News·8 min read

The History of the GOP: How the Party Changed

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February 23, 2020

Editor’s Note: This guide is part of a two-week series spotlighting the US’s two major political parties. You can read our guide on the evolution of the Democratic Party here.

The Story

The Republican Party looks a lot different compared to when President Abraham Lincoln was in charge.

The Background 

America’s two modern-day political parties were founded around the mid-1800s. The Democratic Party goes back to 1828, while the Republican Party formed in 1854 ahead of the Civil War with the goal of making America a pro-industry, free labor society. Its first big policy issue: preventing the spread of slavery.

Tell me more about that.

At the time, the country was split between free labor and slave labor. Republicans, primarily in the northern states, were pro-free labor. As in the egalitarian idea that anyone can succeed in America if they work hard. Republicans’ goal wasn’t to abolish slavery right away, but they felt the country’s economy would be more successful if it relied on a free market. This was at odds with Democrats, who were primarily in southern states where the economy largely relied on slavery. In the mid-1800s as more states wanted to join the Union (aka the northern part of the country), Republicans didn’t want to let in additional slave states. Southern states weren’t on board and ditched the Union. That conflict led to the Civil War.

Yes, I went to history class.

Then you might remember that the Union won. That's reportedly how the Republican Party got its nickname as the GOP – Grand Old Party – to emphasize its Civil War triumph. In the aftermath, Democrats continued to have a big hold on the South. Meanwhile, as the North industrialized, the GOP quickly became synonymous with the business world, and in turn, developed a reputation as the party of the elite. That reputation became especially clear at the turn of the 20th century.

What happened then?

The country’s rapid industrialization sparked the Progressive Era, where working Americans called for more business regulation and safer working conditions. But Republican administrations in the 1920s were worried that policing the business world would hurt the massive economic growth happening at the time. Then came the Great Depression, when the stock market crash caused millions of people to lose their jobs and savings.

How did the government respond?

Republican President Herbert Hoover was criticized for his efforts at addressing the problem, which were seen as wasteful gov spending or not going far enough to help people who were unemployed. He (and the Republican Party throughout recent history) believed in a small federal government. And that Americans would become too reliant on the government and stop working, which could slow down economic growth. By 1932, Americans said ‘we’ve had enough’ and elected Democrat Franklin D Roosevelt as president. Within FDR’s first 100 days in office, he expanded the federal government by signing and rolling out recovery, reform, and relief legislation and programs to help Americans rebound from the economic crisis. Roosevelt’s election and widely-supported legislation hurt the Republican Party’s success for decades: between 1933 and 1980, the GOP only controlled Congress for four years.

We all go through rough patches.

That’s not all. After the Great Depression, the party started losing a significant number of black voters – who were disproportionately affected by the crisis – even though they had largely supported the Republican Party in its early days. But the party seemed to get its mojo back in the 1980s.

Hi, Ronald Reagan. 

He was elected in 1980 amid a recession and campaigned as a DC outsider with a fiscally conservative platform that included cutting taxes. That prompted some Democrats who were hurt by the recession to turn red and vote for Reagan. His popularity helped him win reelection and tee up George HW Bush’s road to the White House. By the 1990s, the GOP’s main platform was: government deregulation, lower taxes, and national security. It was also known as a party of conservative family values – opposing gay marriage and abortion. The party also started to embrace more extreme candidates throughout the 2000s. 


The rise of the tea party movement in 2009. It was made up of conservative Republicans who were frustrated with the country’s economic situation, calling for lower taxes and government spending. Tea party lawmakers also had more extreme views on issues like abortion and immigration, and helped cause the 2013 government shutdown – the first in nearly two decades – to prevent funding for the Affordable Care Act. The movement helped Republicans take control of the House in 2010, making clear that their message of frustration resonated with voters. Which we also saw in the 2016 election with President Trump.

The Trump Effect

Trump’s 2016 election win started a new era for the Republican Party. One that is more extreme, more populist, and is marked by loyalty to Trump above all else. His rise has been primarily driven by middle- and working-class Americans who have been fed up with the federal government for years.

