I was just reading about the left-right political spectrum and that reminded me: I once read that the Democratic and Republic parties, over time, have swapped places in some way, so that the Republican party's positions are now similar to what the Democratic Party's positions were long ago, and vice versa.

Is this accurate in any way, or have the parties stayed roughly in the same place since the origin of the two parties?

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    There have been more than the two parties in the history of the US (i.e. we don't have a whig party of any size now), but more or less, yes, the Republican party used to be more like the Democratic party today and vice/versa. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_parties_in_the_United_States for the basic overview.
    – rougon
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 2:33
  • @rougon edited to clarify the incorrect two party system thing.
    – J.Todd
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 3:22
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    Worth noting that boiling down politics to a linear spectrum is a huge oversimplification of many issues. A slightly better way is soething like a Nolan chart Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 4:38
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    Our idea of left and right change over time. In the 19th century, providing anything like the modern-day levels of welfare would be considered extremely left wing, but that's now the centre ground.
    – paj28
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 11:44
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3 Answers 3


The Republican and Democratic parties have “swapped places” in many ways, and multiple times. The Republican party was originally was a minor party that leaned rather to the left, having significant socialist roots.

The style of democracy used in the U.S.A. (winner take all / first past the post, and the existence of a president as opposed a prime minister) strongly favors two major parties, with third parties occasionally making inroads and major parties occasionally dying. This means coalitions have to be formed within the major parties prior to elections, as opposed to after the fact in parliamentary system.

Even though the Republican and Democratic parties have endured as the two major parties since since the mid 1850s, the makeup of the coalitions that form those two parties have shifted multiple times. While the parties have endured, the coalitions have not. For example, in the late 19th to early 20th century, the Republicans were the progressives (by the standards of that time) and the Democrats the party of big business. Another example is the 1960s, which saw a major realignment with white southerners shifting from the Democratic party to the Republican party and African-Americans making the opposite shift. There are many more of realignments within and across the two parties.

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    You are on firmer ground with constituencies and coalitions. But note, in the early 10s and 20s both parties had progressive wings. And the GOP was founded to fight the twin evils of slavery and polygamy, as it saw the animating aspect of virtue as being foundational to conservatism in a Burkian sense, which carries forward to this day. In no way did the GOP lean to the Left at it's founding.
    – user9790
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 18:06

The parties switched the locations of their bases in the 60's/70's which led to them changing some of their politics but not all of them. The Republicans used to be the party of the North (roughly defined as the states which did not leave the union during the Civil War) while the Democrats used to be the party of the South.

The Republicans, representing the industrial bases of the Northeast and Midwest, were strong proponents of business interests and capitalism. Also, since they represented many large cities, they generally preferred strong safety nets, progressive social politics, and were friendly to immigrants.

The Democrats, representing the agricultural bases of the South and Southwest, preferred government intervention in the economy to ensure that farmers weren't wiped out economically by a single bad year, or weren't at the mercy of the powerful Northern industrialists. The rural South was generally less progressive and less multicultural or comfortable with immigration than the North was.

As the labor movement grew in the early decades of the 1900's, the Democrats saw a way to try to pull votes away from Republicans by joining with the Unions against the industrialists. The unions were a somewhat natural fit for the Democrats, as they were both anti-capitalism and they were, frequently, explicitly or implicitly racist. Unions (notably the AFL) would either completely or partially prevent black people from joining. This helped bolster the earnings of white labor, which was the bulk of the Democrat's voting base. Keep in mind that in the 1920's the effects of the civil war, and slavery, were still felt strongly. Black voters in the South still remembered that the Republicans fought and died for their freedom, and white voters still remembered that the Republicans fought and killed their family members.

So by the 1960's, we had two parties - a party of the South, the Democrats, who were economically "left" and socially "right" and a party of the North, the Republicans, who were economically "right" and socially "left".

The Civil Rights movement really started to change things in the 1960's. Kennedy - a northern Democrat, though with some very Republican (at the time) politics - won both the North and the South in 1960. By 1964, with LBJ having signed the CRA and his Republican opponent, Goldwater, having opposed it the South, known for having voted Democrat for nearly a century, voted Republican. They were, basically, willing to vote for different economics in favor of their preferred social policies.

So, the parties, in the span of about 16 years (1960-1976) completely flipped their geographic bases. That meant that the policies that they'd pursued based on those locations were now different - the Republicans were still just as pro-industry as before, but were no longer socially progressive. The Democrats were still allied with the labor unions, but with a new base in the Northeast cities, were now in favor of government handouts.

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    It was longer than sixteen years. The black shift from the Republicans to the Democrats started around 1928 and completed around 1968. The Southern white shift from the Democrats to the Republicans was still ongoing as recently as 2014, e.g. Democrat John Barrow's loss. For that matter, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 won some Southern states even at the presidential level. Heck, Barack Obama won a Southern state (North Carolina) in 2008 and Virginia is a Democratic leaning state now.
    – Brythan
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 22:02
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    Carter and Clinton won because they were from the South, just like some Republicans have won Northern states since the 70's. Virginia is a swing state because it's got so many non-Virginians living here (myself included!). The shift to the Democrats is almost (but not quite) entirely due to the population boom outside of DC that is overwhelmingly liberal. The same is likely true for North Carolina, with the influx of people into the Research Triangle.
    – David Rice
    Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 16:30

There have been multiple cases of the Republican and Democratic parties swiching their platform positions over the history of the US. Probably the biggest example of this is their views on big government.

Before ~1900 the Republicans were much more pro big government. For example, in the 1860s it was the Republicans who strongly pushed for government funding for the transcontinental railroad

  1. That a railroad to the Pacific ocean is imperatively demanded by the interests of the whole country; that the Federal Government ought to render immediate and efficient aid in its construction; and that, as preliminary thereto, a daily overland mail should be promptly established.

Another example is Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, and his presidential election opponent, Democrat Stephen Douglas. Lincoln was anti-slavery, while Douglas was pro-slavery. Granted both parties are now obviously and clearly anti-slavery, but you get the point.

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    The GOP supported the end of slavery because African Americans, consistent with the themes in the preamble of Declaration that all men are created equal, belong among the brotherhood of men and deserved to be US citizens. The GOP has been a consistent advocate of the 14th Amendment, which they wrote and passed, that embodies such equal protection under the laws, and the other Civil War Amendments
    – user9790
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 13:43
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    @KDog -- If anything, the GOP has been a consistent opponent of those Civil War Amendments for the past fifty years, having absorbed the Dixiecrats per Nixon's souther strategy. Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 18:02
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    Because you said that wink, wink, nudge, nudge, the GOP is pro-slavery. The statement was so clumsy and inaccurate it rather ruined the rest of the piece.
    – user9790
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 18:27
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    @KDog Huh? I explicitly said the OPPOSITE of that. both parties are now obviously and clearly anti-slavery Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 18:57
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    @KDog I have literally no idea how you can interpret my explicit declaration that no-one supports slavery as "GOP is pro-slavery" and "inartful". I don't know how I can revise it to be any more clear. Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 19:20

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