A brief political history of the United States (after that whole Confederacy thing)
1865-1877: Reconstruction! Not as cool as R.E.M. made it sound. The Ku Klux Klan kicks into high gear. The Republican Party, founded in 1854 in large part to prevent the spread of slavery to new states and territories, is trying to be the good guys, held back a bit by Southern Democrats stuffing boxes with ballots and stuffing people with bullets.
1877-1901: Jim Crow laws keep Black people in their place — more specifically, out of white people’s places like bus seats and voting booths. Except for the period in which conservative Democrat Grover Cleveland and tariff-happy Republican Benjamin Harrison play ping-pong with the presidency, Republicans control the White House.
1901-1909: Racist Democrats still rule the South while the Republicans rule the country, but let’s take a moment here to talk about Teddy Roosevelt, perhaps the only prominent human being to be a legit paragon of excellence for bleeding-heart liberals and macho dudes with guns. On one hand, he was the leading progressive of the era, establishing national parks and winning a Nobel Peace Prize. On the other, he was a war hero and firm believer in a hardy, athletic lifestyle. He was shot on the way to deliver a speech while running to return to the White House in 1912, urged the crowd not to kill his assailant, and went on to deliver the goddamn speech.
1909-1921: Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, proves to be the anti-Roosevelt, spending more time ordering bathtubs in which he could fit than continuing Roosevelt’s successful progressive policies. Roosevelt splits from the party to form the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party, which explains why he was running for the presidency again when he gave the Speech with the Gaping Bullet Wound, leaving the door open for Southern Democrat Woodrow Wilson to lead us belatedly into World War I while making sure Black people were suitably oppressed.
1921-1933: Warren G. Harding begins a succession of Republican mediocrities, evading scandal by cleverly dying in the middle of his term. Calvin Coolidge takes office as a man who truly espoused what a lot of people in the late 20th century claimed to be — fiscally conservative but, you know, nice. He hands off to Herbert Hoover just in time for the Great Depression.
1933-1953: At last, the modern Democratic Party comes into being. Sort of. Some people argue that the New Deal rescued the country’s economy. Some argue that it was World War II, perhaps not realizing that wars also involve government spending. Harry Truman takes the baton from FDR as the Democrats truly start to split into a Northern liberal party and a Southern contingent united only by their dependence on the corrupt machinery left over from (and to an extent, still enforcing) Jim Crow.
1953-1961: Eisenhower was underrated in some respects, but anti-Communist hysteria got to everyone in the supposed land of free speech, and Southerns showed their patriotism by erecting a bunch of Confederate monuments.
1961-1969: JFK was overrated in some respects, but ornery old Lyndon Johnson got the Civil Rights Act passed despite a filibuster by, you guessed it, Southern Democrats (and some Republicans).
1969-1981: Nixon sweeps into office with a bunch of radical conservative policies like the Clean Air Act, greater government regulation for environmental reasons, Title IX, minority-owned businesses … wait a second … um … wait … was the Republican Party still progressive at this point? OK, but he still kept troops in Vietnam, and behind the scenes, he was an authoritarian who pushed the GOP’s ultimately successful Southern strategy and tried to keep an iron fist on everything out of paranoia that led to his downfall. Then came the amiable Gerald Ford and the amiable Jimmy Carter, who amiably stamped out corruption but couldn’t figure out how to make the economy work.
1981-1993: “I know how to make the economy work!” said Ronald Reagan. “Just ignore the deficit!” And it worked, kind of. He also single-handedly won the Cold War, yessiree — the fact that Mikhail Gorbachev bravely broke apart the Soviet Union had nothing to do with it. He was also progressive on immigration and a few other issues, but he gave a nod and a wink to the fiscal conservatives and Moral Majority who would later form an unholy alliance. His successor, George H.W. Bush, presided over final victories in the Cold War and the Gulf War and still got kicked to the curb in the next election because Republicans became viewed as out-of-touch elitists.
