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OPINION: If you’re a conservative now, you probably would have been a conservative then

Facebook serves me up a lot posts that are supposedly history. Often they’re false and a lot of them are about the Civil War and about Confederates in particular. They come from pages with names like “Defending the Heritage” or just “Confederates.” Facebook says they are “Suggestions for you.”

I don’t know why Facebook recommends them to me. All of these sites are full of pro-Confederate drivel, defending monuments and perpetuating the false narrative that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. I don’t agree with almost anything they post, but they still keep showing up.

I guess Facebook keeps sending them to me because I sometimes click on them to read the comments. In one of those posts earlier this week, a commenter called Lincoln “another illegitimate president.” That reminded me of Rep. Larry Pittman who once called Lincoln a tyrant and compared him to Hitler. While I think those posts are pretty disgusting, at least they are honest. 

Pittman and the pro-Confederacy folks who trash Lincoln understand that they would have sided with the Confederacy 155 years ago. And after the Civil War, they would almost certainly have been Democrats, because, back then, Democrats were the conservative party. They would have sided with, or at least apologized for, those who founded the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction, just like they downplay the significance of the Proud Boys and the January 6 rioters today. They also would have been supporters of the voter suppression laws like poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses that led to the one-party South at the turn of the 20th century. The people who supported these measures were almost all Democrats and all conservatives. 

Political parties in this country are not ideologies. They are organizations whose members reflect certain beliefs and values. They’ve shifted overtime. 


The Democratic Party was the conservative party in this country for the first 65 years or so following the Civil War. The Republican Party was the progressive party during that time, supporting an occupation of the South to protect, among other things, voting rights for African Americans. They passed the first income tax and protected public land from those who would exploit it for profit. They broke up big monopolies like the oil companies and railroads and supported more regulation of businesses. They even supported trade unions. 

All of this leads me to consider other social media posts. I’m quite often reminded by conservatives on Twitter that Democrats founded the Ku Klux Klan. And while that’s true, had I been alive in the 1870s, I would probably been a Republican because I’m by nature a progressive. Parties reflect the ideologies of their members, not the other way around. 

The one-party South always had two factions, progressive Democrats and conservative Democrats. As civil rights became a major issue, conservatives began leaving the party, first when Harry Truman integrated the military and then in droves when Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And today, just like 150 years ago, conservatives are the ones who want to limit access to the ballot box, oppose regulating big corporations, and support low taxes on the wealthy. 

If you are a conservative today, you probably would have been a conservative 150 years ago, especially if you’re from the South. And you would have almost certainly been Democrat back then, just like you are almost certainly a Republican today. 

Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Mills spent 20 years as a political and public affairs consultant. Republished from PoliticsNC.com.


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