The positions of the two parties have not

The GOP, like its opposition, has responded to
ideological, demographic and social changes by hardening some of its positions
and adopting entirely new planks, all part of an effort to create a coalition
capable of winning national elections. In the Republicans’ case, that meant
adapting and appealing to a new base in the South from the 1970s forward,
becoming the dominant party of white suburbia, and finding ways to marry its
traditional pro-business foundation with less affluent, more socially
conservative voters.

Although its founders
refused to recognize the right of states and territories to practice slavery,
the modern Republican Party supports states’ rights
against the power of the federal government in most cases, and it opposes the
federal regulation of traditionally state and local matters, such as policing
and education. Because the party is highly decentralized (as is the Democratic
Party), it encompasses a wide variety of opinion on certain issues, though it
is ideologically more unified at the national level than the Democratic Party
is. The Republicans advocate reduced taxes as a means of stimulating the
economy and advancing individual economic freedom. They tend to oppose
extensive government regulation of the economy, government-funded social
programs, affirmative action, and policies aimed at strengthening the rights of
workers. Many Republicans, though not all, favor increased government
regulation of the private, noneconomic lives of citizens in some areas, such as
abortion, though most Republicans also strongly oppose gun-control legislation.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to support organized prayer in
public schools and to oppose the legal recognition of equal rights for gays and
lesbians. Regarding foreign policy, the Republican Party traditionally has
supported a strong national defense and the aggressive pursuit of U.S. national
security interests, even when it entails acting unilaterally or in opposition
to the views of the international community.

Perhaps it’s the parties,
not the voters, who have shifted. The parties have indeed flipped on racial
issues, corresponding to the movement of southern whites from the Democratic to
the Republican party.  On issues of
economic policy and income redistribution, however, the relative positions of
the two parties have not changed so much. Liberal Republicans have disappeared
and conservative Democrats have diminished in number, but even back in 1896 it
was the Republican party that was more economically right-leaning in 1896.

Then, as now, the Republican Party supported big business and Democrats took
the side of labor. The major economic policy difference compared to that of
today may be trade: Republicans have traditionally favored tariffs, with the
Democrats supporting free trade. Franklin Roosevelt lowered tariffs during his
presidency. But by 1993, when Bill Clinton pushed for the ratification of the
North American Free Trade Agreement, it was against the opposition of organized
labor and a majority of the Democrats in Congress, and free trade is now more
strongly associated with the Republicans. Then and now, however, it has been
Republicans who are more supportive of, and more supported by, business, and
Democrats with more liberal policies.

There isn’t any poll data
from 100 years ago, but my impression from reading the political history
of that period is that there have been some changes in the issues that seem
most important. Racial politics were extremely important in the late 1800s
(especially in the South) and remain important today—but the two parties have
switched sides. Then it was the Republicans, now it is the Democrats, who have
the support of African Americans. Beyond this, though, we suspect that economic
issues were as important then as now. Bill Clinton campaigned on “the economy,
stupid,” and at the close of the 1800s political debates centered on the gold
standard, tariffs, and other aspects of economic policy.

Another puzzling aspect of the Great American
Reversal is the reappearance of nearly tied elections. Here is a list of all
the U.S. presidential elections, from my research, that were decided by less
than 1% of the popular vote: 1880, 1884, 1888, 1960, 1968, 2000. The other
closest elections were 1844 (decided by 1.5% of the vote), 1876 (3%), 1916
(3%), 1976 (2%), and 2004 (2.5%). Four straight close elections in the
1870s–1880s, five close elections since 1960, and almost none at any other

From the standpoint of political theory, we would
expect elections to generally be close: each party has an electoral incentive
to move toward the center to capture wavering votes. But over long stretches of
American history, close presidential elections have not been the norm.

One possible explanation is that after the 1880s the Democrats were largely satisfied
with control over the south, along with the political machines of New York and
other large cities; national politics were less important in that period except
as a way of brokering regional disputes. Since the New Deal, however, federal
policy and dollars have been important enough for both parties to seriously
contest national elections whenever possible. Politics today is centered on
national media and polling, whereas a hundred years ago voters were reached

Bring in the Civil Rights Act.  While Democrats struggled with their party’s
internal contradictions on the issue—deferring far too frequently to the
demands of Southern segregationists who held powerful committee chairs in the
House and Senate, and who commanded machines that delivered needed electoral
votes—Republicans demanded action. “When President John F. Kennedy failed to
submit a promised civil rights bill, three Republicans (Representatives William
McCulloch of Ohio, John Lindsay of New York and Charles Mathias of Maryland) introduced
one of their own,” noted The New York Times in recalling the great
struggles of the era. “This inspired Mr. Kennedy to deliver on his promise, and
it built Republican support for what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”  When the key votes in the House and the
Senate came fifty years ago, Republicans were significantly more supportive of
the Civil Rights Act than were Democrats. The measure passed the House on a
290-130 vote, with support from 61 percent of House Democrats (152 in favor,
ninety-six opposed). But Republican lawmakers gave it 80 percent backing (138
in support, just thirty-four against). 
Unfortunately, the Republican Party that has spent much of its energy in
recent years promoting restrictive Voter ID laws and that is currently entertaining
a telling debate about Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran’s outreach to
African-American voters in last month’s runoff election fight, often finds
itself at odds with the legacies of Lincoln and the Republicans who championed
civil rights in the mid-1960s.  The voter
base of the GOP has been changing in directions opposite from national trends.

It has become older and less Hispanic or Asian than the general population.

Jackie Calmes has reported a dramatic shift in the power base of the party, as
it moves away from the Northeast and Pacific States and toward small-town
America in the South and West. During the 2016 presidential election, the
Republicans also gained significant support in the Midwest. It has become more
populist in its distrust of large corporations and of state and federal
governments. In a shift over a half-century, the party base has been
transplanted from the industrial Northeast and urban centers to become rooted
in the South and West, in towns and rural areas. In turn, Republicans are
electing more populist, antitax and antigovernment conservatives who are less
supportive—and even suspicious—of appeals from big business. Big business, many
Republicans believe, is often complicit with big government on taxes, spending
and even regulations, to protect industry tax breaks and subsidies—’corporate
welfare,’ in their view.  I highly doubt
many former Republicans would even recognize their own party if they were
around today to see it such as, Ronald Reagan or Dwight Eisenhower.