A Summary of How the Major Parties Switched

Notes and Summaries Pertaining to the Evolution of the Major U.S. Political Parties

Notable political factions, politicians, and platform planks switched between the major U.S. political parties throughout U.S. history leading to a number of complex changes. Here are some different ways to look at “the party switches” and different “party systems” the changes resulted in.

Introduction

Below is a summary of a longer essay on “party switching,” This summary covers most of the same stuff that page does, but is an alternative way to look at the data (this page aims to skip details and focuses on key points). I suggest reading both if you have time. See also, our other works on the subject of “party switching”.

All comments are welcome and encouraged, I’m happy to answer any questions.

Before we get to the story of each party system and the many different switches, let’s quickly as possible cover the basics.

The Most Important Points in Terms of the Parties Switchings

So much changed it is near impossible to sum up neatly. There are a few important things to note however:

1. There isn’t one thing that changed. As time rolled on factions changed parties, political leaders changed parties, platforms changed, regions that had always voted one party switched and began to support another… slowly, and over time. Further some of the switches were in response to changing times and platforms and some of the switches led to platforms changing.

2. The southern bloc (the solid south social conservative voting bloc consisting of most of the south; AKA the Solid South) used to be a major voting block in the Democratic party. However, that bloc has increasingly voted Republican since the 1960s partly in response to first Johnson, Civil Rights, Voting Rights, and the expansion of Social programs in that era, then the messages of Nixon and Reagan, and finally the policies and platforms of the modern parties under Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump. This change is so noticeable that today we think of southern social conservatives of being synonymous with the Republican party. However, the reality is things changed considerably since the pre-WWII era and are still changing today!. In the story of the “solid south switch” (“the big switch”) factions changed parties, political leaders changed parties, platforms changed, regions that had always voted one party switched and began to support another… slowly, and over time (with most changes being made by 2000, but still with some occurring today). Meanwhile, some of the switches were in response to changing times and platforms (the increasing progressiveness of the Democratic Party and conservativeness of the Republican Party) and some of the switches led to platforms changing (the Republican Party increasingly began to target rural voters in platform and message). This is only one example of what changed, there are many other equally as important stories, but this switch is emblematic of what party switches look like because it is so pronounced (it literally caused the voting map to look like it had flipped or time; see the images on this page for a visual). Details and third parties aside, the result is that the Democratic Party used to be favored in the rural south and had a “small government” platform (which southern social conservatives embraced), and the Republican party used to be favored in the citied north and had a “big government” platform (which northern progressive liberals embraced)… but today it is the opposite in many respects, it “switched.”

3. Although a few notable politicians literally switched parties, that isn’t the main thing that happened. What happened was that seats in government in states that used to be held by one party came to be held by the other and regional voters switched parties over time as new officials came into office (sometimes voter bases switched first, sometimes seats switched first, they both impacted each other). Again, this happened to a degree that the voting map looks like it flipped.

4. There were so many major changes in history that historians have a name for them, “the party systems.”See an overview of the party systems.

5. In general one could say that the Democratic Party became more progressive over time and the Republican Party became more conservative. Both are big tents, but in the past each had a prominent liberal and conservative wing and today each party has become more polarized (they still have liberal and conservative wings, but generally there isn’t a lot of consensus across party lines). So the parties switched in that way as well, and this is notably one of the main reasons factions and voter bases switched.

FACT: In the Civil War the faction that became the Confederates were the Southern Democrats. The socially conservative south is still the socially conservative south, but today they are no longer Democrats. Thus, saying the modern Democrats are the party of the socially conservative Confederate south misses a key fact, that is, the people of that region have been voting for third party or with the Republicans increasingly since the Nixon era (mostly due to a rejection of progressivism and the shifting message of the Republican party which focuses on the southern conservative vote).

The Bottom Line on the Party Switch

The parties changed over time as platform planks, party leaders, factions, and voter bases essentially switched between parties.

Third parties aside, the Democratic Party used to be favored in the rural south and had a “small government” platform (which social conservatives embraced), and the Republican party used to be favored in the citied north and had a “big government” platform (which Northern progressive liberals embraced).

You can see evidence of it by looking at the electoral map over time (where voter bases essentially flipped between 1896 and 2000). Or, you can see it by comparing which congressional seats were controlled by which parties over time (try comparing the 115th United States Congress under Trump to the 71st United States Congress under Hoover for example). Or, you can see the “big switch” specifically by looking at the electoral map of the solid south over time. Or, you can dig through the historic party platforms.

