When Democrats Became Republicans and Republicans, Democrats: Setting the Record Straight
Updated: Aug 25
Any married person knows that willful blindness is the key to a successful relationship. Romantic harmony is so often about ignoring the annoying habits and qualities of the people we love. Willful blindness is especially helpful for those of us in politics.
Take the Republican Party. To attract more people of color to its ranks, it has recently begun pushing hard its ancient connection to Abraham Lincoln. ‘The Republican Party is the party of civil rights and the Democrats are the party of slavery,’ the story goes. But there are two problems with this narrative: one, it’s starting to get a little old, and two, in the age of Trump, a certain degree of willful blindness is necessary.
It is true that a large swath of the Democratic Party in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century was opposed to civil rights for African Americans. And, the Republican Party was indeed founded to support equal rights for all Americans—particularly Black Americans. But by the late 1870s, this all began to change when the GOP made a calculated decision to abandon Black Americans to the whims and impulses of racist southern political leaders. That decision nudged the two parties down a path, at the end of which, they would effectively swap their positions on civil rights.
There is a general awareness among most voters that this switch occurred, but there is some confusion about the timing. That may be because this massive ideological shift didn’t just occur overnight—it took almost a century to fully emerge. And it might not have happened at all, had it not been for three…key…events.
The first occurred in 1877, when Republicans and the Democrats came together to resolve the disputed 1876 presidential election. There was no clear victor that year, so they compromised, using Black Americans as a bargaining chip. The Southern Democrats wanted an end to federally enforced civil rights in the South and Northern Republicans wanted the presidency—so they cut a deal. In exchange for the Democrats giving up their claim on the office, Republicans pledged to stop enforcing the civil rights of Black southerners. The change was immediately reflected in the GOP’s political platform and would endure as a guiding principle for a generation afterwards.
The second key event occurred in 1948. That year, racist Southerners were still a significant part of the Democratic party. For decades, Northern Democrats engaged in a delicate dance with their Southern colleagues to keep them happily within the party ranks, but in 1948, President Truman put an end to the dancing and made protecting the civil rights of Black Americans a priority of the party he led. By prioritizing civil rights in the party platform, Truman effectively took up the mantel that had been discarded by the GOP in 1877. That decision influenced every Democrat-led political effort on civil rights since—from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009 to marriage equality today.
But the switch was still not fully complete. That would not occur until the 1968 presidential election.
Hoping to capitalize on secret, seething discontent among southern Democrats over the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Richard Nixon tempted them into the arms of the GOP by employing a strategy of dog whistles and side-winks that communicated his party’s sympathy with their racial fears. Sending coded messages to a Silent Majority would, thereafter, become a key strategy of the Republican Party and it endures today in Trump’s references to ‘law and order’ and his support for building walls and States’ rights.
In the absence of any significant recent accomplishments in the field of civil rights, the modern Republican Party clings to its tenuous connection to Abraham Lincoln, who today, would probably find more in common with the Democrats than the Republicans.
Trump supporters argue that Black supporters of the Democratic Party are fools to support an institution that “takes them for granted.” They point to the few token GOP efforts on prison reform as evidence of the party’s support of Black America, even as they ignore the president’s kowtowing to its racists elements.
The great ideological switch may be an inconvenient truth, but it is the truth. No amount of willful blindness can change that.
K. Ward Cummings (email@example.com) is the author of Partner to Power: The Secret World of Presidents and Their Most Trusted Advisers.