Students Frequently Ask this Question: when did the major US parties switch places, and why? Which is to say, when and why did the Democrats, who had been the party of limited federal government, begin to favor expanding Washington’s power? When and why did the Republicans, who had favored so strong a central government in Washington that they would accept a civil war rather than see its power curbed, become the party rhetorically committed to curbing its power?
When is easier to answer than why, though there’s no single date. (It would be nicer, though, if in one presidential election, say, the two candidates had done a partial do-si-do and ended up in each other’s places.) But we can pretty easily bracket the era of change.
At the beginning, we can put the Civil War. During the 1860s, the Republicans favored an expansion of federal power and passed over Democratic opposition a set of laws sometimes called the Second American System, providing federal aid for the transcontinental railroad, for the state university system, for the settlement of the West by homesteaders; for a national currency and a protective tariff.
Taken together, this was a highly ambitious program for expanding federal power. It was mercantilist, but it also aimed to get small-time farmers and ordinary citizens to buy into it with the Homestead Act and the state universities. And, broadly speaking, Democrats opposed it.
The postwar era of Reconstruction saw this division grow clearer, as the Republicans supported an expansion of federal power to provide civil right for African Americans in the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Fourteenth Amendment and the creation of the Department of Justice—an expansion that, again, Democrats opposed.
So through the early 1870s, then, the lines are pretty clearly drawn. Let’s leave that era for a moment and flash forward to our closing bracket, which we might as well make the 1936 election. Here we have the Democratic incumbent Franklin Roosevelt winning reelection for the successes and promise of the New Deal, which expanded federal power to provide … well, an awfully long list of benefits including banking, securities, and currency regulation; relief for the unemployed and pensions for the elderly; wilderness conservation; improvements to roads and electric infrastructure; support for unionization; and much else. And he was opposed in this election by Republicans staunchly against this expansion of state power.
So the switch takes place sometime between, let’s say, 1872 and 1936. That may not sound very narrow, but it’s a start.
Now, we can go further by finding some landmark dates in there. One of them has to be the 1896 election, when the Democratic Party fused with the People’s Party, and the incumbent Grover Cleveland, a rather conservative Democrat, was displaced by the young and fiery William Jennings Bryan, whose rhetoric emphasized the importance of social justice in the priorities of the federal government. The next time the Democrats had a Congressional majority, with the start of Wilson’s presidency in 1913, they passed a raft of Bryanish legislation, including the income tax and the Federal Reserve Act. And the next Democratic president after that was FDR. So from Bryan onward, the Democratic Party looks much more like the modern Democratic Party than it does like the party of the 1870s.
Oddly though, during the first part of this period, i.e., the time of Bryan, the Republican Party does not immediately, in reaction, become the party of smaller government; there’s no do-si-do. Instead, for a couple of decades, both parties are promising an augmented federal government devoted in various ways to the cause of social justice. It’s not until the 1920s, and the era of Coolidge especially, that the Republican Party begins to sound like the modern Republican Party, rhetorically devoted to smaller government.1 And that rhetorical tendency doesn’t really set in firmly until the early 1930s and the era of Republican opposition to the New Deal.
So now we have a better idea of when this happens; we need now at least the beginning of an explanation why. And the short answer to that is, the West. Which is to say, had the US not expanded westward and taken in a swath of new states in the post-Civil War era, it’s plausible that the parties would have remained as they were, with the Democrats the party of the South and states’ rights and segregation, and the Republicans seeking electoral advantage by trying to enforce civil rights legislation. But the admission of new western states changed the political calculus. In the West were voters disillusioned with the Republican Party’s Second American System, which turned out awfully favorable to banks, railroads, and manufacturing interests, and less favorable to small-time farmers such as those who had gone West and gone bust.
Those western voters were up for grabs—Bryan got them in 1896, Roosevelt helped McKinley get them in 1900, and got them for himself in 1904—and the only way to get them was to promise that some of the federal largesse that had hitherto benefited the northeast. Which is why you have the period of both parties promising some augmentation of federal power in the decades around the turn of the century.
Now, what happens next is that the Republicans prove able to regain western electoral votes from 1920 without having to promise anything much like Bryanite policies. Why this happens is, to my mind, a bit murky. Possibly it’s because a lot of Bryanite policies have already been passed, and western voters are less rebellious. Possibly it’s because of reaction against the Democrats and the war. Possibly it’s to do with the reaction against immigration. Or all of the above plus something else.
Anyway, that’s the when plus a little of the why the parties switched places. Now, one can get cleverer and point out that although the rhetoric and to a degree the policies of the parties do switch places, their core supporters don’t—which is to say, the Republicans remain, throughout, the party of bigger businesses; it’s just that in the earlier era bigger businesses want bigger government and in the later era they don’t. But this post is already long enough.
1That is to say, rhetorically devoted to smaller government even while increasing government’s size and power to regulate behavior with, e.g. Prohibition—but that’s another wrinkle to this story.