Dan McLaughlin (July 2012):
I recently finished reading Sean Trende’s excellent book The Lost Majority, which is a must-read for anyone attempting to intelligently discuss its subject: how winning political coalitions are built, maintained and undone in the modern American two-party system. Trende covers a range of topics. At the level of political science theory, he dismantles the theory of periodic realigning elections. In his historical analysis, he may surprise you by arguing that the most enduring coalition of the past century was assembled not by McKinley, FDR, or Reagan but Dwight Eisenhower. Looking to the recent past and future, he convincingly demonstrates that Obama’s 2008 coalition was always more fragile than Democrats at the time believed, and that there remain obstacles to the John Judis/Ruy Teixeira theory of an Emerging Democratic Majority. Trende’s major point is that all such predictions of enduring partisan majorities (he cites many dating back over the past century and a half) ignore the fact that political coalitions inevitably draw together factions with different interests and ideologies, and frictions within those coalitions inevitably offer opportunities for the other party to regain support.
But one of the historical narratives that Trende covers in depth is of particular interest because it remains a crucial part of partisan mythology today: the enduring myth of the Southern Strategy. On the occasion of Mitt Romney’s address to the NAACP, it is worth revisiting that myth today.
Background: The Civil Rights Movement
First, a little background. Broadly speaking, the African-American civil rights movement has gone through five basic historical stages:
-Stage One, running roughly from the 1787 enactment of the Northwest Ordinance to the 1865 enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment, was the long, bloody struggle to contain and ultimately abolish slavery. The two-party system ultimately aligned the Democrats as the defenders of slavery and secession, while the Republican Party was founded as an antislavery party, and the election of a Republican president triggered the Civil War.
-Stage Two, running until 1876 and highlighted by the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and several early civil rights laws, was Reconstruction, which sought to give freed blacks political suffrage and legal equality while dealing with the aftermath of nearly half the country engaging in armed rebellion against the United States. During this period, the “Radical Republicans” of the North and West pressed for more aggressive reconstruction measures, and freed blacks aligned with the GOP, while white Southerners remained the core of the decimated Democratic Party.
-Stage Three, which ran from the deal resolving the contested 1876 election (Democrats accepted Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as the winner in exchange for an end to Reconstruction) through the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, was the age of Jim Crow: while African-Americans made legal and economic progress on a few fronts, the overwhelming trend (especially in the South) was one of black disenfranchisement, segregation, and oppressive and terroristic practices ranging from lynchings to Klu Klux Klan activity. The Supreme Court during this period essentially rewrote the Fourteenth Amendment to eviscerate the Privileges & Immunities Clause and the Equal Protection Clause (the latter has recovered; the former remains crippled).
For most of this period, the “Solid South” was regarded as reliably Democratic as well as poor, rural and backward. Black voters – where they were permitted to vote at all – began abandoning the GOP for the Democrats in large numbers in the 1930s. Democrats, in thrall to white Southern support, were more or less enthusiastically united in their support for Jim Crow and resistant to even mild civil rights measures like anti-lynching bills. Segregation was formally introduced in the Army by Woodrow Wilson. Republicans, for their part, remained committed in theory to the ideals of Lincoln, but in practice often followed what Trende describes as the Theodore Roosevelt strategy of accommodating Southern recalcitrance in the hopes that Southern whites would give the GOP a hearing. During the time of Roosevelt and Taft, this strategy was unavailing with white Southerners, but the party’s abandonment of any real civil rights agenda set the stage for the loss of its black support between 1928 and 1936.
-Stage Four, running roughly from 1946-65, was the fight for legal equality and the end to Jim Crow and disenfranchisement: desegregation of the armed forces and integration of Major League Baseball in the 1940s, Brown v Board of Education and Rosa Parks in the 1950s, passage of the 24th Amendment banning poll taxes (passed by Congress in 1962, ratified in 1964) and the various landmark civil rights and voting rights bills passed in 1964-65.
