Paper: The Solid South, Race, and Political Realignment: Politics of the South, 1948-2004
In the final days before the 2004 presidential election, one of the few certainties was that George W. Bush would win an overwhelming majority, if not completely sweep, the states which comprise the traditional geographic South. The same scenario presented itself days before the 2000 election when Governor Bush of Texas, as the Republican nominee, was facing incumbent Democratic Vice President Al Gore, whose home state was Tennessee. Despite the voting controversies and legal battles in the state of Florida in 2000, the predicted electoral map became reality and Bush collected all the Electoral College votes awarded from southern states in 2000 and 2004 – 147 and 153 respectively – which even fuzzy math explains is well more than half of the 270 needed to become president.
A presidential candidate winning every southern state is certainly not a new phenomenon, as fifteen of the twenty-seven elections since 1900 have resulted in a clean sweep of the region; nor is a contemporary Republican candidate’s sweep of the South an electoral oddity, as the GOP candidate has swept the region in five of the last nine races. The oddity here is that among the fifteen electoral sweeps of the South since 1900, the first ten from the first half of the century belonged to the Democrat; in three other races the Democrat won ten out of eleven traditional southern states; and in yet another mid-century race the Republican candidate was shut out by a Democrat and a third party candidate.[i]
The fact that the Republican candidate swept the South in five of the last nine elections, took ten out of eleven states in another, and won a slim majority in the other two, highlights a transformation of presidential politics in the South that has been underway for the last half-century.[ii] The extent to which the political landscape of the South has changed in presidential elections is indeed a phenomenon which many, particularly young, voters may not be aware. The causes and consequences of this political shift, or realignment, of the region will be the focus of this research. The research will show that this shift in solidarity occurred because the Democratic Party’s stance on Civil Rights during the 1950s and 1960s alienated conservative white voters. Therefore, the realignment that has taken place has not been one of regional or cultural ideology, but rather one of expanding or changing policy within the party.
While geographic regions often exhibit solidarity in voting patterns, currently there is no geographic region in the United States which votes with such unanimity for a party in presidential elections as the South does for Republican candidates. Over the last half-century, party identification in the South and voting patterns in presidential elections has shifted from overwhelmingly Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican. While it is true that contemporary issues such as gun control and “traditional family values” have formed a southern allegiance to the current Republican Party, and that Republicans migration to the South and the general weakening of the Democratic Party in the South are contributing factors to realignment, this research indicates that it was the initial opposition to Civil Rights and desegregation within the Democratic Party that began the major realignment.
As Jeffrey M. Stonecash, R. Eric Petersen, Mary P. McGuire, and Lori Beth Way explain, “The Democratic Party’s liberal stances on civil rights issues were seen as damaging. In a refrain of Key’s Southern Politics thesis, it has been argued that the Democrats’ focus on black issues made it possible for Republicans to appeal to resentful working-class whites.”[iii] Likewise, John A. Clark, John M. Bruce, John H. Kessel, and William G. Jacoby, in explaining the 1964 Barry Glodwater campaign as the critical moment which began the process of realignment, argue that “the single stimulus that initiated realignment was race.”[iv]
Beginning with a geographic definition of the South, this paper will be structured in a way to examine the two major happenings in southern presidential politics over the last fifty years which led to this political shift. First, an examination of southern politics during the first half of the twentieth century is in order. This examination will explain the Reconstruction and New Deal allegiances which created the “solid South,” a moniker used to describe how strongly Democratic the region was in the past. The first major cleavage of this solidarity occurred in 1948, when segregationist southerners rejected the proposed Civil Rights platform of the Democratic Party. Next, the paper will examine the implications of the 1964 election and the subsequent Civil Rights legislation signed by Lyndon B. Johnson. The final section will look at realignment as a concept of political change, and how realignment might help to explain the change in the electorate of the South in recent years.
