America the unusual: Where else have the major parties switched positions on the political spectrum?

“The Republican Club” by Andy Thomas

The current occupant of the Oval Office has decided to hang up a portrait that shows him sitting around what might be a poker table with a bunch of other Republican presidents, including all the recent ones and a few previous ones going back to the first Republican president, Abe Lincoln.

The artist, Andy Thomas, who seems to specialize in portraits of historical figures, chose to include all recent Republican presidents back to Nixon, and then he threw in Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln for good measure, all smilingly enjoying a beverage around a table. (There are smaller faces lurking in the background who may represent Coolidge, Harding, Taft, Grant and maybe some other GOP presidents.)

President Trump is very happy with the painting. He says he likes the way he looks in it, which I can understand, because he looks much thinner and handsomer than he has in any recent photograph. But that kind of harmless vanity can be forgiven. Who among us does not prefer a picture that looks better than the face that stares back at us from the morning mirror?

But it reminded me of a post I meant to write a while back after reading an excellent history of the Republican Party, from its founding to recent days, titled “To Make Men Free,” by Heather Cox Richardson, an American historian at Boston College.

The United States, unlike most other world democracies, has had a fairly rigid two-party system since the Republican Party came together in the 1850s and replaced the Whigs. The Grand Old Party (which is actually the younger of our two major parties, but likes to call itself old) took over in 1856 as the main alternative to the Democrats, who date back to at least Andrew Jackson and perhaps Thomas Jefferson, depending on how you look at that period.

Most Americans, I suppose, don’t see it as odd, but it is quite unusual, compared to the rest of the democratic world, for the same two parties to dominate so completely for so long. The reasons for that are for another day. But my topic for today — inspired by the Lincoln-to-Trump painting and by my interest in understanding our system in global context – is that while we have two and only two major parties, operating under the same names since 1856, they have not only not stood for the same things over time, they have on several occasions traded positions on the big left-to-right ideological spectrum. I’m not sure, but I believe that to be quite unusual.

For the last few decades, the Dems have been our liberal party (although “liberal” means something quite different in U.S. parlance than other places) and the Repubs have been our conservative party.

But it’s pretty obvious that the first Republicans, the actual Party of Lincoln, were the lefties of their time, and the Dems were the righties. Lincoln, the first Republican president, was rather obviously the progressive of his day, on the issue of slavery and also on his party’s fundamental commitment to the interests of ordinary working men, as opposed to plutocrats of all kinds, including slave owners.

Lincoln, Richardson confirmed, did not run in 1860 as an abolitionist. During the secession crisis, he tried to reassure the South that he had no designs against slavery in the states where it then existed. But he, and the Republicans, did want to prevent the further expansion of slavery into the new states of the west.

Such a plan would have, in the fullness of time and if the Civil War had not occurred, created a ratio of free to slave states so lopsided that a constitutional amendment banning slavery could become possible. That prospect certainly scared the hell out of slaveholders in 1860 and led them to want to secede and form their own slavery-friendly, slavery-now, slavery-forever country.

As Richardson explained to me, the first Republicans were mostly not interested in abolition; they were interested in keeping slave labor out of the new states so that the upward-striving white workers could move west and thrive without having to compete with slave labor. That was the issue that could not be compromised, even though Lincoln frequently promised that he had no intention of interfering with slavery in the states where it then existed.

The Civil War changed all that, but even late in the war, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, it applied only in states that were still in rebellion by the effective date of the proclamation. Several slave states, the northernmost ones, hadn’t seceded at all. And Lincoln hoped that the threat of emancipation might persuade a few more to drop the rebellion.

But by the end of the Civil War, abolishing slavery was the Republican position and, because of the results of the war, amending the Constitution to make that clear and permanent was doable and was done.

The question of which party was more or less progressive or conservative during the post-Civil War decades is complicated and jumbled. The nomination of William McKinley in 1896 and 1900 was the culmination of the Republican Party’s drift toward a pro-business, conservative orientation, which is probably the stereotype of the party that many of today hold.

I asked Richardson how many times the two parties had switched positions.

She said the party has been through three progressive eras, one represented by Lincoln, a second under Teddy Roosevelt in the early 20th century, and the third was a moderate liberalism under Dwight D. Eisenhower. (That surprised me. I don’t think of Ike that way. And Eisenhower won both his presidential elections against the leading liberal of the time, Adlai Stevenson.)

