This article is adapted from Dinesh D’Souza’s new book Death of a Nation, out July 31 from St. Martin’s Press. His movie of the same title opens nationwide on Friday, August 3.
An interesting phenomenon in politics is the flip flop. What would cause a politician who takes a stand on an issue to reverse himself and take precisely the opposite stand on the same issue? Even more interesting is the about face or volte face. The volte face goes beyond the flip flop because it represents a total and usually lasting shift of course, as when Reagan abandoned the Democratic Party and became a Republican.
More interesting even than the volte face is when a whole group or party makes this shift. Perhaps the most dramatic example in our lifetime is when the Soviet Communist Party in 1991 abolished itself. It’s one thing for an individual to undergo a wrenching conversion but what would cause a whole party to reverse itself in that way? Could it be a transformation of the collective conscience, or a new perception of group interests, or what?
Our exploration of the subject is deepened by a new possibility introduced by Winston Churchill, who in one of his essays takes up the subject of consistency in politics. Himself accused on more than one occasion of reversing himself and taking inconsistent positions on issues, Churchill defends himself by invoking the apparent volte face, the change of tactics that is not a change of goals or values.
Churchill writes, “A statesman in contact with the moving current of events and anxious to keep the ship on an even keel and steer a steady course may lean all his weight now on one side and now on the other. His arguments in each case, when contrasted, can be shown to be not only very different in character but contradictory in spirit and opposite in direction. Yet his object will throughout have remained the same . . . We cannot call this inconsistency. In fact, it can be claimed to be the truest consistency. The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose.”
Keeping this in mind, let’s examine a series of critical transformations or switches in American politics over the past few decades. Why did blacks, who were once uniformly Republican, become as they are now almost uniformly Democratic? Why did the South, once the “solid South” of the Democratic Party, become the base of the Republican Party? No understanding of current politics is possible without answering these questions.
Progressives have put forward their answer, which is now conventional wisdom, trumpeted in the media and commonly invoked as if it were too obvious to require any proof. Even some Republicans believe it, as evidenced by RNC chairman Ken Mehlman going before the NAACP in 2005 and apologizing for the racist history of the Republican Party. In 2010, the first black chairman of the RNC, Michael Steele, conceded the GOP’s supposed Southern Strategy had “alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South.”
You know you’ve got a powerful ideological indictment when even its targets are willing to make a confession. And what is this indictment? Its essence can be expressed in a few key propositions. The parties switched platforms, at least on the race issue. This big switch was brought about in the late 1960s by the GOP, which under the leadership of Richard Nixon employed an infamous “Southern strategy” based on an appeal to racism and white supremacy.
The racist wing of the Democratic Party—the so-called Dixiecrats—responded by switching allegiances and becoming Republicans. Meanwhile, the Democrats under Lyndon Johnson pushed through the signature civil rights laws. So the Democrats, once the party of racism, became the party of civil rights, and the GOP, once the party of Lincoln and emancipation, became the new home of bigotry and white supremacy.
There is no limit to the number of articles chanting this progressive tune. “The Southern Strategy was the original tune that made Donald Trump possible,” Jeet Heer writes in the New Republic. Heer contends that while the GOP has relied for decades on “coded appeals to racism,” or what Heer terms “winking racism,” Trump with his overt racism is the party’s “true heir, the beneficiary of the policies the party has pursued for more than half a century.”
“Reagan, Trump and the Devil Down South” is the title of a 2016 article in the left-wing The Guardian which faults the GOP with making a “deal with the devil.” Yes, it’s the Southern Strategy all over again. “Goldwater discovered it; Nixon refined it; and Reagan perfected it into the darkest of modern political dark arts.” While these Republicans preferred “dog whistle” appeals to racism, “Trump blows it out” and “that’s why the base loves it—he feels their rage.”
And from The Atlantic we get the headline, “How Trump Remixed the Republican Southern Strategy.” Here the author Robert Jones blames the Southern Strategy on “the speeches of Richard Nixon . . . who polished George Wallace’s overtly racist appeals for mainstream use in the Republican campaign playbook.” Jones, too, says Trump has upped the ante. “In a demonstration of how successful the old strategy was, he’s discarded the dog whistle in favor of a bullhorn.”
