By Darius Thornton
For more than a century, the United States of America’s political landscape has been dominated and represented by two political parties, the Democratic and Republican parties. It’s a feud that may seem as old as time itself, blue against red, the Democratic symbol of the donkey versus the Republican symbol of the elephant, liberal against conservative. They divide our government or more accurately, our entire nation in a way comparable only to sports teams or religious or ethnic backgrounds. Now more than ever, they couldn’t seem more different, with all the debate, the back and forth, and the fact that both of them occupy the majority of the House of Representatives and the Senate respectively. Surely it wasn’t always this way? What led to this radical difference in ideology, these glaring differences in perspective? How did we get here? Well, the story doesn’t go like one might think.
To begin, the two parties we most often think of now were not even the same parties that existed at the dawn of the two-party political system. Instead, it was the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. The year was 1787, eleven years into America’s existence as an independent, self-governing nation. The Articles of Confederation, the country’s first attempt at a governmental constitution, was deemed a failure by the 13 original states for various reasons, and thus a new constitution (Known as the US Constitution) was drafted. Two factions emerged and disagreed with how the government should operate in the best interest of the people. The Federalists, led by President George Washington, treasurer Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams, believed in a strong centralized government that featured a system with a national bank, of Hamilton’s design. They also believed that the Constitution was malleable and up to interpretation. The majority of their support would come from bankers and manufacturers from the urban North. The Anti-Federalists, while less organized, were led by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. They believed in a less powerful federal government, with more power given to state governments. By 1792, they organized themselves into the Democratic-Republican Party under Jefferson to oppose the Federalists. When the century turned to the 1800s, the Federalists began to lose ground, specifically after the War of 1812, and as a result, the Democratic-Republicans dominated the early elections.
After Democratic-Republican candidate Andrew Jackson lost a controversial Presidential Election to John Quincy Adams in 1824, a new party, the Democratic Party, was formed in support of him for the 1828 election, which he won easily. This Democratic Party would be opposed by the Whig Party, formed by opponents of Jackson and led by Kentucky’s Henry Clay. The Democrats and the Whigs became the country’s dominant political parties, with supporters from every region. The Republican Party wouldn’t be formed until 1854, from the northern remnants of the collapsed Whig party which broke off from the southern Whigs, after a schism over the issue of slavery. The Republicans were characterized by their anti-slavery beliefs and focus on industrialization, and as such, they were primarily concentrated in the North. These beliefs were considered “progressive” for the time, as they advocated for social reforms, such as full rights and citizenship for African-Americans, and for a greater focus on industry than the South’s method of agriculture, as well as a more active, powerful federal government. By contrast, the Democrats were prevalent in the South and held “conservative” viewpoints, meaning they sought to uphold tradition and the current status quo of slavery remaining an institution and the federal government having little interference with the state governments. Prior to the Election of 1860, many Southern states threatened secession if the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln won, fearing he would abolish slavery. Eventually Lincoln emerged victorious and the states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina all officially broke away from the United States to form the Confederate States of America, kickstarting the Civil War. After the Union’s eventual victory in 1865, the period of Reconstruction was enacted in the South, as the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were ratified, abolishing slavery and granting African-Americans full rights and citizenship. Such a radical departure from what had been the Southern way of life, which coupled with the economic devastation they faced due to the war, gave rise to a lot of anger in Southern whites and the democrats seized control of the South by 1876. Many Southern states began to enforce the practice of segregation by passing Jim Crow laws the following year.
This continued for quite some time; Republicans ruled the North, while Democrats controlled the South. It wasn’t until the Progressive Era of the early 20th century when things began to change. In 1896, William Jennings Bryant ran as the Democratic candidate for President. Though he ended up losing, his ideas of a stronger federal government ensuring the rights and civil liberties of the people would go on to be the defining ideals of the modern Democratic party. The more Progressive Democrats, swayed by this way of thinking, began to oppose their staunchly conservative counterparts. Through all this, the Republican Party maintained dominance. But as the prosperous era of the 1920s came to a close at the start of the Great Depression in 1929, the Republicans began to fall out of favor with the people. As a result, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) became the first Democrat to win the election in almost twenty years in 1932. Within his first 100 days in office, his administration signed the New Deal into law, an effort to get America out of the depression through federal programs and heavy intervention. This marked a period of dominance for the Democratic Party that would last almost six decades. During the same period, the Republican Party began to change its approach. Conservative Democrats had always dominated the South, so the Republicans began to champion some of their beliefs, in state’s rights, opposition to civil rights for African-Americans, opposition to expanded labor unions, beliefs against abortion and evangelical, “traditional” values. This became known by historians as “The Southern Strategy”, the Republicans appealing to racism and other traditional southern values through thinly veiled rhetoric to try and get the southern vote. Lee Atwater, a former consultant to president Richard Nixon, admitted this in a controversial interview in 1981. Meanwhile, Democrats began to champion civil rights, advocating for a strong federal government, and overall more progressive ideas, which many white southerners saw as a war on traditional American culture. While white southerners flocked to the Republican Party, many African-American and minority voters who had traditionally voted Republican, dating back to the Lincoln Administration, had begun to vote Democrat following World War II. This was due, in part, to their handling of the Depression and support of the civil rights movement with Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, effectively ending the Jim Crow Era. And so, by the 1970s, America’s political landscape had completely flipped. The Democratic Party was now progressive (or liberal, to use a more modern term) and held the majority of the northern vote, while the Republican Party was now conservative and held the vast majority of the southern vote when the opposite was true just a hundred years earlier. The parties essentially switched perspectives and ideals. This is how both parties can be identified in their current forms today.
The difference between Democrats and Republicans at their core is the same difference as the difference was between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists in 1787, with a few more (admittedly large) issues thrown into the mix. The argument hasn’t changed, only evolved as our country has. Who should hold more power, the federal government or the states? Should we preserve the status quo, our tradition, or keep moving forward, with new ideals that challenge the old, in pursuit of a better country? How much work do we have to do before our country can truly be considered great? Are we already there? Were we there and lost our way? Or do we still have work to do? That is the fundamental difference. Both Democrats and Republicans seek what’s best for the people and for the country, but it’s the path, the way to get there, that they disagree on and likely always will.