What exactly were they frustrated about?

One issue was the economy. The 2008 financial crisis caused millions of people to lose their jobs and homes – and it left some deep scars that were still present during the 2016 campaign. Lower-income Americans – who were also struggling under stagnant wages – had a particularly hard time recovering from the recession.

What else?

The working class was also hurt by previous administrations’ trade and immigration policies. Admins on both sides of the aisle supported free trade deals with countries around the world. Studies show some of those agreements, along with automation, led to millions of US manufacturing jobs getting cut. Meanwhile, Republican and Democratic admins became more lax on immigration policies, including allowing undocumented immigrants to get work authorization. As some American workers were losing jobs, this stoked fears that immigrants could exacerbate the problem.

How exactly does Trump play into all this?

Similar to Reagan, he resonated with the middle and working classes by pitching himself as a DC outsider who could fix their financial situations. He vowed to “drain the swamp,” disrupt the status quo, bring jobs back to the US, and implement strict immigration policies. He also promised to appoint anti-abortion Supreme Court judges – something that appealed to the party’s longstanding religious conservative base. And he’s delivered with things like the USMCA, the US-China trade deal, strict immigration rules like the “zero tolerance” policy, and a strong economy with historically-low unemployment. Supporters have seen him as a breath of fresh air for the Republican Party and politics as a whole. Opponents believe he’s put the party on a downward spiral.

Examples, please.

Americans on both sides of the aisle think Trump’s policies are controversial. Critics say his trade policies have hurt Americans by raising prices on consumers. And that some of his immigration policies are xenophobic and go against the US’s moral responsibility to welcome immigrants. They also point to policies that have made the US more isolated from the rest of the world, like Trump ditching the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate agreement.

And Trump’s perspective is… 

He isn’t afraid to speak his mind – he regularly insults political opponents (see: “Little Marco,” “Pocahontas”) and criticizes Democrats for focusing on “witch hunts” like impeachment and the Mueller investigation. And his critics say his behavior shows a disregard for the rule of law. See: his interference in a Justice Department investigation involving his friend and his lawyer’s quid pro quo defense during the Senate impeachment trial. No matter what side you’re on, it’s undeniable that his rhetoric has changed what’s typical for presidential behavior – with some warning that it’s only made the US even more partisan.

So what do Republican voters think?

That he’s followed through on his campaign promises on everything from the economy to foreign policy. Trump can rally his base by being direct and blunt, especially on topics like immigration. He knows Republican allies won’t push back against his divisive language. And when they do, he attacks them publicly – those who have tried have lost reelection campaigns, retired from politics, or left the party. His support may become especially visible at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Skimm Notes explains the history and significance of the conference.

The Impact

Trump’s presidency has reshaped the Republican Party’s priorities. His administration has largely focused on populist issues, like trade and immigration. Overall, Republicans are happy with Trump’s presidency: 90% of Republican voters support him. On top of that, more than four in 10 want the party to continue the trend Trump has started: becoming more populist. If Trump wins reelection, expect him to keep pushing this agenda.

But some Americans are worried that Trump’s extreme policies and language could further sow division in the country. More partisanship = less compromise, meaning it’s less likely that lawmakers and the president can work together on legislation.

Another thing on watch: how the Republican Party evolves, especially because the party is largely made up of older, white men. But the US electorate is becoming more diverse. The minority population is drastically growing and younger Americans are becoming a major voting bloc – but these groups tend to align more with the Democratic Party. Long-term, this could lead to a decline of the GOP, as US voters may elect fewer Republicans into local, state, and federal government positions. And that could impact policies that affect your day-to-day, from taxes to reproductive rights.


The Republican Party started 150-plus years ago trying to unite the US and end slavery. Throughout its history, it’s consistently emphasized the American dream, trying to equip workers with the tools to succeed. Today, the party has transformed into one centered around the current president more so than specific ideals and policies.

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