With that in mind, we can sum up the history of the switches that created the modern party system as:

The old southern conservative Democrats, a big faction of voters called ‘the solid south’ (because just like today, they tend to vote as a solid voting bloc) who were in Jefferson’s anti-Federalist coalition, have essentially today changed parties and teamed up with the old Republican party of Lincoln (who came from Hamilton’s Federalists).

Meanwhile, Teddy’s progressive faction (those who would have been the progressives of the old Republican party) essentially switched as well starting after Teddy’s run as a Bull Moose in 1912.

Generally then, the Democratic party started moving toward progressivism (from WJ Bryan, to FDR, to LBJ, to Obama) and the Republican party starting shifting more toward the conservative right from Harding forward, and this in turn changed the parties (they had elements of this before, the Democrats simply became more liberal and progressive and the Republicans more socially conservative over time).

With that said, the story of the big switch often starts in the 1960s. This is because after WW2 died down the focus went back to national politics and “states’ rights.” After 10+ years of head-butting between factions in the Democratic party (evidenced by documents like the Southern Manifesto and parties like the States’ Rights “Dixiecrat” parties), LBJ’s Civil Rights became the last straw for southern conservatives and some southern senators like Strom Thurmond began to switch in response to what we can call the cultural and economic aspects of the Democratic Party’s progressivism.

However, despite the initial switch in the 60s, the voter bases and leadership mostly shifted slowly over time as new members ran for office (which confuses people, and which is why I told you to look closely at the Congressional seats over time above). In fact, the switch actually took until about 2000 to fully happen. In other words, the modern polarization is fairly new (despite the fact that we can point to factors like Civil Rights).

That version of the story is extremely brief, and as such it missed details. We cover the details below. With that said, the bottom line is: Everything that didn’t change aside, the small government southern rural party of yesterday became the big government citied northern party of today as factions switched parties in response to platform changes and platforms, leadership, and voter bases switched along with them.

The Big Switch and the Big Tents of the Two Party System

THE CONCPT OF THE BIG TENT: Each party is a “big tent” of different political factions who agree on a single platform (which generally represents the interests of the big tent). It is a mistake to assume each faction holds the same left-right stances on a given single-issue (in fact, it can be a challenge to get ideological factions to agree on a platform). With that in mind, one of the main things that changes over time is that factions switch parties (either switching between major parties or between major and third parties). One of the most notable factions in history is “the Solid South.” As the Democratic Party platform became more progressive and as the Republican platform became more conservative, this ideological faction switched along with its voter base (and this then went on to affect the Republican party platform with its presence and the Democratic party platform with its absence). If you think of parties as coalitions of factions, then the historic switches will make more senseTIP: Check out the map from Lincoln’s election to get a quick visual of the factions of the third party system (those factions help shed light on the modern factions).

THE BIG SWITCH: One of the clearest proofs of what is sometimes called “the big switch” can be seen in the following chart which shows which Presidents and parties won which of the “Solid South” states from 1876 to 2106. In the chart below, blue is the Democratic Party, the Red is the Republican Party, and the Orange are Southern Conservative States’ Rights parties (Dixiecrat parties). As we can see, the sometimes-Democrat “Dixiecrats” like Strom Thurmond, Harry F. Byrd (not to be confused with Robert Byrd), and George C. Wallace broke away from liberal Democrats like Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson starting after WW2. This culminated with Civil Rights 1964 and Voting Rights 1965 under LBJ specifically, and then continued until the late 1990s early 2000s as Southern leadership began to run as Republicans and voter bases shifted (in part due to the effective “Southern Strategy of the Republican party,” a strategy to win over the rural southern voter with a “small government” platform.)

TIP: “The South” didn’t switch, the socially conservative party leadership and their voter base did (as the parties evolved and party platforms shifted). This recolored the electoral map, but the South is still a diverse place just like it has always been.

Visual Proof the parties switched. Today the Democratic Party is dominated by “liberal Democrats and Progressives” from the North and South like FDR, LBJ, MLK, and Kennedy. Meanwhile, most (but not all) of those who would have been the old “socially conservative Democrats” (Dixiecrats) now have a “R” next to their name. Don’t try to oversimplify this to “what Strom did” or “what Robert Byrd didn’t do,” most of the changes happened over time from the 1960s to 2000. Today things are still changing!

