US political party history in a tiny nutshell

Mar 2013
15
England
I'm not an expert on this and this is inevitably painting in VERY broad brush strokes, but here is my nutshell interpretation of the history of the two main political streams in the USA.



FROM AMERICAN REVOLUTION UNTIL 1933
The two main political streams were

(1) Federalists and their successors, the Whigs and then Republicans (we could perhaps refer to this as Hamiltonian)

and

(2) Anti-Federalists and their successors, the Democratic-Republicans and the Democrats (we could perhaps refer to this as Jeffersonian)

In this phase, the two streams were both, broadly speaking, classical liberals. In a European context (especially continental European; Britain does have a strong centrist tradition), this would have made them both centrist, with neither stream being either right-wing reactionary (monarchist/aristocratic/feudal) or left-wing revolutionary (socialist/Marxist/anarchist).

However, I think they emphasised different ASPECTS of classical liberalism. I think the Federalists/Whigs/Republicans emphasised the capitalist elements of classical liberalism (which they saw as entailing protectionism and economic nationalism). I think the Anti-Federalists/Democratic-Republicans/Democrats emphasised the small central government, "power to the common man" elements of classical liberalism.

Hence we get the fact which seems strange today that the Republicans used to be both more pro-big government and more pro-business.

The South became overwhelmingly Democratic after the Civil War, but less for wanting to emphasise the "power to the common man" elements of classical liberalism than because of wanting to oppose the legacy of the Union, the central government, the Republican Party and Lincoln. It was hatred of Lincoln, and need for states' rights, that kept them Democratic-segregationist.



FROM 1933 TO PRESENT
What happened in the 1930s to transform things was that Franklin Roosevelt transformed the Democrats into a welfare-statist, social democratic party. For the first time, it becomes clearly possible to place one party to the left of the other on the political spectrum. After the New Deal, the Democrats are clearly to the left of the Republicans.

A precursor to the New Deal for the Democrats would perhaps be William Jennings Bryan at the turn of the 20th century, who was, in my understanding, supportive of economic redistribution in favour of poor farmers and whatnot. Beginning to take Jeffersonianism at its spirit rather than its letter.

So from this point, the Republicans stay pro-business but also, in response to the New Deal, adopt the traditionally Jeffersonian/Democratic mantras of states' rights and small central government.

As for what happens in the South: It stays Democratic until the 1960s, at which point the Democrats, being now a more leftish party voted for by progressives and blacks, push through civil rights, whereas Goldwater votes against them and then the Republicans adopt the Southern strategy. Then, later, the Republicans become the party of the religious right, which further increases their support in the South.



I think a 20th century political scientist called Louis Hartz would probably have agreed with some of what I said above, I can't be bothered to find links to what he said but I may do at some later point.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,621
Dispargum
I generally agree with the above. I wouldn't draw too many links between the modern Republican Party and the Federalists. They stood for different things at different times and their constituents wanted different things at different times. It's an unfortunate coincidence that two American parties called themselves Republicans. Jefferson's Democratic Republicans dropped the 'Republicans' by the time of Jackson and have been called Democrats ever since. The modern Republican Party was only founded in 1854 - long after Jefferson's party stopped calling themselves Republicans.

The Federalists do have at least one thing in common with the modern Republican Party in that both represented the business interests of the country. However, circa 1800, America's business interests wanted a larger, more activist government that would implement protectionist policies. In the 20th century those same business interests came to favor deregulation and free markets so the Republican Party changed its platform to suit the new needs and interests of their constituents.

The Federalists were a very successful party that quickly implemented its agenda - for instance a national bank that fostered a strong, stable currency. After 1800, the Federalists no longer had a mission and never developed a new agenda or platform. They never again won a popular vote for president and by 1830 the Federalist Party was dead.

The Whig Party was founded in the 1830s primarily to oppose the Democrats and Andrew Jackson. Their main issue was the tarrif (they wanted a high tariff to protect commerce and industry). About this time the Democratic Party strengthened its alliance with the slave power. The major exception was sugar planters like Zachary Taylor. American sugar was in competition with Cuban sugar so sugar planters tended to be Whigs because they favored a high tariff.

