Before the Civil War, the Republicans advocated for the abolition of slavery, while the Democrats pushed against abolition. Even after the Civil War, the Republicans continued to push for black rights.

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, federal Democrats were known to push for guaranteed voting rights for African Americans, while some southern Democrats continued to show opposition.

Today, it seems as though the total transformation has been completed. The Democratic Party has continued to push for black rights, as well as women's and gay rights.

Since the Civil War, the two parties have switched on civil rights issues. Why?


1 Answer 1


Times changed

Why have the Democratic Party and Republican Party switched positions on civil rights since the Civil War?

Did the parties switch? As a first step in answering the question, consider the assumptions implicit in it and other potential explanations. So let's assume that the parties did not switch. What else could explain the current positions?

Republicans were against racial preferences in 1860 and are still against them in 2016. Democrats were for racial preferences in 1860 and are for them again in 2016. Admittedly the Democrats' position has changed. In 1860, they advocated racial preferences favoring whites, and in 2016, they advocate racial preferences favoring blacks. And of course, slavery and affirmative action are not the same.

From that perspective, what changed is the goal. Prior to the 1960s explicit policies were limiting blacks. Since then only implicit policies and historical disadvantage have been limiting blacks. So prior to the 1960s, blacks and Republicans were in favor of getting rid of negative laws. Since the 1960s, blacks and Democrats were in favor of establishing active laws.


If you view laws as either pro-black or anti-black (or pro-white or anti-white), then the parties switched positions. If you view laws as either favoring preferential treatment or opposing preferential treatment, then the parties have moved in such a way as to get back to their original positions. Republicans oppose active racial preferences while accepting differing outcomes. Democrats reject differing outcomes for groups to the point of favoring affirmative action to address them.

Rather obviously, affirmative action has a stronger moral basis than Jim Crow laws. Its goal is to move towards balanced outcomes while Jim Crow laws were intended to preserve unbalanced outcomes. But good intentions are no guarantee of good outcomes.

The worst part of the current partisan split is that both sides can argue that they have a moral basis for their position. So each can accuse the other of ignoring the moral basis of its side. And both be right.

Voters changed parties

There were two big shifts from Democrats to Republicans in black voting. One happened around 1932, as blacks overwhelmingly rejected Hoover and embraced Roosevelt. The second happened around 1964. Reasons aren't entirely clear. Johnson had notable anti-poverty programs, civil rights bills, and lingering goodwill from the Kennedy assassination.

Source: http://www.factcheck.org/2008/04/blacks-and-the-democratic-party/

The noteworthy part though is that these shifts persisted. As a result, there was much more support in the party for black objectives. This came to a head in 1968, when many Southern whites stopped voting for the Democratic presidential candidate. This led to Republicans winning five of the next six presidential elections.

Then in 1994, legislative positions followed. Lifelong white Democrats who had been splitting their tickets between local Democrats and national Republicans, voted for local Republicans. Ticket splitting dropped to its lowest levels in decades. In 2006 and 2008, this ebbed a bit, but then it returned in 2010 and 2014.

Source: http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/explaining-the-republican-lock-on-the-u-s-house-of-representatives/

Note Figure 2.

  • 7
    The term "racial preference" is somewhat loaded here. It's a lot more nuanced than that (or, conversely, it may be a lot less nuanced...in the south, one party was for slavery, the other wasn't.) The limited vs. expansive argument is also a bit off. For one thing, neither party is truly for limited government. That said, each party tends to focus on different economic demographics...which is a somewhat different topic than civil rights.
    – user1530
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 6:32
  • 4
    @blip While in practice it may be true that neither party governs as though it favors limited government, Republicans do claim to support limited government when campaigning.
    – Readin
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 4:52
  • 1
    @Readin that is true, though you don't hear democrats actively stating they are for expanding government, so would still argue it's some disingenuous wording...unintentionally though it may be.
    – user1530
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 5:56
  • 4
    @blip Democrats do regularly campaign on a platform of adding new government programs and increasing regulation. I thought the more problematic phrasing was "Democrats were for racial preferences in 1860 and are for them again in 2016" which, while literally true, implies that the racial preferences in 1860 and 2016 are morally equivalent or equivalent in degree. It would be a fair statement to make in a debate, but not in what should be an unbiased answer.
    – Readin
    Commented Jan 30, 2016 at 7:37
  • 3
    and don't forget that a lot of the laws and policies the left proposes tend to end up being bad for blacks even when they on the surface appear to favour them. Keep them down, keep them dependent on the government. IOW keep them on the plantation, in chains (now financial rather than actual), and uneducated so they won't question their masters.
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 7:05

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