The Politics of the American South

There was never a ‘party switch’…

By: Hayden Cunningham

One of the biggest myths in American politics is the history of the two major parties. The Democratic Party has a long history of racism that has since been dismissed. The modern myth is that there was a “party switch” following the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But is this true?

The Founding of the Republican Party

The Republican Party was founded in 1854 and quickly became an opposition to slavery. The party’s original platform wasn’t to abolish slavery in the South. Rather, the argument at the time was whether or not new states added to the country would be slave-holding states. Abraham Lincoln ran on a campaign promise to not let slavery be legal in the western territories.

Lincoln was elected President in November of 1860. By the end of December, eleven states seceded from the Union. By February of 1861, the Confederate states were established. Within the first few months of his presidency, Lincoln had to figure out how to reunite a country that broke in half.

1861-1865 Political sign by the Democratic Party

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln called for the emancipation of all slaves in every state. From this point forward, the Republican Party would be the party of anti-slavery and civil liberties. The Democratic Party would be the party of the South, the KKK, and Jim Crow.

The Effects of The Civil Rights Act

When the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed, a greater percentage of Republicans in Congress voted for it than the percentage of Democrats. The most famous nay vote among republicans was Senator Barry Goldwater. This is where context matters; it is possible for someone to be opposed to the 1964 Civil Rights Act itself without being racist. Like all bills, there are some laws that steer away from the originally intended goal. Goldwater was a strong Conservative when it came to the role of the federal government. He had a history of trying to pass racial discrimination laws, but he ultimately believed that states reserve the right to choose how they want to integrate. He did not believe the federal government should be involved in something that should be a state matter. The idea of state’s rights over a large federal government was a common stance by republicans in the emergence of the modern Republican Party. Regardless, Goldwater later called his vote against the bill “one of his greatest regrets.”

In the 1964 election, Barry Goldwater was crushed by incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson. This was the first time that southern states voted majority republican in decades.

Here is where the “party switch” myth comes in to play. The myth is that following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Republican party and the Democratic Party switched platforms. The racists of the South would now vote Republican, while black voters and anti-racists would vote Democratic.

There is no evidence that this switch happened.

To start, President Eisenhower, following his 1952 election victory, won more states in the South in the 1956 election. This was after he sent the National Guard in to Little Rock to escort black students into the school. More southern states voted Republican after this occurred.

Of the 21 Republican senators in the South during the Civil Rights Act, only one switched parties. The only notable politician that switched parties after the Civil Rights Act was Strom Thurmond, who switched from being a democrat to a republican.

But if this is true, then why did voters in the South vote majority Republican in 1964? There are several reasons. The factors involved have less to do with race and more to do with economic and social reasons.

The biggest reason that the South shifted to the right was due to the industrialization of the states. Industries from the North moved locations into the South. And with the move came republican voters ready to vote in southern states. This was a trend that was happening long before the Civil Rights Act. Republicans were winning more seats in the South in the 1950’s and this was a main reason why.

When the Civil Rights Act occurred, those that switched parties were mostly young, moderate Republicans that began to side with Democrats. Old democrats in the South remained democrats.

Congress in the South did not switch Republican until 1994. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, were both democratic Presidential candidates from the South who won Southern states in their election. In fact, Jimmy Carter launched his 1980 campaign at the birthplace of the KKK. He lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan.

George Wallace is a perfect example of democratic racism in the South being relabeled as right-wing racism. Wallace was elected the governor of Alabama in 1962. During that time, he was anti-desegregation. He went so far as to stand in the doorway of a schoolhouse to bar black children from entry. After a failed Presidential bid in 1964, Wallace left the Democratic Party in 1968. He became the candidate of the “American Independence Party” that won five southern states in the 1968 election. That party today is labeled as a “far-right” third party, but the party split from the left. George Wallace never became a Republican. This third party held democratic principles regarding the economy, while also advocating for segregation policies echoed by the Democratic Party for the last one hundred years.

It is a lie to say that the entire South shifted Republican because of the Civil Rights Act. There are many factors involved. Sean Trende from Real Clear Politics wrote an excellent article describing the factors of the shift. He concludes that “while driven in part by race, [this shift] most certainly did not have ‘everything to do with race.'”

The ‘Southern Strategy’

The allegation is that Republican Party strategists decided to cater to the racist white voters in the South. There is not much evidence to support that a ‘Southern Strategy’ took place across the entire region. And even if some evil strategists had that intention, there is no reason to believe that is why voters as a whole in the South started voting for the right.

As stated before, there were many reasons southerners started voting republican. It is historically inaccurate to say the only reason, or even the main reason, was racism. If some Republicans were attempting to appeal to racists, that does not mean all voters who voted Republican in the South did so because of racism.

Richard Nixon’s campaign is where the concept of a ‘Southern Strategy’ began. But there is more reason to believe that Nixon was appealing to the urban, non-racist areas of the South. The urban areas were home to less racism than the rural areas. As the South was changing from an agricultural-based society to an industrial one, Nixon had more of a reason to appeal to the urban areas of southern states. In the 1968 election, Nixon did indeed win the urban South. The rural South voted for George Wallace.

The South didn’t turn republican because of race. The South turned republican at a time where the whole country was turning republican. The modern Republican Party emerged after World War II, and really began to take form in the 1960’s and 1970’s until it hit it’s peak in the 1980’s. Many social factors caused this emergence. In modern America, the South is very republican. This is because of the fact voters in the South believe the right speaks to the issues most important to them: small government, gun rights, anti-abortion, pro-nuclear family, etc.

Modern Voting Demographics in the South

Today, the South is mostly republican. Georgia, however, voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 election. The southern states today follow the same demographic across most states: urban areas vote democrat, rural areas and suburbs vote republican. Voting for a specific party today does not denote racism. in the past, voting Democrat was often associated with racist sentiment. In modern America, neither party has a platform that advocate against the rights of black Americans.

New Mississippi Flag

Racial tensions in the South are nowhere near the levels they were at in the 1960’s. Still, our country has faced the debate in recent years about confederate statues and confederate flags. Even the state of Mississippi changed their flag because the old one featured the confederate flag on it (the new flag is much cooler).

Americans should have no issue for a state flag change if the state voted for the change. Confederate statues being taken down are perfectly reasonable. The argument against it may be that we are “ignoring history.” If that’s the case, just move the statues to a museum. There is a difference between tearing down a statue of a founding father and tearing down a statue of a racist Confederate leader. We want to remove symbols that imply hatred, but we do not want to forget our history. The best solution would be to keep the statues up of our great leaders (even if they had imperfections), and move the confederate statues to museums.

The problem the Republican Party has today is the alt-right. Young men that agree with racist sentiment will presumably vote for republicans. There are many reasons that racist hate groups are inclined to do so (the biggest reason is the media repeatedly telling everyone the Republican Party is the party of racism). This does not mean that the Republican Party caters to them, or even has policies that are racist. Both parties have extremists, and neither party should be held accountable for an extremist group that they disavow.

The Democratic Party pushed the lie of the ‘party switch’ to distance themselves from their racist past. The Republican Party was literally established to fight slavery and racism. The Republican Party was the one that freed slaves and fought Jim Crow. Instead of apologizing for the past, prove that the party has changed, and move on, the Democratic Party wants to place blames on their opponent. This is deeply dishonest, and the republicans just let it happen.

In a way, the “woke” on the left have much in common with racists. Both believe that individuals should be judged by their racial group, both believe in some forms of segregation, and both believe that poor black people can’t pull themselves out of poverty. An interesting argument could be made that the left is still more racist than the right today, especially when our President has a history of working with segregationists.

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