Taking stock: At this point, we had settled into a de facto three-party system. The Republicans were the “conservative” party whose wariness of government pushed them close to Libertarianism, but their religious outreach distinguished them from the Ayn Rand crowd. Liberal Democrats had taken up the Roosevelts’ progressive mantle. The Southern Democrats (Dixiecrats) were a diverse bunch of liberals, centrists who took advantage of the entrenched party machinery, and old-school Jim Crow racists.
1995-2001: “Hey, old-school racists and conservative-ish people who’ve been depending on the Democratic machine!” yelled Newt Gingrich. “You can just join the Republicans!” And so they did. The more conservative Dixiecrats switched parties and turned the South from, in modern colors, blue to red. The fact that the president was a very effective (aside from the odd impropriety and kowtowing to the Gingrich crowd) centrist Southern Democrat named Bill Clinton didn’t really matter to them.
2001-2009: Onward Christian soldiers! Except that George W. Bush was too bipartisan at heart to push the culture wars too hard. He wasn’t particularly effective, but he benefited from the old belief that you can’t vote against a wartime president, especially when running against a draft-dodger like John Kerry. Wait, what? Kerry was a war hero while Bush stayed home? Oh. Oops.
2009-2017: One of the most puzzling aspects of American history was that, given what we now know to have been latent racism, a Black man named Barack Obama won two terms with relative ease. A lot of people hated Obama — either because the GOP flirted with Libertarianism again with the short-lived “Tea Party” movement or because they were, you know, racist — but he won twice and competently managed the country even if a lot of his agenda (and, in an act of utter hypocrisy, his last Supreme Court nomination) was blocked in the Senate. It helped that he was damn good at his job, leading us through a long period of peace and prosperity — the latter after a couple of years of recovering through a complete economic meltdown in Bush’s last year. That meltdown led many to once again see the Republicans as out-of-touch Wall Streeters, which hindered the campaign of well-respected war hero (or “guy who was shot down,” in retroactive history) John McCain. Worse, McCain laid the groundwork for utterly unqualified candidates by naming Sarah Palin, a hateful ignoramus from Alaska, as his running mate.
But by this point, the progressive agenda had basically won on all fronts. The idea that Republicans were better had been managing the economy had been laid to waste by the successful Clinton and Obama presidencies in comparison with the dreadful Bush and Bush years. It was a great era for gay rights. Republican senators managed to block progress on gun laws and other things we really need(ed) to fix, but other than that, we were a happy center-left country.
2017: In another setback for out-of-touch New York rich guys, Donald Trump won. Reality TV fans and racists rejoiced.
And life has been utter hell since then, with progressives’ “yell at people on Twitter even if they’re basically on our side” strategy losing out to the “own the libs” slogan of old farts who want to take America back to, let’s say 1958. And so progressives have failed to stop setbacks for gay rights, abortion rights and environmental regulation, and old-school Republicans have failed to stop the rise in authoritarianism and hatred coming from their ranks. The GOP has indeed destroyed the “libs” — if you mean “libertarian.”
The only thing unifying the old Tea Party crowd with the New Right is a hatred of “liberals,” a term that now encompasses everyone who believes in modern medicine, modern economics and respect for all humanity. Nothing unites the Democrats, though many progressives also hate “liberals” for being ineffectual people who can’t convert the will of the American people on most issues into effective policy. The fact that those progressives make the “liberals” ineffectual because they keep tearing them down is lost on the next generations.
The next generations will eventually make this a better place. Gay rights will remain the law of the land, and we’ll have reasonable policies on guns and abortion. We’ll be respected around the world, as we were before and after Trump. Racism will be all but dead. Economic policy will be a grounds for effective compromise.
Let’s hope we live long enough to see it.
IN CARTOON FORM
In response to Elon Musk’s take on the political spectrum supposedly moving left, I made a few cartoons showing how things have actually gone since 2008.
- February 2021 (update), History.com: Republican Party
- January 2021 (update), History.com: Democratic Party
- January 2019: Pew Research Center: Generation Z Looks a Lot Like Millennials on Key Social and Political Issues
- December 2012, Weekly Sift: A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System
- May 2012, Salon: My break with the extreme right — I worked for Reagan and wrote for National Review. But the new hysterical right cares nothing for truth or dignity.