CLAIM: “The Republican Party is actually the party of social justice since they are the same party who elected Abraham Lincoln and freed the slaves in 1865.” This is usually brought up in an attempt to suggest that black people should actually vote Republican and often accompanies a mention that Democrats are the ones who started the KKK.
REALITY: Yes, Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and the founders of the KKK were Democrats. However, when Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election, the southern states immediately moved to secede from the Union. The same southern states that now overwhelmingly support the Republican Party. The founders of the KKK, former Confederate soldiers, also came from these southern states that opposed Lincoln and now overwhelmingly support the Republican party.
So the question then becomes: How is it possible that the southern states both opposed Lincoln in 1860, but now overwhelmingly vote Republican?
Simply put, in 1860, the Republicans were the party of the Union, while the Democrats were the party of the Confederacy, as you can see from the image comparing the 1860 election of Lincoln to the 2016 election of Trump.
In the top map of the 1860 election, the blue represents the states that voted for Southern Democratic candidate John C. Breckinridge, the lighter blue is Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, the gold is Constitutional Union John Bell, and the red is Republican Abraham Lincoln. In the bottom map of the 2016 election, the red represents the states that voted for Republican Donald Trump with the blue states voting for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
You can clearly see that each of the states that voted Democrat in 1860–with the exception of Maryland and Delaware–voted Republican in the 2016 election. And of the northern states that voted for Lincoln in 1860, only the swing states of Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania voted for Trump in 2016. New Jersey had a split Electoral vote in 1860 with four votes to the Republicans and three to the Northern Democrats.
The party switch is even more clear when comparing the 1860 election with the 2012 election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
This is as clear an illustration of the party switch as you can get. Indiana is the only state to stay Republican from 1860 to 2012, while Maryland, Delaware, and Florida are the only Democratic holdouts. 16 of the 17 states to vote Republican in 1860 switched to Democrat in 2012, while 9 of the 12 states to vote Democrat in 1860 switched to Republican in 2012. Altogether, 86% of the Republican and Democratic states switched parties from 1860 to 2012.
So, what was the reason for the party switch?
The short story is that in the early 20th century, progressives began to form within the Democratic party to challenge big business, push for more social programs, and by the 1960s, push for Civil Rights for blacks. By this time, southern Dixiecrats had left the Democratic party for the Republican party, which was now the party of big business, small government, and essentially white supremacy. By the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, the switch was complete and represented the same political climate of today.
These two videos provide a more in-depth look into what happened within each party over the past 150 years that caused southerners to flock to the Republican Party, and vice versa for the north to move to the Democratic Party.
How the Republican Party went from Lincoln to Trump
From white supremacy to Barack Obama: The history of the Democratic Party
This is a common conservative talking point brought up to defend accusations of racism. It’s akin to the “I have a black friend” defense, but on a group level. “The Republican Party once had a black friend, so they can’t be racist.” In reality, the conservatives of today who try to claim Lincoln would have been Democrats back in 1860, readying to secede from the Union. While it would actually be the Democrats of today who would have supported Lincoln.