November 11, 2004

Party Switch and the Real Conservatives

The Republicans and Democrats of 1850-1900 have not switched or transferred to today, as some Southern Republicans and Northern Democrats have tried to claim. The parties have the same basic character, direction and even constituency. Only a few groups have really migrated - black people to the Democrats in the 1910s (during Jim Crow, I should add) and 1930s, and some Dixiecrats moving to the Republicans in the 1970s and 1980s. The parties didn't change, except for some of their constituents. The basic framework is the same.

Moreover, although there's a great deal of evolution and advancement in political theory, capitalism is fundamentally liberal, progressive and fluid - uncontrolled. Socialism, romanticism, environmentalism and communism are largely a reaction against the unregulated and rapidly changing world of industrialization. They are the backlash against the Enlightenment.

"Several historians have recently suggested that many ante-bellum northerners were themselves disturbed by the increasing materialism and selfishness of their emergent capitalist society, and turned in admiration to the gentility and ease of the southern aristocracy. There is no question that some Republicans, particularly upper-class [B]conservatives, looked favorably upon the Southern character[/B]... but this is hardly to say that such fears were shared by the majority of northerners. The very word 'aristocracy,' the New York [I]Tribune [/I]observed, had 'rather a bad sound' to northerners, and one political observer claimed in 1856 that 'the aristocratic element of the slave power is the one that has made us a hundred votes, where the moral question has given us one.' [B]The Republicans saw no conflict between personal acquisitiveness and social progress--indeed, they assumed for the most part that the two were intimately related.[/B]" - Eric Foner, historian, expert on mid-1800s political history

"When [antebellum] Republicans spoke of their party's basic constituency, it was the successful middle-class Northerners they had in mind. Charles Francies Adams declared that the party was composed of 'the industrious farmers and mechanics, the independent men in comfortable circumstances in all the various walks of life,' while the Democrats drew their support from the very rich and 'the most degraded or the least intelligent of the population of the cities.' ... Although a great deal of work needs to be done before the social basis of the antebellum political parties can be established with precision, it is safe to say that the Republicans were weakest in the large cities and strong in the North's rural areas and small towns." - Foner

"All artisans and manufacturers [in England] are republicans - all their employees (speaking in general terms) are conservative. How like the United States." - William H. Seward, Republican

"[Southerners] are a set of cowards, full of gasconade, and bad liquor, brought up to abuse negroes and despise the north, too lazy to work; they are not above living on the unrewarded labor of others..." - antebellum Wisconsin voter to his Republican congressman


GOP 1850 - 1900
- party of the middle class
- big in rural areas, and sparse to medium density areas
- emphasized small business and farmers
- opposed to government entitlements
- troubled by union agitation and labor strikes
- believed labor and capital had the same interests
- espoused American Dream: with hard work, anyone can and would become rich
- believed in legal equality, but social respect had to be earned by each individual
- supportive of business
- many were quite religious
- bitterly opposed to socialism and communism
- very big on the Second Amendment right to bear arms

GOP today
- party of the middle class
- big in rural areas, and sparse to medium density areas
- emphasized small business and farmers
- critical of government entitlements
- proposes right-to-work laws against union opposition
- believe labor and capital have same interests
- espouse American Dream: with hard work, anyone can and will become rich
- believe in legal equality, but social respect has to be earned by each individual
- supportive of business
- many are quite religious
- bitterly opposed to socialism and communism
- very big on the Second Amendment right to bear arms


Dems 1850-1900
- party of the working class, poor and immigrants
- most successful in cities
- strove to oppose privilege of a wealthy few
- conflict between labor and capital
- attack industrial wage-slavery
- oppose allegedly rampant materialism and greed

Dems today
- party of the working class, poor and immigrants
- most successful in cities
- strive to oppose privilege of a wealthy few
- conflict between labor and capital
- attack industrial wage-slavery
- oppose allegedly rampant materialism and greed


It is poorly reasoned and vastly over-simplified to compare the free states of 1860 to the Kerry states of 2004, or the Bush states of 2004 to the slave states of 1860. One cannot look at two maps, one from each time (as an ABC correspondent recently did) and assume that Bush and the Republicans are closer to slavery than the Democrats. After all, a far more obvious and superficial comparison would be the party names - the Democrats bear the same name as when they were the party of Jim Crow and slavery. Just as it's horribly shallow to simply transfer the name from each time and make a complete comparison on that basis, so is it inexcusably superficial to make the same conclusion based solely on maps.

The Democratic Party is not the closer heir of classical liberalism; it is closer to the reaction and backlash against industrialization and the Enlightenment. The Republican Party is more appropriately the heir of American classical liberalism, as it embraces the political, legal and economic views of the Radical Republicans much more thoroughly. That is how it was then, that is how it is now.

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