By the mid 19th century, the tariff was receding as the main issue to be replaced by the debate over slavery. There was no need for two parties that represented the slave power, so the Whig Party basically rolled over and died in the 1850s. Several new parties (Free Soil, American Party (Know Nothings)) emerged to eventually be absorbed into the Republicans who also included a lot of former Whigs like Abraham Lincoln. The Republicans were initially an anti-slavery party but quickly took up the cause of protectionist tariffs. During the Civil War bonds were formed between the Republican Party and defense contractors. Republicans also supported building a transcontinental railroad, so again, big business and the Republican Party found each other.

The South was a long time forgiving the Republican Party for the Civil War and Reconstruction. After the Civil War most African Americans voted for the Party of Lincoln. White Southerners became increasingly loyal to the Democrats.

In 1896, William Jennings Bryan in his "Cross of Gold" speech allied the Democratic Party to rural interests and opposed to the financial interests in the Republican Party. Bryan attacked the Gold Standard linking the value of the dollar to the global price of gold. Urban workers, hoping for a trickle down effect, usually voted Republican. After women got the vote, they usually voted Republican. The Democrats won only four presidential elections between 1860 and 1932 partly because the North blamed them for the Civil War. Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat in the Bryan tradition, created the Federal Reserve System in 1913

In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt convinced several traditionally Republican constituencies to switch to the Democrats. Most of these groups have voted Democrat ever since: Women, blacks, and labor. The catalyst was the Great Depression and the perception that the Republicans were doing too little to fix the economy. The Democrats therefore dominated American politics in the mid-20th century.

Democratic support for the civil rights movement finally convinced many white Southerners to forgive the Republican Party for the Civil War. Also, many Northerners were migrating to the South and many of these Northerners were Republicans. As the Democratic Party became increasingly focused on urban issues (labor, minorities, women) rural interests defected from the party of Bryan to the party of Reagan. With the decline of labor unions, many white urban workers also left the Democrats for the Republicans. The decline of urban populations and the rise of suburbs also strengthened the Republicans and weakened the Democrats. Rising education levels have helped the Democrats as college graduates are more likely to vote Democratic while non-college graduates are more likely to vote Republican.
 
Jan 2019
52
US
Your post summarizes many of the impressions I've had about political parties in the US, except for the description of both the Federalists and early Republicans as centrist. As I understood them, many of the Federalist leaders (Hamilton and Adams especially) had strong right leanings towards aristocratic and monarchistic forms of government. Likewise, Jefferson's political philosophy contained what could be interpreted as socialistic ideas according to some accounts, although that label can't really be used in the context of the era. Jefferson's idealistic philosophy was tempered and grounded by the more moderate Madison, though (Jefferson and Madison, Koch), so a lot of that doesn't come out in practice, plus his policies during the Republican Ascendancy evolved more towards an endorsement of executive power and larger government (a move that angered many Republicans). The founders of both parties seem, to me, like radicals on different ends of the political spectrum, in their principles if not their policies.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,621
Dispargum
...Likewise, Jefferson's political philosophy contained what could be interpreted as socialistic ideas according to some accounts, although that label can't really be used in the context of the era. Jefferson's idealistic philosophy was tempered and grounded by the more moderate Madison, though (Jefferson and Madison, Koch), so a lot of that doesn't come out in practice, plus his policies during the Republican Ascendancy evolved more towards an endorsement of executive power and larger government (a move that angered many Republicans)...
Care to elaborate on Jefferson's alleged socialism? I always thought of him as a small government man.

What did Jefferson do that was big government besides the Louisiana Purchase?
 
  • Like
Reactions: David Vagamundo
Jun 2017
2,976
Connecticut
I'm not an expert on this and this is inevitably painting in VERY broad brush strokes, but here is my nutshell interpretation of the history of the two main political streams in the USA.



