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

While we have 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.

“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.

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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.

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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.”