And again—just to highlight the omnipresence of this stuff—we have Salon informing us that “the idea that today’s Democratic Party is the party of militant white supremacy is profoundly wrong.” Why? You see, there was a Southern Strategy and a big switch. “White southern Democrats were explicit about their racism, and it’s no mystery that they left the party.” These people then “joined a Republican Party waiting with open arms.”
There is a considerable body of progressive scholarly literature behind this rhetoric. This includes Earl and Merle Black’s The Rise of Southern Republicans and Dan Carter’s From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution. These are the progressive architects of the narrative of the Southern Strategy and the big switch. Most recently, historian Kevin Kruse’s study White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism invokes the Southern Strategy and the big switch to make the case that white supremacy is now a core doctrine of the Republican Right.
What dividends this explanation pays for progressive Democrats! In effect, it erases most of their history and gives them a Get Out of Jail Free Card. Democrats have never publicly admitted their role over nearly two centuries of being the party of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, racial terrorism, the Ku Klux Klan, and also fascism and Nazism. Yet when pushed up against the wall with the mountain of evidence I provide in my book, how can they deny it?
They cannot deny it. Therefore, their ultimate fallback—their only fallback—is to insist that they changed. The bad guys became the good guys. The biggest payoff for them is the corollary to this. Supposedly the Republicans also changed, in the opposite direction. The good guys became the bad guys. So now the Democratic Left not only gets to accuse Trump, conservatives, and Republicans of being the party of racism; they also get to take their own history of white supremacy—with all its horrid images of slavery, lynching and concentration camps—and foist it on the political Right.
But is it true? Or is the whole doctrine of the Southern strategy and the big switch yet another piece of progressive humbug? Let us see.
Did the Parties Switch Platforms?
Let’s begin with a critical question: Did the two parties switch platforms? In other words, is the GOP still the party of Lincoln or, as progressives insist, would Lincoln today be a Democrat? On the face of it, the notion of a complete party swap seems unlikely. Did the cops really become robbers and the robbers become cops? It’s possible, I suppose. We can test this claim by examining the core philosophy of Lincoln, the first Republican president, and then seeing whether it is still the core philosophy of the Republican Party today.
On multiple occasions, Lincoln defined slavery in this way: “You work; I’ll eat.” In his Chicago speech of July 10, 1858, Lincoln put it slightly differently, “You toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it.” In its essence, Lincoln said, slavery gave men the right to “wring their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” As historian Allen Guelzo pointed out in my interview with him for the movie, for Lincoln the most appalling feature of slavery was that it was a form of theft, theft of a man’s labor.
Lincoln went on to argue that for centuries monarchs and aristocrats had stolen the labor of working people through a variety of mechanisms, from confiscatory taxation to outright confiscation. Lincoln insisted that notwithstanding its lofty rationalizations, the Democratic slave plantation was based on this ancient principle of thievery. “No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king . . . or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”
Lincoln contrasted slavery with the Republican principle, which is that the hand that makes the corn has the right to put the corn into its own mouth. In Lincoln’s words, “As each man has one mouth to be fed, and one pair of hands to furnish food, it was probably intended that that particular pair of hands should feed that particular mouth.” The social philosophy underlying this is that “every man can make himself” and “the man who labored for another last year, this year labors for himself, and next year he will hire others to labor for him.”
Lincoln calls this the free labor system, by which he means the free market system. It operates on self-improvement, as Lincoln’s own story illustrates. “I am not ashamed to confess that twenty five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails at work on a flat-boat.” The free labor system, in Lincoln’s words, “gives hope to all and energy and progress and improvement of condition to all.”
Naturally, Lincoln says, people want to keep what they earn. “Even the ant who has toiled and dragged a crumb to his nest,” he says, “will furiously defend the fruit of his labor against whatever robber assails him.” And while the temptation to envious confiscation is inevitable, Lincoln told a delegation of workingmen during the Civil War, “Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another, but let him labor diligently and build one for himself.”
