Your Argument Sucks: Democrats & Republicans
Your Argument Sucks is a recurring column where I tackle major arguments about the modern US political system by detailing actual facts through the narrative of historical context. All I ask is this: Go into these posts with an open mind and the ability to change said mind, if necessary, no matter which side of the argument you fall. I did. And because no matter how much you want to be right, no matter how much being wrong would flip your world upside down, being able to accept the facts and alter your opinion as necessary is a vital part of co-existing. And maybe, just maybe, your argument will no longer suck.
- “The US was never supposed to have a multi-party system.”
- “Democrats owned slaves and created the KKK.”
- “Republicans are the party of Abraham Lincoln.”
- “The parties switched!”
The Complex Explanation
You might have noticed the term partisan thrown around in any talk about the United States government. But what does that even mean? To put it simply, it means political party, such as Democrat or Republican. Bipartisan is a term that means both parties working together. Nonpartisan means there are no political parties within the government. And were you aware that, in the beginning, the United States was intended to be a nonpartisan government?
That’s right. The Founding Fathers never intended the government to be partisan out of fear it would cause fighting and escalate to the point that, well, it would do exactly what it’s doing now. Partisanship is never mentioned in the Constitution. Yet again, Founding Fathers, you had this figured out, and people had to go and mess it up.
Honestly, it didn’t even take very long to start messing it up.
Ever heard of a guy called Alexander Hamilton? How about James Madison? Of the many things they did, both men wrote these things called the Federalist Papers (along with another guy, John Jay). The Federalist Papers were essays meant to teach people about the Constitution so the states would ratify it (make it a real thing the country would follow, which needed majority state approval).
Before the Constitution was ratified, there were the Articles of Confederation, which had been put into place after the Revolutionary War against England. And then a war vet named Daniel Shays put together a militia of four thousand rebels to overthrow the government due to issues with taxation. Shays’ Rebellion succeeded because the federal government was unable to act and proved the Articles to be ineffective. A new Constitution had to be put into place, but people had to understand why. In the Federalist Papers 9 and 10, in particular, Hamilton and Madison discussed the dangers of factions, the use of military might to subdue factions, and a little something called checks and balances.
And then came two men who had to come challenge them.
Hamilton and Madison created the country’s first two political parties: The Federalists (Hamilton) and the Anti-Federalists (Madison), which later became known as the Democratic-Republicans or Jeffersonian Republicans (after Thomas Jefferson). There was one guy, though, who was still against political parties in popular-elected governments, like the United States: George Washington. Washington felt political parties were not only a distraction from duty and weakened the government, but they also created fighting among the parties and people, incited riots, allowed foreign governments the ability to control the country, and eventually lead to despotism (dictatorship).
The Federalists were mainly businessmen (i.e. rich dudes) who wanted a strong central government to help protect growing industry throughout the country. The Democratic-Republicans, such as Thomas Jefferson, were mainly farmers who wanted a smaller government to stay out of their business. In 1828, Andrew Jackson shortened the name to Democrats. The Federalists (kinda) transitioned into the Whig party, though there were some differences in ideals.
The Civil War divided the parties even more, particularly the Democrats, who became the Northern Democrats (anti-slavery) and Southern Democrats (pro-slavery). The Whigs then transitioned into the Republicans, the prominent leader of which became Abraham Lincoln. After the war ended, newly freed slaves primarily joined the Republican party and focused on modernizing the country and industry while white southerners joined the Democrats.
The slow shift started in 1912 when former Republican President Teddy Roosevelt ran against then-current Republican President William Taft, whom he disagreed with. However, Roosevelt ran third party and split the vote with Taft, giving leeway to helping elect Progressive Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. This led to the Roaring 20s and the election of more aggressively conservative Republican Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Coolidge is more or less a forefather of modern conservatism. Hoover is known for issuing in the Great Depression.
In 1932, people were supremely disappointed with Hoover’s failed conservative Presidency. People needed help, and one man offered that help. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, was elected President. Although Democrats were the more conservative party up to that point, they needed to distinguish themselves from the failed conservative policies of Herbert Hoover. FDR promised massive changes that were far more liberal in nature in order to gain election. In response to the Great Depression, FDR introduced the New Deal, leaning the formerly conservative Democrats into a more liberal party.
