Why Did the Democrat South Become Republican?

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One political party for over a century and a half has routinely used appeals based on race to win elections.  The other party, throughout its history, has stood for civil rights for all Americans and denied that government policy should be based on racial discrimination.  The first party is the Democrat Party and the second party is the Republican party.  To get around this simple fact of American political history, some Democrats, especially in election years when the polls are against them, routinely attempt to portray Republicans as racists, in an Alice in Wonderland inversion of the truth.  A hilarious example of this mendacious and bold faced attempt to rewrite history is on display at Politico in an article entitled Race and the Modern GOP.  This recycles the claim of an evil Republican strategy to appeal to white racists in the South who switched en masse to become Republicans.

The problem with this is that it is a liberal fable. It didn’t happen that way. The first breach in the solid South was by Eisenhower who ran on a platform of vigorous support for Civil Rights for blacks. Segregationists retained complete control of the Democrat parties in the South and enjoyed electoral success throughout the period in question. The South changing to Republican had to do with the rise of the cultural issues, an influx of northern Republicans following wide spread use of air conditioning and the rapid economic development of the South, and the anti-military hysteria and isolationism that seized control of the Democrats in the wake of Vietnam.

My co-blogger Paul Zummo had an excellent post on this subject :

Along these same lines, Trende postulates that if any real realignment occurred, it took place during the Eisenhower administration. The Eisenhower coalition, as he puts it, pushed the GOP to decisive victories in seven of nine presidential elections. Moreover, the solid Democratic south began shifting towards the Republican party at this point. In fact the south’s gradual shift towards the GOP had begun as early as the 1920s, but the Depression halted Republican advances here. Once the New Deal had ramped up, the Republicans again began making inroads. Republicans began being truly competitive in presidential elections during the 1950s, then started making inroads in Congressional races in the 1970s and 80s, and are finally now the dominant party on the local level.

Trende’s thesis effectively destroys the notion that Republicans only began being competitive in the south once Nixon deployed the “southern strategy” to woo racist southerners after the Civil Rights Act. As already mentioned, the GOP vote share in the south had been incrementally creeping up in the 1930s, with GOP vote shares moving out of the 15-20% range and inching up towards parity slowly and surely. In fact the GOP vote share in the south did not noticeably increase during  the 1960s, but instead crept up in the same incremental 1-2% annual range. Where Republicans really started making dents were with younger southern voters, as older southerners continued to cling to the Democratic party even though the national party’s values no longer matched their own. Considering that younger voters tended to have much more liberal racial views, the transformation of the south into a Republican stronghold has to be explained by something other than racial matters.

Even though Trende doesn’t come right out and say this, if anything the changing electoral map can just as easily be explained by the Democrats pursuing a northern strategy. As the Democrats began appealing to elite northern voters by pushing a more liberal agenda, this drove southerners and midwesterners away from the party. This trend would continue until Bill Clinton pursued a much different strategy, crafting his agenda to appeal to suburbanites and middle income whites. Clinton and the New Democrats were able to rip into Republican strongholds by advancing a more moderate platform. The end of the Cold War, as well as the rise of the Evangelical right, fractured the Eisenhower coalition, allowing the Democrats to win presidential elections.


Democrats have always been ready to use race-baiting as part of their election strategies. Only the colors have shifted, not the underlying principle that government may treat Americans differently on the basis of race.

The consistent theme of the Democrat party is using government power to discriminate among Americans based on race and the reliance of the Democrats on blatant racial appeals as a result of this policy. The segregationists of a half century ago in the South, George Wallace, Orville Faubus, Lester Maddox, Bull Connor, J. William Fulbright, et al as a group were fairly typical Democrats, and in their use of racial appeals for political purposes they were part of a long and dishonorable Democrat tradition that continues to this day.



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  1. Also, every state in the south (except Virginia) went for Jimmy Carter in 1976. He governed as a liberal in social issues when he was governor of Georgia. The 1976 election was after the supposed implementation Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”. No southern elected official who opposed integration and Civil Rights for blacks left the Democrat party for the Republican party except Strom Thurmond. It can be argued that Senator Thurmond embraced the natural law philosophy of Republicans. In evidence of this, Senator Thurmond strongly supported the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the supreme court. Justice Thomas was married to a white woman, which would have made support of him anathema to a hard-core racist.

