There is a fairly robust body of evidence that supports this position, which can be divided up into the following categories:
⚬ Environmental Protection
⚬ Electoral Maps
⚬ Voting Blocs
⚬ Political Ideology
⚬ Civil Rights
⚬ Voting Rights
⚬ White Nationalism
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani once claimed in front of a crowd at the Republican National Convention that today’s GOP is the party of Teddy Roosevelt. Although it is true that Roosevelt was a Republican, Giuliani’s statement is misleading and demonstrates historical illiteracy on a very fundamental point. It may be that the ex-mayor was trying in vain to link today's GOP with a popular president whose visage appears on Mount Rushmore. TR helped create national parks out of his deep appreciation for the environment and placed 230 million acres of land under public protection. The modern GOP, however, has a fairly consistent track record of hostility toward environmental protection. It favors deregulation of polluters. It has rapaciously guarded the short-termism and outmoded business model of the fossil fuel industry by appointing climate deniers to public positions and by deliberately manufacturing doubt and uncertainty about the harmful consequences of human-caused climate change. Merchants of Doubt, the award-winning book on the history of climate denialism written by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, is the authoritative text on this topic. The two authors show that conservative and libertarian think tanks like the Cato Institute and American Enterprise Institute, reinforced by the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, recapitulated the arguments of tobacco companies when it came to climate denialism. For all their concerns about freedom, opportunity, and the rights of the unborn, Republicans never seem to consider that future generations may also want the same freedoms and opportunities that can only be achieved by a more long-term, sustainable capitalism.
Judges appointed by Republican presidents sided with Exxon-Mobil over the Alaska fishermen who were victimized by the company’s infamous oil spill in 1988, forcing the company to pay out only a fraction of its initial damages. And while some Republicans today might find in TR a kindred spirit when it came to his masculinity and imperialism/jingoism, the “Trust Buster” ordered his Justice Department to break up monopolies, brought workers and managers together to settle a labor strike, fought for legislation that regulated the meatpacking and railroad industries, and argued for universal health insurance and a higher minimum wage—all of them anathema to the free market absolutists and plutocrats who run today’s Republican Party.
There are a number of advantages to looking at county-level maps, which are conveniently available on Wikipedia, rather than the state-level maps that are commonly shown in textbooks and news reports. The former allow you to examine voting trends in greater detail compared to what would be possible in the latter. If you know that a certain section of counties in Alabama is shaded dark blue, and you also know that these counties have large majorities of African American residents, then you can conclude that African Americans were voting for Democrats in large numbers in these counties (this band or belt in Alabama is apparent in every presidential election since 1984). One limitation of state-level electoral maps is that the winner-take-all system prevents the viewer from seeing if a candidate won a state by a landslide or slim majority.
The South is an ideal region to highlight because it best represents the dramatic party switch that has occurred since the mid-20th century. It is also one of the best regions to show how race reliably predicts voter behavior. Read the series of maps from left to right and you can see long-term trends over 20 years, which smooths out freakish or exceptional cases like Watergate or the presence of a third-party candidate that attracts a large number of votes. Read it up and down and you can see the change in voter behavior over shorter, four-year periods.
My Main Observations of the Maps:
* in 1944 there was de facto one-party rule with the small exception of a few counties in the Appalachian regions of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. African Americans were not voting in large numbers due to the Jim Crow system so the Democratic Party maintained a virtual monopoly that we commonly refer to as the “Solid South,” which stretched back to roughly 1900 or even before.
* in 1948 and 1968, third-party candidates won electoral votes in the South.
* The long-term trajectory is clear: the white South moved toward the GOP while African Americans, whose turnout rates accelerated after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, moved toward Democrats. The most abrupt shift seems to have occurred between 1960 and 1964. In 1960, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy and Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson captured most of the South. Four years later, Barry Goldwater won several states in the Deep South by capitalizing on the white South’s resistance to the Civil Rights Act, which LBJ had signed into law. Nixon followed up on Goldwater’s anti-civil rights agenda with the “Southern Strategy,” which he continued with great success by winning reelection in 1972 in a landslide against a weak Democratic opponent, George McGovern.
* Four elections interrupted the long-term trajectory: 1976, 1980, 1992, and 1996. In each case, a southerner ran for the Democrats at the top of the ticket—Jimmy Carter was from Georgia and Bill Clinton was an Arkansas native. These elections show that the party switch did not happen overnight but played out over the long-term. They also suggest that from the 1970s to 1990s, the party switch was still in flux and that a Democrat could win southern votes if he was both a "favorite son" and politically moderate. It should be noted that 1976 was a somewhat unique election in that a president had recently resigned under the Watergate scandal.
