Race, History, and the American Party System

One of the topics touched on in several articles in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly (“Race, History and Obama’s Second Term”) is the intersection of race relations in America with the political party system. It is a trickier subject than is often assumed.

Highly simplistic American histories (e.g., the kind I was raised on) often imply that the Civil War was touched off by the replacement of a conservative Whig Party in the North by an more-or-less aggressively anti-slavery Republican Party which conquered the South by military means and then struggled with Jefferson’s and Jackson’s Democratic Party for control of the country until the old coalitions broke up and reversed positions over the New Deal and the Great Society, which takes us right up to contemporary politics.

It’s a little more complicated than that. The formation of the Republican Party did indeed trigger the Civil War, but mainly because it destroyed the bipartisan silence over slavery that the Second Party System, with its two parties anchored more or less equally in South and North, relied upon. The GOP voting coalition did indeed center on former Whigs, but a significant element (and a disproportionate share of its leadership) was composed of antislavery Democrats, many of them leaving the Jefferson-Jackson Party by way of the Liberty and Free Soil parties (the latter nominated as its 1848 presidential candidate none other than the founder of the Jacksonian Democratic Party, Martin Van Buren). As the Whigs collapsed and the American (or “Know-Nothing”) and Constitutional Union parties failed and war arrived, former southern Whigs moved en masse to the Democratic Party, which after the Civil War did indeed become the explicit White Man’s Party all over the country, even as former slaves universally supported Republicans. So race, the Great Unmentionable subject in the Second Party System quickly became central to the Third (though the Populists created the the very brief but tantalizing possibility of a biracial coalition in the South).

Race again became relatively Unmentionable as the White Man’s Party gradually adopted liberal political principles and policies requiring an activist federal government (even in the poverty-stricken South) in the 1920s, while Republicans became associated with an ideology of limited government. The last overtly racist president was Democrat Woodrow Wilson; the last overtly racist presidential nominee was probably Democrat James Cox in 1920 (whose running-mate was FDR). There were a balance of racial progressives and reactionaries (with reactionaries mostly holding the reins) in both parties until the Civil Rights Act put into motion the dynamics that created the new party coalitions enduring today.

The alternating silence and outspokenness on racial issues in the competition between major parties has served to underline how poorly America has done in achieving racial equality, and how strongly the temptation persists to pretend race is no longer an issue. From very different perspectives and for wildly different reasons, both conservative Republicans and Barack Obama now like to talk about a post-racial politics and society. We clearly have not arrived.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.