  2. I was poleaxed a number of years ago to see Thomas Sieger Derr, an elderly academic, pushing the “Southern Strategy” nonsense in a letter to the editor of First Things and the editor (RR Reno) agreeing with him. Neither man is of a vintage to have any excuses here.

    The self-concept of partisan Democrats is such that actual facts and logic do not make a dent in it. You recite the actual history (which can be done quite concisely) and you just get them to shut up for a moment. They’ll be back later.

  3. Both political parties have been over the course of their existence vessels for a miscellany of interests and collecting pools for various and sundry subcultures. I wouldn’t say there was a common theme applicable over the whole period (as there might be with the British Labour Party). What I think you see today in the Democratic Party is a confluence of several strands. The strongest has been assuming the role of patronage broker (which the addled academic political science of my youth fancied was the whole point of political life), a role increasingly systematized over a period of more than 140 years (1828- ) and on an increasingly large scale over a period of 40+ years (1933-74). Another role has been as the electoral vehicle of Alvin Gouldner’s New Class, a role it began to assume ca. 1933 but which has been much more pronounced since about 1966; an aspect of that has been shedding more and more of the non-exotic wage-earning element, A third aspect has been what the disreputable Mr. Sailer calls ‘coalition of the fringes’, mobilizing various alienated sectors (e.g. blacks, Puerto Ricans, California chicanos, and Jews). A fourth has been to tap the expertise of their media wing and market themselves as the Party of Cool. I suspect the abrupt shift of public opinion in the young adult set between 2000 and 2008 was largely derived from tapping into superficial themes. (If the survey research on the very youngest voters I’ve seen is true, this effect is wearing off).

  4. No southern elected official who opposed integration and Civil Rights for blacks left the Democrat party for the Republican party except Strom Thurmond.

    There was Mills Godwin in Virginia. Like Thurmond, he gave up on segregation as a policy stance by about 1970. You could add Jesse Helms, as well, though in his years as an elected official he was never a promoter of segregation and was never affiliated with the Democratic Party.

  5. This is a fascinating subject. Clearly the South of today is not the South of 60 or 90 or 150 years ago. The segregationists and their supporters died off. Florida is a Southern state only due to geography. Miami, among other Florida cities, was created by Henry Flagler, from Cleveland.

    For a while, it was cool to support Bill Clinton and Barack Obumbler among young adults who were more concerned with their teenaged-driven need to fit in. As pointed out, that is waning. Hildebeast has none of the cool factor of her husband in 1992 or Obumbler in 2008.

    I digress. A similar shift has happened in West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania. Machine is on thin ice for next year’s election. Only the realm Of Bike Lane Bill Peduto interrupted a Trump wave that engulfed Western Pennsylvania. Not long ago this was the place that reelected John Martha no matter what. Murtha and Bobby Byrd are taking dirt naps and can’t bring home pork anymore.

  6. Yes, Republican progress—all over. Nearly every county in the entire country is Republican except where there is a large welfare constituency or extreme Liberalism.

    Another point about the South: Evangelicals becoming Republican as the Democrat Party became the party of the Devil.

  7. Yes, Republican progress—all over. Nearly every county in the entire country is Republican except where there is a large welfare constituency or extreme Liberalism.

    Um, no. The Democratic Party does well in the larger metropolitan centers among all classes, among certain alienated sectors (as manifested both in cities and in Southern ‘black belt’ counties, and (FWER) New England. The distinction between the parties is demographic (married people tend to vote Republican) and subcultural (with Democrats prospering among Blacks, California Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Jews, and hipsters while Republicans prosper among evangelicals, self-supporting wage-earners, and geographic loci where ‘the self is small’). People who’ve had a long-spell of unemployment in their lives tend to have a bias against the Republican Party, but otherwise one’s status vis a vis government benefits is not in and of itself a strong vector. Lots of Social Security recipients are voting Republican.

  8. Actually the South was the most loyal section of the country to Smith, Smith taking Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Outside the South Smith one two states, heavily Catholic Maryland and Rhode Island.

  9. Rather, what swung the Democrat South was *religious* intolerance. Al Smith, of course, was a Catholic.

    Smith was an exemplar of big city machine politics. Other than Harry Truman, he’s about the only person either party nominated during the period running from 1840 to 1960 who fit that description.

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