Hey there, I was just looking for somewhere to post my overview of the history of the American political parties, so I just thought I'd post here. I hope at least some people have time to read it and find it interesting but I don't know if I'll get any replies, I guess if I started a discussion it would be nice lol. You should find this interesting if you're interested in history (even if you totally disagree with my analysis). I'm British but I follow American politics closely.
People often say that the Democratic and Republican parties have switched places since the Civil War. People see the Democrats as having been the right-wing party back then and the Republicans as having been the left-wing party. I don't think this is the case. I don't think the categories of `right' and `left', `liberal' and `conservative' really apply to back then. The political dynamic was different and is incompatible with today.
The difference is that the Republicans were fundamentally the more `ACTIVIST' party, following in the tradition of the Federalists and the Whigs. This activism led to things which could be considered both left and right wing in today's terms, both economically and socially. They were `central government', pro-national bank, government involvement in economy, etc. This might seem more liberal in today's terms, but the truth is that this meant they were more pro-big business, more elitist, more pro-`Northern industrialist', and other things which might seem more conservative by today's standards. Socially, they were anti-slavery, but this doesn't necessarily mean they were liberal, rather, abolitionism can be seen as a moral crusade in the same way as the anti-abortion campaign of today. This is backed up by the fact that many abolitionists were Northern preachers, and they were also opposed to alcohol and Catholic schools, etc.
The Democrats, on the other hand, were fundamentally the more `LAZY GOVERNMENT' party, the party of Andrew Jackson and the classical liberals, localist, against big government, following on from the Democratic-Republican Party. Again, this led to principles that might seem both liberal and conservative these days. Opposition to abolitionism might seem conservative, but it might be taken as similar to the opposition to anti-abortionism of today - abolitionism can be seen as as much of a Christian moral issue as anti-abortionism. The Democrats were also more welcoming to Catholics, alcohol, etc. Economically, the Democrats were very opposed to government involvement (conservative in today's terms), but also idealised a quite agrarian society and wouldn't have thought much of big business (kind of liberal in today's terms).
So basically, the Republicans wanted a bunch of towns full of enterprising, moral WASPs. The Democrats wanted a lassiez-faire agrarian society with no tyrannical government.
Reflecting these differences, the constituencies after the Civil War were more-or-less as follows. The Republicans were supported by:
1. Northern Protestants (WASPs), with their business-like ways and pietistic, moralistic attitudes. The more old-stock New England puritan they were, the more likely Republican they would have been.
2. African-Americans, as the Republicans were the party of Lincoln.
Democrats were supported by:
1. White Southerners, as the Democrats were the non-Lincoln party.
2. Catholics, as the Democrats were much less hands-on about morality and thus less pro-Protestant.
It seems strange that the highly xenophobic white Southerners would have formed an alliance with Catholics, but they did so based on shared opposition to Republican moralising, whether abolitionist or anti-Catholic. And there were few Catholics in the South, so this wasn't an issue for Southerners. The negligible number of atheists/agnostics in those days would, I imagine, have leaned Democratic.
After Reconstruction ended, party lines blurred a lot. Nonetheless I will contend that the differences I outlined above broadly held into the 1920s. If not so much the policies, then certainly the constituencies were still the same into the 1920s - northern WASPs and African-Americans for the Republicans, rednecks and Catholics for the Democrats. In that decade, the moralistic Republicans (e.g. Herbert Hoover) supported prohibition, which was mostly opposed by Democrats (e.g. Al Smith), or at least northern Democrats, with their Catholicism and saloons. The issue of African-American rights largely faded into the background after Reconstruction, and the Republican moralisers moved on to temperance, etc. The Republicans were very pro-business through the 1920s.
It was the Great Depression that changed everything. The Democrats under FDR implemented the New Deal and began calling themselves liberals. The Republicans remained pro-business and began calling themselves conservatives. In that decade, the Democrats began to attract African-American voters for the first time, on account of their economic policies. Thus, the New Deal coalition was formed, comprising Southerners, Catholics and African-Americans as Democrats. Non-Southern, capitalist WASPs would have formed the core of the GOP now. The Dems concomitantly became the party of big federal government while the GOP was left free to take on the mantle of states' rights. The South was not in any way put off by the New Deal; economically, the thirties South was not `conservative' in today's terms, and while certainly opposed to socialism they wouldn't have been crazy about big-business capitalism either, being a mostly agrarian area still, based around cotton, etc. The last bastion of the Democratic vote in the 1930s was, as it had always been, the South; the last bastion of the Republican vote in the 1930s was, as it had always been, New England.
