Perhaps my prime specialty on history is investigating ideology of politicians, past and present. I am profoundly fascinated by it. There is a common, all too often repeated narrative that the “parties switched places”. At a future date I will write a massive, cited post fully addressing this egregious case of pop history. But for now, I will briefly describe my problems with it.
This narrative fails to address what constituted “left” and “right” in the past, makes certain assumptions about those in the past, and uses a definition of conservative that means “stay the same” rather than any greater coherent set of beliefs. Under this definition of conservatism, a “conservative” in the USSR would stand for maximum government control of the means of production, which is anathema to American conservatives. The process of determining ideology, admittedly, can be difficult the further back you go. Take for instance, Congressional Republicans during the Lincoln Administration. While the layperson may say the GOP was “progressive” for its abolitionism, the GOP of the time was ideologically diverse, and some took wildly divergent ideological turns after the Civil War. These were often based on their previous political affiliations. For instance, Congressman Ignatius Donnelly of Minnesota and Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois had been Democrats, but both returned to their original party in the 1870s and towards the end of their lives joined the left-wing Populist Party. Radical Republican Congressmen William B. Allison of Iowa and James Garfield of Ohio, however, had considered themselves Whigs before the Republican Party’s existence, and both not only stayed with the GOP but identified with the party’s conservative wing. This makes the notion that the old Republican Party would necessarily translate into the Democratic Party today highly dubious.
This all being said, we cannot with 100% certainty say past a certain point who would believe what today. This is especially applicable to contemporary social issues. John F. Kennedy would have almost certainly opposed legalized abortion had the issue entered the national stage in the early 1960s. After all, none other than Ted Kennedy opposed it in the early 1970s. However, the latter Kennedy along with the other Kennedys were influenced by a group of prominent academic Catholic reverends to side with abortion rights in the mid-1970s. Who is to say that had JFK lived into the 1970s that he wouldn’t have been as receptive as his brother and other family members to a change of heart?