During the Civil War, Charles Sumner [left] was a radical Republican (which is really the 1800s version of a very left-wing Democrat) who worked with Lincoln and, famously, got the crap beat out of him for calling out racist slaveowners.
Sumner was also likely gay, and had a relationship with Samuel Howe. He was known to have a deep and moving voice, and spoke passionately about his causes.
As interesting as the gay component of this history is, I'm actually more intrigued by how the Republican party was at one point in American history the home of left-wing folks like Sumner, folks whose equivalents today are political figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
What happened? How did the Republican party devolve from being the political home of someone like Charles Sumner to being the neo-fascist party of today? And how did the Democratic party evolve from a racict, pro-slavery party to what it is today, the preferred party of Black Americans amd other minority groups?
In other words: Why was it that around 100 years ago, Democrats and Republicans switched their political positions?
To help answer this question I first share two very informative videos from Vox: “How the Republican Party Went from Lincoln to Trump” and “From White Supremacy to Barack Obama: The History of the Demoractic Party.” Although made in 2016, just prior to Donald Trump’s election as president, both videos remain relevant today.
Heather Cox Richardson. The author of How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, Cox Richardson regularly posts a dispatch on her Facebook page in which she “uses facts and history to make observations about contemporary American politics.”
In a recent dispatch, Cox Richardson examines “the story of the moment,” namely the struggle to preserve American democracy in the face of the Republican party’s move toward minority authoritarian rule, primarily by its support of “the Big Lie” that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election.
The struggle to preserve democracy is precisely what the story of this moment is – although it started long ago in the U.S., at least – and historians are already writing about it that way.
In the United States, the move toward oligarchy had been underway for decades. First, Movement Conservatives, who wanted to destroy the liberal state President Franklin Delano Roosevelt [FDR] created, increasingly grabbed power through voter suppression, gerrymandering, filling the courts with originalist judges, focusing on the idea of the so-called “unitary executive,” and propaganda. Once they controlled the Republican Party, their techniques left it open to a leader like Trump to gather power to himself alone. Their admiration for oligarchy left them open to autocracy.
And now the Republican Party appears to have embraced Trump over any principles the party once held. Its leaders support the Big Lie that Trump won the election and are exercising their control of certain state legislatures to cement their power in enough states to control the federal government. They are passing laws to restrict voting and outlaw protesting; at the same time they have given up on policy and are relying on such blatant propaganda that just yesterday a writer for the pro-Trump New York Post felt obliged to quit after writing a completely fabricated story.
[President Joe] Biden is calling this move to autocracy like it is, and making a bid to shift the course of the nation. . . . [And] while authorities seem finally to be exploring the potential lawbreaking of the previous administration, Biden is properly entrusting law enforcement to the branch of government responsible for it, leaving the actions of the previous administration to the Department of Justice and state and local authorities. He is also refusing to engage in the rhetorical brawls the right wing is trying to spark, ignoring, for example, the ridiculous story that he was going to outlaw the consumption of meat, or that the federal government had bought and distributed copies of Vice President Kamala Harris’s children’s book to incoming refugees, both of which then blew up in the faces of those who had pushed them.
Instead, Biden is advancing a vision of an active government that levels the legal, economic, and social playing field for all Americans. While observers tend to associate this vision with FDR, who gave us our modern government, in fact that vision has been shared by all our greatest presidents.
Indeed, it was Republican Abraham Lincoln who first proposed the idea that the country does best when government guarantees equality before the law and works to guarantee equality of resources to all. Under Lincoln, the Republican Party established public colleges, put farmers on land, built railroads, and backed Black equality before the law, paying for those things with our first national taxes, including an income tax.
Republican Theodore Roosevelt took that idea a step further, addressing the extremes of industrialization with a federal government strong enough to regulate business and provide support for labor. Democrat FDR went much further, using the government not just to regulate business but to provide a basic social safety net – Social Security and the Works Progress Administration, for example – and to promote infrastructure through investments like the Tennessee Valley Authority, which brought electricity and flood control to what had been a neglected region, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, which enabled men to recover the landscape from the ravages of the Dust Bowl.
