Michael Barone: Grand Old Parties ... The Republicans and Democrats Retain Their Original Character

Roundup: Talking About History

Michael Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

How did America’s two political parties get to be the way they are today? It’s a long story, for although we think of the United States as a young country, the Democratic Party, dating back to 1832, is the oldest political party in the world; the Republican Party, dating back to 1854, is the third oldest. (The second oldest is Britain’s Conservatives, if you date their beginning, as historian Robert Blake does, to the rallying of Tory opposition to the repeal of the Corn Laws by Benjamin Disraeli.) Nevertheless, over their history the two parties have retained their basic characters. The core of the Republican Party has been people who are considered by others and by themselves as typical Americans—Northern Protestants in the 19th century, married white Christians today—though they have never been by themselves a majority of the country. The Democratic Party, in contrast, has been a collection of out peoples considered by others and by themselves as not typical Americans—Southern whites and Catholic immigrants in the 19th century, blacks and gentry liberals today. Thomas Nast, the 19th-century (Republican) political cartoonist, was on to something when he depicted the parties as two different animals.
One corollary of the different characters of the two parties is that the Democratic Party has been more changeable than the Republican. Different out-groups have differing strength as new issues arise; disgruntled out-groups leave the party or, as they are assimilated and come to be seen as typically American, become part of the Republican core; new out-groups, like the peace protesters of the late 1960s and early 1970s, move into the party and upset the balance between its constituencies. From 1836 to 1932 the Democrats required that presidential nominees be chosen by a two-thirds vote at their national conventions. In effect, each out-group was given a veto over who should lead the party.
The Republicans have, however, undergone only one basic change, one made in response to a shift in the Democratic Party. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Republicans were the party more inclined to favor activist government. They wanted Congress to bar slavery in the territories and to undermine it in the slave states by appointing postmasters who would deliver abolitionist literature to slaves (Democratic postmasters put it in the round file). They wanted protective tariffs to encourage domestic industry. They prosecuted the Civil War, complete with an income tax and printing-press money, and after the war they favored generous pensions for Union Army veterans. Starting with the little-remembered Benjamin Harrison, progenitor of the first billion-dollar budget, they favored spending to build up a two-ocean navy. They passed bills purporting to regulate railroad rates and breaking up monopolies. They established the first national parks and forests, launched federal water reclamation projects, and built federal dams. Progressives like Robert La Follette of Wisconsin and George Norris of Nebraska did not think it anomalous that they remained Republicans during most of their careers. The party of Lincoln was not a laissez-faire party...

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