FACT: It is called “the Solid South” because it is referring to Southern states that [almost] always voted lock step solidly for Democrats from Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans to FDR’s New Deal Democrats (today the vote solidly Republican). The southern leadership of the solid south is one of the most impactful political forces in American history… which is part of the reason we want to get our history right (the other part being that changing the history of half the country is absurd and confusing). Consider checking out VO Key’s Southern Politics in State and Nation (that is an overview, the book is not free online to read). For a more modern take, see The New Southern Politics J. David Woodard.

A Quick Summary of How the Major Parties Changed and Switched With Some Visuals

Above was an overview of the main points, below is a more detailed summary of points that will help one understand “the party switches of the different party systems.” After the summary are some images and videos which help tell the main points of the story:

  • When we say “the parties switched” or “the parties switched platforms” what we mean is: the two major U.S. parties (now called Democrats and Republicans) went through many changes in American history as support from geographic locations, party leaders, political factions, stances on key voter issues, and platform planks switched between the two major parties and third parties throughout the different “party systems.”
  • You can look at the the electoral maps over time, comparing the maps from 1896 and 2000 specifically for a visual of “the big switch.”
  • You can also look at how Congressional seats in the House and Senate that used to be controlled by Democrats are now generally controlled by Republicans (especially in the core 11 solid south states, but generally in all 14 featured in the image above). Just look at the 115th United States Congress under Trump, then compare those seats to the 71st United States Congress under Hoover (for example). Clearly, we can see a switch here. Here we should note that it is a mistake to only look for politicians who switch parties, that tells part of the story, but that isn’t how the switches worked for the most part. Although single figures did switch like Van Buren, Teddy Roosevelt, Henry A. Wallace, Strom Thurmond, and David Duke. Generally what happened is that key members switched like Thurmond (while others didn’t like Byrd) and then voter bases and platforms shifted over time as new Congresspeople ran.
  • Given American history it makes sense that some would consider race to be the main issue at play. However, it isn’t only about race. That issue should be considered, but it isn’t the only issue. All issues of state are generally political (dealing with the use of state), economic (pertaining to taxes, spending, debt), and social (pertaining to social issues and culture). One shouldn’t discount the party loyalty of the south which caused some to stay in the party far longer than made sense given their politics (a shift in the 1920s after Wilson would have arguably made more sense). Also, one should consider the pro immigrant stance that changed the Democratic party from the Gilded Age to the post WW2 era. One should consider the Great migrations and New Deal politics that changed the Democratic party and the south in the first part of the 1900s. One should consider how the expansion of the welfare state left a void for Reagan, Bush, and Trump to run on a message of small government economic populism like the old Democratic party (thus pulling away a portion the populist base from the Democratic Party). One should not underestimate the alienating effects of the Democratic Party moving toward progressive left and urban politics on rural America (especially when at the same time the Republican party focused on a message of traditionalism and ruralness). One should also not discount the substantial liberal and progressive base in the south that still exists today (be they voting for Trump, Hillary, or Jon Ossoff, or Bernie). In other words, there are countless factors outside of race that lead to switches in the 1960s (same for the 1860s)…. but despite this race was an issue and it was an issue central to the switch spurred on by Civil rights and Voting rights for example.[1]
  • If one is still confused, today we can see some recent and major proof, that is Charlottesville 2017. In Charlottesville we saw the Dixie battle flag of the Southern Democrats being waved by Republican Trump voters who were standing up to protect the statue of the Southern Democrat rebel army leader General Lee. Meanwhile, the progressive American liberal antifascists marched against these groups with Black Lives Matter. In ye old terms, the socially conservative right-wing Know-Nothing and Solid South radicals marched against the Reformers, Progressives, and Left-wing anarchists. In the old days all those factions were in the Democratic party except the Know-Nothing nativist northeners, today the socially conservative factions generally vote Republican and the progressive factions generally vote for the Democratic party. Of course, these are only a few of the many factions that comprise the major parties in any era! So just like we shouldn’t confuse “solid south leadership” with “literally the entire south,” we shouldn’t confuse a given protestor with “literally an entire party.”
  • Another way to see this is that the cross-party New Deal Coalition vs. Conservative Coalition of the 1930s essentially became the modern parties as the Republican party went toward small government austerity policies and traditionalism and the Democratic party went toward progressive welfare state policies and social justice (thus attracting the small government socially conservative south to the Republican party on the back of Civil Rights and Voting rights starting under Goldwater after the Solid South leadership has previously tried to run a number of States’ Rights third parties.)
  • Whatever the exact story, the result is a change that resulted in the small government party of the rural south becoming the big government party of the urban north while the big government party of the north became favored by the rural south (despite some ideological factions remaining constant in both parties)! Today the modern party system can be described as free-enterprise (gilded age factions) vs. progressive (progressive era factions) and their allies in two big tents that contain different factions and platform planks than was previously the case.