Failure to succeed, Lincoln said, is “not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly or singular misfortune.” As political scientist Harry Jaffa interprets Lincoln’s words, “The brain surgeon and the street sweeper may have very unequal rewards for their work. Yet each has the same right to put into his mouth the bread that his own hand has earned. The brain surgeon has no more right to take the street sweeper’s wages than the street sweeper to take the brain surgeon’s.”
Why not? Because for Lincoln such schemes of confiscation are a restoration of the slavery principle where “some have labored, and others have, without labor, enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits.” Lincoln added, “This is wrong and should not continue. To secure to each laborer the whole product of his labor, or as nearly as possible, is a most worthy object of good government.”
Lincoln’s philosophy can be seen in its practical implementation when his own stepbrother, age 37, wrote him to ask for a small loan to settle a debt. Lincoln responded, “Your request for eighty dollars, I do not think best, to comply with now.” Lincoln reminded him this was not the first time he was being importuned for money; they had been down that road before. The problem, as he put it, is that the man was “an idler. You do not very much dislike to work; but you do not work much, merely because it does not seem to you that you could get much for it.”
Here’s what Lincoln proposed: “You shall go to work, tooth and nails, for somebody who will give you money for it.” Lincoln added an incentive. “If you hire yourself at ten dollars a month, from me you will get ten more, making twenty dollars a month . . . Now if you will do this, you will soon be out of debt, and what is better, you will have a habit that will keep you from getting in debt again.”
It should be obvious from this that Lincoln’s basic ideology that people have a right to the fruits of their labor, and that government, if it gets involved at all, should merely provide idlers and indigents with the means to become self-supporting, is even today the basic ideology of Republicans. And it is equally clear that the confiscatory principle “You work, I eat” is even today the basic ideology of Democrats. The entire welfare state, from the New Deal through the Great Society to contemporary Democratic schemes, are all rooted in the same plantation philosophy of legally-sanctioned theft that Lincoln identified more than a century and a half ago.
Why Blacks Became Democrats
Now we turn to a second question: why did blacks become Democrats? They were once at home in the Republican Party. As Frederick Douglass put it, “The Republican Party is the deck; all else is the sea.” How different things are now. After the Civil War nine out of 10 blacks voted Republican; now nine out of 10 blacks votes Democratic. So something happened to cause blacks to switch their allegiance. But what?
For progressives, the huge backing of blacks for the Democratic Party proves that the Democratic Party is the party of racial enlightenment and black interests. As for the GOP, it follows by the same reasoning that it must be the party opposed to blacks. As Jamelle Bouie put it in the Daily Beast, “If the GOP is so supportive of African Americans, then why have blacks abandoned the party in droves?”
Here I give the surprising answer to that question. The data show that blacks did not switch from the Republicans to the Democrats in the 1960s. They did not do it because of civil rights. Rather, a majority of blacks became Democrats in the 1930s. This was at a time when the Democratic Party was manifestly the party of segregation and the Ku Klux Klan. FDR, who got less than one-third of the black vote in 1932, got 75 percent of the black vote in 1936.
Why would blacks leave the party of emancipation and resistance to segregation and lynching and join the party of bigotry and white supremacy? The depressing answer is that blacks did it in exchange for the crumbs that they got from FDR’s New Deal. We have seen earlier how FDR designed the New Deal to exclude African-Americans and preserve Jim Crow. How delighted and amused FDR must have been to see blacks coming over to his camp even as his administration worked closely with racist Democrats to screw them over.
It should be noted, in mitigation of this horrible decision on the part of African Americans—and it was a horrible decision—that conditions for blacks during the Great Depression were almost inconceivably bad. Historian Ira Katznelson points out that median black family income was around $500 a month, which means most blacks lived at subsistence level without electricity, hot water, refrigeration, adequate plumbing or gas for cooking. “Under these circumstances,” Katznelson writes, New Deal benefits “limited though they were” and “however discriminatory” still offered some relief and solace to a “desperate population.”
So FDR bought off the African American vote at a bargain-basement price in the 1930s. Yet this secured the Democrats a decisive, but not unanimous, black vote. Democrats had around 75 percent, and they remained in that range from the 1930s through the 1960s. Then LBJ consciously directed a large portion of his Great Society benefits to blacks, and bought off another big chunk of the black vote for the Democratic Party.