Not everyone was happy about this, including Ohio Senator Robert Taft, son of President William Taft. Robert Taft was part of the change to get big government out of business, continuing the alteration of the Republican party. Later, in the 1960s, a Republican Senator from Arizona named Barry Goldwater (nicknamed Mr. Conservative) ran for President. Goldwater ran on a platform of shrinking government control by abolishing the New Deal, welfare, and communism—building somewhat off the McCarthyism of the 1940s and 50s. He was also against civil rights, wanting to push back against giving equal rights to African Americans. Goldwater inevitably lost to Lyndon B. Johnson, but his ideologies that alienated any remaining liberals in the Republican party stuck. The first President to be elected to run on similar platforms to Goldwater was Ronald Reagan, who also cemented a religious stronghold on the party and became one of the biggest faces of modern American Republicanism.
Follow all of that? Good, because now here is where it might get confusing. To look more critically at the shift, you need to look at more classical understandings of conservatism and liberalism. In short, the majority of Americans would fall more into some form of classical liberalism.
“But I’m conservative!” you might say.
Sure, but only in the modern misnomer that is liberal and conservative. Unless you would prefer a monarchy that controls all, much like Alexander Hamilton did, you are not a classical conservative. All parties, more or less, stem from classical liberalism. There is, however, a spectrum here, as most people understand as the left—right spectrum. Modern Democrats are on the left, and modern Republicans are on the right, right? Sure, but with an *.
Classical liberalism was socially liberal and economically conservative—a mix of both worlds. The main difference is that, today, Democrats tend to be socially liberal (keep the government away from our personal lives!) and classically conservative (let the government control/regulate industry!); Republicans now tend to be socially conservative (let the government control our personal lives (typically stemming from religious ideals)!) and classically liberal (keep the government away from industry (except for tax breaks)!).
All of that being said, let’s look at one major argument between parties: racism. Democrats say Republicans are racist. Republicans respond “Lincoln was a Republican! Democrats owned slaves and formed the KKK!” Let’s start with the easier argument: Are modern Democrats the party of slavery and the KKK? In short, no. Due to the aforementioned party switch, slavery and the KKK are rooted firmly in conservative and modern Republican ideologies, and the KKK—amongst other white supremacists—have openly endorsed modern Republican candidates (and, in particular, Donald Trump).
Now for the more difficult argument. Abraham Lincoln was, technically, the first Republican President. His views on slavery and civil rights, as well as women’s suffrage, are more in line with modern liberalism than modern conservatism. Add in the fact that there was the aforementioned shift in party ideologies for the 100+ years following Lincoln’s death, then you get the opposing argument that Lincoln would not have been a Republican by today’s standards. So which is it?
Well, to understand that, we need to backtrack yet again and look at a few things. First off: federalism. No, not the Federalist party started by Alexander Hamilton, even though the Federalists would eventually (kinda) evolve into the Whigs (of which Lincoln was) and, after that, the then-Republican party (of which Lincoln became). Lincoln disagreed with slavery, but he agreed to the current states’ legal right to have it, as long as it stayed within those states. Before the Civil War, many southern states assumed they had more power over the federal government due to needing state power to ratify federal amendments. The south wanted to spread slavery beyond the states that they had previously agreed to limit slavery to. The north, and Lincoln, became upset.
The north won, cementing federal power over the states.
In this sense, Lincoln is closer to modern Democrats in the use of federal power over social issues, including giving welfare to freed slaves, whereas modern Republicans want more state power rather than federal and to build a reliance on one’s self rather than government handouts—which Lincoln was also in agreement with on an extended term.
Lincoln was in a strange place politically, for today and for his time. Truth be told, although it is impossible to know for sure, Abraham Lincoln would most likely not be accepted by either party by modern standards. He’s far closer to classical liberalism than either modern party and would be an outcast in both today. If one had to be chosen, however, he would be closer to center-left.
- While the US was not originally intended to be partisan—as argued by Founders such as Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and George Washington—it did not take long before the country gained political parties… created by those who originally opposed them.
- The Democrat and Republican parties, over a long period of time and many factors, did indeed switch ideologies. Therefore, it would be modern Republicans, not Democrats, who were pro-slavery and who created and are supported by the Ku Klux Klan.
- Lincoln would not really fit in either modern political party, though he would be closer to the modern Democrat than the modern Republican.