The South Defined, Geographically
Much has been written attempting to describe and define the South, geographically, sociologically, and politically. For clarification, this paper will use the term “traditional southern states” to include the region most generally thought of as the South. Although some scholars disagree on the makeup of the region, the combination most commonly thought of is that which the Civil War helped us to identify: the eleven Confederate states which seceded from the union and rebelled against the national government (that is, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia).[v]
Other geographic definitions have been used in important works on the subject of Southern politics. This research uses the same restraint as V.O. Key’s 1949 watershed work on politics in the South, where he includes only the eleven former Confederate states, then examines each separately.[vi] Political scientists Charles S. Bullock and Mark J. Rozell expand their geographic South to include Oklahoma, which was not a state at the time of the Civil War but, as the authors argue, “many of the events and cultural factors of Oklahoma politics are distinctly southern.”[vii] Other studies of southern politics often include Kentucky and Missouri as well. Although not typically used by those studying southern politics, culture, or geography, the U.S. Census Bureau definition, beginning in the twentieth century, included Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma with the eleven Confederate states.[viii]
The Colorful South, the Solid South, Reconstruction, and Unity
In the eighteen presidential elections from 1880 through 1948, a Republican presidential candidate won a traditional southern state only two times. In 1920, Tennessee, a border state with a history of Republican strength, helped to elect Warren G. Harding, and in 1928 Herbert Hoover captured Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. As political scientist Richard K. Scher explains, “The presidential election of 1928 was unusual because the Democratic Party nominated the first Roman Catholic for the presidency, Governor Al Smith of New York. The combination of Catholicism, antiprohibitionism, and New York proved unattractive to the conservative, dry, Protestant South.”[xi]
Many scholars agree on three general reasons for political solidarity in the South from Reconstruction until the late-1940s: the general animosity toward the Republican Party’s role in the Civil War and Reconstruction; the Democratic Party’s willingness to accept segregation under the auspices of state’s rights; and the New Deal allegiances that were built under Roosevelt. Dr. David Briley, an assistant professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, agrees that Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s helped the Democratic Party maintain a powerful allegiance with the South, which was much poorer than the rest of the country at that time. Briley speculates that had it not been for the Great Depression and the subsequent new deal, the Republican Party would have made inroads in the South much sooner than it did.[xii]
politics of the South revolves around the position of the Negro.”[xiii] Perhaps this is the underlying principle of unity which Key argues at another point:
A white population that is predominantly native-born, Anglo-Saxon is bound together by a sentiment of unity against those sections whose people include many recent immigrants. A rural, agricultural people view with distrust the urban, laboring classes of the North. The almost indelible memories of occupation by a conqueror create a sense ofhostility toward the outsider. Yet most of these nonracial bonds of unity differ little from those factors that lend political cohesion, for example, to the wheat states or to the Corn Belt.[xiv]
Key’s argument for the basis of the solid South is particularly useful given the fact that it came at a time when southern unity toward the Democratic Party was so strong that even the threat of living with government-imposed Civil Rights was not enough to sway support for Republicans. Not yet anyway.
Truman, Dixiecrats, and the 1948 Election
The first cleavage in the Democratic Party’s solid South came following World War II and the death of New Deal champion Franklin D. Roosevelt. When Harry Truman assumed the presidency in 1945, he not only inherited a Democratic Party that had grown in size and diversity because of the New Deal coalitions, but also one which had delayed any commitment to Civil Rights time after time. In 1948 Truman signed Executive Order 9981, with the heading “Establishing the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Forces.”[xv]
Later that year, as author Kari Frederickson argues, “tensions came to a head when, in an unprecedented move, President Truman placed himself squarely behind civil rights legislation. For the first time since Reconstruction, the status of African Americans had become a national issue. Many white southerners believed these measures signaled the beginning of an insidious campaign to destroy cherished regional customs and institutions.”[xvi] The proposed Civil Rights package supported by Truman included a federal anti-lynching law, abolition of the poll tax, the establishment of the permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), and the prohibition of segregation in interstate transportation.[xvii]
There was no doubt that the conservative wing of the party would be alienated and, as expected, the proposed Civil Rights package drew sharp criticism in the South. What the Truman administration had counted on was the undying loyalty of the solid South. By the summer of 1948, however, a split in the party seemed unavoidable. Truman hoped, and even assumed that southern conservatives eventually would reconcile themselves with this new policy identity for the good of the Democratic Party.[xviii] However, the call for revolt, and even a break from the party if its leaders supported the Civil Rights legislation was made by prominent southern governors such as J. Strom Thurmond, of South Carolina, and Fielding Wright, of Mississippi.