Since LBJ, blacks have voted for Democrats in the 90 percent range. This second generation of blacks in overwhelming numbers gave their electoral consent to becoming part of LBJ’s Democratic plantation. Note that this generation of African-Americans did this by abandoning the party that had stood up for them for more than a century and joining the one that had enslaved them, lynched them, installed systems of discrimination against them, and was even then the main source of resistance to the enactment of their civil rights.
In my view, the political decision to become part of the Democratic plantation has proven to be disastrous for blacks, although not necessarily for the black overseer class that administers the Democratic plantation. However this may be, the timing and motivation of the black switch is a decisive refutation of the progressive lie that blacks wisely left the Republican Party because they recognized it as the party of white supremacy, and joined the Democratic Party because they knew it had become the party of civil rights. That wasn’t the perception; neither was it the reality.
The Myth of the Southern Strategy
Now we turn to Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the reasons for the other switch: the switch of the South from being the political base of the Democratic Party to now being that of the GOP. Here the progressive narrative is that Nixon was convinced by his malevolent advisers—notably Kevin Phillips, author of the bible of the Southern Strategy—to make a racist appeal to the Deep South, winning over Dixiecrats and segregationists to the GOP and firmly establishing the Republican Party as the part of white supremacy, a mantle that has now been inherited by Trump.
The first problem with this Southern Strategy tale is that progressives have never been able to provide a single example of an explicitly racist pitch by Richard Nixon at any time in his long career. One might expect that a racist appeal to Deep South racists would actually have to be made and to be understood as such. Yet quite evidently none was.
The two biggest issues in the 1968 campaign were the war in Vietnam and, closely related, the antiwar movement in the United States. Nixon campaigned on a strong anti-Communist, law-and-order platform. While embracing the welfare state—Nixon was no conservative on domestic issues—he also railed against what he termed the “excesses of bleeding heart liberalism.” Some progressives contend that while not explicitly racist, Nixon’s campaign themes reflected a covert or hidden racism. Nixon was supposedly sending “coded” messages to Deep South racists, speaking as if through a political “dog whistle.”
Now I have to say I consider this “dog whistle” argument to be somewhat strange. Is it really plausible that Deep South bigots, like dogs, have some kind of a heightened awareness of racial messages—messages that are somehow indecipherable to the rest of the country? Not really. Even so, let’s consider the possibility. I concede of course that most public policy issues, from taxes to crime to welfare, are entangled with race. A tax cut, for instance, will have a disproportionate impact on some groups as compared to other groups.
Precisely for this reason, however, it’s incumbent on progressives to have some basis of distinguishing “dog whistle” tactics from ordinary political appeals. Yet never have I seen anyone make this distinction. Progressive rhetoric almost inevitably assumes that Nixon is speaking in racial code. How can this be established, however, without looking at Nixon’s intention or, absent knowledge of his intention, of the particular context in which Nixon said what he did? Context, in other words, is critical here.
Consider Nixon’s famous law and order platform which is routinely treated as a racist dog whistle. Now a call for law and order is not inherently racist, and this theme from Nixon resonated not merely in the South but throughout the country. It should be noted that Nixon’s law and order argument was directly not merely at black rioters but also at mostly white violent antiwar protesters. Nixon condemned the Black Panthers but also the Weather Underground, led by a man whom I’ve subsequently debated, Bill Ayers, and his wife Bernardine Dohrn. Last time I checked, both of them were white.
What of Nixon’s supporters? Were they stereotypical segregationist bigots? The left-wing historian Kevin Kruse thinks so. Kruse portrays as racist the phenomenon of “white flight,” which refers to middle-class whites moving out of the crime-ridden inner cities to move to the suburbs. Kruse terms this the politics of “suburban secession,” a deliberate invocation of the Confederacy itself, as if whites were “seceding” from the cities and establishing their own white nation in the suburbs.
Yet Kruse conveniently omits the equivalent phenomenon of “black flight,” which refers to middle-class blacks doing the same thing as soon as they acquired the means to move to safer neighborhoods. Witness today the prosperous black suburbs of Washington D.C., heavily populated with both whites and blacks who got out of the city. Does it make any sense to call all these people bigots? No. Wouldn’t Kruse himself do the same thing for the safety of his family? Of course he would.
