Since the Civil War, the American South has mostly been a one-party region. However, by the turn of the 21st century, its political affiliation had actually swung from the Democrats to the Republicans. Here’s how it happened.
It is not an oversimplification to say that slavery was the single most important issue leading to the Civil War. For not only was slavery the most important on its own merits, but none of the other relevant issues, such as expansion into the western territories or states’ rights, would have mattered much at all if not for their indelible connection to slavery.
Initially, Northerners rallied around the issue of Free Soil: opposition to slavery on economic grounds. Small farmers and new industrial workers did not want to compete with large slave plantations and unpaid slave labor. This was the philosophy that bound together the new Republican Party.
No friends of African Americans, most Free Soilers were openly racist, as were the vast majority of white Americans at the time. Abolitionists, who were fired by religion and opposed human bondage on moral grounds, were actually a small minority of the population However, as the bloody war raged on, Northerners began to seek moral assurance in their cause. For more and more people, the mere political goal of saving the union did not seem to justify the unholy slaughter of men by the tens of thousand. Though preserving the union was always Abraham Lincoln’s primary goal, he astutely played to this concern by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and establishing abolition as the war’s moral compass. It worked. The North persisted, won the war, abolished slavery, and forced the South to return.
After the Civil War, Radical Republicans orchestrated the Reconstruction of the South: a military occupation of the former Confederacy, the end slavery via the 13th Amendment, safeguarding political and some civil rights for new black citizens, and overseeing the eventual readmission of the rebellious states. But white supremacist resistance was staunch and frequently violent. By the 1870s, Northern interest in Reconstruction was beginning to fade, as was sympathy for the former slaves. The Radical wing of the Republican Party was eclipsed by a moderate wing that was more concerned with economic issues and promoting business interests, which included maintaining a steady flow of resources (particularly cotton) from the South to feed emerging Northern industries. And with hundreds of thousands of white men having died during the war, the South was more dependent than ever on black labor to extract those resources.
The Reconstruction effort crumbled in the face of Northern weariness, Southern resistence, and mutual economic concerns. As it did, former Confederate state after another was “redeemed,” as white supremacists called it. Southern Republican governments were overthrown by new Democratic regimes. Violence was often involved as black leaders and voters were killed, beaten, or intimidated away from the polls. The Black/white coalition Republican governments, which had been Lincoln’s political vision for the South, were replaced by white supremacist Democratic governments.
By the late 1870s, the South was essentially a one-party region, facing only token Republican opposition. During the 1890s, the former Confederate states as well as some of the nearby border states codified the disenfranchisement of black voters. A rising natinoal tide of pseudo-scientific racism and Northern European ethnocentricity found shape throughout the region in the form of enforced racial segregation and political repression. New Jim Crow laws not only contributed to the economic exploitation and cultural and social oppression of African Americans, but also erected towering obstacles to voter registration. Most blacks and even many poor whites were prohibited from casting the ballots that might overturn entrenched socio-economic class divisions.
The Solid South had been born.
The national Democratic Party was now split into a Northern wing that was primarily tied to the burgeoning cities, and a Southern Wing that thoroughly dominated its region and was predicated on white rule and black oppression. So long as Civil Rights were not on the national party’s agenda, Democrats could rely on pulling every Southern state in national elections, thereby creating a formidable electoral bloc.
For the most part, the Northern wing played along. It abandoned Southern African Americans to brutal, racialized oppression, just as the Republican Party had done before it. Those few Southern blacks who could vote, overwhelmingly continued to check the Republican box, supporting the party of Lincoln, and underscoring that truism that in the South, Democrats were the party of white supremacy.
The unity of the Democrats’ regional wings was perhaps best represented by two term president Woodrow Wilson. On one hand, the former Princeton University president and New Jersey governor was a typical northern politician who promoted the era’s progressive policies. On the other hand, he was a Virginia native and a Southern apologist regarding the Civil War. He even used the White House to debut the most successful piece of racist film propaganda in American history: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.
