Race, power and money have shaped United States politics into what they are now, but it’s impossible to disentangle the three from one another — race and money are, ultimately and effectively, power. The three have permeated US history and remain ubiquitous in the current electoral cycle, although in many ways where, how and what they have represented has shifted significantly over time.
Most particularly perhaps, during the time of the Great Depression and World War II, the political environment of the United States and its parties were not how we conceptualize them today – in fact, the terminology for each was completely the reverse. Republicans of the time were a more liberal party who resisted the expansion of slavery, subsidized interstate transportation and supported higher wages. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, largely upheld the institution of slavery and was the party of limited government.
Post-war, however, political and social developments (like President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and efforts to desegregate American communities and institutions) led to a significant swap in the platforms of the parties that resulted in how we see them today.
By the mid-nineteenth century, many of the northern states had outlawed the enslavement of the Black community, while the southern states encouraged the expansion of the dehumanizing market practice into newly-forming territories and states in the American West. The ruling political class of the South earned the ideological moniker of “Southern Democrats,” with its predominant focus on upholding the slave economy.
Political parties in the North largely opposed the westward expansion of slavery, but for differing reasons. The short-lived abolitionist Free Soil party called for an end to slavery outright, while the larger Republican Party simply disagreed with its expansion. This disagreement was not necessarily to end slavery, but instead because Republicans feared allowing this would give too much federal power to the Democrats.
Following the late-18th century Revolutionary War, American leaders coded into law what is known as the Three-Fifths Compromise, which allowed Southern states to count enslaved people as three-fifths of a person, granting the states greater representation in Congress. The westward expansion of slavery would, in the eyes of the Republicans, create a political imbalance between regions that could have ultimately resulted in Democrat political dominance, an ongoing tension which ultimately sparked the Civil War.
As the U.S continued to industrialize, politicians within the Republican party in the north continued to make more money through the booming economy at the time. Once money started flowing, the “care” for African Americans all but disappeared. Similar to how Republicans still think today, the mantra for a “smaller” government, with less oversight, began.
After the Civil War, Republicans directed an effort to integrate the secessionist Southern states back into the Union, including the millions of formerly enslaved people living in them. Reactionary forces in the decades following, however, resisted, entrenching the disenfranchisement and sociopolitical persecution of African Americans into law and culture. Republicans lost the political will (or never had it to begin with) to ensure the equality of newly-freed slaves, just as white Southern Democrats continually perpetrated racial acts of terror.
Democrats codified the discrimination against Black Americans through Jim Crow legislation, an umbrella term for the laws that enforced segregation. The white-dominated South was resolutely opposed to granting civil rights to its Black citizens all while harboring resentment toward the northern Republicans for their triumph in the Civil War. White supremacist efforts to rewrite history and depict the secession of Southern states as a heroic battle for independence, are known today collectively as the Lost Cause, which explains deeply rooted phenomena such as the lingering popularity of the Confederate flag.
But that popularity today exists among Republicans rather than the Southern Democrats. While the foundations of the political switch were set across several decades of the early 20th century, it occurred in full between the end of the Civil War – when Black veterans began to question why they fought for a nation that did not respect them upon their return – and the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, which stated the equality of black and white nationwide.
For many white, Southern Democrats, the signing of the Civil Rights Act was the final straw, in which the Republican Party morphed into one of states’ rights, limited government and laissez-faire capitalism and the Democratic Party became one of liberal causes such as social welfare and civil rights, though with their own issues of racism despite greater support from Black and other marginalized communities.
African American voters moved to the Democratic Party as the Republican Party began to cater more towards the white southerners when Republican Barry Goldwater – who ran against Johnson – had a rhetoric that was also completely opposed to this bill. White southerners could no longer rely on the Democratic Party to support their pre-eminence and the legacy of segregation, thus beginning the major political shift that resisted and perpetuated integration while simultaneously disenfranchising Black Americans.
Although that was just the start of the shift, and though recent politics have simultaneously blended the two parties together and distinguished one from the other, this history plays a fundamental role in understanding why they are each viewed as such today – southern and midwestern states as more Republican, north-eastern and coastal states as more Democratic.
Race, power and money may have been the themes that caused this shift in the past, but they are still ultimately three of the most important aspects in each election currently today. More than just influencing political parties, past policies have had lingering effects on specific groups of people such as African Americans to this day. The history of the political parties in the US may help make sense of politics today, but it also shows how this history is so deep rooted into US society and consciousness as a whole. Far from being a historical footnote, the time when the north was the south and the south was the north is still resonating throughout the current election.
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