Kruse’s portrait of Nixon’s base of white middle-class Republicans as a reincarnation of the old South racists is contradicted by Norman Mailer, who reported on the Republican Convention in Miami Beach in 1968. He found “a parade of wives and children and men who owned hardware stores or were druggists, or first teller in the bank, proprietor of a haberdashery or principal of a small-town high school, local lawyer, retired doctor, a widow on a tidy income, her minister and fellow-delegate, minor executives from minor corporations, men who owned their farms.”
As Mailer recognized, this was not a rally of Ku Klux Klansmen of the type that attended, say, the Democratic Convention of 1924. In fact, this was not a Southern-dominated group at all. Most of the attendees were from the Northeast, the Midwest, and the West. This was Nixon’s “silent majority,” the ordinary Americans whom Nixon said worked hard and played by the rules and didn’t complain or set fire to anything and, precisely for this reason, had been ignored and even reviled by the Democratic Party.
Nixon had an excellent record on civil rights. Unlike Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Nixon supported it. He also supported the Voting Rights Act the following year. When Nixon was elected in 1968, nearly 70 percent of African-American children attended all-black schools. When he left, in 1974, that figure was down to 8 percent.
Tom Wicker, the progressive columnist for the New York Times, gave his appraisal of Nixon’s desegregation efforts. “There’s no doubt about it—the Nixon administration accomplished more in 1970 to desegregate Southern school systems than had been done in the 16 previous years or probably since. There’s no doubt either that it was Richard Nixon personally who conceived, orchestrated and led the administration’s desegregation effort . . . .That effort resulted in probably the outstanding domestic achievement of his administration.”
The Nixon Administration went even further, putting into effect the nation’s first affirmative action program. Dubbed the Philadelphia Plan, it imposed racial goals and timetables on the building trade unions first in Philadelphia and then throughout the country. Basically, Nixon moved to kick in the closed union door and to force racist Democratic unions to admit blacks. The progressive legal scholar Neal Devins admits that Nixon’s Philadelphia Plan is “the genesis of affirmative action in government contracting and arguably all federal affirmative action programs.”
Let’s pause to consider: Would a man who is seeking to build an electoral base of white supremacists in the Deep South actually promote the first program that actually discriminates in favor of blacks? Once again, progressives here go into their familiar hemming and hawing mode. Historian Howard Gillette is typical in that he insists Nixon only did this as a “wedge issue,” to break up the New Deal coalition that included both African-Americans and racist white unions.
But even if Nixon’s objectives were purely strategic, one would have expected him to break up this coalition by courting the white unions. Instead, he courts black workers. He could hardly have expected his forcing of white unions to hire blacks to have endeared him to the supposed racist constituency that had just elected him. Nixon’s resolute backing of affirmative action alone makes nonsense of the progressive view that his electoral base was made up of Deep South bigots.
Learning from Goldwater’s Mistake
Moreover, Nixon lost the Deep South. Goldwater won five Deep South states in 1964, the only states he carried other than his native Arizona. Not that Goldwater was a racist—he was a founding member of the Arizona NAACP and had pushed to integrate the Arizona National Guard and the Phoenix public schools. He had supported the Civil Rights Act of 1957 which established a Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department, as well as another civil rights bill in 1960.
Goldwater objected to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on libertarian grounds; he did not believe the federal government was constitutionally authorized to regulate discrimination in the private sector. Sadly, Goldwater’s principled stand was misunderstood by many African-Americans, who saw Goldwater as a racist and his party, the GOP, as the party of racism.
These sensitivities on the part of blacks were, of course, understandable. Unfortunately for the GOP they cost the party dearly. Previously, Martin Luther King, Jr., had maintained his independence from both parties; now he joined the Democratic camp. And Goldwater paid not only with a disastrous election loss but also with the loss of his reputation: the characterization of Goldwater as a racist, although false, has endured as a staple among today’s progressives.