Wilson personified the unified regionalism that drove the Democratic Party from the end of the Civil War until well into the 20th century. But that does not mean there weren’t bumps in the road and divisions among the two wings. In an era when political candidates were chosen by party leaders instead of primaries, the 1924 Democratic national convention held at Madison Square Garden in New York City was arguably the most divisive in American history. Delegates deadlocked between New York Governor Al Smith, a New York City native and the son Irish immigrants, and Georgian William Gibbs McAdoo, whose candidacy was championed by the Ku Klux Klan; the KKK and indeed most Southerners simply could not abide a Roman Catholic candidate. It took over two weeks and no less than103 ballots before the party finally settled on a compromise candidate, John W. Davis, who was promptly dismembered by Republican Calvin Coolidge in the general election.
The 1924 convention was the most obvious and wrenching example of competition between the two regions at the national level. But for the most part, the coalition held all the way through World War II. Southern Democrats thoroughly dominated their region by developing a system of apartheid, while Northern Democrats rode the rising tide of urbanization, staking their lot with the cities that increasingly dominated much of the Northeast and Midwest. Meanwhile, the party's presidential nominees typically came from the party’s Northern wing, who stood a better chance of winning the more hotly contested states in their own region, and could then ride the Solid South to victory.
The lynchpin holding this alliance together was Northern willingness to do next to nothing about the stark and brutal racial oppression in the Jim Crow South. And indeed, nothing was done for decades. Why? Because on the whole, American culture was intensely racist, in the North as well as the South. After all, the North was also highly segregated. It’s just that Northern segregation typically functioned on a system of de facto racism instead of the South’s highly codified de jure system. Few Northern politicians cared about went on in the South, and those who did refrained from pushing the issue if they had national ambitions. And example is the Democrats’ master politician of the 20th century: Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Former New York Governor Roosevelt cleverly trod the line of welcoming black voters, who stood to gain at least a little something from his New Deal, while he did absolutely nothing to change the endemic exploitation they faced in the South. His wife Eleanor spoke on behalf of the oppressed, but nothing was done about Jim Crow. Indeed, it wasn’t until the powerful African American labor leader A. Phillip Randolph threatened a general strike during World War II that FDR finally caved in and agreed to ban racial discrimination on government contract jobs.
The first real challenge to Democratic Party unity and the Solid South came when Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, made civil rights part of his agenda. In 1946, Truman appointed a presidential commission on civil rights, which issued its report the following year, entitled To Secure These Rights. It condemned segregation and called for an immediate end to it in the armed forces. Truman followed up with an executive order to that effect in early 1948.
By challenging segregation, Truman had broken the cardinal law, and consequently he faced a revolution within his party. As he ran for re-election later that year, the Solid South fractured. Democrat Strom Thurmond of South Carolina formed a schismatic party, popularly known as the Dixiecrats, and ran against Truman as a third candidate on a platform dedicated to maintaining segregation. “All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches, and our places of recreation,” he thundered. Truman’s stance on civil rights would cost him nearly 40 Southern electoral votes, though he still managed to hold on against Republican challenger Thomas Dewey of New York.
When the national Democratic Party again embraced Civil Rights during the 1960s, at first it came with cautious and tentative moves by President John F. Kennedy. Ironically, however, the coup de grace would be struck by Texan Lyndon Johnson. The first Southern president since Andrew Johnson (who’d also inherited the office), Johnson shepherded the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress, as well as the Voting Rights Act the following year. The two bills finally knocked the legs out from underneath America’s apartheid.
It was the beginning of the end of the old Solid South.
Thurmond abandoned the Democrats for good in 1964. When asked why he was leaving the Democratic Party, he responded: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me.” A year earlier, Alabama Governor and one of Jim Crow’s most foreceful advocates George Wallace had roared against the supposed indecency of integration.
In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say: Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!
In 1968, Wallace also broke from the Democrats to run his own presidential third party campaign. He raged through the South, capturing Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. And the rest of the region went to Republican Richard Nixon. It was the first time that the Democratic presidential candidate hadn’t won any Southern states since the modern version of the party was first formed during the 1820s and 1830s.