When the dissident governors failed to stop Truman’s nomination, they decided to convene in Birmingham, Alabama, form a new organization to be known as “State’s Rights Democrats,” and select alternative candidates for president and vice-president. It could hardly be called a convention, though. There was a good deal of oratory about the threat of admission of Negroes to “our homes, our theatres, and our swimming pools.” The conference endorsed Thurmond for president and Wright for Vice-President.[xix] The platform adopted by the Dixiecrat Party, which was barely one thousand words long and contained only nine planks, forcefully presented the case for state’s rights, declared their stand for the segregation of the races, and voiced opposition to any Civil Rights program calling for the elimination of segregation.[xx]
Although the South did not rally as a region behind the Dixiecrat banner and the ultimate goal of defeating Civil Rights legislation fell short, the election of 1948 and the state’s rights movement signified an important moment in southern politics - the emergence of Civil Rights as an issue in national politics and the identification of the Democratic Party with that issue.[xxi] Perhaps most important, according to Key, is that “the Dixiecrat movement’s failure to raise the race issue in a ‘compelling manner’ signified the end of racism as a potent regional political weapon.”[xxii] In examining the important implications the Dixiecrat movement had on political realignment in the South, one needs to look no further than 1964 when Strom Thurmond formally switched his party affiliation to Republican. Frederickson argues further that the 1948 election marked the beginning of the two-party South:
The Dixiecrat defection marked the exit of the South from the New Deal coalition and the reorientation of the national party toward its more liberal wing. By breaking with the Democratic Party, the Dixiecrat movement demonstrated to conservative southerners that allegiance to one party was ‘neither necessary nor beneficial’ and thus served as the crossover point for many southern voters in their move from the Democratic to the Republican column. The election of 1948, therefore, marked the beginning, however tentative, of the two-party South and the region’s political transition from a Democratic to a Republican stronghold, a process not completed until 1968.[xxiii]
Civil Rights, Johnson, and the Goldwater Revolution
In the 1950s many Dixiecrats returned to the Democratic Party, while others, still dissatisfied with the party’s stance on Civil Rights, became independent in national elections. With the exception of 1928, when five southern states elected the Protestant Warren G. Harding over the Catholic Al Smith, the 1952 and 1956 elections marked the first time since Reconstruction that a Republican gained wide support in the South. Dwight D. Eisenhower did not win a majority of the traditional southern states in either election, but he did win four and five, respectively, compared to seven states in 1952 and six in 1956 for Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate both years. Perhaps the Republican Party could have made inroads to the South even faster had it not been for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which was seen as northern agitators attempting to infringe upon the southern way of life – this time under a Republican president. The landmark ruling in Brown, which declared that “state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment and was therefore unconstitutional,” served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement during the 1950s.[xxiv]
It can be said that the late-1940s was an awakening and mobilization period for republicanism in the South; the 1950s was a transitional period; and the 1960s was the culmination of all the trends and events which resulted in the electoral realignment of the region. The second major happening in southern politics which led to the political realignment was the 1964 election, which has been described as vitally important to the Republican Party, critical, and an a landslide victory for the Democrats. It might seem odd finding such significance and consequences in an election that resulted in a 486-52 Electoral College landslide, but the underlying theme from that election is the movement which it helped to create.[xxv] Former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite called the 1964 election “the most important single election he ever covered, but also the least surprising and the most lopsided in American history.”[xxvi]
President Lyndon B. Johnson won a total of forty-four states, with the Republican challenger, Barry Goldwater, winning his home state of Arizona and five Deep South states. Two major trends had developed in southern voting patters by 1964: the South, not constrained by its former Democratic loyalty, attached itself to the candidate – Eisenhower in 1952, Harry Byrd in 1956, Richard M. Nixon in 1960, and now Goldwater in 1964 – who presented himself as the most ardent defender of state’s rights. Secondly, much like the Dixiecrat campaign, the white voters of the states with the heaviest black population voted with the most ardent defender of state’s rights.[xxvii]
Though a Republican, Goldwater, indeed an ardent defender of state’s rights and opposed to any Civil Rights legislation, was clearly the candidate for southern Democrats. As Harry Ashmore points out, Goldwater left no doubts about where he stood on these issues, suggesting the “one thing that will surely poison and embitter our relations with each other is the idea that some predetermined bureaucratic schedule of equality – and worst of all a schedule based on the concept of race – must be imposed… That way lies destruction.”[xxviii]
Not only did Goldwater play the part of the candidate for the far right, Johnson played the part of the leftist candidate. He spoke of his vision for a “Great Society that rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time.”[xxix] In fact, Ashmore suggests that “the two contenders could not have more neatly represented the party’s two wings if they had been chosen by a Hollywood casting director.”[xxx] On July 2, 1964, Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which included “provisions to protect the right to vote, guarantee access to public accommodations, and withholding of federal funds from programs administered in a discriminatory fashion.”[xxxi] Johnson’s embrace of Civil Rights solidified Republican advantages in southern white votes.
