Since the late 1850s, the United States has had two major political parties, the Democratic and Republican parties. For most of the first half of this time - from the mid-19th century to the first couple decades of the 20th - the Democrats were generally a right-wing party, espousing racism and small government, while the Republicans had a more leftist platform which strongly supported minorities1 and called for greater regulation.

From the late 1920s through the late 1970s, the two major parties essentially swapped platforms wholesale. At the beginning of the 1930s, in response to the Great Depression, the governing Republican Party disintegrated and the Democratic Party extended itself well to the left under FDR et al, with the Republicans eventually recoalescing in the mid-to-late 1940s as a center-right party opposed to labor unions and communism. Then, in the decade from the late 1960s through the late 1970s (although it was the culmination of a process that had gotten going as far back as the late 1940s), the Republicans swung hard right in order to pick up the racist-Southern-white vote and finally gain enough strength to take down the Democrats' New Deal coalition, and have continued to move further right ever since.

Nowadays, the platforms of the two main parties are essentially the reverse of what they were a century and a half ago, with the Democrats a center-to-center-left party strongly supporting big government, more regulation, and minority and labor rights, while the Republican Party strongly opposes regulation, unions, and minority rights.

My question

Was the essentially-complete platform swap that occurred between the two major U.S. political parties in the mid-20th century a fluke, or is it common for a country's main political parties to eventually swap platforms if they survive long enough?

1: Aside from Native Americans, of course.

  • 5
    I think there needs to be a frame challenge here. There has been a shift, even a swap in some ways, but much in your introductory paragraph is oversimplified. The party of Jackson was not in any way like the party of Bush. The party of Coolridge isn't the same as that of Obama.
    – James K
    Mar 18, 2023 at 20:15
  • 2
    This isn't as much about swapping platforms (which on long time frame is even hard to define) but about a faction [Southern whites basically] defecting from one party to another. (See e.g. jstor.org/stable/10.1111/j.1468-2508.2004.00287.x which frames it like I said.) Those kinds of events are pretty common everywhere. It's only more hidden in a country with just 2 [main] parties. But not that hidden even in the US. IIRC there was a peak of 3rd-party-ism around that time. Mar 19, 2023 at 6:57
  • 1
    Whether Republicans really called for "greater regulation" before the New Deal is pretty debatable. They and the (Southern) Democrats definitely wanted a different division of power between federal and state governments. So it's probably only "greater" wrt to the Federal gov't. Anyhow, questions about the politics of ~100 years ago are better suited to History SE. Mar 19, 2023 at 8:52
  • 1
    Minor changes accumulating over a prolonged period can lead to a complete change of direction. The legislation of civil right issues during the Democratic era of the 1960s would have disenfranchised conservative white racists of the era. Abandoning the Democratic Party they only had the Republicans to go to if they want to have a realistic opportunity change things their way.
    – Fred
    Mar 19, 2023 at 9:03
  • 1
    As for the 2nd part of the process, the change in platform after one faction defects that's also not uncommon, and also happens in other forms, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entryism Mar 19, 2023 at 9:24


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