But Ike did send federal troops to Little Rock in 1957 to enforce the Supreme Court’s order to integrate the public schools, and Ike did say, vis-à-vis military vs. social spending:

Every gun that is fired, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

This whole story is unusual by comparison to other democracies, many of which had begun to come on line. The Labour (pro-worker and poor people) and the Tory (conservative) parties in Britain have never swapped roles. Likud is always on the hawkish right in Israel, and Labor is always to the left. In general, lefty parties do not often become righty parties, nor vice versa, because why should they? There already is a party on that other side.

I don’t have a good explanation for why the same two parties would pass each other going in opposite directions across the left-right dividing line, or why it would occur in the United States and not elsewhere.

Trump is not really an ideological figure, nor is his appeal fundamentally ideological in any coherent sense. (Don’t ask me to make coherent sense of his appeal today. I’ll get back to you on that.)

To return to what started out to be the point of his contemplation of U.S. political history, it is unusual and not easily explainable (by me at least) why the U.S. partisan/political spectrum has contained several cases of our left and right parties switching place.

But I’ll close with Trump and Lincoln.

Lincoln, of course, never knew of Trump and has roughly nothing in common with him, except I believe both were bipeds.

Trump, who I believe knows very little of U.S. (or any other) history, knows that the Republican Party, under whose banner he was elected, was also the party to which Abe Lincoln belonged. But he is so clueless that he believes this to be an arcane fact, known only to history buffs like him.

I refer you to this Washington Post piece, from March of 2017, in which Trump informed a dinner of House Republicans that Lincoln, whom he called a “great president,” had been a Republican.

“Most people don’t even know he was a Republican. Right?” Said Trump, showing off his arcane knowledge as spoke to members of the party. “Does anyone know? A lot of people don’t know that. We have to build that up a little more.”

The Post reported that Trump “then suggested using a political action committee to run advertisements letting people know that Lincoln was a member of his party.”

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Comments (32)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/16/2018 - 09:52 am.

    A lot of this is due to the fact that
    (unlike most democratic governments) we don’t have a parliamentary system in which coalition building is a part of forming a government.
    We do have shifting party demographics. An obvious case is the shift of the ‘Dixiecrats’ to the Republican party.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/16/2018 - 11:14 am.

    It doesn’t happen very often, and I really hate it when the Current Occupant is actually correct about something, but my suspicion is that he’s spot-on in saying about Lincoln that “Most people don’t even know he was a Republican…”

    My amateur’s hunch is that the country has been running on autopilot for so long, taking so many things for granted, including “American exceptionalism,” and so many people were either inattentive (teens with an active sense of the historical are fairly rare), or have forgotten what they learned about our history when in school, that party labels and their historical roots mean something rather different than they did in the early and mid-20th century.

    I, too, find it a little surprising to see Eisenhower labeled as a “liberal,” but of course, in today’s Republican Party, he likely would have no place at all, or be considered a “RINO” at best, so perhaps he’s a fair marker for the turn to the right that the GOP has taken. Senator McCarthy’s witch hunt for Communists in the 1950s cast a few not-so-very-subtle innuendoes regarding the President’s allegiances.

    While I suspect many of the words themselves were put together by an Eisenhower speechwriter whose name I can’t recall, the quote attributed to Ike is among several lines from his farewell warning about the military-industrial complex to which we have, unfortunately, failed utterly to give the attention they deserve. We continue to pay a steep price for that inattention.

  3. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/16/2018 - 11:25 am.

    Caught an anti Angie Craig ad last night from the Republican Congressional Committee last night attacking her for support for the repeal of the medical device tax. And the author of the bill: Erik Paulsen. This is not a gradual switch of positions: this is immediately taking what ever position serves your short term (hourly?) interests.

  4. Submitted by Bob Brown on 10/16/2018 - 11:37 am.

    The speechwriter who wrote the lines about the military industrial complex was Malcolm Moos, later President of the University of Minnesota.

  5. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 10/16/2018 - 01:15 pm.

    I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve seen that painting before. I think it was on black velvet and it was dogs, they were playing poker.

