I used this question as an opportunity to bring up the infamous Twitter debates between the Dinesh D’Souza, Candace Owens, and Charlie Kirk crowd, and the overwhelming majority of scholarly academic historians who stand opposed to them. I wanted to do this because we may have students who don’t have a particularly strong grasp on today’s politics and who may be voting soon; who look at this “debate,” if you want to call it that, and don’t know who to believe, particularly if (heaven forbid) they are immersed in a Fox News and Rush Limbaugh media environment.
The verdict is in. It was never really a debate at all. My position aligns with the view of scholars who argue that today’s Republicans are philosophically and ideologically much closer to—but not exactly the same as—early and late-19th century Democrats and that today’s Democrats are much closer to Lincoln Republicans.
But how do we know this? During the second or third year of my doctoral program at UCSB I attended a workshop and the theme of historical thinking came up. Having done graduate work for a few years (I also had a terminal master’s degree at that point), I was a bit embarrassed to raise my hand and say that I was not sure what it meant to think like a historian. But I’ve always been of the belief that you’re never going to learn something unless you have the courage to ask what might be considered a stupid question in front of others. I want my students to think this way. Harold Marcuse, grandson of the world-famous German philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, chimed in that any historian should be able to answer the question, “how do we know this?” I was a TA once for Beth Depalma-Digeser’s ancient history class. As I thought about this more, any reputable scholar should be able to do this. A biologist should be able to explain how we know that evolution is true; a climatologist or glaciologist should explain why we know humans are the dominant cause of climate change; and a doctor should be able to explain why vaccines do not cause autism.
So why is the Democratic Party of the 1830s so different from today’s Democratic Party? Aside from the fact that the issues themselves change—we’re not debating the legality of a national Bank, whether we should remove Cherokees from the land of their ancestors, or whether federal funding for internal improvements is consistent with a strict reading of the Constitution—I will point to the older group of political scientists and historians who have pointed to the 5-6 or “change elections” in which the electoral map shifts in discernible ways. 1932, 1896, 1980, and 1860 are often included in this discussion. So if there have indeed been 5-6 change elections then there is no way that today’s Democrats would have that much in common with the Jacksonians.
But this is not all. We can also look at ideology and voting blocs. Lincoln Republicans were much more philosophically disposed to embracing the power of the federal government to promote civil rights for African Americans, environmental protections, and economic development whereas 19th century Democrats, with their emphasis on states’ rights, limited government, and racial animus toward African Americans as expressed in morally indefensible poll taxes and literacy tests, sound much closer to today’s Republicans.
Another way to come at this issue is to examine voting blocs. In the 19th century, white southerners were more likely to be Democrats. Today most of them are Republicans. Similarly, African Americans voted heavily Republican in the late-19th and early-20th centuries but gradually became Democrats throughout the mid-20th century as a response to the New Deal and Civil Rights Movement. The two shifts are inseparable: as soon as the Democrats of FDR and LBJ began to embrace modern liberalism and the welfare state, African Americans gravitated toward them while Republicans found political success in appealing to racial resentment among white southerners—a tactic they have kept alive with Trump.
Historians have known about this for a long time. This concept has permeated textbooks for many years. D’Souza, Owens, and Kirk not only ignore a ton of history, but the few examples they do cite are most often out of context, anecdotal, and misleading. They’re so off base and absurd that their arguments are almost beneath the dignity of those who have pursued history as a professional calling. But the problem is that their zombie lies are propagated by powerful corporate interests who benefit from anti-intellectualism and distracting the American public from having a basic knowledge of history. In that sense we all have an obligation to stand up for professional standards and evidence-based arguments. If you want more information, consult Heather Cox Richardson, Lawrence Glickman, and the three Kevins—Kevin Kruse, Kevin Levin, and Kevin Gannon.