Michael Nelson: How the GOP Conquered the South

Roundup: Talking About History

[Michael Nelson is a professor of political science at Rhodes College. His book The Politics of Gambling: State Policy Innovation in the American South, written with John Lyman Mason, is scheduled to be published by Louisiana State University Press in 2007.]

The greatest change in American national politics of the past 60 years has been the transformation of the South from the most solidly Democratic to the most solidly Republican region of the country. In the 1930s and 1940s, Democrats enjoyed a strong advantage in presidential elections because they could count on winning the 127 electoral votes cast by the 11 states of the old Confederacy. Congress was almost always Democratic because Democrats owned all 22 Southern seats in the Senate and all but a couple of the South's 105 seats in the House of Representatives. In other words, the Democrats began every election nearly halfway to the finish line.

Consider how much has changed. In 2004 John F. Kerry ran up a 252-133 electoral-vote lead over George W. Bush outside the South but lost the election because the South went 153-0 for Bush. In the current Congress, although Democrats from non-Southern states outnumber Republican non-Southerners by 41-37 in the Senate and 154-150 in the House, the GOP has converted its Southern majorities — 82-49 in the House and 18-4 in the Senate — into control of both chambers. The South not only switched parties from the 1940s to 2000, but it also became, because of rapid population growth, a bigger political prize.

The 2004 election was no fluke. The GOP has won seven of the last 10 presidential elections (interestingly, the three Democratic victories belonged to Southerners, Jimmy Carter of Georgia in 1976 and Bill Clinton of Arkansas in 1992 and 1996), and it has controlled both houses of Congress since 1994, the longest period of Republican legislative dominance since the 1920s. John Roberts's confirmation as chief justice of the United States is just the latest example of how control of the presidency and the Senate has also enabled the Republicans to populate the third branch of government, the judiciary. Since 1968 Republican presidents have made 10 of 12 Supreme Court appointments, along with 65 percent of all federal appeals-court appointments and 62 percent of all district-court appointments.

The new Republican majority did not come about through a sudden and dramatic realigning election like the ones in 1860 and 1932. Instead, there has been what Karl Rove calls a "rolling" (or, to use a preferred term of political scientists, a "secular") realignment in which the GOP has gradually become home to the great majority of Southern white voters of all social and economic classes.

The tale of how the South's secular Republican realignment came about can be understood in large part through three recent books, each of them by or about a major southern GOP leader: Strom: The Complicated Personal and Political Life of Strom Thurmond, by Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson; Here's Where I Stand: A Memoir, by Jesse Helms; and Herding Cats: A Life in Politics, by Trent Lott. The well-researched Thurmond biography is illuminating because of — and Helms's and Lott's self-serving memoirs despite — what the authors have to say.

The story of the South's Republican transformation begins in 1948, even though the national Democratic majority that Franklin D. Roosevelt built in the 1930s was then in the midst of winning its fifth consecutive presidential election, and the Republicans weren't competitive in a single Southern state. FDR's New Deal coalition was a complex assemblage, constituted differently in different parts of the country. In the North, it rested on the support of groups that Roosevelt himself had helped to attract into the Democratic fold: blue-collar workers, Roman Catholic and Jewish voters, ideological liberals, and African-Americans.

The Southern part of the New Deal coalition — essentially, every white voter in a region where, in most counties, only whites could vote — was one that Roosevelt inherited. The South was solidly Democratic because of the antipathy Southern whites had developed during Reconstruction toward the occupying Republicans and their agenda of civil rights for the newly freed slaves. Thurmond, Helms, and Lott were heirs to this tradition. Each of them was a politically active Democrat before he became a Republican.

Despite the Democrats' majority status, a fault line ran through their coalition: The interests of integrationist blacks and segregationist Southern whites were clearly not harmonious. As long as African-Americans did not press a civil-rights agenda on the federal government, this fault line remained unexposed and, therefore, politically insignificant. But in the aftermath of World War II, returning black veterans who had fought against racism and tyranny abroad increasingly demanded federal protection for their civil rights at home. Northern liberals and labor-union leaders supported those demands.

Forced to choose between the Northern and Southern wings of his party, President Harry S. Truman reluctantly accepted a strong civil-rights plank in the 1948 Democratic platform. He won the election, but only at the price of a crack appearing in the solidly Democratic South. From 1932 to 1944, FDR had carried every Southern state in all four elections. In 1948, however, Georgia stayed with Truman, but the other four Deep South states — Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina — cast their electoral votes for Democratic Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the nominee of the rebellious Southern Democrats who had walked out of their party's pro-civil-rights convention and formed the States' Rights Party, or Dixiecrats....

In its grand outlines," wrote the political scientist V.O. Key in his classic 1949 book Southern Politics in State and Nation, "the politics of the South revolves around the position of the Negro." To be sure, African-Americans now can vote in the South, and many have been elected to local office, especially in the region's increasingly black cities. But one thing hasn't changed: The South's dominant political party, Democratic in Key's time, Republican now, is essentially all white.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education

comments powered by Disqus