The far-reaching effects of the Goldwater campaign are seen not just in southern politics today, but in national politics as well. Michael Lind argues that Barry Goldwater, “was primarily responsible for turning the party of Lincoln into a white man’s party, which, by the 1990s, would be dominated by the ideological descendants of the Dixiecrats (and in some cases, like that of Strom Thurmond, by surviving Dixiecrats).”[xxxii] The immediate impact, however, was the election of seven new Republican congressmen in the South – the first since Reconstruction.[xxxiii]
The Goldwater campaign not only had the immediate impact of helping to elect Republicans to Congress in the South for the first time since Reconstruction, but as David Castle suggests, it very well immediately might have begun to impact how those Republicans vote, as it “reoriented members of the House with regard to racial issues, resulting in a significant change in the alignment of the two major parties on matters of racial liberalism.”[xxxiv] Castle also argues that this development of genuine two-party competition for southern House seats, that Goldwater’s campaign ignited, is the most significant impact of the candidacy.[xxxv]
Realignment as Political Change
In examining the profound effects the Goldwater campaign had on developing two-party competition in the South, and how it has affected the larger picture of realignment, it is now necessary to examine realignments as a concept of political change. Because of the importance of the 1964 election and how it relates to the impending political realignment of the South during that time, many scholars have suggested that this was a “critical” election in American political history. Key defines critical elections as those which feature high levels of voter involvement, decisive results, and the formation of new and durable electoral attachments. Based on his theory of critical elections, such elections seem to be harbingers of realignment.[xxxvi]
Political realignment most easily can be defined as noticeable changes within the electorate. But that does not do nearly enough to explain the current realignment in the South which is the focus of this research. John R. Petrocik goes a step further and includes transformations or reformulations of social groups or party affiliations.[xxxvii] Perhaps even more satisfying, Stonecash, Petersen, McGuire, and Way suggest that changing social conditions and party policy positions interact and create party realignment. The authors explain further that “realignment is driven by changes in voters’ situations and in the policy and image positions of parties which address electoral concerns.”[xxxviii]
A realignment model which can be applied directly to the focus of this research is the one laid out by Clark, Bruce, Kessel, and Jacoby, which argues that realignments are characterized by at least three features: duration, movement, and motivation.[xxxix] As this model suggests the realignment made manifest in the voting seems to persist for several succeeding elections, just as we have seen in southern election from 1948 through 1972. Three examples of movement are given with this model: conversion, particularly because of a new issue; bringing newly-mobilized participants into the electorate; and young voters entering as older voters are leaving. Although the recent southern realignment could have included the latter two types of movement, the former is clearly adequate for this research. Finally, motivation is the final feature, which includes both a critical moment and a stimulus. As explained earlier, the authors argue that the critical moment of the recent southern realignment was the 1964 Goldwater campaign, and the single stimulus was race.[xl]
The first cleavage to the Democratic loyalty of the solid South came in 1948 when segregationist governors of the South refused to accept a Civil Rights plank of the Democratic Party platform. In response, the dissidents attempted to make it impossible for incumbent President Harry Truman to win an Electoral College victory by forming the Dixiecrat Party, designed to win southern states and to support segregation and state’s rights. In the years following their revolt of 1948, some Dixiecrats rejoined the Democratic Party, but remained staunchly segregationist, while others became increasingly independent, but generally casting votes for the candidates they perceived to be most willing to accept the Jim Crow South.
While the ultimate goals of the Dixiecrat revolt in 1948 were unsuccessful, and the party itself failed to materialize after the election, the political implications were enormous. Kari Frederickson contends that “with the Dixiecrats revolt, they precipitated the weakening of the Democratic Party’s grip on presidential elections in the Deep South.Furthermore, the 1948 campaign laid the foundation, if only in presidentialvoting, for the creation of a two-party region.”[xli]
Undoubtedly, the presidential election of 1964 had just as much, or more, of an impact on the current political realignment in the South today. Lyndon B. Johnson won a landslide re-election victory in 1964, but his challenger, Barry Goldwater, also staunchly opposed to desegregation and Civil Rights, created a political movement which is perhaps the most dominant today. After signing into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and revealing his plan for a “Great Society,” Johnson had little or no chance of winning any southern state, other than his home state of Texas. Johnson’s attempt for equal rights resulted in, by far, the most electoral success for a Republican candidate in the South in nearly one hundred years.
