Political parties are by their nature identified with specific ideologies. It is interesting to note that the current broad ideologies of the democratic and Republican parties are in many ways the opposite of the ones espoused at their origin. In my first draft of this Chapter, I tried to avoid the politically delicate (or politically incorrect) subject of the racial divide in America, but it is impossible to understand the institutional evolution of the us party system without addressing the fundamental impact, since the creation of the us and still today, of the politics of race.
Although Thomas Jefferson, the ideological founder of the party that in due course became the democratic party, was the principle author of the declaration of independence who coined the phrase “all men are created equal” and he is idealized as one of the leading founders of us democracy, he was also a slave-owning southern planter who strongly defended the institution of slavery, as well as states’ rights and a small federal government.
The Democratic party remained pro-slavery, and as the us expanded Westward during the first half of the 19th Century, political tensions rose dramatically over the acceptance or not of slavery in the new territories, leading to the civil war in 1861-1865, a chapter in American history the importance of which cannot be overstated and the echoes of which are still very much present today.
The Republican party has its origins in the northern anti-slavery movement in the middle of the 19th century, and began a period of nearly 80 years of relative national dominance with the election of Abraham lincoln in 1860 on a strongly anti-slavery platform, defending the vision of a union with a big government agenda.
“Reconstruction”, the turbulent decade after the civil war when the country reintegrated the defeated southern states and dealt with 4 million newly-freed slaves, might have evolved differently had Lincoln not been assassinated at the end of the civil war, but the country’s leadership fell into the hands of his successor, Andrew Johnson. he believed strongly in states’ rights and decided to leave to southern
states how they were to rebuild rather than imposing federal rule. nevertheless, during more than a decade, Reconstruction in the south became a large-scale experiment in truly interracial democracy. more than 1,500 southern African-Americans under the Republican banner won election to local, state and federal office, including 16 to the us congress. But white supremacy gradually reasserted its hold on the South, and Reconstruction officially ended in 1876 when the Republican Rutherford B. hayes acknowledged previously pro- slavery democratic party control of the entire south in exchange for their certifying his election. the democratic party actively promoted “Jim crow laws” that legalized racial segregation and denied equal opportunity to African Americans and governed race relations in the south for nearly a century, during which time the democrats remained the dominant party in the south, balancing the relative strength of the Republican party in the north. the system worked partially because, on certain issues, southern democrats aligned in congress with conservative Republicans, whereas moderate Republicans voted with progressive democrats.
the other dominant theme in the ideological realignment of the two parties is the economic role of government, exemplified by Democratic president franklin d. Roosevelt’s new deal promoting, to combat the 1930s depression, an active role of the federal government in putting into place liberal economic policies and supporting labor in economic and social matters – Roosevelt created social security, the 40-hour work week, a minimum wage and benefits for the unemployed – policies which remain at the core of the current democratic party agenda, many of which have been strongly opposed by the Republican party.
the regional dominance of the democratic party in the southern us ended when democratic president lyndon Johnson in the 1960s forcefully promulgated the great society and the civil rights agenda already promised by Kennedy, including Affirmative Action (policies forcibly increasing opportunities to the African-American community), a courageous act as he knew full well it would lead to losing the support of the southern states for his party. the very night after signing the landmark civil Rights Act in 1964, Johnson correctly
predicted: “i think we just delivered the south to the Republican party for a long time to come.” The South is today firmly in the Republican camp.
in contrast to the democrats, the Republican party has consistently been more market-oriented party, and in recent history is known for its support of free market capitalism, of small government, lower taxes and minimal government welfare programs as well as conservative social policies. Republican president Ronald Reagan formulated this stance in response to an economic recession with his famous “in this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
the Republican party today is strongest in the south, great plains and western states, among older, white voters, with particular strength in the rural electorate as well as with evangelical Christians. in contrast to its southern initial base, the democratic party is today strong in the Northeast and Pacific Coast of the US. It tends to be favored by African-Americans and Latinos and is heavily concentrated in urban centers, among younger, better educated, more diverse and more liberal on social issues voters than the overall electorate.