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I’m curious in the history of political parties of the USA. Initially in 1861 Abraham Lincoln was the first President to represent the Republican party which has always been stated as conservative yet, their parties policies seem very liberal in the modern usage of the word.

Also the Democrats had mainly represented the south which today is considered quite conservative. This seems to have switched with the JFK vs Nixon election in 1960, where the Democrats represent the north while the Republicans tend to represent the south. While the Republicans still stay a conservative party and the Democrats still liberal.

My question is, did these two definitions change, and if so how does something like this happen?

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Yes, political terms often change, and are frequently used ironically, as in The People's Democratic Republic of <insert name>, which is guaranteed not to care about the people and to be neither democratic nor a republic. Liberal and Conservative are like brand names or sports teams in the U.S; they mean whatever the leaders can convince their supporters they do. This question is off-topic, though. –  John Lawler Apr 3 '13 at 15:04
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As political terms, it's questionable whether these words even have real definitions. They're just rallying points for people with similar views, and the views that cluster around them change over time. –  gmcgath Apr 3 '13 at 15:15
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@PJT: What those two said. You might get a better response asking this on Stack Exchange politics –  FumbleFingers Apr 3 '13 at 17:25
    
I seemed to have worded my question poorly. I’m more interested in the history of the words conservative and liberal and how they seem to have changed meaning through out time. –  PJT Apr 3 '13 at 21:00
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xkcd.com/1127 –  Hugo Apr 4 '13 at 7:01

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Here are some extracted from the Oxford English Dictionary. Guess which is which...

supporting or advocating individual rights, civil liberties, and political and social reform tending towards individual freedom or democracy with little state intervention.

an adherent of traditional values, ideas, and institutions; an opponent of (social and political) change,

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Some parts of the first definition sound like (American) liberalism, but "little state intervention" doesn't. In any case, asking the reader to "guess" which is which is pointless when the original question was about the meaning of the words. –  gmcgath Apr 3 '13 at 17:09

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