When I was a college student in the 1950s, I read THE AGE OF JACKSON by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and, for many years, accepted his ideas about American politics.
Schlesinger argued that American politics (as of 1945) was based on a permanent conflict between big business and its opponents.
A succession of parties—the Federalists, the Whigs and then the Republicans—represented the interests of the banks, merchants, railroads and manufacturing corporations. The Democratic Party and its Jeffersonian predecessors represented a diverse coalition of people whose interests might be threatened or harmed by big business.
The political health of the United States, as he saw it, required an alternation in power and between these two sides.
The Republican Party was needed to speak for the American capitalist interest, which was what gave the United States its economic energy. But the Democratic Party, of which Schlesinger was an active supporter, was needed to prevent a dangerous concentration of power in corporations.
The Democrats did not represent an equivalent danger to liberty, in his view, because their coalition of supporters was so diverse—labor unions, immigrants, Southern planters, Catholics, black people, farmers, small business—and their program would represent a balancing of interests rather than a single interest.
I think Schlesinger’s analysis was true as far as it went. The Democratic Party, as represented by the Indian fighter and slave-owner Andrew Jackson, really was the party of the common man—at least the white common man. Jackson scandalized upper-crust Washington by allowing frontiersmen and working people to participate in his inauguration. He did fight to prevent the government from becoming the servant of the banks and the manufacturers.
But the Democratic Party also reflected the prejudices and racism of the white common people. Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the great defender of Southern slavery, said there were no class distinctions in the South because all white people were part of an aristocracy of race. This was not an aberration, and not limited to the South. It was central to the Democrats’ identity for a century or more, and it was not limited to Democrats in the South.
The problem with Schlesinger’s analysis, and also its appeal, is that it enabled liberal Democrats like me to regard the South’s one-party system as merely incidental. In fact it was fundamental.
College educated intellectuals and reformers of the 19th century were mainly Whigs and Republicans. The great New England humanitarian reformers that we Unitarian Universalists admire were mostly Whigs or Republicans. The Republican Party was founded as a movement to prevent the spread of slavery, which the Democrats supported. What little support there was for civil rights between the Civil War and Second World War came from Republicans.
Broadly speaking and with many exceptions, there is one party that accepted social distinctions based on wealth and education, and minimized social distinctions based on race, and another party that resented distinctions based on social class and insisted on social distinctions based on race.
Now it is the Republican Party that gets the votes of a majority of white people, and the Democratic Party that depends on minorities’ votes to give it a margin of victory. I think that any American prior to 1932 would have thought it unbelievable that the United States would have a black President, but they would have found it unimaginable that a black President would be a Democrat.
During the middle and late 20th century, college-educated reformers and racial minorities migrated to the Democratic Party. But the Republicans still represent corporate and financial interests as they always have, and what little support there is for organized labor and workers’ rights still comes from Democrats.
The political realignment that began during the Truman administration and reached its culmination during the Reagan administration was not a reversal of roles, but a new mix and match. My thoughts about how this came about will be the subject of another post.
Here are books that helped me understand the historic political and racial lineup of the United States.
WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by Daniel Walker Howe. The two towering figures of this history are the Democrat Andrew Jackson and the Whig John Quincy Adams.
BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM: The Civil War Era by James MacPherson. The Northern Democrats wanted to preserve the Union by appeasing slaveholders, the Republicans (in the end) by freeing their slaves.
RECONSTRUCTION: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner. This is the story of the failed Republican attempt to secure civil rights for freed slaves.
SUNDOWN TOWNS: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen. This tells the largely unknown story of the ethnic cleansing of black people and other minorities from communities in the North and West, roughly at the same time as the imposition of the Jim Crow system in the South. Most of the “sundown towns”, which black people were warned never to stay after sunset, were Democratic strongholds.
FEAR ITSELF: the New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Ira Katznelson. This tells how Southern Democrats in Congress shaped and limited U.S. policy in the 1930s and 1940s.
I admit I am over-simplifying. American political parties were bigger tents than they are now. There were bigger differences within the parties than there were between them. I still think what I’ve written is a better key to understanding than trying to interpret the past in terms of today’s red-blue divisions.