Who Were the Southern Democrats?

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Ezra Klein writes:

The Democratic House majority that dominated through much of the 20th Century wasn’t the Democratic Party as we think of it at all.

Instead, it combined liberal and moderate Democrats with a conservative southern bloc that was, for reasons of congressional seniority and tribal history, Democratic, but which voted to the right of many Republicans. 

Jonathan Bernstein recently made the same point.

I’m not sure they’re right. The Southern Democrats of old seem to have been pretty pro-big government, and to have voted with liberals on issues other than racial segregation and labor law. Seth Ackerman wrote about this question a while ago.

We can look at the ideology scores of Northern and Southern House members, using the well-known data compiled by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal. Their data set, which takes into account all roll calls in every Congress, distills each legislator’s voting into scores on two dimensions, which together can predict on average 85% of votes. The first dimension score, which carries the bulk of predictive power, reflects conventional notions of contention over the “role of government in the economy.” The second dimension score is a racial-sectional one whose predictive power was greatest during controversies over Reconstruction in the nineteenth century and civil rights in the twentieth.

As you’d expect, Southerners were always far to the right of Northerners on the second dimension. But as the graph below shows, the average Southern member’s score on the first dimension was consistently more “liberal” than the average Northern member’s through 1958, and remained roughly even with the North through 1964.

In fact, all of Lyndon Johnson’s major War on Poverty programs were enacted with a majority of Southerners voting for final passage. The 1964 Economic Opportunity Act – the omnibus bill establishing Job Corps, a federal work-study program, adult education funding, and various other things – was sponsored in the House by staunch anti-labor segregationist Phil Landrum of Georgia, and passed with 60% of Southern Democrats voting in favor, even as 87% of Republicans opposed it. Likewise, Medicare passed in 1965 with 61% of Southern Democrats in favor and 93% of Republicans opposed. The 1964 Food Stamp Act, after an intra-party log-rolling deal involving farm subsidies, went through on virtually a straight party-line vote.

There were certainly hard-right Southern Democratic legislators who refused to vote for such policies. There were also surprisingly liberal ones; the region’s Congressional delegations were more ideologically diverse than is usually assumed.

If there was one legislator who best embodied the classic image of a conservative Southern Democrat in Congress, it was probably Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. An uncompromising (if “genteel”) segregationist and signer of the Southern Manifesto, Russell, according to a political scientist writing in 1950, belonged to a class of Southern legislators which “speaks for the respectable conservatives, speaks for chambers of commerce, civic clubs, banks, corporations.” Russell was probably a bit to the right of the median Southerner in Congress. But it is a mark of how different that time and place were that Russell declared the proudest accomplishment of his forty-year Congressional career to be the National School Lunch Act, which he spearheaded in 1946 and then doggedly defended over the years whenever its funding was challenged: “No one,” he charged, “should seek to deny a poor child in a poor state a lunch at school because both child and state are less able to pay than a wealthier child in a wealthy state.”

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