Even so, Nixon learned from Goldwater’s mistake. This point is made with unmistakable clarity in Kevin Phillips’ The Emerging Republican Majority, published in 1969. A recent article in the Huffington Post makes the standard progressive claim that Phillips “helped construct” Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Historian Dan Carter calls him its “nuts and bolts architect.” Yet Phillips says that Nixon obviously could not have read the book prior to the 1968 campaign. What Phillips set forth was not a recipe for Nixon’s success but a post-facto explanation for how Nixon had succeeded.
Phillips argued that Nixon understood that he could never win a majority by appealing to the Deep South. He had just seen Goldwater win the Deep South and lose the rest of the country in considerable part because of his position on the Civil Rights Act. We should remember that in 1968 the Republican base was in the Northeast, the Midwest, and some parts of the West. Nixon was not foolish enough to endanger this entire base while seeking merely to add a handful of rural Deep South states.
What Nixon did, according to Phillips, is appeal to the Sun Belt, “a new conservative entity stretching from Florida across Texas to California.” The Sun Belt reflected a modernizing economy grounded in defense, manufacturing, technology, and services and was—and still is—the fastest growing part of the country. Phillips argued that whoever wins the Sun Belt wins the presidency. Notice that the Sun Belt encompasses much of the South but stretches from coast to coast and includes non-Southern states like Arizona and Nixon’s home state of California.
In the South itself, Nixon targeted the urban population of the Outer or Peripheral South. Nixon was not after the Deep South states of Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina or Alabama; he barely campaigned in those states. Rather, he was after the Peripheral South states of Florida, Texas, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, the latter four of which Phillips calls “the four most reluctant Confederate states.” And within these states, Nixon’s campaign focused on cities: Tampa, Atlanta, Dallas, Little Rock, Norfolk, Raleigh, Nashville.
As Phillips put it, Nixon recognized that these voters represented the urban and suburban face of a changing South. Many were transplants from the North who came South in search of jobs and opportunity. Nixon appealed to these Peripheral South voters not on the basis of race but rather on the basis of Republican policies of entrepreneurial capitalism and economic success. In other words, he went after the Peripheral South’s nonracist, upwardly mobile voters, leaving the Deep South racists to the Democratic Party. And sure enough, in 1968 Nixon won Virginia, Tennessee, and Florida in the Peripheral South and the entire Deep South went to the racist Dixiecrat George Wallace.
What happened to all those racist Dixiecrats that, according to the progressive narrative, all picked up their tents and moved from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party? Actually, they exist only in the progressive imagination. This is the world not as it is but as progressives wish it to be. Of all the Dixiecrats who broke away from the Democratic Party in 1948, of all the bigots and segregationists who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I count just two—one in the Senate and one in the House—who switched from Democrat to Republican.
In the Senate, that solitary figure was Strom Thurmond. In the House, Albert Watson. The constellation of racist Dixiecrats includes Senators William Murray, Thomas P. Gore, Spessard Holland, Sam Ervin, Russell Long, Robert Byrd, Richard Russell, Olin Johnston, Lister Hill, John C. Stennis, John Sparkman, John McClellan, James Eastland, Herman Talmadge, Herbert Walters, Harry F. Byrd, George Smathers, Everett Jordan, Allen Ellender, A. Willis Robertson, Al Gore Sr., William Fulbright, Herbert Walters, W. Kerr Scott, and Marion Price Daniels.
The list of Dixiecrat governors includes William H. Murray, Frank Dixon, Fielding Wright, and Benjamin Laney. I don’t have space to include the list of Dixiecrat congressmen and other officials. Suffice to say it is a long list. And from this entire list we count only two defections. Thus the progressive conventional wisdom that the racist Dixiecrats became Republicans is exposed as a big lie.
The Dixiecrats remained in the Democratic Party for years, in some cases decades. Not once did the Democrats repudiate them or attempt to push them out. Segregationists like Richard Russell and William Fulbright were lionized in their party throughout their lifetimes, as of course was Robert Byrd, who died in 2010 and was eulogized by leading Democrats and the progressive media.