Biden is in the mold of such predecessors, but his vision is new. He wants the government to support all Americans, beginning not with the ability of [an individual] to support his[/her] family but with the idea of protecting children. Since the beginning of his presidency, he has focused on rebuilding the economy by improving the conditions in which children live – famously, reformers credited his American Rescue Plan with reducing by half the number of children living in poverty – and with the plan he announced tonight, he illustrated this reworking of society by investing in our children.
The American Families Plan calls for investing $1.8 trillion in education, providing free schooling from pre-kindergarten through community college. It calls for funding for childcare and paid family medical leave, and it includes more money for fighting child poverty. Biden plans to pay for this, in part, by enforcing existing tax laws which wealthy people and corporations currently slide by, raising as much as $700 billion. Biden also proposes increasing the top tax rate from 37% to 39.6%, the rate it was under President George W. Bush, and by increasing the capital gains rate.
“The question of whether our democracy will long endure is both ancient and urgent,” Biden reminds us, in an echo of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. “Can our democracy deliver on its promise that all of us – created equal in the image of God – have a chance to lead lives of dignity, respect, and possibility? Can our democracy deliver on the most pressing needs of our people? Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart?”
The world’s autocrats are betting it can’t, Biden says. But he lists [recent] accomplishments of the past 99 days, when the people of the United States came together to administer 200 million doses of vaccine and create hundreds of thousands of jobs and he pointed out: “It’s never been a good bet to bet against America.”
“Our Constitution opens with the words, ‘We the People,’” Biden reminded his listeners [during his recent address to a joint session of congress]. And “it’s time we remembered that We the People are the government. You and I. Not some force in a distant capital. Not some powerful force we have no control over. It’s us. It’s ‘We the people.’”
And if we remember that and come together, he said, “then we will meet the central challenge of the age by proving that democracy is durable and strong.” “The autocrats will not win the future . . . America will.”
– Heather Cox Richardson
April 28, 2021
April 28, 2021
Related Off-site Links:
Why Did the Democratic and Republican Parties Switch Platforms? – Natalie Wolchover (LiveScience.com, November 2, 2020).
How Democrats and Republicans Switched Beliefs – James A. Haught (Houston Chronicle, September 15, 2016).
Democrats and Republicans Have Undergone a Role Reversal – Jonah Goldberg (Baltimore Sun, February 17, 2020).
The Republican Party Is a Fascist Cult – Noah Colbert (NU Political Review, January 11, 2021).
What Is Happening to the Republicans? – Jelani Cobb (The New Yorker, March 15, 2021).
The GOP’s Devotion to Trump Threatens to Destroy American Democracy – Stephen Collinson (CNN Politics, May 4, 2021).
Authoritarianism Vs. Democracy – Marianne Williamson (Newsweek, May 11, 2021).
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• Two Conservative Voices of Integrity
• Dan Rather on America’s “Moment of Reckoning”
• The Republican Party in a Nutshell
• Republicans Don't Care About American Democracy
• Insurrection at the United States Capitol
• Trump’s Legacy
• “The Republican Party Has Now Made It Official: They Are a Cult”
• “Fascism Is Upon Us”
• President Trump, “We Hold You Responsible”
• In Charlottesville, the Face of Terrorism In the U.S.
• Trump’s America: Normalized White Supremacy and a Rising Tide of Racist Violence
• Progressive Perspectives on the Election of Donald Trump as President
• Progressive Perspectives on the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election
• Trump’s Playbook
• Progressive Perspectives on the Rise of Donald Trump
For more of Heather Cox Richardson’s insights at The Wild Reed, see:
• Heather Cox Richardson on Combating the Republican Party’s “Rigging of the System”
• Heather Cox Richardson on the Movement Conservatism Roots of the Energy Crisis in Texas
• Insurrection at the United States Capitol
• Election Eve Thoughts
• Heather Cox Richardson on the Origin of the American Obsession with “Socialism”
• Heather Cox Richardson on the Unravelling of President Trump
• Progressive Perspectives on Trump’s Supreme Court Nominee, Amy Coney Barrett
• Progressive Perspectives on the Biden-Harris Ticket
• “Fascism Is Upon Us”