An Outsider’s View—12-The ideological metamorphosis of Republicans and Democrats
Posted on January 1st, 2012

By Shelton A. Gunaratne-Professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead

By the mid-19th century, the controversy over slavery and the rights of slave owners had split the Democratic Party into Northern and Southern factions and given rise to a third party (Constitutional Unity, comprising former Southern Whigs and Know Nothings), each of which put forth candidates to contest the crucial 1860 presidential election. This controversy became the focal point of the campaign. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president of the United States (1861-1865), won the election with outright majorities in enough of the free states and an Electoral College vote of 169-134 even though 60 percent of voters had opposed him nationally.

The voting pattern that pushed Lincoln into the presidency in 1860 clearly reflected the stark division of the United States into the Republican-dominated North and the Democratic-dominated South. The 11 slave states that eventually formed the Confederate States of America (“the Confederacy”) after declaring independence from the other 25 states that constituted “the Union” gave Lincoln a mere 1.1 percent of the popular vote cast in Virginia.  The four slave states that did not secede””‚Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware””‚relegated Lincoln to the fourth place except Delaware (where he finished third). Within the 15 slave states, Lincoln won only two counties out of 996.

The American Civil War (1861-1865) started in response to the election of Lincoln, whom we now recognize as one of the three greatest presidents of the United States. Lincoln successfully led his nation through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis “”…” the American Civil War “”…” preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and promoting economic and financial modernization. Wikipedia continues:

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of 1863 was an iconic statement of America’s dedication to the principles of nationalism, equal rights, liberty and democracy. At the close of the war, Lincoln held a moderate view of Reconstruction, seeking to speedily reunite the nation through a policy of generous reconciliation in the face of lingering and bitter divisiveness. However, just six days after the surrender of Confederate commanding general Robert E. Lee, Lincoln was assassinated by actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre while watching the play “Our American Cousin.”

Readers may infer from the preceding sketch of highlights that Lincoln was the quintessential Republican of his era. As the commander-in-chief of “the Union” forces, Lincoln crushed his misguided fellow colonists in the South with supreme finesse. He was a modernizer, not a troglodyte marching backward to seek refuge in prevarications. He broadened equality and rights for African Americans; and he outlawed discrimination on account of color. He stood in utter contrast to today’s bigoted Republicans, who more or less resemble the Southern Democrats of “the Confederate” era.

It is noteworthy that unlike today Republicans and Democrats in the Lincoln era saw eye to eye on some issues in light of the fact that both parties embraced a touch of Jeffersonian-Madisonian principles. Thus, the War Democrats rejected the Copperheads/ Peace Democrats who controlled the party, and worked with Lincoln to take a more aggressive stance toward the Confederacy and support Republican policies.

Just as President Quincy Adams (1826-1829) had forecast, Lincoln had to use his war powers to enforce his Emancipation Proclamation issued on Jan. 1, 1863. It did not declare slavery an offence or attempt to compensate the slave owners. However, the proclamation immediately freed 50,000 freedmen (slaves) and assured the release of the balance 3.1 freedmen in the 10 states then in rebellion as the Union forces advanced.

A Century Later

The Republican Party continued to dominate the national scene during the 67-year period from the assassination of Lincoln to the end of Hoover’s presidency in 1932. Only two Democrats””‚Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897) and Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)””‚won the presidency over this period compared with 12 Republicans.

Hoover’s failure to combat the Great Depression following the 1929 Wall Street Crash, enabled his Democratic successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to found a New Deal coalition in 1933 that elevated the Democratic Party to be the nation’s dominant political force until 1968″”‚a period of 35 years that produced only one Republican president””‚Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961) compared with four Democrats.

Wikipedia asserts that the Republican Party had built its base on northern white Protestants, businessmen, professionals, factory workers, wealthier farmers and blacks. It had become pro-business, supporting banks, the gold standard, railroads and high tariffs to protect heavy industry and the industrial workers. Moreover, under presidents William McKinley (1897-1901) and Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), the GOP emphasized an expansive foreign policy.

Wikipedia elucidates that FDR’s New Deal Coalition included the Democratic state party organizations, city machines, labor unions and blue-collar workers, minorities (racial, ethnic and religious), farmers, white Southerners, people on relief, and intellectuals. This coalition covered the time of the African American civil rights movement (1955-1968) and much of the Vietnam War (1955-1975) protests. At the end, the New Deal coalition dissolved into factions after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Assassins gunned down three of the Democratic political leaders who championed civil rights in this period””‚President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

When the New Deal coalition collapsed, Republicans came back, winning five of the eight presidential elections from 1968 to 2008. The GOP relied increasingly on its new base in the white South, especially because of its new strength among evangelical Protestants. The key Republican leader in the late 20th century was Ronald Reagan, whose conservative pro-business policies for less government regulation, lower taxes, and an aggressive foreign policy still dominate the party.


The Republican Party of the 2000s has abandoned its role as the champion of civil rights and the do-gooder for the Native Americans, African Americans and the minorities. Unwittingly, the GOP has abandoned its “dedication to the principles of nationalism, equal rights, liberty and democracy“ and passed it on to the Democrats. Increasingly it has become the defender of troglodytic capitalism, both as an economic system and a socio-political system. It has stubbornly refused to raise taxes on the top 10 percent of wealthy Americans who own 90 percent of nation’s wealth on the grounds that taxation of the rich could impair the “trickle down” effect. It has become the rallying point for racial, political and religious bigots, euphemistically called conservatives or the tea party. Republicans have moved a few more notches to the right of center.

Meanwhile, the Democrats are still groping in the dark trying to revive a model similar to the New Deal coalition for its survival. Under President Obama, the Democrats have moved a notch or two to the left of center. They are trying out pragmatic fiscal and economic policies, which the Republican presidential candidates are won’t to disparage as “socialist.”

Finally, I believe that it is time to change the monikers of the two parties. Because both parties bear republican values (government run by representatives elected by the people), why should only the GOP be called Republican? Similarly, because both parties bear democratic values, why should only one party be called Democratic?   

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