PARTY SYSTEMS: Historians refer to the eras the changes resulted in as “party systems.“ The first party system included the Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists; and the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. The second party system included Jacksonian Democrats vs. Whigs at the time when the issue popular sovereignty and race split the parties and resulted in the Civil War in which the Democrats are the Confederates. The third party system included Reconstruction and the Gilded Age which turned both parties into business parties until William Jennings Bryan. The fourth party system included the Progressive Era, the era in which Theodore Roosevelt broke from the Republicans to form the most popular version of the Progressive Party in history. At the end of this era Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover returned the Republicans to Gilded Age politics and became increasingly “anti-Communist” and “anti-Progressive.” Today’s fifth party started with FDR, who ensured the Democrats would remain the Progressive party despite the states’ rights Dixie-wing who phased out of the party by 2000. This era was marked by the New Deal Coalition vs. Conservative Coalition. Some feel that this is followed by a sixth party from LBJ on when Dixie started to shift over Civil Rights ’64. Some recognize a seventh party system from Clinton on.

Also consider the following general notes about the party platforms in any era:

  • Northern (and later coastal) “City” Interests (pro-banking, pro-federal power, pro-northern factory, and pro-tax conservative-liberals that are generally “big government”): Federalists, Whigs, Third Party Republicans, Fourth Party Progressive era Republicans (like Teddy), Fifth Party Democrats (starting in the 1930’s under FDR, then culminating with LBJ and then Clinton), Modern Democrats.
  • Southern (and later middle) “Rural” Interests (anti-tax, anti-bank, pro-farmer, small government, populist liberals that are generally “small government”): Anti-Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, Third Party Democrats, Fourth Party Progressive Era Democrats (Like Wilson), Fifth Party Republicans (starting in the 1920’s under Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, then culminating with Nixon and then Bush), Modern Republicans.

NOTE: Saying there is way too much ground to cover to say it all in a consumable bite is an understatement, so if you are looking for specifics use “command find” or our site search.

TIP: The Confederates wanted free-trade and states rights, meanwhile the northern Republicans wanted a debt-based economy with modernization and protectionist trade. Things have changed considerably, but not every plank changed. What happened was complex.

TIP: Some people conflate slavery with social welfare, insinuating that because Democrats were the party of slavery that welfare is an extension of this. That is an incorrect view that ignores the switch and ignores the history of progressivism in the West. Urban wage inequality has always been a problem in any era, it has essentially nothing to do with chattel slavery. See wage slavery and chattel slavery are different. Also consider, population dense centers like cities tend to be more socially liberal and suffer from inequality in general. This has always been true, while the parties have changed. The fact that the parties have changed has complex effects that are each challenging to discuss and summarize, yet easy to twist into a pretzel for propaganda. It is easy to point to slavery and inequality in a city and say “that is why Democrats are bad.” It is harder, but more rewarding to talk about the complex history of a given city and the major parties and their factions. However, when we do tell the complex story we see that equating modern welfare born from the progressive movement with slavery born from social conservatism and elitism is generally unwarranted (in specific ways it is a subject worth debating, but as a general explanation of party ideology over time it misses the mark).

Below some images that might help tell the story without me even having to say another word:

A map showing realigning elections and Presidents who represent major changes in the U.S. parties. We can see something happened, that is empirically undeniable, but what?