* There has been quite a bit of continuity in the regional voting patterns between 2000 and 2016 with the exception that after 2000, there is: 1) an increasing urban-rural split between the parties and 2) the movement of Appalachia toward the GOP, which was not apparent in the 1970s and 80s. Indeed, this second example shows the need for considering trends over the long-term. It took many decades for the white South to turn fully Republican. The transformation happened first in the Deep South and then later in Appalachia (see below).
Most white southerners at this time were staunch Democrats, continuing a trend that went back to the antebellum era. The problem for Democrats was that Republicans were making gains in the North and West. To stay competitive in national elections, they had to lock up the South and hope to pick off a few northern states like New York. And to do this, they had to curtail black voting.
When Did the Party Switch Start?
White southerners began to express dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party as early as the 1930s. Because the Democratic Party had a predominantly southern orientation at this time, southern congressmen controlled the all-important committee chairmanships in the House and Senate. As a condition for supporting the New Deal’s sweeping expansion of governmental intervention in the economy at the federal level, these men often insisted on the maintenance of Jim Crow. Opposition to federal anti-lynching laws, redlining involving the New Deal program known as the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), and the exclusion of domestic and agricultural workers (many of whom were African American) from social security were prominent examples of this phenomenon. Textbooks often describe this trend as a “southern veto” and indeed, the alliance of conservative white southern Democrats and Republicans stymied some of the more radical features of the New Deal and contributed to Congress passing the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act over Truman’s veto.
What needs to be emphasized, again at the risk of sounding repetitive, is that the party switch took a long time to fully materialize. It tended to ebb and flow. The long-term nature of the party switch is something that critics of Response #2 do not take into account. In 1948, Dixiecrats bolted the party but many returned for the next few elections. The 1968 election saw many southern Democrats support George Wallace and Richard Nixon won over many former Democrats in his 1972 trouncing of George McGovern, but the post-Watergate midterm elections in 1974 brought many southern Democrats back to Congress who would remain there until 1994.
Where does that leave us today? Trump won the South (as in 11 ex-Confederate states) by 8.4% points at popular vote in 2016, in large part because of his enthusiastic support among white southerners. Clinton won the non-South by 8.69% points at the popular vote. The reason this resulted in a 2.1% popular vote advantage for Clinton at the national level is because the non-South is more populous than the South.
White suburbanites and whites without a college degree, especially in rural parts of the South and midwestern Rustbelt, drove Trump to victory. The men and women who make up this group were still the largest voting bloc in the United States as of 2012 and they are overrepresented in the Midwestern states that Trump narrowly won to secure an electoral college majority.
African Americans, meanwhile, stayed loyal to the GOP in 1932, but shifted in massive numbers to FDR in 1936. About 76% of northern blacks voted for FDR’s shellacking of Alf Landon in 1936.
You wouldn’t gather this from casually watching cable news shows, which often delight in the false objectivity of pitting a black Republican against a black Democrat in a split-screen debate format and giving them equal time to hash it out, but Democratic candidates consistently garner 80-90% of the black vote, making African American voters the most loyal and one-sided demographic group of all in the United States. In Doug Jones’s victory over Roy Moore in the special election for Alabama’s open Senate seat in 2017, Jones, the Democrat, won about 97% of the vote from black women.
Here are some other relevant facts: In the current Congress, there are 54 Democratic House members who are African American. Only 1, Will Hurd, is a Republican, and he is retiring. The ethnic composition of the House GOP is comprised almost entirely of white men while two-thirds of the Democratic majority are not.
In a nutshell, the New Deal and Civil Rights Movement. Both empowered the federal government to provide economic security and civil rights in ways that liberals applauded and conservatives rejected. And in the South, party identification is a proxy for race so that a good many of the liberals are African Americans while the conservatives are mostly white.
During the era of Reconstruction it was a Republican president and his allies in Congress that destroyed the pro-slavery Confederacy, passed the Civil Rights Act that overturned the Black Codes, and enacted the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments that abolished slavery, guaranteed due process, equal rights, and birthright citizenship, and ensured the franchise for male ex-slaves, respectively. Accordingly, blacks voted Republican for many decades. By the 1960s, however, it was a Democratic president and his congressional allies that passed the most sweeping civil rights bill since Reconstruction (yes, there were liberal, northern Republicans who helped pass this bill and conservative, southern Democrats who opposed it as we will discuss in the next post). Between the 1930s and 1960s, the Democratic Party gradually replaced the Republican Party as the more liberal party. And empowering the federal government to protect civil rights was, and is, a key characteristic of what it means to be a liberal.