Nonetheless, strong party organization throughout the South allowed Democrats to continue dominating local and state elections across. Fore years to come, Southern Democrats not only dominated statehouses but also were the key that allowed Democrats to maintain control of Congress. But the party’s national unity, forged along regional lines, was in a state of irreversible decay.
Nixon shrewdly capitalized on the fissure during his 1972 re-election campaign when he implemented what his team referred to as the Southern Strategy. Employing only a modicum of discretion, they appealed to white Southerners who were still bitter about the decline of Jim Crow, hoping to lure them into crossing party lines. It worked. Nixon swept the entire region. Actually, he took every state except for Massachusetts on his way to trouncing South Dakota’s George McGovern, who mustered barely a third of the popular vote.
The Democrats were able to temporarily staunch the bleeding when Georgia’s Jimmy Carter captured the party’s nomination in 1976. In the general election he benefitted from both Southern pride and the good fortune of running against a Republican Party disgraced by the Watergate scandal. He won every Southern state Other than Virginia on his way to the White House. However, Carter proved to be a rather inept national politician, which was compounded by running into the Ronald Reagan buzz saw in 1980.
Reagan’s professionally honed charisma and righteous jingoism struck such a deep chord with the nation that it wasn’t just Southerners who left the Democrats behind. Dispensing first with Carter, and then Carter's former Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984, Reagan temporarily plundered so many voters from the opposition party, that they cane to be known as Reagan Democrats. But by now, the pattern was also starting to look familiar: the South was fertile ground for Republicans in national elections, though still largely Democratic at the local level. However, even that would not hold for long.
While the turn to the right may not have been permanent in the North, it was part of a larger trend reshaping the South. Militarism, religiosity, and conservative social values, so long at the center of Southern culture and politics, were increasingly finding a home in the Republican Party. And as they did, the Republican Party was increasingly finding a home in the South. During the 1980s, numerous and substantial local and state elections began to pivot in their direction for the first time ever. Thus, it was hardly a surprise that when George Bush, Sr., a Texan by way of Connecticut, ran on Reagan’s coattails in 1988, the Republican nominee took every state in the region excepting West Virginia, if that even counts as the South.
The Democrats made one last desperate effort to salvage the Solid South in 1992 when they offered up the Southern tandem of Bill Clinton (Arkansas) and Al Gore (Tennessee) at the top of their ticket. It worked twice, though the victories owed far more to Clinton’s personal brilliance as a politician, the vagaries of economic fluctuations that drove voters to him, and Texas billionaire Ross Perot’s potent third party candidacy, which siphoned millions of votes from Bush and later from Bob Dole, than it did to any remaining loyalty white Southerners might have felt for the Democratic Party. The Solid South was not reborn in Clinton. It was merely recalled upon fondly and wistfully.
By the time George Bush, Jr. triumphed at the dawn of this century, the South had become throughly dominated Republicans at the local level as well as in national elections. His rise not only marked the emergence of a new neo-conservative national regime, but was also the coup de grace in the Solid South’s fluctuation from Democrats to Republicans. In 2000, Southern Democrat Al Gore failed to win a single state in the region. Not even his own home state of Tennessee fell to him. And unlike George Bush, Sr., who suffered losing nearly 20% of the popular vote to Perot in 1988, Gore could not credibly blame Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who failed to garner even the 5% needed to earn his party public campaign financing in the next election cycle.
By 2008, the South’s Republican turn was complete. Despite storming to victory by campaigning against a weak candidate, an unpopular war, and a spiraling economy, Democrat Barack Obama was able to make only the slightest dent in the region. All he could capture were Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida, the three Southern states that have been most dramatically transformed by the influx of Northern emigres. And at the local and state level, the conversion is also complete. From among the thirteen former Confederate states, Democrats currently hold only five of twenty-six seats in the U.S. Senate, along with only a smattering of seats in the House of Representatives, and just only two governorships.
What is old shall be new again. The Solid South is reborn. And it is a Republican bastion.
The Party of Lincoln has becoming the Party of Dixie.
Akim Reinhardt blogs regularly at The Public Professor.