Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana is finally on her way out; her defeat in yesterday’s runoff election puts an exclamation point at the end of the long story of the Democratic party’s decline in the South. And good riddance — Louisianans have already had the sense to give themselves an excellent, forward-looking governor, and they deserve a better senator, too.
Naturally, this will be seized upon as an opportunity to proclaim the grapes sour: The Democrats, being intellectually dishonest, cling to the myth that the two parties “switched places” on racial issues in the 1960s, that Senator Landrieu’s troubles are a consequence of that reversal, and that the general Southern realignment is evidence that the Republican party is a comfortable home for bigots, Confederate revanchists, and others with dodgy racial politics.
This is a strange line of argument, and an indefensible one once the evidence is considered. Democrats remained the favored party in the South for decades and decades after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, controlling a majority of governorships, Senate seats, state legislative bodies, etc., well into the 21st century.
A few obvious questions: If white Southerners were really so enraged about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and if they switched to the Republican party to express their displeasure, then why did they wait 30 years before making that preference felt in House elections? Why did Dwight D. Eisenhower — a supporter of civil-rights legislation who insisted on the actual desegregation of the armed forces (as opposed to President Truman’s hypothetical desegregation) and federal agencies under his control — win a larger share of the Southern vote in 1956 than Barry Goldwater, the most important Republican critic of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, did two cycles later? Why did Mississippi elect only one Republican governor in the entire 20th century, and that not until 1992? Why didn’t Alabama have a Republican governor until 1987? And why did Louisiana wait 60 years to eliminate its last Democratic senator in favor of a candidate from the party of Condoleezza Rice, Ben Carson, Allen West, Mia Love, Tim Scott, and that not-very-white guy who serves as governor of Louisiana? White supremacy should be made of sterner stuff: Did somebody forget to tell Louisiana state senator and newly confirmed Republican Elbert Guillory that he’s black?
Strange that redneck bigots would wait for so many decades to punish the Democrats for giving up cross-burning; my own experience with that particular demographic suggests that its members do not in general have that sort of attention span.
There has, in fact, been a realignment in the party preferences of both black voters and white Southern voters — a trend that dates not to the Democrats’ decision to abandon white supremacy as a plank in their party platform but to an earlier period, namely, the New Deal. By 1946, the majority of black voters in congressional races were pulling the Democratic lever — that is, black voters switched to the Democrats at a time when Lyndon Johnson wasn’t just blocking civil-rights bills but blocking anti-lynching legislation. The last Republican presidential candidate to win the black vote was Herbert Hoover.
Similarly, the migration of white Southern voters to the GOP did not begin after the fight over the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And why would it have? Despite the principled opposition of Barry Goldwater, a lifelong NAACP member who nonetheless believed that the bill gave the federal government too much power over state and local matters, Republicans supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at significantly higher levels than the Democrats did, just as Republicans, Goldwater included, had fought for the Civil Rights Act of 1957, passed on Republican votes over Democratic obstruction and signed by a Republican president.
In reality, the Republican party in the South was not the party of peckerwood-trash segregationists; the GOP made its first Southern inroads among relatively affluent, educated, suburban voters, i.e., basically the same people who were Republicans everywhere else in the country, and the Southern voters least interested in segregation. And that began in the 1920s, not the 1960s. But it really picked up during the New Deal, with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s support among Southern white voters diminishing as his Prussian-style command-and-control economic fantasies became more audacious.
When Democrats push their “trading places” legend, they insistently (and dishonestly) ignore that their party, which was the party of Southern voters before Lyndon Johnson finally got on the right side of the lynching-law issue, was also the party of Southern voters long after Democrats finally packed away their white hoods for good. Instead, they will point to the presidential-election maps, which tell a different story.
Unquestionably, Barry Goldwater had a better year in 1964 when it came to Southern electoral votes than Republicans at the time could normally have expected, but Republican presidential victories in the South were hardly unprecedented: Hoover had won Texas, Florida, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina, while Al Smith carried the rest of the South from Louisiana to South Carolina in spite of the anti-Catholic sentiment in the region. Indeed, this election, which brought many working-class white ethnic Catholics into the Democratic camp for the first time, probably had a more important effect on the emerging Democratic coalition than any action on civil rights did, there having been practically none on either side for some time. Similarly, Republicans had a pretty good showing in the South in 1952, with Eisenhower winning Texas, Florida, Virginia, and Tennessee, along with the rest of the country outside the South.
After 1964, Republicans did have some extraordinary presidential elections in the South. In 1968, both major parties were largely shut out of the Deep South by George Wallace’s American Independent–party candidacy; Republicans won Florida, Democrats won Texas, but the outlines of the familiar modern presidential map began to emerge: Democrats on the coasts, Republicans in the middle. In the next election, Richard Nixon swept the South — and the West, and the Midwest, and pretty much everywhere else, too, winning every state except Massachusetts. Democrats swept the South in 1976 — more than a decade after the South allegedly abandoned its traditional party — and then Reagan took it back, with the exception of Georgia (Jimmy Carter’s home state). In 1984, Reagan occupied the South like General Sherman — or like Nixon: He, too, swept the South as part of a 49-state victory, leaving Republicans with the short-lived motto: “Recount Minnesota!”
