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By Erin Bartram

Yesterday, Texas senator Ted Cruz trotted out this old chestnut as a way to argue that the Democratic Party has no leg to stand on when it wants to speak on issues of race and civil rights. As he put it: “You look at the most racist — you look at the Dixiecrats, they were Democrats who imposed segregation, imposed Jim Crow laws, who founded the Klan. The Klan was founded by a great many Democrats.”

Cruz was making a historical claim, but it was rooted in bad historical analysis, plain and simple.

The main reason it’s bad analysis is that the parties themselves have changed significantly over time. The platform and the base of the Democratic Party of 2017 is very different from the platform and base from 1917, or 1857. The same is true for the Republican Party; it is as problematic for Cruz to claim his is “the party of Lincoln” as to claim the Democrats are “the party of the Klan.” The names have stayed the same, but a lot has changed, because a lot in America has changed!

The main dynamic we want to keep track of, though, is whether a party believed more power should be delegated to the states or wielded by a strong central government. The Republican Party of the Civil War, for instance, supported a strong central government, while Cruz’s own version of the party has claimed the opposite orientation for a while now.

It is this dynamic that helps us understand how the Democratic Party can have been the party of the Klan in the past but not be that now. The process of reorientation is a complex one, but there are two major moments we can look at to see these shifts, in the presidencies of Democrats FDR and LBJ.

FDR oversaw an enormous expansion of the federal government with the New Deal, in the form of economic regulations and social welfare programs. FDR’s presidency moved the Democratic Party towards a platform that advocated a strong central government’s role in the economy. It continued to accommodate its segregationist members who claimed that it was the right of individual states to conduct their own affairs when it came to civil rights and racial integration, while simultaneously making incremental moves towards racial justice in other areas, as with Truman’s Executive Order 9981, which ended racial discrimination in the Armed Forces. As the Republican Party had largely abandoned any advocacy for black voters or racial justice by the end of the 19th century, there had been space for coalitions to shift and reform.

Thirty years later, with the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, passed in 1964 and 1965 respectively, the federal government intervened in states to protect civil rights. These two acts were passed by a coalition of Northern/Midwestern/Western Democrats and Republicans, and signed by LBJ, the Southern Democratic president; Southern Democrats and Republicans alike voted against these laws. Again, we see coalitions shifting.

But throughout the 20th century, even as presidents seem to have charted these bold new ideological courses, the parties remained complicated coalitions, as we see with the New Deal Democrats. People often identify strongly with a party, and it is not easy to just “flip” from one to the other, as we see right now, as the current administration turns purported Republican “orthodoxy” on its head, and Republican leaders and rank-and-file members seem to be following along. Moreover, people of both parties have long been willing to selectively stretch or abandon their commitment on this ideological issue if it gets them something they want.

Though we can examine specific moments and figures to help us understand these changes, the more important takeaway is that this is complicated. The evolution of these parties is fascinating but also incremental and confusing, and when Cruz makes a claim like this one about the Democrats and the Klan, he is simplifying historical complexity in order to use history as a weapon.

Stay tuned: proposals to dismantle the EPA mean we might have to do this all over again, because Nixon – a Republican – created it.

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Further reading:

You can look at all of the party platforms here. It’s interesting to compare and see the evolution.

To read more about this weaponizing of the past, start with Michael Rosenwald’s recent piece in the Washington Post on the issue, but make sure to follow up by reading Nick Sacco’s response, which not only gets at some of what I’ve talked about here, but also the corresponding problems with the Republican claim to the mantle of Lincoln.

There’s plenty of good stuff to read on the changing views and compositions of American political parties. A great one to start with is Heather Cox Richardson’s To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party 

For more on the Klan, you can’t do better right now than Kelly Baker. Follow her on Twitter, read her beautiful writing online, and read Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930


Erin Bartram studies 19th century U.S. history, with a focus on religion and gender. You can follow her on Twitter and read more of her writing at her website.