FROM AMERICAN REVOLUTION UNTIL 1933
The two main political streams were

(1) Federalists and their successors, the Whigs and then Republicans (we could perhaps refer to this as Hamiltonian)

and

(2) Anti-Federalists and their successors, the Democratic-Republicans and the Democrats (we could perhaps refer to this as Jeffersonian)

In this phase, the two streams were both, broadly speaking, classical liberals. In a European context (especially continental European; Britain does have a strong centrist tradition), this would have made them both centrist, with neither stream being either right-wing reactionary (monarchist/aristocratic/feudal) or left-wing revolutionary (socialist/Marxist/anarchist).

However, I think they emphasised different ASPECTS of classical liberalism. I think the Federalists/Whigs/Republicans emphasised the capitalist elements of classical liberalism (which they saw as entailing protectionism and economic nationalism). I think the Anti-Federalists/Democratic-Republicans/Democrats emphasised the small central government, "power to the common man" elements of classical liberalism.

Hence we get the fact which seems strange today that the Republicans used to be both more pro-big government and more pro-business.

The South became overwhelmingly Democratic after the Civil War, but less for wanting to emphasise the "power to the common man" elements of classical liberalism than because of wanting to oppose the legacy of the Union, the central government, the Republican Party and Lincoln. It was hatred of Lincoln, and need for states' rights, that kept them Democratic-segregationist.



FROM 1933 TO PRESENT
What happened in the 1930s to transform things was that Franklin Roosevelt transformed the Democrats into a welfare-statist, social democratic party. For the first time, it becomes clearly possible to place one party to the left of the other on the political spectrum. After the New Deal, the Democrats are clearly to the left of the Republicans.

A precursor to the New Deal for the Democrats would perhaps be William Jennings Bryan at the turn of the 20th century, who was, in my understanding, supportive of economic redistribution in favour of poor farmers and whatnot. Beginning to take Jeffersonianism at its spirit rather than its letter.

So from this point, the Republicans stay pro-business but also, in response to the New Deal, adopt the traditionally Jeffersonian/Democratic mantras of states' rights and small central government.

As for what happens in the South: It stays Democratic until the 1960s, at which point the Democrats, being now a more leftish party voted for by progressives and blacks, push through civil rights, whereas Goldwater votes against them and then the Republicans adopt the Southern strategy. Then, later, the Republicans become the party of the religious right, which further increases their support in the South.



I think a 20th century political scientist called Louis Hartz would probably have agreed with some of what I said above, I can't be bothered to find links to what he said but I may do at some later point.
As someone who did their poli sci thesis on US political parties and what makes them tick, I have a few thoughts to add.

Most important thing to note is that after the Federalists and the first Republicans, the early secone Republican party and the recent decades of US politics is that political partys had almost nothing to do with ideology and were pan ideological. You could find people on the far left and far right in either party and party affiliation had more to do with tradition and was closer to say an ethnic construct than an ideology. This is demonstrated by two things, the brutality of the conventions where wings and candidates were fundamentally opposed(say African Americans and the KKK is an extreme example) to each other and the frequency of large scale landslides which was the product of more voters willing to swing if the other party nominated a candidate of their ideology as opposed to their party nominating such a candidate.

1)Federalists were totally defeated by Republicans adopting Federalist priorities and America for about a decade became a one party state dubbed the "Era of Good Feelings".

2)The Whig and Democrat split was not as clean cut as you are portraying at least with the Whigs. The big issue with the Whigs is they weren't ideologically united, you had the former National Republicans but the main thing uniting the Whigs was their dislike of Andrew Jackson and the three parties opposing Jackson in 1832 the National Republicans, Anti Masons and Nullifiers(the southern pro slave crowd who hated Jackson for almost invading them over the crisis of 1833) who turned into the Whigs were united by very little else. This is why in 1836 the Whigs ran several different candidates and why both Whig administrations had Presidents and Vice Presidents who were fundamentally different on policy.