As the Republican candidate for president has swept the entire geographic South in each of the last two elections, it seems clear that the political realignment which started more than fifty years ago finally has become complete, with both the parties and the electorate having realigned. Over the last half-century, party identification in the South and voting patterns in presidential elections have shifted from overwhelmingly Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican. This shift in solidarity occurred because the Democratic Party’s stance on Civil Rights during the 1950s and 1960s alienated conservative white voters. Given the major political occurrences in the South over the last half-century, it is clear that the realignment that has taken place has not been one of regional or cultural ideology, but rather one of expanding or changing policy within the party.
[i] Federal Register, U.S. Electoral College, Historical Election Results (www.archives.gov/federal_register/electoral_college/votes/votes_by_state.html)
[iii] Jeffrey M. Stonecash, Mark D. Brewer, R. Eric Petersen, Mary P. McGuire, and Lori Beth Way, “Class and Party: Secular Realignment and the Survival of Democrats Outside the South.” Political Research Quarterly, 53 (December 2000): 731
[iv] John A. Clark, John M. Bruce, John H. Kessel, and William G. Jacoby, “I’d Rather Switch than Fight: Lifelong Democrats and Converts to Republicanism among Campaign Activists.” American Journal of Political Science, 35 (August 1991): 577
[v] Richard K. Scher, Politics in the New South: Rebuplicanism Race and Leadership in the Twentieth Century (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1997), 8.
[vi] V.O. Key Jr., Southern Politics in State and Nation (New York: Knopf, 1949), Table of Contents.
[vii] Charles S. Bullock III and Mark J. Rozell, The New Politics of the Old South: An Introduction to Southern Politics (Oxford, England: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), 205.
[viii] Scher, Politics in the New South, 8.
[ix] Key, Southern Politics in State and Nation, 3.
[x] Kathy Kiely, “Texas Lawmakers end Oklahoma Exile,” USA Today, 15 May 2003, Nation.
[xi] Scher, Politics in the New South, 90.
[xii] Dr. David Briley, interviewed by author, 1 December 2004.
[xiii] Key, Southern Politics in State and Nation, 5.
[xiv] Ibid. 665.
[xv] The Truman Library, Desegregation of the Armed Forces Documents, Executive Order9981. (www.trumanlibrary.org/9981.htm )
[xvi] Kari Frederickson, The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932-1968 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001): 3.
[xvii] The Truman Library, Civil Rights Subject Guide. (www.trumanlibrary.org/hstpaper/civilrights.htm)
[xviii] Sean J. Savage, “To Purge or Not to Purge: Hamlet Harry and the Dixiecrats.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 27 (Fall 1997): 773.
[xix] Key, Southern Politics in State and Nation, 335.
[xx] The American Presidency Project: American Political Party Platforms, Platform of the State’s Rights Democratic Party. (www.presidency.ucsb.edu/platforms.php)
[xxi] Frederickson, The Dixiecrat Revolt, 3.
[xxii] Ibid., 4
[xxiv] Our Documents, Brown v. Board of Education (1954). (www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?doc=87)
[xxv] Federal Register, U.S. Electoral College, Historical Election Results.
[xxvi] National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, Walter Cronkite Essay, Nov. 2, 2004.
[xxvii] Ibid., 237
[xxviii] Harry S. Ashmore, Civil Rights and Wrongs: A memoir of Race and Politics, 1944-1994 (New York: Random House, 1994): 180-181
[xxix] Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum, LBJ Biography. (www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/johnson/archives.hom/biographys.hom/lbj_bio.asp)
[xxx] Ashmore, Civil Rights, 176
[xxxi] The Avalon Project: 20th Century Document, Civil Rights Act, July 2, 1964. (www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/statutes/civil_rights_1964.htm)
[xxxii] Michael Lind, The Southern Coup, The New Republic, June 19, 1995: 20
[xxxiii] Frederickson, The Dixiecrat Revolt, 237.
[xxxiv] David S. Castle, “Goldwater’s Presidential Candidacy and Political Realignment.” Presidential Studies Quarterly (Winter 1990): 103
[xxxv] Ibid., 109
[xxxvi] Ibid., 103
[xxxvii] John R. Petrocik, “Realignment: New Party Coalitions and the Nationalization of the South.” The Journal of Politics 49 (1987): 347
[xxxviii] Stonecash, Petersen, McGuire, and Way, “Class and Party,” Political Research Quarterly, 53 (December 2000): 734
[xxxix] Clark, Bruce, Kessel, and Jacoby, “I’d Rather Fight” American Journal of Political Science, 35 (August 1991): 575
[xl] Ibid., 579
[xli] Frederickson, The Dixiecrat Revolt, 238.
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