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 10/16/2018 - 03:37 pm.

      I notice every President but Trump has an adult beverage. My guess is they’re all on their 4th one after listening to him for 10 minutes.

    • Submitted by Ted Hathaway on 10/16/2018 - 09:47 pm.

      Yes! Dogs playing poker – that’s exactly what I thought of when I saw this “painting.” Perhaps even more bizarre is the Democratic version this artist creation, with a smiling Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson gathered around a beaming Obama, whose presidency they would surely have regarded as a either a supreme joke or a vision of hell.

      You can view a lot more of Thomas’ work on his web site, but his “Italian Series” is still listed as “coming soon!’ I can hardly wait for his painting of “pinot grigios with” Mussolini, John Gotti, Pope John XII, Nero, Silvio Berlusconi, and Caligula.

  6. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 10/16/2018 - 01:20 pm.

    I need to believe that honorable, Republican presidents of character like Lincoln, Eisenhower, Roosevelt, Ford, and GHW Bush would choose to leave the table rather than be disgraced by association with a perpetually dishonest and corrupt Donald Trump .

  7. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/16/2018 - 03:50 pm.

    Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush1, Bush2, Trump.

    Why are they laughing ?

    Seems to me that a high percentage of modern Republican presidents (5 out of 7) could be classified as colossal duds that either drove the economy into a collapse, or lied their way into wars and crippling debt, or were downright criminal .

    Maybe it whom they are laughing at–their true believers..

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/16/2018 - 07:02 pm.

      I’m not sure that I’d include Ford or Hoover.
      Ford wasn’t in office long enough to do anything, and Hoover was in office when the economy tanked, and didn’t stay long enough to affect it one way or the other. There’s been a bit of revisionism in his favor.
      And remember that BushI coined the phrase ‘voodoo economics’.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/16/2018 - 07:02 pm.

        And unlike his son, he was smart enough to limit his involvement in Iraq.

        • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 10/17/2018 - 08:22 am.

          I believe there is a bottle of Zanax in his right hand. Also too, notice how Donny had the artist trim a considerable amount of weight from his ample frame.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/17/2018 - 08:17 am.

      I think they’re laughing at Reagan’s reputation as a tax cutter, given the huge tax increases he passed. Grover Norquist wouldn’t endorse him for dog catcher in 2018.

  8. Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 10/16/2018 - 04:59 pm.

    The Republican party is no longer the party of Lincoln. They traded Lincoln to the Democrats in the 1960s to acquire Strom Thurmond.

  9. Submitted by John Evans on 10/16/2018 - 10:05 pm.

    Your question is interesting. My sense is that it does stem from the fact that we don’t have proportional representation. Someone familiar with the dynamics of competition among two overwhelmingly large market players could probably explain it quite well.

    We see the two parties shifting positions simply as market positioning. If the Democrats wanted the anti-segregationist vote, they had to give up the south, and Nixon went all in on the southern strategy. The Democrats had been quite hawkish on foreign policy, but failure in Viet Nam made that untenable if they wanted to hang on to the liberal vote, so they gave it up, leaving another great opportunity for the Republicans. You couldn’t any longer win as a pro-war or pro-segregationist candidate, so Nixon’s people came up with a brilliant strategy to appeal to both these sentiments, without appearing to do so openly.

    Hence the war on drugs. As John Ehrlichman said in 1994, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

    And so, only eight years after Eisenhower left office, the Republican Party had changed radically, and not for any sort of ideologically principled reasons. It was just competitive market positioning of one party versus the other in a (practically) closed system. If they’re going to compete, the principles have to be fluid because in a closed system, something’s gotta give.

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/17/2018 - 05:43 am.

    Why things happen in the United States has a lot to do with how local parties often are. Until recently, the Democratic Party was a coalition between the liberals and labor in the north and racists in the south. Republicans are quite right when they argue that until recently, the Democrats were the party both of FDR and the Klan. But maybe Lincoln’s insight about houses and whether or not they can stand applies just as much to political parties as it does to countries.

    • Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 10/17/2018 - 02:03 pm.

      Depends on your definition of recent. The dixiecrats first left the Democratic Party not too long after WWII. Later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 led most of the rest to move to the Republican Party. That’s 50 years ago.