None of the presidential elections — not one — in the 20 years between 1968 and 1988 shows a Republican party uniquely dominant in the South. In 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988, Republicans won the South while running rampant in the rest of the country, including two 49-state sweeps. In 1968, the Republican won in spite of losing the South; in 1976, the Republicans lost in part because they lost the South. The Republicans’ “Southern strategy” — which was not, contrary to the myth, based upon sending secret decoder-ring messages to Southern bigots but was instead oriented toward appealing to working-class white transplants to the South from the Midwest and elsewhere — did not really begin to pay off reliably until years later, when white racism as an organized political issue had long been consigned to the fringes of politics.
So, once again, the evidence is contrary to the fantasy history the Democrats put forward. In 1992, the Democrats hit upon a Southern strategy of their own, the “Double Bubba” ticket of two white Southern men — Bill Clinton, protégé of the segregationist troglodyte William Fulbright, and Al Gore, son of the Tennessee grotesque Senator Al Gore Sr. — and managed a mediocre showing in the South.
It was the 1994 midterm — 30 years after the fight over the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — that announced the real realignment in Southern politics. As with the New Deal, economic issues rather than racial ones were once again front and center. Bill Clinton had had the poor sense to put his wife in charge of a cockamamie project to quasi-nationalize American health care — terrible idea, right? — and Republicans responded with the Contract with America, an eight-point agenda that had zilch to do with race. Only the very finest sensibilities of the dog-whistle detectors at MSNBC could derive a racial agenda out of “require that all laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply to Congress,” “cut committee staff by one-third,” or “require committee meetings to be open to the public.” (Go ahead — find the racial subtext; I’ll wait.) It was that election that saw the Southern congressional delegation go Republican for the first time. And while Clinton would still win a few Southern states in 1996, Democratic presidential candidates would subsequently find themselves largely shut out of the South outside of Florida and Virginia.
Say what you will about the Republican party of 1994, with Newt Gingrich riding at its head like Hannibal on an elephant, it was not — not by any reasonable criterion — anything like the Democratic party that fought Republican civil-rights legislation through the 1950s and into the 1960s. Newt Gingrich has entertained a great many daft ideas in his life, but the Democratic party’s creepy white-supremacist agenda was never one of them.
So, why the racially lopsided election maps?
Bearing in mind that four presidential elections is not a very large data set, the fact is that voting is racially polarized across the country, not just in the South. In 2012, Barack Obama won 332 electoral votes to Mitt Romney’s 206; if only whites’ votes had been counted — if Mitt Romney had been running for the office of President of White Folks — then Romney would have handed Obama a crushing loss, roughly 438 to 100 in the Electoral College. Romney would have won such Democratic strongholds as California, Illinois, and New Jersey; in fact, he would have won every state except for Iowa, Washington, Oregon, New York, and a few small states. Race is not the only cleavage, of course: If the vote had been white men only, chunks of New England would have slipped away, leaving Barack Obama with something like half a dozen states and 40 electoral votes.
On the other hand, have a gander at the 2014 midterm-election map: Does this look like the showing of a rump Southern white people’s party to you? It may be that presidential elections, unlike congressional and gubernatorial elections, really are mainly about culture, about signaling identity and values, about how we see ourselves and our country. If that is the case, it should not surprise us all that much that blacks and whites vote differently. Not only do policy preferences reflect racial divisions, but there are racial differences in all manner of beliefs, tastes, and opinions. We can all laugh at jokes about the O. J. Simpson verdict’s role as a black-authenticity heuristic today, but roughly contemporaneous racial disagreements are not amusing even in retrospect.
That the Democratic party has attempted to hijack for itself credit for the hard and often bloody work performed for a century almost exclusively by Republicans, from Lincoln to Eisenhower, is a reminder that the party of Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton is not a place for men with a very developed sense of decency.
That being the case, Democrats should spare us their batty tales about Louisiana sending off the South’s last Democratic senator — a sanctimonious white lady if ever there was one — because white bigots are being inspired by a governor one generation away from Punjab, Haitian refugees representing Utah in the House, and /quality/85/?url=http://www.usnews.com/dbimages/master/49730/widemodern_allenwest_111213.jpg”>this National Review cruise aficionado. From George Wallace’s infamous stand in the schoolhouse door to Barack Obama’s, embarrassing racial politics are the Democrats’ bread and butter. And what happened in the 1960s wasn’t the parties’ “changing places” on racism and civil rights; it was the Democrats’ — some of them, at least — joining the ranks of civilized human beings for the first time.
It only took them a century.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.