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As a conservative, I have a probably unpopular answer to this question, but I believe my response elucidates the bedrock of our current political situation.
The Democrats have always been the populist party and the Republicans have always been the elitist party. On traditional “progressive” issues, the Republicans were a mixture of high-mindedness and opportunism under the banner of disinterestedness and social justice (coinciding naturally with Christian or small-town American values), while Democrats were largely a coalition of workers, Catholics, poor and rural Southerners, and tended more uncomplicatedly to represent their perceived political self-interest. When racism was mainstream, the Democrats supported or at least tolerated it; when anti-racism became mainstream in the 60s and 70s, along they went. I think people forget in the pre-social media era how much less people cared, or made a show of caring, about everything going on outside their community; and there were large parts of the country where race was simply not one of the most important issues. It’s sort of like how there may be some rich New York Republicans who don’t necessarily exalt in sharing a tent with evangelicals but ultimately don’t find it to be a dealbreaker. And so on.
The South was independently Democrat because it was poorer and saw itself (often correctly) as being scorned by the industrialized, business-friendly North. The Republicans have always been (at least until very recently) the pro-business party, less interested in using the power of the state to help workers. But on “pure” social issues, the more forward thinkers tended to be high-minded and educated, which is why the original progressivism, and the initiatives to expand the franchise, also came from the Republicans. But it was more complicated than this: Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt each had their own distinct mixture of everyman populism and upper crust refinement, along with a not-entirely-democratic “Great Man” persona surrounding them. This was something new in America, the president as a hero rather than a mere administrator, and it’s really this which shook up the entrenchment—because a very different type of agenda converges around anything that requires an übermentsch to activate it.
The Republicans were, since their inception, resolutely willing to use Federal power to eradicate anti-liberalism (in the form of slavery and then Jim Crow/segregation) within the states. Before the Republican Party, hostility to encroachment on liberalism was simply reflected in the primordial debate between the Federalists and (so-called) Anti-Federalists (who of course, resented the term, and believed they were the true federalists: the concept of federalism is the antidote to statism, the enshrinement of a two-tiered sovereignty, with individual states as the buffer against the potential tyranny of federal power). The Republicans effectively invented the paradoxical platform that increasing federal power in the anti-liberal effort to prevent individual states from tolerating anti-liberalism was not too schizophrenic to be entertained. Before them, the only protection an individual had—or was presumed to need—was the power to move to another state. The state governments themselves had the right to be anti-liberal, at their own risk. Slavery perfectly crystallized the problem, because of course, by no argument were slaves able to simply move to another state in protest of their own state’s laws. Traditional liberalism was so deeply woven into our political culture that no one remotely dared oppose it until slavery became the elephant that simply could not be ignored, as it came to marry social, moral, economic issues to the perennial one of interpreting for each generation how the liberal values of the constitution may best be reflected in law. Only a case as exceptional and dramatic as Southern chattel slavery could beget the notion that an open attack on the liberal foundation of the nation—the sovereignty of individual states against the federal government—might seem in fact to be a reflection of its liberal ideals.
So the two parties were not fully split along the lines of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ until the Civil Rights era, because they are not symmetrical categories/opposites and there is no reason to assume each party always had to stand for one or the other. The less conservative, Rockefeller-wing of the Republican Party effectively died out during this time (reflected in that man’s serial presidential campaign failures), and the crux of the divide loosely became between classical and social liberalism—but “conservative” seemed more precise than “classical liberal” since it reflected a reluctance to adjust the principles of the founding and a frequent tolerance for social conservatism whether or not its agenda was properly by consent only. “Liberalization” in values corresponded to opposition to tradition in general, which helped to lump social welfare, civil rights, and social liberalization into the same umbrella. And as we see in our own time, like all political coalitions it was tentative and not destined to last more than a generation: the current left in America is rapidly becoming openly and wantonly anti-liberal; a vanguardist puritanism relatively unconcerned with its ability to procure consent for the agenda it believes to be objectively superior.
Many people think that Republicans are being glib and willfully ironic when they talk about being the party of Lincoln, but actually, they’re not—they were always the party spouting lofty principles and the Democrats the workers’, spiritually unpretentious party. Both parties were capable of moralism and cynicism, in their turn, but I think the issue of race tends to be overstated as the definitive issue. Yes, it was certainly an important one since the Civil War, but the crude characterization of the racists and anti-racists flocking to the opposite party amid cultural shifts is worse than superficial. Remember that the same faction which was most anti-immigrant in the mid-nineteenth century tended to be firmly abolitionist also, which would create rather awkward company today.