Debating Race and the American Electoral Scene

Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong discuss the southern strategy, the undoing of the New Deal coalition, and the future of America’s electoral terrain over at TPM Cafe. Krugman:

To give you a sense of just how little there is to be explained once you take this shift into account, here’s a statistic from Larry Bartels, my Princeton colleague. Everyone knows that white men have left the Democratic Party. But what everyone knows isn’t true, if you exclude the South. In 1952, 40 percent of non-Southern white males voted Democratic; in 2004, that was down to, um, 39 percent. (And no, the choice of years doesn’t matter – a fitted trend line tells the same story.)

Now, you could argue that the distinctiveness of the Southern vote isn’t about race. But during the rise of movement conservatism, conservative politicians clearly campaigned on race – that is, they behaved as if they thought that was what it was all about. Ronald Reagan – the real RR, not the latter-day saint – was best known in the 70s for his tales of welfare queens driving Cadillacs. He began his 1980 campaign with the infamous states’ rights speech at Philadelphia, Mississippi, where civil rights workers were murdered.


Back in the 1920s, you see, there were a lot of northern liberals who voted Republican because Lincoln had freed the slaves (they were called “Progressives”) and a lot of southern conservatives who voted Democratic because Lincoln had freed the slaves (“Dixiecrats”). The Great Crash and the Great Depression broke the allegiance of northern Republican liberals, so from 1933 on northern liberals vote Democratic. Southern conservatives, however, by and large continue to vote Democratic until the 1980s or so.

This means that from 1933 to 1994 the partisan balance of seats in the congress (and, to a much lesser extent, the presidency) is substantially to the left of where America is. From 1933 to 1960 or so the fact that southern conservative Democrats are long-serving and hold the committee chairs moderates the effects of the partisan balance. But by the 1980s the committee chairships are mostly held by northern liberals–pushing the balance of power in congress substantially to the left of the country. And in the 1990s the balance shifted back as southern conservatives stopped voting Democratic.