffs in the industrial world from the mid-1800s through World War I. At the same time, Republicans create a larger economic and political environment that was so industry friendly that regulations and codes were willfully ignored, while labor rights were ignored or put up for sale.

Corruption became rampant throughout the political system, as state legislatures were regularly bought and sold (some of the stories of former California Governor Leland Stanford are quite interesting). This is one of the reasons a populist backlash emerged, which allowed progressives like Hiram Johnson in California, and Teddy Roosevelt nationally, to become popular, at least for a time (corruption was so rampant it was at this time that California got its referendum, recall, and initiative process). This Progressive Era subsided, but returned with a vengeance after the market collapse of 1929. It is at this time coalitions within parties begin to switch, or become uncomfortable where they are.

But before this happens a political tidal wave ushered in an anti-business environment, which led to the regulatory capitalism of the post-war era. Republican industrialists retrenched, while FDR wove together a coalition of organized labor, southern farmers, Big City machines (who weren’t wiped out by the progressive movement in the early 1900s), and northern liberals. By the 1960s, however, southern farmers were not happy with the emerging civil rights legislation and other “liberal” ideas associated with “northern elites.” Simply put, they threatened the cultural status quo of the south.

After Barry Goldwater was crushed in the 1964 presidential elections Richard Nixon, coming off his own defeat in 1960 (where, yes, JFK won with corrupt political bosses), he saw a political opening in the south. Disgruntled southerners opposed federal legislation, and argued for state’s rights, because they were opposed to emerging civil rights legislation (and other liberal ideas like women’s rights, labor rights, etc.) that would undo almost a century of Jim Crow.

Embarking on what would become known as his “southern strategy” Nixon deliberately played to the cultural fears of the south; e.g.. the "dangers" brought by civil rights and liberal thinkers which threatened to undermine a culture and a lifestyle. This attracted southern democrats to the Republican Party which, by this time, was also known as the Grand Old Party, or G.O.P. Southern Democrats who supported the Republican Party at this time became known as “dixiecrats,” were pandered to by Ronald Reagan in 1980, and eventually became – along with big business and, later, the religious right (another story for another day) – the base of the modern Republican Party.

- Mark

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