The rearguard opposition to civil rights was loud and almost entirely Southern and Democratic; as Kevin Williamson notes, in the 1950s, Southern Democrats in the Senate played what amounted to a good-cop/bad-cop strategy, with Strom Thurmond leading noisy filibusters of civil rights legislation and Lyndon Johnson promising liberal Northern Democrats he could get past the filibusters if the bills were watered down to the point of toothlessness.
The partisan politics of civil rights was complex. Southern Democrats twice bolted the party in tight presidential elections, with Thurmond running in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968, while Northern and Western Democrats generally supported civil rights. Republicans, mostly “liberals” from the North and West, were also mostly supportive (I put “liberals” in quotes here because the liberals on civil rights included a fair number of people like Illinois Congressman Don Rumsfeld who were not liberals by any measure on other issues). As a result, major civil rights bills in the 1950s and 60s generally depended more on Republican than Democratic support in Congress. Conservatives in the GOP and in magazines like National Review were split at the time – few lent their support to the Thurmond/Wallace/Bull Connor faction, which was almost exclusively the province of the Democrats, but some objected on other grounds to the pace and methods used to push civil rights, most famously Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on constitutional grounds (Goldwater had supported other civil rights measures and would again). But those were disagreements about tactics, not outcomes.
Today, the American electorate and political system is all but unanimous in support of the measures taken during Stage One, Two and Four; the old Dixiecrat resistance is thoroughly discredited. Most conservatives today want no part of the objections raised by Goldwater and his allies at the time (although some of their systemic concerns about the slippery slopes created during that era have proven prophetic in other areas).
-Stage Five, beginning with the Great Society and the Nixon-era institution of affirmative action and the 1970s controversies over school busing and ongoing more than four decades later, remains much more enduringly controversial. Few, if any, of the racially charged issues of the past 47 years have had anything to do with legal equality for African-Americans, and after the last gasp of Wallace in 1968, political support for any vestige of Jim Crow vanished. On the GOP side, a number of the old Dixiecrats, led by Thurmond himself, switched parties. Ex-Dixiecrats like Thurmond and Jesse Helms abandoned their prior support for segregation along with the party they had left behind. On the Democratic side, they died out more slowly, with some still holding office into the 1980s, a number of whom (including Wallace) dramatically repented their prior ways. The old Dixiecrats who stayed in the Democratic Party spent the rest of their careers drawing overwhelming support from black voters; most depended on that support for their margins of victory. Meanwhile, Republicans who had supported civil rights throughout the 1960s generally found themselves shut out of that support.
The most dramatic political development of the post-1965 period has been the rise of the GOP and decline of the Democrats among white voters in the South. Which brings us to the mythology of how that happened and what it means to the two parties today.
The basic “Southern Strategy” myth, popularized by Kevin Phillips in the early 1970s, goes like this: under LBJ’s leadership, Democrats nobly and self-sacrificingly supported civil rights during Stage Four of the movement, giving an opening to opportunistic Republicans to crack the Democratic Solid South; following the support given by voters in some Deep South states to Goldwater in 1964, Nixon (formerly a supporter of civil rights) developed a “Southern Strategy” to use coded appeals to southern whites, enabling him to win the 1968 election; and everything the GOP has accomplished since 1968 is tainted by a continuous reliance on that same strategy to keep white southerners in the fold.
It is nothing short of amazing how the Democrats have turned their own racism and racist past around and projected it upon the Republicans. This is all due to the equation of hand outs with compassion and help and the demonizing of efforts to create vast economic opportunities for minorities in order to actually HELP them drag themselves out of the poverty cycle.
Millions have worked their way out of poverty but none have welfared their way out and this is exactly what the left is counting on.
The left-leaning Tampa Bay Times has just dropped a big bit of data that blows up the old-fashioned ”Southern Strategy” completely.
“More than 25% of the inbound mail-in or absentee ballots in the primary, had NEVER VOTED BEFORE“
Who do you think these people got off their duffs to vote for?
It was Donald Trump who took FLA in a landslide.