Explainer: How Democrats and Republicans ‘switched sides’ on civil rights

I just about lost my damn mind this morning after coming across this piece from the National Review about how Barry Goldwater totally wasn’t all that racist or anything.

As a history nerd, this weird thing the Republicans are doing now where they are trying to pretend that they are the true heirs of the civil rights movement is starting to drive me up the wall. Like, f’reals, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King would not freaking be conservative Republicans today. For that matter, neither would Susan B. Anthony. It’s absolutely absurd. It doesn’t even sort of make sense because at all times throughout all history, all civil rights issues are progressive issues regardless of party alignment.

The fact of the matter is, both parties have undergone major changes throughout the past 150 years or so. Hell, within the last 40 years. In certain aspects, Richard Nixon would be way the hell to the left of today’s Democratic Party.

You can’t really look at the history of American politics through the lens of the Republican Party meaning one immutable thing and the Democratic Party meaning another. Because also, like, 100 years ago, both parties had conservative and progressive wings, which is no longer the case. It would also be difficult to place most people from 100 years ago into either of today’s parties. It makes more sense to look at it through the lens of North and South, conservative and progressive.

Take, for instance, William Jennings Bryan, The Great Commoner. Dude was a Democrat and super far to the left on most issues in his day. He was opposed to the Gold Standard, in favor of civil rights and labor rights, anti-war … but then was also in favor of prohibition and notoriously opposed to Darwin and teaching evolution. Where would he fit today? Pretty much nowhere. Then, you know, you had the crazy-ass southern Democrats who were super conservative on social issues and more progressive economically, because they benefited from farm subsidies. It was the same with the Republicans, many of whom were more socially liberal and economically conservative.

Here’s the thing: the Republicans were the “Party of Lincoln,” — who, by the way, wasn’t exactly like, not racist– in 1860. But basically from 1860 on, they were pretty concerned with backing away from the whole “rights for black people” thing because they didn’t want to “alienate” racist white people. Basically, during the last half of the 1800s, everyone was racist and no one was the party of civil rights. However, by and large, black people tended to vote Republican, because Lincoln.

The first major thing that happened after the Civil War as far as the division of parties goes, is TEDDY ROOSEVELT. TR was President William McKinley’s veep, and a progressive Republican. Like, super progressive. Can you even imagine a Republican today establishing National Parks and breaking up trusts? Hell no.


After McKinley was assassinated, establishment Republicans were super-pissed because they hated his guts. Still, he was pretty popular with the people, so he won a second term. After leaving office, he promoted his buddy, the more conservative Taft as the Republican Presidential nominee, and he won.

Now, Roosevelt had vowed not to run again, but when he saw what Taft was doing with the place (with trusts and things, not just with the bathtub), he was like “AW HELL NO” and decided he’d run for another term in 1912. However, he couldn’t secure the nomination from the Republican Party, so he started his own party, “The Progressive Party” a.k.a. “The Bull Moose Party” and ran against Taft, Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Socialist Eugene V. Debs.

Now, Woodrow Wilson kicked everyone’s ass, and what ended up happening is that the progressive Republicans start inching on over to the Democratic Party.


THEN COMES HERBERT HOOVER. Ok, so we all know about Nixon’s Southern Strategy, right? Well, he was not the first to pull that trick. Herbie was really the OG Southern Strategist. See, he happened to be running against a northern Democratic Catholic in 1928. You know who old timey Southerners hated almost as much as they hated black people? Catholics. So, Hoover woos himself some KKK members and they get everyone in the South freaked out about the possibility of a Catholic in the oval office. He then ends up being the first Republican to win Texas and also ended up winning some other ex-Confederate states.

Although people usually site Goldwater’s rejection of the Civil Rights Act as the point where Republicans began losing black voters, this is really where everything started. Because after this, most of the civil rights leaders of the day ended up switching over.

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ESPECIALLY ONCE FDR TOOK OFFICE. Because FDR was pretty liberal on everything, and by this time most black people were voting Democrat because of Hoover’s shit. He ends up pushing through Executive Order 8802, which created the Fair Employment Practices Committee, which was like, the most important thing as far as Civil Rights went in between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Act. Pretty much the only thing. Plus you also had the fact that Eleanor was all kinds of bad ass as far as that shit went. Not to say that dude wasn’t gross about Japanese-Americans and internment, because he was.

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OK SO GOLDWATER. Back to where we started! So, at this point, Southern Democrats were super pissed at their Northern counterpoints, and were way the hell not cool with dudes like Kennedy and Johnson. Goldwater, being way more conservative than Rockefeller (who was a progressive, pro-civil rights Republican), started catching their eye. They became especially enamored with him when he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Strom Thurmond even switched parties. However, black Republicans and Rockefeller Republicans were pretty grossed out by this and went Democratic. And have not turned back since.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party took on all the pro-civil rights folks, and most of the progressive wing of the Republican Party.


NIXON CONTINUES THE SEDUCTION. With the infamous Southern Strategy. Basically, he used the fear of hippies and commies and radical black people to woo the southern states again. He uses dog-whistle terms like “bussing” and “states rights” to surreptitiously convince racist southern whites that he is down for the cause. It wasn’t too hard, because they were already grumpy about Johnson being too progressive.


REAGAN SEALS THE DEAL. Now, here’s the thing. At the point when Reagan was elected, the Deep South was still kind of a Democratic stronghold. Because of tradition, and also because left-leaning economic policies benefited Southern farmers and workers and poor whites. So, one thing Reagan did to woo them was to embrace the Religious Right, which worked for them because they loved Jesus. Then, he busts out all that crap about supposed “Welfare Queens”– another dog-whistle term– who turned out to be entirely made up. So then they love Reagan and hate black people and poor people, even though like, a lot of them also happen to be poor people.

And it just continues to this day. Republicans who had previously backed some progressive causes here and there (i.e. George Bush Sr. had been pro-choice, Bob Dole was pro-food stamps) switched it all around and went entirely conservative on all of the things. Which is why, as desperately as they may want to ally themselves with progressive causes of the past, they really can’t.

The way things stand now? Well, of course not all Republicans are racist. However, if you do happen to be a super crazy racist, you’re probably not voting Democrat these days.