This remained the same until the 1960s. The most noticeable development in that decade was the shattering of the `Solid South', i.e. the South as a solidly Democratic voting bloc; this was based on the Dems' support for African-American civil rights. In 1964, Republican Barry Goldwater of Arizona did not win any states outside the Deep South, other than his home state of Arizona. This was based on his support for keeping segregation, while the Democrat Lyndon Johnson opposed it. But Goldwater was not necessarily racist; he had previously voted in favour of civil rights bills, and his opposition to the 1964 bill was based on his highly libertarian, small-government ideology. He was notably more conservative (economically) than the preceding Republican candidates such as Eisenhower and Nixon, and most Republicans did support Civil Rights. Socially, Goldwater was not conservative, as shown by his pro-gay stance later in life. Thus it was only a quirk of fate, rather than a shift to racism, that led the Republicans to win over the South. As for why the Democrats gave up their racism, that is hard to say. The Southern Democrats didn't, really. They switched to the GOP in the seventies and eighties. It was the non-Southern Democrats who can be seen as being behind the 1960s support for Civil Rights - being now the party of the Left (and of African-Americans) everywhere outside the South, it was I suppose only natural for the Democrats, on a national level, to betray their Southern party co-members and support egalitarianism regarding African-Americans. Since 1948, when the Dixiecrats broke off from the national Democratic Party over the issue of race, this fracture in the party had been evident. Lyndon Johnson, who abolished segregation, was a Southern (Texan) Democrat, so that doesn't really back up my theory. But he wasn't a DEEP Southern Democrat, and not representative of the South. I suppose that by attracting northern liberals (e.g. Hubert Humphrey) with their New Deal economic policies, the Democrats had to leave their Southern base behind. Perhaps that can be taken as reflecting how their New Deal policies led them to become socially liberal in general. It is impossible to say for sure.
Another development of the 1960s and 1970s was the fact that Catholics stopped being solidly Democratic. In the face on the hippie movement and the fact that it became more associated with the Democrats, and the socially liberal, feminist, pro-abortion agenda infiltrating some parts of that party, which perhaps put off traditionalist Catholics. Also, by the 1970s, Catholics were too integrated into American society to continue seeing themselves as a separate demographic group. Since the 1970s they have voted about 50-50.
Thus by the 1970s the core of the Democratic vote was African-Americans and white liberals. As for the Republicans, they did not immediately pick up the South after 1964. As we have seen, they were not intrinsically racist, and in light of Goldwater's carrying of the South in 1964, Nixon inaugurated his `Southern Strategy' in 1968 - running on a `law and order', veiled racist platform, not because he was racist, but because he recognised that the South now stood open to be taken. But in 1968, even though he won the election, he didn't carry much of the South, which was carried by the more openly racist American Independent Party, under George Wallace. This can be seen as in some ways a reincarnation of Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat Party of 20 years earlier. In 1972, with Nixon facing the solidly left-wing Democrat George McGovern, he swept the whole nation, including the South. But in 1976, with the (liberal) Southern Democrat Jimmy Carter against the non-Southern Republican Gerald Ford, the South again voted Democratic. It was not until 1980, under Reagan, that the Republicans picked up the South as a safe constituency. Reagan picked up the evangelical Christian vote, which had previously been largely apolitical (I have read that in the days of the Solid South, Southern preachers stayed out of politics, seeing it as too dirty). The Republican Party was now largely evangelical (to Goldwater's disapproval). This can be seen as a continuation of the Southern strategy, as can the fact that Reagan started his 1980 campaign, I believe, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town notable only as the place where three Civil Rights activists had been murdered in 1964.
As recently as the 1990s, the (centrist) Southern Democrat Bill Clinton picked up much of the Deep South in the 1992 and 1996 elections. It was only in 2000 that the `segregation' of the USA along electoral lines commented on under Bush became a feature of American politics - the North-East and West Coast solidly Democratic, and the South, inland West and agricultural Midwest solidly Republican. Obama picked up a few surprising states in 2008 but the broad pattern still held, as I believe it will do in 2012.
The Democrats are now the liberal, left-wing party both economically and socially, supported by racial minorities and by liberal whites. The Republicans are now the conservative, right-wing party both economically and socially, supported by evangelical Christians, neo-conservatives, big corporations, etc. Which pretty much brings us up to today, I think.
My own political views are broadly libertarian, for the record. If I was an American I think I would vote for the Libertarian Party, but I would vote for the Republicans if it wasn't for the damned Christian right in that party. In my own country, I like the Tories and UKIP.
Maybe some day I'll do a history of the British political parties ...