One commonly-played, and uncommonly dishonest, card that right-wing media likes to play is to perpetuate the lie that the present Democratic Party is ideologically unchanged from the Democratic Party of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th Centuries, and thereby the Democratic Party of Barack Obama and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is solely responsible for the nation’s sins of slavery and racial segregation, while Republicans are the party of the Great Emancipator, Abe Lincoln, and therefore deserve credit for everything good that has ever happened to black Americans. Sean Hannity detached his lips from Donald Trump’s ass long enough to repeat this garbage in a recent broadcast, but it appears to be a boilerplate script that resurfaces regularly on Fox News and other conservative outlets.
The reality is, of course, far different. Hannity and his ilk are playing sneaky games with party labels and ignoring the underlying philosophy at work and the ideological shifts the parties have undergone.
It’s true that, prior to the American Civil War, conservative Democrats from the South were the ones defending the peculiar institution, while their rivals, the Federalists, the Whigs, and finally the Republics, put up varying amounts of opposition to slavery. To be an abolitionist was to be not just a liberal, but a dangerous radical in the eyes of the conservative South.
After the end of Reconstruction, the social order of the Old South reasserted itself, and from the 1870s until the 1950s, movement toward civil rights for black Americans ground to a halt. Conservative southern Democrats worked with conservative Midwest Republicans to stymie any and all efforts toward civil rights legislation put forward by both liberal Republicans and liberal Democrats from the North and West.
In 1964, a coalition of liberal Republicans and liberal Democrats were finally able to pass the Civil Rights act, with an assist from the nation’s grief over Kennedy’s assassination and the efforts of President Johnson, who previously had been a reliable member of the conservative Southern segregationist caucus as Senate Majority Leader. His fellow conservative Southern Democrats were appalled when one of their own betrayed them by helping to pass and then signing the hated Civil Rights Act, followed by the Voting Rights Act the following year.
In 1968, the ascendant conservative wing of the Republican Party saw an opportunity to help Richard Nixon get the nomination and win the White House. Employing the coded language of “law and order,” Republicans signaled to disaffected conservative segregationists that Richard Nixon was on their side. So began the transition of the “Solid South” from a Democratic bastion, where voters would rather cut off their right arm than vote for the “Party of Lincoln,” to an equally solid Republican bastion. This couldn’t have happened if the Republican party hadn’t dropped its collective pants and taken a wet, steaming dump all over the legacy of our 16th president.
The right-wing pundit class is trying to sow confusion, conflating a party label with a position, trying to trick you into believing that, because some Democrats were once slave owners and segregationists, and Democrats today are liberals, that liberalism itself is inherently racist.
So, when Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter or Tucker Carlson spew such pure nonsense about how today’s Democratic Party is the party of slavery, segregation, and the Klan, remember that Strom Thurmond, one of the last of the unrepentant segregationists, was a Republican when he died.
Remember that the preservation of slavery was a conservative position.
Remember that Jim Crow and segregation were conservative positions.
Remember that the Klan was and is a conservative organization.
Remember that civil rights were, are, and always will be the liberal position.
If the slave owners of the antebellum South were around today, they would be Republicans. If the segregationists of the Old South were still a political force, they would be Republicans. David Duke, like almost all members of the Klan today, is a Republican.
The time when there were conservative Democrats fighting for segregation was a very different one in American politics. The two parties weren’t as ideologically monochromatic as they are today. There were liberals and conservatives in both parties. Bipartisanship often meant liberal Republicans and liberal Democrats siding against conservatives in their own parties.
Those days largely ended after 1968. Liberal or progressive Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Dewey, or Nelson Rockefeller are shining artifacts of the past. Even Richard Nixon, in many ways the architect of the solidly conservative Republican party, would probably find himself dismissed as a RINO (Republican In Name Only) by today’s Tea Party, Freedom Caucus fanatics.
Today Republican politicians are the ones defending the statues of Confederate war heroes, also known as traitors and losers. That’s all you need to know, and it’s why calling the modern Republican party the “Party of Lincoln” is an obscene joke.