There was a time when progressive people who wanted vast social change were unhappy with the two major political parties of the day, the Democrats and the Whigs. Neither party would take a firm stand against slavery, an institution which an ever growing number of people wished to abolish. In 1854 concerned citizens and politicians met in Ripon, Wis. and the modern Republican Party was born.
This Republican Party is not to be confused with the Republicans of Thomas Jefferson's time. Originally, Jefferson's followers were called Anti-Federalists and they soon changed their name to Democratic-Republicans, or Republicans for short. As the Federalist Party faded away, the Democratic-Republicans split into groups, some of which were called National Republicans. The National Republicans later became the Whig Party while the Democratic half of the Jeffersonian Democratic Republicans followed Andrew Jackson and his in-house political magician, Martin Van Buren, who more or less created the modern Democratic Party.
But the Whigs were not against slavery — in fact, the only two Whigs ever elected president were slave-holding southerners.
The Republicans fielded their first candidate for president in 1856, California's John Fremont. In 1860, the nomination went to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln won the northeastern and Great Lakes states and the West Coast (then comprising only Oregon and California).
After the Civil War, the Republicans usually won most of these states while the Solid South resolutely voted Democratic. Democratic politicians routinely reminded Southerners that all those Yankees who shot at them during the war were Republicans while Republicans reminded their northern supporters that all the rebels who shot at them were Democrats.
It is interesting to look at a map of the 1896 election when Republican William McKinley ran against Democrat William Jennings Bryan. The GOP carried every state north of the Potomac River and west to the Mississippi. They won Iowa and Minnesota and then the political map gets pretty bleak for them until you come to the West Coast, where, as usual for that time, California and Oregon also supported McKinley. (California had all of nine electoral votes in that year.) The entire South, the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain States (excluding the territories of Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Utah, which did not vote) voted solidly Democratic.
Compare that to a map of the 2004 election when Republican President George W. Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry. With a couple of exceptions (Ohio being one) the party voting preference is completely reversed. Kerry won the northeast and the West Coast while the solid south backed Bush, along with the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain States. Politicians are sometimes known for their flip-flops but the entire country? What changed?
The answer kind of goes back to the Civil War in that the party of Lincoln had championed Civil Rights and even as late as the 1920s black voters — those who were allowed to vote — supported the Republican Party. Democrats, particularly those from the South, were anything but progressive, supporting segregation laws and routinely blocking civil rights legislation.
This caused a huge split in the party in 1948, when then Democratic Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina broke with his party and formed the Dixiecrat movement, which carried several Deep South states in the election that year while the National Democratic Party, thanks to efforts by a young Minneapolis mayor named Hubert Humphrey, inserted a pro-Civil Rights plank in the party platform. Thurmond later joined the Republican Party and was instrumental in backing Richard Nixon at the 1968 GOP convention. Nixon carefully cultivated southern voters, many of whom had backed Alabama Gov. George Wallace in 1968, and ended up winning the entire South in his landslide re-election in 1972, a feat repeated by Ronald Reagan in 1984.
The South made one final effort to back a Democrat from their region — Jimmy Carter in 1976. Carter won every Southern state except Virginia that year but four years later the South abandoned him and backed Ronald Reagan. The South has been pretty solid for the GOP ever since — Bill Clinton managed to peel away a few states in a three-way contest but the South is now about as solid for the GOP as it once was for the Democrats, while the Northeast has gone completely the opposite.
Civil Rights is not the only issue, however. In Lincoln's day, the Republican Party was arguably the party of big government. Lincoln's wartime budgets were the first to hit the billion-dollar mark. High tariffs on foreign goods and protectionist economic policy were a staple of the party's platform for years.
You want government-funded infrastructure? It was the Republicans who built the transcontinental railroad and created our national park system. Government programs and regulations on food, drugs and environmental issues were standard fare into the Nixon Administration, which created the EPA and gave us food stamps. It was Republican politicians who championed votes for women and later the ERA, while many Democrats dragged their heels.
The large industrial states of the North, where progressive measures were needed to mitigate the excesses of an ever-growing industrial society, routinely backed the more progressive Republican Party while the backwater regions of the Bible-thumping South supported maintaining the status quo. This began to change with the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. It was accentuated by Nixon's Southern Strategy in the 1970s and was more or less completed by the GOP's appeal to conservative southern evangelical Christians in the 1980s.
It is interesting to look at Mississippi and Vermont. Vermont never voted for a Democrat until it backed Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 — it even voted against FDR all four times. Mississippi never voted for a Republican until it backed Nixon in 1972 with 78% — in 1932 it had voted 96% Democratic. Since 1980, it has never voted for anything but a Republican. Vermont, which once backed the GOP by 70% to 80% margins, gave Barack Obama 67% of its vote in 2008. The fact is, the parties have almost completely switched their ideologies.
If you were a Democrat 50 years ago, you probably should be a Republican today, and vice versa.
Even the red state/blue state color scheme has changed. Blue was the color of the mostly Republican Union soldiers and in colorized maps and charts — and even board games — well into the 1980s, blue was usually the color used to depict Republican areas on election maps.
I recall David Brinkley commenting on election night in 1984, when almost the entire U.S. was voting for Reagan, that the map "looks like a big blue swimming pool." It has been in the last decade or so that alliterative journalists began using red for Republicans and blue for the Democrats and we now are referred to as being either red-state or blue-state (and sometimes purple) voters. Maybe if we wait another 100 years, it will all change back again.
LENARD DAVIS is a Newport Beach resident.