So momentous was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination on account of race in public facilities, that African American turnout for the Democratic presidential nominee increased from about 68% in 1960 to 94% in 1964. This record black turnout for Democrats would not be topped until over forty-four years later, when the first African American nominee of a major political party, Barack Obama, defeated Republican John McCain in 2008 (see below).
This transition can be demonstrated by looking at the evolution of the Republican Party Platform. For the 1960 election, the party put out a detailed section on civil rights. In 1964, this was reduced to a few a few lines. By 1968, Richard Nixon began to implement the “Southern Strategy” and accordingly, the 1968 platform contained no mention of civil rights.
Then in the 1980s, members of Congress had to vote on whether they would dedicate a federal holiday to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As of 2017, there were still members serving in Congress who had voted to accept or reject the proposal. Every single member of Congress who voted “no” was a Republican. They were:
- Richard Shelby (R-AL)
- Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
- John McCain (R-AZ)
- Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
- Johnny Isakson (R-GA)
- Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI)
- Hal Rogers (R-KY)
- John Culberson (R-TX)
- Steve Scalise (R-LA)
The long-term historical trend suggests that white southerners and African Americans vote in oppositional ways—the former, mostly conservative and wanting to limit the federal government with the latter wishing to empower the federal government to protect civil rights for minorities. Questions over “big” and “small” government (and those are very imprecise and context-specific terms) in the U.S. context are almost always interwoven with questions of race, social justice, and economic inequality. There is even some recent research that indicates that whites today who live in the parts of the South that used to be the largest slaveholding counties (the Black Belt) are more likely to oppose affirmative action, vote Republican, harbor racial resentment, and hold negative views of blacks. All of these trends, the authors conclude, point to the historical legacy of slavery and how racial attitudes get passed down over the generations.
Voter Suppression and Voting Rights
We can tell that the parties have switched since the early-20th century because the Democratic Party, unlike its Jim Crow antecedent, now supports federal protection of voting rights. The Shelby County Supreme Court decision, on the other hand, shows us that judges appointed by Republicans are willing to weaken the Voting Rights Act (VRA). In fact, Chief Justice John Roberts, while serving in the Reagan Justice Department, wrote a series of memos criticizing the VRA. The Republican hostility to safeguarding the franchise for African Americans was on full display in the Florida 2000 fiasco, which I wrote about at length. Florida’s history of mass incarceration, long voting lines on Election Day, and voter purges have a disproportionately negative impact on African American voters and may well have given Bush the presidency.
At the national level, racially discriminatory voter ID laws, enacted almost exclusively by Republicans, and virtually non-existent before 2006, are signs that Republicans have given up on persuasion and instead have resorted to a more watered down version of what late-19th century southern Democrats did. Voter ID laws and mass incarceration lend credence to what author Michelle Alexander has dubbed “the New Jim Crow.”
Lincoln Republicans, much more than Democrats at the time, were comfortable embracing the power of the federal government to promote civil rights for African Americans, environmental protections, and economic development. This put them in the Hamiltonian tradition. They raised an army to defeat the South, created a system of land-grant colleges, implemented some of the nation’s first income taxes, raised tariff rates, financed the transcontinental railroads, and chartered a system of federal banks. Those who see FDR’s New Deal as a radical and dangerous experiment in governmental interference in the economy might very well see a commonality in Lincoln’s Republicans, which is to say that Democrats from about 1830 to 1930 behaved like Jeffersonians.
A few years ago, the modern-day Democratic Party officially stopped using a name they had long used to mark a major fundraising event: the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. The move may have been purely symbolic but it also completed a decades long transition from the party of states’ rights to the party of civil rights. A party that currently celebrates diversity and inclusion saw little to venerate or replicate in two presidents in the early republic who owned slaves and did much to fortify slave interests. Indeed, the politicians most likely to celebrate Jefferson and Jackson would be Republicans and libertarians, not Democrats.
Readers who are still unconvinced of the commonality between modern-day Republicans and late-19th century Democrats may wish to consider which of the two main parties maintains a closer relationship with the Ku Klux Klan? Recall that the Klan, a domestic terrorist organization and military arm of the Democratic Party, murdered dozens, if not hundreds, of African Americans during the period of Reconstruction.
