In my history class, we learned that pre Roosevelt, Republicans were more or less the more liberal party and Democrats the conservative party. Today such an idea seems hard to imagine in today's political climate. (I looked it up, and I saw that it wasn't so simple, but I think it was my teacher wanting to say something without taking too much time.)

I looked at the data, and I saw that pre-1936, most Black voters supported Republicans (who were able to vote at all), which runs squarely opposite to today's environment, at least on the surface. And, I saw that politics wasn't as ideologically aligned as it has been for the past couple of decades.

I am not going to go into more details because I don't want to be wrong. I want a detailed answer about how Roosevelt changed the climate of the USA politically because FDR seems to be a flashpoint. I say so because the New Deal was the first time the Democratic Party took a major progressive stance to my knowledge.


1 Answer 1


The Democrats were, initially the party of small farmers. They promoted policies that would suit farmers. In the South of the USA, farms ran on slave labour, so the Democrats were the party of slavery. At this time, the cities were relatively wealthy. There were various parties that opposed the Democrats on various issues but it was the Republican party: a party of moral virtue and opposition to slavery that was most successful. The Republicans were the party of business, of capitalism, and initially of the cities.

The wars and the great depression switched everything about. It created an urban poor but increasing educated and politically active population. Woodrow Wilson developed the idea of "New Freedom" policies, that would restrict big business to opposes the "New Nationalism" ideas of Teddy Roosevelt. FDR took the notions of "New Freedom" called them "Liberal" and used them, in what was a proto-Keynsian economic policy, which appealed to the growing urban population, who felt that government should do more to help them. Post war, and under JFK and LBJ (and only after intense pressure) this led to the civil rights movement, and the great switch as white farmers, Rural America and the South felt that they had been abandoned by the Democrats switch en mass to the Republicans. While Northern and Western cities, and Black and Hispanic voters switched to the Democrats. And "liberal" has come to be a catch all term for the more left wing part of the Democratic caucus.

So the Republicans were never really Liberal (in the FDR sense, nor in the modern sense) But the Dem and the Rep aren't the same parties that they were in 1870.

  • On the flip side, in 1912, Teddy Roosevelt broke from the Republican Party to form the short-lived Progressive Party. That split (Republicans breaking off to become Progressives) is a split that would not be seen today. Commented Jun 6, 2021 at 20:58
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    Yes, and in doing so handed the Whitehouse to the Dems for 8 years.
    – James K
    Commented Jun 6, 2021 at 20:58
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    Re The Democrats were, initially the party of small farmers. It's interesting to note that Minnesota doesn't have a Democratic Party. It instead has a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. The DFL does ally with the national Democratic Party. Commented Jun 7, 2021 at 0:40

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