  11. Submitted by Misty Martin on 10/17/2018 - 05:44 am.


    Thank you AGAIN for always enlightening us. I love it when you help us to remember history correctly (I don’t like President Trump’s version, lol) and I ALWAYS feel like I come away from reading your articles enlightened, which I like to be. Knowledge is power. Wouldn’t that make our current POTUS rather “powerless” since he hates reading and books, except for tweets. Let’s not forget his tweets.

    It is my humble opinion that the former Presidents (now deceased) of this great land would gag if they saw this portrait now hanging in the White House. I’m sure great men, such as these (we’ll exclude President Nixon for now, as he is one of the few who might actually agree with our current POTUS’ schemes and lies) would in no way wish to be associated with the insults, outright lies, and possible dangerous policies – both domestic and foreign – coming out of the White House on a regular basis. Whether or not any living Republican Presidents agree with President Trump’s presidency thus far, I’ll leave that up to them to decide and inform us, should they feel the need to do so.

  12. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/17/2018 - 09:40 am.

    As Mr. Foster notes, American parties–and politics generally–are heavily grounded in local concerns. Political parties in the US are unique in that they were originally organized around regional, rather than ideological, lines, and were constituted to further economic interests. Northern Republicans represented capital and financial interests, while Democrats were more agrarian in their focus (this, I realize, is a gross oversimplification).

    The two parties started to shift in the mid-20th century, as the Democrats took up civil rights as one of their issues (the “shift to the left” that former Democrats bemoan as the party “abandoning” them). The Republicans sensed an opportunity, and dropped their party’s long-standing commitment to racial justice. When overt support for segregation became unacceptable, social issues filled the void. The GOP came out against abortion, and got rid of its long-standing advocacy for an Equal Rights Amendment.

    While it is unusual to have parties do such turn-arounds, what is truly unusual about American parties is their increasing ideological rigidity. In most democracies, there is room for difference and dissent within a party (e.g. the British Tories have hard and soft Brexit factions that are in fairly open contention). The insistence of orthodoxy is the reason real compromise has gone out of fashion in Washington. There is no incentive for meeting the other side half way when an official will be reviled and demonized for doing so.

    • Submitted by John Evans on 10/17/2018 - 10:42 am.

      What ideological rigidity? Both parties will sell out any principle to get or keep power. In a closed system, they have to. What is either party willing to stand up for, even if it means loss of power, at least in the short-term?

      I can see only one absolutely, rock-solid, bottom-line position that either party would be willing to go to the mat for. That is the Republican tax-cut for the rich.

      But that’s not an ideology that’s taught in any political science class, it’s just organized corruption, which can only be sold to the body politic with lies.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/17/2018 - 11:16 am.

        Gun control, abortion, immigration, to mention three. The rigidity is mainly on the Republican side, although anti-abortion Democrats are having a hard time of it.

        None of those issues have kept the Republicans out of power, of course. They are played very effectively to manipulate voters into supporting their truly important issues (which, as you note, is tax cuts for the wealthy)

  13. Submitted by Roy Everson on 10/18/2018 - 07:31 am.

    Pretty sure the woman to the right of Reagan is Stormy Daniels.

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/19/2018 - 09:18 am.

    I like the painting with the dogs better. That painting is more fun to look at and it’s more honest in a curious way.

  15. Submitted by Gary Fredrickson on 10/20/2018 - 01:05 am.

    According to RB Holbrook the rigidity is on the Republican side. Gun control, abortion and immigration. Sounds like projection to me. Tax cuts for the Rich! The bottom 50% of tax payers pay 3% of income taxes. Naturally any even handed tax cut goes more to the top 50% of tax payers.The idea is to improve the business climate and spur the economy which is good for all. A rising tide lifts all boats. While I am not a fan of the Republican party at least they occasionally get something right. The slide of the Democrat party from liberal to leftist and the elevating of socialism from a dirty word has caused me to not support a Minnesota Democrat since Tim Penny. And just to correct some statements made above, The majority of the “Dixiecrats” stayed Democrats until they died. Including Hillary’s mentor Robert Byrd. Look it up. And not on Wikipedia,

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/20/2018 - 10:56 am.

