As with so many other fields (sociology, psychology, to name a few), in order to make some sense of the differences between ‘groups’, we must create some boundaries in order to narrow the field enough to generalize adequately. To describe the difference in thinking between the left and the right is no doubt reductive, there being myriad variations within a group (part of the reason why stereotypes are so damaging), but it is still a useful bit of information to have. To boil it all down though, the constituents that remain suggest the greatest difference between left and right thinking is how we construct the world, that is, whether we assign more power to the individual or to the systems they exist within and are molded by.
The right in the United States identify as conservatives and are generally represented by the GOP at the political level, which also contains the Tea Party. This is common knowledge, but let’s talk about how we arrived here. The Republican Party began as an anti-slavery party in opposition to the Democratic party that dominated the South. Part of the reason for this political stance was that the Republicans supported capitalism. Capitalism, despite what many people are taught, is a system where workers sell their labor to employers who own the materials, the location, and the tools. It does not require a free market system in order to function. This distinction is important because this is what separates capitalism from feudalism or serfdom and slavery. Though the southern plantation owners could sell their goods into a free market, this did not make it capitalism, as people were commodified and not their labor. The Republican Party of the 19th century wanted a capitalist nation, not a slave nation (they were, in their time, very “liberal”). From this, the Grand Old Party morphed into a business party that represented the interests of capitalists and business owners. The Democratic Party, after the Civil War, represented white agricultural interests and opposed the efforts of the Radical Republicans during Reconstruction in the South. These differing interests help explain why, when one looks at electoral maps, we generally see and continue to see the North and the South voting for opposite parties. After Reconstruction ended the South continued to resent the Republican Party and rarely ever voted for Republican candidates, especially after the former slaves were disfranchised with restrictive voting laws. Literacy tests, with exemptions for those whose grandfathers could vote before 1963 (i.e. white men), as well as violence and the threat of violence, kept blacks from voting for the party of Lincoln. [As a side note, the reason why there is an explosion of violence against blacks in the South is because they were no longer goods, which meant damages to their bodies no longer carried an economic cost, nor did they have masters interested in their continued existence. Slavery though, for all intents and purposes, did not cease after the 14th Amendment. It continued into the 20th century. See John Pace’s Slave Farm for more on this.] After the turn of the century, neither party was viewed as the civil rights party or the labor party, which the Democratic party would come to be.
The Great Depression threw the Republican Party out of office, and in order to save American capitalism, Franklin Roosevelt helped make compromises, between the socialist and communist parties agitating for revolution or radical reform, and the capitalist business owners whose property would be at risk in such a revolution. Therefore, FDR helped ameliorate the plight of the laborer in America with thick safety nets, public spending, social welfare, and the legitimization of labor unions, all movements which had their roots in the Progressive Era . The Democratic Party dumped classic liberal economics in favor of Keynesian economics, which they continued to support until the Reagan Revolution. In the 50s and 60s the Democratic became the civil rights party with Lyndon B. Johnson pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after the assassination of JFK. This is likely one of the most important transitions in modern American history, because prior to this the South was firmly Democrat territory. The South strongly supported the New Deal, and much of the Great Society was focused on Appalachia, with programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority designed to bring the South into the modern age with electricity, running water, and other infrastructure. This change is most observable in the 1968 election of Richard Nixon. Within one presidential term the South switched from the Democratic Party, which represented them since before the Civil War, and helped bring many out of poverty and into one of the most prosperous times in American history, to the Republican Party of which its right wing continued to fight the New Deal some thirty years later. Brown v. Board of Education, though its ruling was in the fifties, wasn’t really enforced until the 60s. The rise of politicians like Barry Goldwater and George Wallace help to explain why the Republican Party came to dominate the South, and eventually much of the American landscape.
In my next post I will continue to discuss how the Republican came to its modern form up to the current date.