Why did the Parties Switch as Conservative & Liberal?

Graffiti in Licata, Sicily — photo by N. Licata

The Democratic and Republican parties have flipped their basic philosophies since being founded. Currently, we strongly associate each with being conservative or liberal. We often assume that conservatives are Republicans and Democrats are liberals. But it was the opposite for approximately the first 80 years of our nation’s founding.

Each party’s orientation was and still is primarily determined by two elements of our society: the economic structure and the social values. The economics of a market economy concentrates wealth to allow the few to magnify their interests, and the social values of a society galvanize the majority to vote in a democracy to protect those values.

Understanding why the two dominant political parties traded roles helps us understand how the economic and social forces shaped our history and will determine our future.

The intensity of the parties’ conflicting positions reached their summit just before the Civil War when the energized Northern liberals formed the Republican Party to address the social issue of ending Black slavery. The Democratic voter base was securely grounded in the conservative values of the South, which clung to each state’s freedom to own Black slaves.

The South’s dependence on slavery was an unrecognized anchor weighing down their economy’s growth potential. Although on paper, white households in the South were wealthier than their counterparts in the North at all levels of family wealth. However, 90 percent of the nation’s manufacturing output came from northern states. The North far outproduced the South in textiles, pig iron, and firearms.

After the war, the parties drifted away from their pre-Civil War position on government powers. Advocating for a social policy of racial equality was not part of either party’s political agenda.

As the social liberalism of the Northern Republicans declined, the abolitionists’ commitment to advocate for Black citizens was replaced by a weariness for doing anything more to secure a bearable future for them. Efforts to reform the Southern dwindled as the party took on new members representing Northern business interests. They didn’t need enslaved Black people. Also, due to supplying goods to the war effort, Northern…