How the South Became Republican
We still have one final mystery to clear up. If it wasn’t because of white supremacy, how did the South—not just the Upper or Peripheral South, but also the Deep South—finally end up in the Republican camp? This question is taken up in political scientists Byron Shafer and Richard Johnston’s important study, The End of Southern Exceptionalism. This work, relatively unknown and with an admittedly strange title, provides a decisive refutation of the whole progressive theory of the Southern Strategy and the big switch.
The key to Shafer and Johnston’s approach is to ask when the South moved into the GOP camp, and which voters actually moved from Democratic to Republican. Shafer and Johnston show, first, that the South began its political shift in the Eisenhower era. Eisenhower, who won five Peripheral South states in 1956, was the first Republican to break the lock that the FDR Democrats had established in the South. Obviously, this early shift preceded the civil rights movement and cannot be attributed to it.
Shafer and Johnston, like Kevin Phillips, contend that after the postwar economic boom of the late 1940s and 1950s, the increasingly industrial “new South” was very receptive to the free market philosophy of the Republican Party. Thus Shafer and Johnston introduce class as a rival explanation to race for why the South became Republican. In the 1960s, however, they cannot ignore the race factor. Shafer and Johnson’s ingenuity is to find a way to test the two explanations—race and class—against each other, in order to figure out which one is more important.
Shafer and Johnston do this by dividing the South into two camps, the first made up of the wealthier, more industrial, more racially integrated South—this is the New South—and the second made up of the rural, agricultural, racially homogeneous South; this is the Old South that provided the historical base of the Democratic Party. Shafer and Johnson sensibly posit that if white Southerners are becoming Republican because of hostility to blacks, one would expect the Old South to move over first.
But, in fact, Shafer and Johnson find, through a detailed examination of the demographic data, this is not the case. The wealthier, more industrial, more integrated New South moves first into the Republican Party. This happens in the 1950s and 1960s. By contrast, the rural, agricultural, racially homogenous Old South resists this movement. In other words, during the civil rights period, the least racist white Southerners become Republicans and the most racist white Southerners stay recalcitrantly in the Democratic Party.
Eventually, the Old South also transitions into the GOP camp. But this is not until the late 1970s and through the 1980s, in response to the Reaganite appeal to free-market capitalism, patriotism, pro-life, school prayer, family values. These economic and social issues were far more central to Reagan’s message than race, and they struck a chord beyond—no less than within—the South. In 1980, Reagan lost just six states; in 1984 he lost only Walter Mondale’s home state of Minnesota. Obviously, Reagan didn’t need a specific Southern Strategy; he had an American strategy that proved wildly successful.
Reagan’s success, however, was made possible by the sharp leftward move by the Democratic Party starting with the nomination of George McGovern in 1972 and continuing through the 1970s. This swing to the left, especially on social and cultural issues like school prayer, pornography, recreational drugs and abortion, receives virtually no mention by progressive scholars because it disrupts their thesis that the trend in the South to the GOP was motivated primarily by race.
As far as congressional House and Senate seats are concerned, the South didn’t become solidly Republican until 1994. Again, this was due to the Newt Gingrich agenda that closely mirrored the Reagan agenda. Leftist historian Kevin Kruse lists the Gingrich agenda—reducing taxes, ending the “marriage penalty,” and more generally reducing the size of government—and then darkly implies that “this sort of appeal” also had a hidden racial component. But everyone who voted for the Contract for America, and one suspects, Kruse also, knows that this is not the case. Small-government conservatism is not racism.
Finally, we can figure out the meaning of the title of Shafer and Johnston’s book. We are at “the end of Southern exceptionalism” because the South is no longer the racist preserve of the Democratic Party. The South has now become like the rest of the country. Southerners are Republican for the same reason that other Americans are Republican. And black Southerners vote Democratic for the same reason that blacks everywhere else vote Democratic. For whites no less than blacks, economic issues are predominant, foreign policy and social issues count too, and race has relatively little to do with it.
We can sum up by drawing two lines in the South, the line of racism and the line of Republican affiliation. When we draw these lines we see that they run in opposite directions. Survey data show that racism declines dramatically throughout the second half of the 20th century, and precisely during this period the South moves steadily into the GOP camp. Thus as the South becomes less racist, it becomes more Republican. The progressive narrative is in ruins.
Photo credit: Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive