Rethinking the History of Political Parties during the 20th Century in the United States (A Few Thoughts)

As a result of the Civil Rights Revolution for Black United Statesians during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the Democratic and Republican parties essentially switched positions on major ideological issues, correct? Or put another way, the “Solid South” abandoned the Democratic Party for the Republican Party almost over night, correct? 

Such narratives, while common place, are not so simple or accurate.

By looking at the evolution of both the Republican party and the Democratic party from roughly 1900 to 1999 you can see a gradual and constant shift in both parties. The Republican party continued its waddle toward the right or more and more conservative ideologies. The Democratic party continued a similar waddle toward the left or more and more liberal positions. (“Liberal” referring specifically to Modern Liberalism as developed during the Great Depression and New Deal Era, not Classical Liberalism or what today is called Libertarianism in the United States.) By not focusing so narrowly on three decades, it becomes clearer that the “switch” was actually another (and predictable) step in a long, long process.

Additionally, when people talk about the “great switch,” they are often focusing on presidential elections and then sometimes on Congressional elections. These are important, but so too are the thousands and thousands of other elected positions – mayors, judges, governors, school board members, and countless others. If we look at all elected offices, in the state of Texas, for example, we see that the Democratic Party had a somewhat strong hold through the 1990s! As we are seeing again, especially right now in Texas, state elections matter! and have (deadly!?) consequences.

States have a great deal of power and that power needs to be analyzed and critiqued. We need much more developed conceptualizations of the “Texas Liberal” and the “New York Liberal” and the “Alaska Liberal,” as well as the “Connecticut Conservative,” and the “California Conservative,” and the “Hawai’i Conservative.” And yet, given the power of social media, regional boundaries have less significance now than historically. 

The “great switch” metaphor overly simplifies these complex processes, erases related histories, and ignores the continued successes and challenges of both political parties. 

And this brings up another point, there continues to be little connection between which political party label candidates adopt and their political ideology when looking at the 20th century as a whole. In other words, there are always Democratic candidates who are liberal and those who are conservative. President Obama (and President Clinton and Governor Ann Richards) performed politics in many undeniably conservative ways. 

We see more manifestations of this in the Liberal Consensus and in the Conservative Consensus – while neither one changes the constant movement of the two political parties in opposite directions, the Liberal Consensus functioned as the glasses through which everything else was filtered from roughly 1933 to 1970 until the Conservative Consensus (see also, neoliberalism) took over.

There are also different standards and expectations depending on what the political office is. In small towns, outcomes are frequently based on the person “everybody knows” more than political labels. 

Our analysis and study of political parties and our collective historical memory does not recognize the extreme regional variations that exists. If you look at national narratives, conservatism (and the Republican Party) appears to gain something of a stronghold as a backlash against the Civil Rights Revolution. However, if you look at local narratives, you see that the roots of 20th century-conservatism are “everywhere” – especially in the so-called liberal bastion, California.

And votes are frequently (really) close. Our understandings of how people in the United States view the world politically almost always omit those who do not win.

And discussions of political parties sometimes forget that it is more of something like a “game” than anything else, in many cases. Our focus should probably not be on getting more people committed to either (or any) political party but getting people to think in more global, selfless ways.

And in all cases, if we really want to understand how people behave, we have to analyze relevant hopes and fears and have to take e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g seriously and as “true” for purporses of analysis and understanding. 

(Of course, this discussion omits the many other political parties that garnered attention – but the focus here was on the two major, and most influential, ones.)

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda  

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