3)The Republicans were a mixture of the anti slavery wings of both Democratic and Whig parties. The anti slavery Dems were the "Free Soilers" and were a smaller faction in the Dems than vice a versa but it was not a pure evolution. If it was, there would have been no need for a Republican Party., The Whigs collapsed because they were a coalition of very different people, anti slavery, pro slavery and appeasement who were together for no reason other than hatred of a man who by that point was dead. They were essentially the Compromise party. Dems were more ideologically homogenous and the anti slave people mostly left early but in the last few years before the Civil War, the pro seccionist crowd took a far turn from the Stephen Douglas/Franklin Pierce "popular sovereignty crowd"

4)Republicans became more pan ideological after the Civil War as slavery and Reconstruction the issue that united them became further and further removed the present. This is similar to how the Whigs disunited after Andrew Jackson left the white house as their purpose for existing vanished. The product is a series of contenious Republican nominating processes. Southern Democrats on the other hand were quite subordinate to the Northern business friendly Democrats and the Democrats avoided serious convention fights until Bryan and the Populist Party fundamentally changed politics. The issue of tariffs were as close to a partisan issue as existed. On bimetalism for example you had people in both parties for and both parties against. When Bryan ran the bimetal people on both sides supported him.

5)Your perception of 1933 seems colored by today. Republicans went along with FDR's Social Democracy and the liberal wing of the Republicans dominated the Republican party in response to FDR similar to how the conservative wing of the Democratic Party has dominated in response to Reagan. The conservative Republicans won one nomination between 1936 and 1980, 1964 which was the worst trouncing they had received since while economically liberal candidates(Eisenhower is to the left of the modern mainstream while Nixon is an establishment liberal) won, leading to a perception economic conservatives were unelectable similar to the perception many conservative Dems have of New Deal style libs as a product of the Reagan landslides followed by conservative Dem victories. Of course economics were only part of this puzzle but that is the New Deal versus austerity breakdown.

6)The Southern strategy took awhile to be implemented, Republicans only finished the process of making the South republican well beyond the 1991 rule. The civil rights act and 1964 certainly made the Republicans viable in the South where they hadn't been since reconstruction but it was not an immediate swap. More conservative Democrats competed for the South, hence another reason why Dems shifted rightward. Anyway a common mistake in American electoral politics is viewing a states consistency voting 50% one way or the other as dominance while it just says the minority party consistently is a minority not that a state is full of people leaning one way or the other(this is true in the most extreme cases of red and blue but this is a handful of US states)

7)Only in the last few decades has one party been all left of a certain point and another all right of a certain point. People decided to drop the old convention model and mostly joined up with people they had more in common with. Hence you saw the last liberal Republicans leave the party not too long ago(with a handful staying out of principle, one thing I've noticed politically is that people hate giving up labels after losing inner battles) and the last conservative at least socially conservative Dems leaving at the same time(again few exceptions for similar reasons, there's also the added incentive of ideologically agreeing with one side of an electorate and sharing the party label with another which a handful of politicians, two US senators in particular I'm thinking of one from each party have used as an almost fool proof ticket to relection, very hard to do but if successful it's a very handy trick and is a reason possibly these people are in the parties they are in).
 
Jun 2017
2,976
Connecticut
Care to elaborate on Jefferson's alleged socialism? I always thought of him as a small government man.

What did Jefferson do that was big government besides the Louisiana Purchase?
It's hard to drag economics liberalism and conservatism to the 19th century. Jefferson's vision had less to do with the means of a small government and more to do with the end of the sort of society he wanted which he believed localism was more favorable too. I did a paper on his "agrarian ideal" and his main priority was making America agrarian. For example Jackson shared a belief in the same ideal(with much more racism) and used government action to achieve it. Likewise Jefferson had no problems using government to do things he felt would turn the tide to agrarian society and purchasing a giant tract of empty land for settlers to farm would be seen as very positive from his perspective in America continuing to be an agrarian nation as opposed to an urban one. Jefferson also favored states rights because industrial states would tend to have more people and outvote the loosely populated agrarian states(a concern that gave us the electoral college) and because at the time the Southern states were doing quite well economically, Virginia for example had a surplus and general taxation for industrial capitalist projects would benefit the industrial capitalist North.