In 1991, David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the KKK, ran for governor of Louisiana as a Republican. He had previously been a Democrat. Duke and a KKK leader in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the old Confederacy, supported Trump for the 2016 election. Although Trump cravenly denied knowing Duke in a television interview, it is undeniable that Trump has unleashed a torrent of toxic white nationalism.
The full list of Trump’s racist comments and actions are too numerous to mention, but here are a few:
* Trump peddled the false birther conspiracy shortly before running for president
* He said this of Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing crime, they’re rapists....”
* He derided countries in Africa as “shithole countries”
* He had difficulty condemning neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates in Charlottesville, Virginia
* He implemented a travel ban (otherwise known as a Muslim ban) that was struck down several times as unconstitutional before a watered-down version took effect
* He believed that Judge Curiel could not rule with impartiality because of his Latino heritage.
* Many of Trump’s supporters wave the Confederate flag
* He has expressed a desire to remove birthright citizenship, a crucial part of the 14th Amendment that mid-19th century Republicans helped enact.
* Many of his supporters oppose the removal of Confederate statues and embrace a Lost Cause mythology regarding the importance of slavery in explaining the American Civil War
* According to one poll conducted in early-2016, 38% of South Carolina Trump supporters wish the South would have won the Civil War
* Before losing in court, the Trump administration planned to place a citizenship question on the decennial federal census, ostensibly to enforce the VRA, but in reality to weaken the political representation of non-white parts of the country.
* He told four members of Congress--all of them women of color and all of them American citizens--to go back to the "crime infested" countries from which they came.
* Manisha Sinha, "It Feels Like the Fall of Reconstruction," Huffington Post, November 22, 2016: "As a historian, I see uncanny and unsettling parallels between [Trump's election and] what happened with the overthrow of Reconstruction, America’s startling experiment in interracial democracy after the Civil War....The Ku Klux Klan, which endorsed Trump, led by the former Confederate general and slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest and other white vigilante groups unleashed a campaign of mass terror overthrowing black voting and Reconstruction state governments in the south. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, has built a career opposing civil rights and his middle name echoes that of the Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard....Donald Trump’s election, coming at the heels of the historic election of Barack Obama, is the second redemption of the white man’s democracy....The party of Lincoln that appealed to 'the better angels of our nature' is now the party of Trump, which appeals to its worst devils." In an article written for History News Network, Sinha wrote: "The GOP, however, has so completely shed its origins that today, as historians and political commentators have long noted, its stronghold lies in the former Confederacy, states that would also staunchly oppose civil and voting rights for African Americans in the twentieth century."
* Kevin Kruse, Personal Tweet, April 9, 2019, 1:24 PM, "You can take the Nixon archives, the word of GOP strategists and RNC chairmen, party switches by politicians and region, the GOP platforms, polling data, and all the rest. Or you can handwave all of it away and call the Southern Strategy a 'myth' because of a 'Prager U' video."
* Heather Cox Richardson, "A Political Historian Explains Why Republicans' Extreme Shift to the Right Could Backfire," Quartz, November 14, 2016: "The party of Abraham Lincoln once embraced equality and opportunity for all. Now Republican president-elect Donald Trump appears poised to take the netherworld of alt-right white nationalism mainstream....Today’s party would be unrecognizable to the Republican party of the 1850s, which was formed in an effort to guarantee that all hardworking Americans would have equal opportunities."
How to Reconcile Response #1 and #2
Readers may wonder how I can write one post explaining the reasons why we should not compare the Jacksonian Democrats to today’s Democrats and yet at the same time outline the case for the party switch. Aside from the fact that part of my intent in this series is to lay out the facts and merits for each position, regardless of whether I personally agree with all of them, there is also the difference between a specific and broad understanding of how political ideology evolves over time. The Trump-Jackson comparison is unhelpful for many reasons, but one of them is that it ignores or downplays many of the specific differences between the 1830s and today. The claim that modern-day Democrats are close to—but not exactly the same as—mid-19th century Republicans is based on a broad understanding of which party favors governmental assistance to civil rights, the environment, and economic development, which is akin to the way some might plausibly say that Democrats today are Hamiltonian while the current GOP is Jeffersonian in character. Besides, the Trump-Jackson analogy involved a comparison of two individuals whereas the narrative of the party switch entails long-term trends involving voting blocs, political philosophy, and electoral performance over multiple elections.
For the next post we will consider a third possible way of responding to the student's question about party realignment.