In the 1860 election, the North and Coasts were in one party, the Solid South “Breckinridge” Socially Conservative Democrats were in another, the border state represented a middle ground between the pro-slavery and progressive anti-slavery stance. This should give you an idea of why we say “the parties switched”, and what it means that Lincoln was a moderate conservative AND socially liberal Republican (but not a Know Nothing). Learn more about Lincoln, the First Republican President (Jackson, the first Democratic Party President tells a similar story; his is the map from 1824 in the image of maps above, he took the South unlike Lincoln who took the North; geography didn’t change, the parties did).

I know you aren’t going to believe this, but the social conservatives in the white sheets aren’t left-wing progressives. However, you probably would be surprised to know that faction (speaking generally) is so populist that they used to ally with the liberal Democrats (and by the way, where they disagreed on issues of social programs and Civil Rights, they fully agreed on things like Prohibition). Our history is strange, but the left-wing progressives were rarely also socially conservative Democrats. The Democratic party used to be a VERY big tent, today both parties are a big tent… but only one has the southern social conservatives in it (HINT: it is the one that waves the Dixie Battle flag). Consider, Strom left the Democratic Party to support Goldwater Republicans. Learn more about the history of the Democratic Party.

Bryan, Father of modern American Left-Wing Populist Progressivism, was a progressive liberal Democrat, just like Jefferson. Jackson was a sort of mix between populist right and populist left. They were all Populist Democrats who supported the left to a degree (especially Bryan did). These men are not of the same faction as Calhoun.

“The bank, Mr. Van Buren, is trying to kill me. But I will kill it.” – Andrew Jackson. When asked if the two term President had any last regrets, Jackson responded, “[That] I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.” (I.e. the nativist populist regretted not killing the southern and northern party leaders of the time, including his VP Calhoun). Likewise he [supposedly] said, “John Calhoun, if you secede from my nation, I will secede your head from the rest of your body.”

Racist Hiester Clymer campaign poster from 1866 “smearing” the eventual winner Union General John W. Geary. Geary was a Radical Republican, a socially liberal Northerner who probably wasn’t waving the Dixie battle flag if you know what I mean (unlike Clymer who was a conservative Reconstruction Democrat… which is to the radical socially conservative right of most factions in American history).

TIP: As recently as the Clinton and Carter years you could still see solid support in the South for some Democrats (where we even see things like Dixie flag pins to support Clinton; the Clintons didn’t make them, but they exist according to the pictures below). Assuming these are real, it makes sense when you consider Clinton and Carter are actual southerners, like LBJ or other progressives southerners who didn’t sign the Southern Manifesto like Gore’s dad. This is different than say Reagan, Bush, and Trump who are all from the North. People call the move toward a southern identity by the Republican party “the southernization of the Republican party.” Remember, the South as a people didn’t switch, the southern conservative party leadership and their voter base switched.

A General Summary of the Party Switching and Party Systems

Above I offered summaries in the for of bullet  pointed lists. Below I’ll try to weave everything together into a story to offer another perspective:

As America became increasingly progressive over time, from 1776 forward, different socially conservative and socially liberal movements banded together to create the parties of each of the 6-7 Party Systems (becoming increasingly divided by left and right and not stances on government as they originally were).

This caused different social-minded factions to align with different business-minded factions over time (in a Big Tent coalition of factions all generally for or against Progressive Modernization), and this changed the parties (in terms of some, not all, ideology, members, and platforms).

Oddly enough, this resulted in the previously Small Government Populist Democratic Party becoming the party of Big Government, Neoliberalism, Progressivism, Globalization, and Social Liberalism, and the previously Big Government Aristocratic party Republican Party becoming the party of Small Government (rhetorically), Nativism, and Social Conservatism. Oddly again, despite the changes the Republicans have always been Protectionist, Nationalist, and Stricter on immigration (although how that translated to policy changed as the party became more “socially conservative” over time). On that note, it is very important to understand that immigration changed the Democratic Party as they embraced new non-Anglo Protestant immigrants over time.

The tricky thing to grasp is that some conservatives want to conserve back to a time that they feel they had more freedom (more liberal liberty) and that progressive social liberalism requires Big Government to implement.

The best proof of this is looking at the voter map. See: a map of Historical Presidential Elections. In the story above specific changes are denoted by Party Systems, but even that classification fails to truly illustrate the complexity of all the changes.

 

TIP: At this point you can, with the images and summary above in mind, probably get away with just watching the following two videos. These VOX videos don’t say everything I want to say, and they aren’t fully centered, but they are notably fairly accurate and not overly bias.

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