Something people don't understand in an era where Capitalism and Socialism/Social Democracy/reformism are the main economic political boundaries was that in the 19th century the main political lines when you take out the King were agrarianism versus industrial capitalist and while a modern observer might view these as two different types of Capitalists, people back then certainly did not, agrarian societies were the way things had always been and industrialization and Capitalism was a change. Jefferson not being a noble and owning and profiting off his own land wouldn't make him a Capitalist in the way his modern counterpart might see himself, he saw Capitalists as a threat to his preferred lifestyle and the lifestyle he thought best for Americans which was a more free version of the Middle Ages where every man would own his own land given how much there was. For example in Marx's mantifesto people focus so much on the predicted overthrow of Capitalism and the replacement of it with a workers state they overlook the historical analysis of Capitalists overthrowing the landowning class(land isn't the means of production). This fifty years later shows the kind of battle people like Jefferson were really embroiled in though here it wasn't class based.
 
Jan 2019
52
US
@Chlodio

I think the book I read that described some of his policies as socialistic was Most Blessed of Patriarchs, regarding his notions of the rights of the lower class to free land to support themselves (we might look at this as a form of welfare). He was also anti-capitalist, though not anti-industrialization (he owned a small-scale nail factory operated by slaves). He disapproved of the employee-employer relationship, thought that it interfered with man's liberty to rely on another for wages in that way. He also wanted to ensure a free education up through university to all who qualified, supported by taxes. Hence, his main concern was always with the common man, and he looked to him idealistically as a noble character (especially the farmer) who was being subjugated by the capitalists. These policies have always struck me as somewhat socialistic in nature, no matter whether they stem from big or small government. Jefferson wasn't totally against big government, either, though. Like I said, during the Republican Ascendancy he made decisions like the Louisiana Purchase (you can read a letter he wrote justifying it later in his life) and the creation of a national bank (Jefferson and Madison). He tried to reconcile some of these acts with his principles, but there's more than one reason he was dubbed a turn-coat by many of his fellow Republicans during this time. Overall, I think Jefferson did prefer small government, especially localized governments, but he was also willing to use big government as a tool for the good of the people. As far as principles went, the ends were more important than the means to Jefferson. Above all, he wanted to promote the welfare of the common man and preserve it.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,621
Dispargum
@Chlodio

I think the book I read that described some of his policies as socialistic was Most Blessed of Patriarchs, regarding his notions of the rights of the lower class to free land to support themselves (we might look at this as a form of welfare). He was also anti-capitalist, though not anti-industrialization (he owned a small-scale nail factory operated by slaves). He disapproved of the employee-employer relationship, thought that it interfered with man's liberty to rely on another for wages in that way. He also wanted to ensure a free education up through university to all who qualified, supported by taxes. Hence, his main concern was always with the common man, and he looked to him idealistically as a noble character (especially the farmer) who was being subjugated by the capitalists. These policies have always struck me as somewhat socialistic in nature, no matter whether they stem from big or small government. Jefferson wasn't totally against big government, either, though. Like I said, during the Republican Ascendancy he made decisions like the Louisiana Purchase (you can read a letter he wrote justifying it later in his life) and the creation of a national bank (Jefferson and Madison). He tried to reconcile some of these acts with his principles, but there's more than one reason he was dubbed a turn-coat by many of his fellow Republicans during this time. Overall, I think Jefferson did prefer small government, especially localized governments, but he was also willing to use big government as a tool for the good of the people. As far as principles went, the ends were more important than the means to Jefferson. Above all, he wanted to promote the welfare of the common man and preserve it.
Thanks for your reply. I have not made a study of Jefferson. What little I know about him suggests to me that he only saw the world through the filter of his own experiences. As a planter, he thought everyone else should live on the land. He had little, if any, understanding of why some people prefer to live in cities and make their living through commerce or industry. He did not understand that many people prefer to be employees rather than self-employed. He was in debt all of his life so it does not surprise me that he did not like banks. I wonder what he would have thought of modern scholarship describing the 19th century planter economy as capitalistic? Land and slaves were purchased using debt. Planters used modern accounting techniques to portray profit and debt in the most beneficial light. Even his support for free education can be interpretted in different ways.

