(A Facebook post.)
I wouldn’t call the Democrats reactionary before the Civil War. There were as many northern as southern democrats. And the Republicans didn’t exist till the 1850’s, and only became national when the Whigs dissolved (split like the Democrats by slavery). The Republicans were Abolitionists, and I suppose you could equate that with Progressivism, but after the War they also became the party of Big Capital and business. When Progressivism began it went after both Democratic big city corruption and Republican business ties. There was also a definite upper class edge to Progressives, and they were for eugenics, which is one of the great divides between New Deal Democrats and Progressives….FDR’s politics was anything but elitist. They could be racist, as he needed the Southern Democrats to counter all the Republicans who would have done in Social Security and the New Deal and just about everything else in his program, but they were never elitist. FDR never backed eugenics, not at all. That was a great ideological dividing line long since forgotten, and thankfully so.
Progressivism didn’t start till the turn of the century, actually, and before then it was the Democrats were more friendly to labor, for instance, and to immigrants, and small farmers and had a distinctive anti-Big Capital edge. William Jennings Bryan and Al Smith were Democratic progressives (well, Bryan was a proto-Progressive) and both were the nominee twice, and of course Woodrow Wilson actually won. And Progressivism actually sundered the GOP just as the Dixiecrats did the Democrats later. 1912 was the year the GOP split. Much of the Progressive GOP eventually wound up Democrats (though Al Smith wound up an anti-New Dealer, go figure.). During FDR’s terms much of what were to become Dixiecrats in 1948 were actually very pro-New Deal (Remember Huey Long?). FDR, like I said, was dependent on southerners to pass all his key legislation. It was a vastly different political world in the South from today’s.
The Dixiecrats broke from the Democrats in 1948 (over Truman’s civil rights and desegregationist tendencies) but then stayed loyal Democrats, pretty much, till 1968. Goldwater failed to attract as anywhere near as many as he’d hoped in 1964 (if you look at the state by states results, you’ll be amazed at how many states below the Mason Dixon line broke strongly for LBJ). In 1968 Wallace was the home of the Southern Democrats, and would have been again in 1972 had he not been shot. (Arthur Bremer is a very important man in American political history….) Wallace had no need to even join the American Independent party (A.I.P.), he could run as a Democrat in the primaries, and then as A.I.P. (or whatever label was handy) in the general (Sanders could conceivably follow the same route next year, as could Trump). Nixon just barely won in 1968 (he’d been sliding against Humphrey and it’s said that had the race gone on just a couple more days Nixon would have lost). In 1972, Wallace’s attempted assassination and removal from the race allowed the GOP to go after Southern Democrats in a big way in the general election because the Left had disastrously taken over the Democratic party that year. 1972 was the year the Nixon Campaign developed its vaunted Southern Strategy, which helped set the stage for the Reagan Revolution and the future of the Republican Party. The mess that the GOP is in today can be traced all the way back to 1972.
McGovern was a huge mistake for the Democrats. It took most moderate voters away from us for the first time since Eisenhower’s two elections (JFK aimed his campaign at them in 1960) and put them solidly in Nixon’s camp–and Nixon was running as a moderate more than as a conservative (people forget that now.) Nixon was not trying to dismantle the welfare state or environmental laws. He was not gunning for the unions. He was essentially an Eisenhower Republican, that is essentially a New Deal Republican. But Nixon took advantage of uncompromising southern racism to get southern Democrats to vote for him, or vote against the Democrat, anyway. (Though Wallace running as an independent would have served his purpose almost as well.) It was under Reagan that Nixon’s Southern strategy morphed into a way to undo the New Deal. That is, from 1980 on they weren’t using Nixon’s but Goldwater’s southern strategy. Goldwater sought to undo Civil Rights legislation and dismantle the New Deal. Nixon could not possibly have advocated that. There were still substantial numbers of liberal Republicans who had to be accommodated. (People forget that now, too.) They had tried in 1976 but failed, but Carter’s catastrophic presidency had left the country wide open to a conservative takeover, especially with the Left still unrecovered from 1972. The McGovern debacle, if not a mortal wound for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, was a crippling one. It took years and the birth of a new generation of voters for it to even begin recovering.
With each election cycle from 1982 on more southern Democrats were purged by the voters and the last of them flipped to Republicans in the 90’s. Democrats became as scarce south of the Mason Dixon line as Republicans had been fifty years before. But what truly turned the GOP so hard right on a national level was not so much the Southern Strategy but the purging of its northern liberals and moderates, the people who were instrumental in getting civil rights legislation passed. Watergate had made it worse when in 1974 and 1976 many of the Northern Republicans had been beaten by Democrats in their formerly safe Senate and House seats. As the liberal and moderate Republicans in the northeast disappeared, the numbers of Republican voters in the region dropped, leaving the party there increasingly conservative. Remaining moderates and liberals were then easy pickings for conservatives who would challenge them in the primaries and win, only more often than not be beaten in the general by a liberal Democrat. It was a party committing regional suicide for ideological purity. But by 1976 the writing had been on the wall for the liberal wing of the GOP anyway (that was the year Reagan’s delegates shouted Rockefeller down at the convention as he gave his speech, Rocky then flipped them off), and they’ve been virtually extinct for a couple decades now, ending the great tradition of Republican Progressives (in the old sense, not the new far left sense) that dated back to Teddy Roosevelt. There are no liberal Republicans now and few moderates, and very few conservative Democrats. And because of that Congress has been divided worse than at any time since 1860. It seems unlikely that anything as sweeping as, say, the 19th Amendment–the women’s right to vote–could get through Congress now.
I recall at the peak of the Tea Party there were calls in the South by extremist Republicans to recall the 13th Amendment–which had ended slavery–and to remove Lincoln’s birthday as a national holiday. For Republicans in the South, Lincoln was an enemy. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president. The man who made the GOP. He was now an enemy to many of the southern Republicans. Which made sense, because he had been an enemy of Southern Democrats. And thus do parties change. The once slave owning Democrats are now champions of civil rights and demanding the confederate flag be pulled down everywhere, while slavery loathing Republicans pass laws to repress black votes and even wave that very rebel banner that once represented everything their party hated. Ain’t life funny sometimes.