      Mr. Fredrickson, you’re describing trickle down economics. You should know that TDE is based on magical thinking (i.e. cut taxes and wait for the magic to happen… and when it doesn’t happen…. cut taxes some more).

      Unfortunately American business people tend to be really really bad economists. Whenever I run into business people who celebrate Republican economics and trickle down philosophy I always ask them why they think recessions are so good for business and how much wealthier they got during the LAST recession? All I’ve gotten by way of response is the blank stair of a deer in the headlights.

      It’s simply an historical fact that whenever TDE is deployed in any significant way it triggers recessions one way or another, and recessions are NOT good for business. This is why despite 40 years of trickle down, 90% of all the new wealth generated by the economy has landed in the bank accounts of the top 10% while everyone else has little or less income growth. And once that wealth lands with the wealthy, its stays there; we have the lowest class mobility rate in the developed world. Meanwhile American businesses struggle to keep pace with competitors in higher tax states and countries with less disparity and better infrastructure.

      As for the 3% of taxes that the “bottom” 50% pay, this is math trick of magical thinking that Republicans frequently pitch.

      In short, yes even assuming that everyone paid let’s say 3% of their income in taxes, 3% of a million will always yield more dollars than 3% of $50k. But that doesn’t mean the wealthy are paying more taxes relative to their income and it’s doesn’t mean the less wealthy are getting a “deal” of some kind while the wealthy pick up the tab.

      When you start factoring all the other sundry complexities such as the tax credits and dodges the wealthy rely on (There was just a story about Kushner not paying any taxes at ALL on hundreds of millions of income, and of course Trump refuses to even let us see his tax returns) you find that in real terms relative to income the bottom 90% are actually paying a disproportionately high tax rate. And no, we have not gotten to live in paradise in return for letting the wealthy have so much wealth.

  16. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/20/2018 - 11:29 am.

    You know it’s kind of weird to see erstwhile “liberal” media like Minnpost producing so much content that seeks to rehabilitate the Republican Party in some way? In addition to this attempt to characterize Republican’s of old as sometimes “progressives” we have another article about a book by Durenberger and Sturdevant that claims to explore past Republican dalliances with “progressivism”.

    It’s kind of a bizarre exercise that seems to be designed to reassure us that Republican’s are “necessarily” the reactionary right wing Party of today… buy why? Is this some attempt to moderate our views so we’ll consider voting for Republicans in the future… if they return to moderation of kind?

    I remind everyone that the “good ol days” of centrist status quo and complacency collapsed for a lot of very good reasons, not the least of which was constant and seemingly perpetual leadership failures. Sure it was “great” if you lived in an elite bubble of some kind but it obviously didn’t work out for everybody else.

    At any rate the whole question is weird because the history of political affiliation is extremely complex and cannot be described coherently as mere episodes of progressive mentalities among Republicans. The progressive era that Teddy Roosevelt represents bears very little resemblance to post Viet Nam war progressiveness, they’re very different animals. For one thing Marxism had zero influence on American attitudes during the Progressive Era, and Roosevelt’s progressive era was quite racist and paternalistic. Lincoln and Civil War are their own epoch, and when you throw in stuff like the Great Awakening’s none of this can be understood as mere lapses of progressiveness.

    At any rate, the Republicans own their current circumstance and history will record whether or not they survive the implosion they’re currently headed for. If “moderates” or someone else is going to save the Party, they better step up soon is all I can say.

    In the meantime this nostalgia for mythical “progressive” Republican’s strikes me a kind of goofy. Republican’s can more or less “regressive”, but they’re never “progressive” in sense of contemporary progressives.

  17. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/21/2018 - 10:53 am.

    Just a quick note… back in the 80s I used to vote for a Republican by the name of Jim Rhodes, he was the house guy for SLP and Hopkins. I voted for him because he was a decent representative and when I called him during a stadium debate and told him to remember that no matter how much public money we put into any stadium, it’s worth one dollar the day after it opens. He actually called me back and said my message made him laugh AND made up his mind… he voted against and the measure failed.

    All of the Democrats (including the one that replaced Rhodes after the redistricting) promised to vote down public financing or at least require the legally required referendums… and then for voted for the stadium regardless when they got the chance. My lesson from this isn’t that Republican’s can more progressive, rather Democrats can be just as duplicitous. But I liked Jim.

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