What I really dislike about Jeffersonian Democracy is how it was perverted by men like Andrew Jackson who understood that power is not evenly distributed across the human population. Even though the rich and the poor have equal rights, the powerful can more effectively exploit their rights to their own advantage. Equal rights for rich and poor then translates to the poor being at a disadvantage. I wonder what Jefferson would have thought of the modern idea that the poor require special and unique rights to balance the playing field against the rich and powerful? If he was really a socialist he would have agreed that an equal playing field justified unequal rights. If he strictly believed in equal rights for all, he would have to accept an unequal society.
 
  • Like
Reactions: IGrok

David Vagamundo

Ad Honorem
Jan 2010
4,439
Atlanta, Georgia USA
I'm not an expert on this and this is inevitably painting in VERY broad brush strokes, but here is my nutshell interpretation of the history of the two main political streams in the USA.



FROM AMERICAN REVOLUTION UNTIL 1933
The two main political streams were

(1) Federalists and their successors, the Whigs and then Republicans (we could perhaps refer to this as Hamiltonian)

and

(2) Anti-Federalists and their successors, the Democratic-Republicans and the Democrats (we could perhaps refer to this as Jeffersonian)

In this phase, the two streams were both, broadly speaking, classical liberals. In a European context (especially continental European; Britain does have a strong centrist tradition), this would have made them both centrist, with neither stream being either right-wing reactionary (monarchist/aristocratic/feudal) or left-wing revolutionary (socialist/Marxist/anarchist).

However, I think they emphasised different ASPECTS of classical liberalism. I think the Federalists/Whigs/Republicans emphasised the capitalist elements of classical liberalism (which they saw as entailing protectionism and economic nationalism). I think the Anti-Federalists/Democratic-Republicans/Democrats emphasised the small central government, "power to the common man" elements of classical liberalism.

Hence we get the fact which seems strange today that the Republicans used to be both more pro-big government and more pro-business.

The South became overwhelmingly Democratic after the Civil War, but less for wanting to emphasise the "power to the common man" elements of classical liberalism than because of wanting to oppose the legacy of the Union, the central government, the Republican Party and Lincoln. It was hatred of Lincoln, and need for states' rights, that kept them Democratic-segregationist.



FROM 1933 TO PRESENT
What happened in the 1930s to transform things was that Franklin Roosevelt transformed the Democrats into a welfare-statist, social democratic party. For the first time, it becomes clearly possible to place one party to the left of the other on the political spectrum. After the New Deal, the Democrats are clearly to the left of the Republicans.

A precursor to the New Deal for the Democrats would perhaps be William Jennings Bryan at the turn of the 20th century, who was, in my understanding, supportive of economic redistribution in favour of poor farmers and whatnot. Beginning to take Jeffersonianism at its spirit rather than its letter.

So from this point, the Republicans stay pro-business but also, in response to the New Deal, adopt the traditionally Jeffersonian/Democratic mantras of states' rights and small central government.

As for what happens in the South: It stays Democratic until the 1960s, at which point the Democrats, being now a more leftish party voted for by progressives and blacks, push through civil rights, whereas Goldwater votes against them and then the Republicans adopt the Southern strategy. Then, later, the Republicans become the party of the religious right, which further increases their support in the South.



I think a 20th century political scientist called Louis Hartz would probably have agreed with some of what I said above, I can't be bothered to find links to what he said but I may do at some later point.
Re the 4th paragraph of 1933 to present: what really happened with regard to Civil Rights legislation is that southern Democrats no longer had the strength to successfully filibuster it. A higher proportion of Republicans than Democrats supported the legislation. Goldwater didn’t but he was in a minority among GOP Senators.
 

Viperlord

Ad Honorem
Aug 2010
8,109
VA
A precursor to the New Deal for the Democrats would perhaps be William Jennings Bryan at the turn of the 20th century, who was, in my understanding, supportive of economic redistribution in favour of poor farmers and whatnot. Beginning to take Jeffersonianism at its spirit rather than its letter.
Ehhhhh. Bryan was influenced by the Populist movement of the 1880s and 1890s, and he didn't propose anything that closely resembled the New Deal. You can't divorce him from his own era to draw that connection. I also dislike trying to force later events and political shifts into a framing that fits this or that Founder. Parties and politicians pay homage to this or that founding figure to varying extents, but their politics are usually derived from far more immediate concerns.