Thursday, 5 February 2004

On Southern Republicanism

Amanda Butler quotes from an op-ed by George WIll in today’s WaPo that’s mostly about whether Democrats can win without the South, but takes a foray through Republican fortunes as well:

Much academic and journalistic energy has been expended attempting to prove that Republicans became competitive in the South not because of positive change there but because of a negative change in the GOP —pandering to racists. But Gerard Alexander of the University of Virginia notes that Eisenhower, like Richard Nixon in 1960, polled badly among whites in the Deep South. Eisenhower ran strongest in the “peripheral South,” the least-polarized part.

States representing more than half the Southern electoral votes have been, Alexander notes, “consistently in play” since 1952. That was before the Goldwater candidacy, before school busing and at a time when congressional Republicans were stronger supporters than Democrats were of civil rights bills. A higher proportion of Republican than Democratic senators voted for the 1964 and 1965 civil rights bills, and in 1968 whites in the Deep South preferred George Wallace to Nixon.

Beginning in the 1950s, millions of Midwesterners and Northeasterners moved to the South. But, Alexander says, instead of voting Democratic, they voted Republican “at higher rates than native whites.” Even today, “identification with the GOP is stronger among the South’s younger rather than older white voters.” Republican strength has been highest among persons young, suburban, middle class, educated, non-Southern in origin and concentrated in the least “Southern” high-growth areas.

Eisenhower was, at best, a reluctant desegregator, as his actions at the time of Little Rock in 1957 demonstrated—and I’m not at all certain Eisenhower could have carried Southern states in 1960, had he been on the ballot, even without considering Harry Byrd’s presence on the ballot in Alabama and Mississippi.

That being said, I think a fair assessment of Republican strategy in the south would recognize that racial issues were an undercurrent, but not the whole story, and that Republicans benefitted from the racial issue only to the extent that southern Democrats conceded their racially conservative positions. By the time of Eisenhower, the New Deal coalition’s papering over of the Democrats’ internal racial divisions was coming apart as the inherent logic of New Dealism, and more boistrous antisegregationists in the North, pushed the national Democratic Party away from segregationism. But southern Republican successes were rare while the Dixiecrats continued to stick with the segregationists, and most of the successes were the result of Democratic defections, not home-grown Republicanism—a division that persists to this day.

Compare, for example, Bill Frist and Trent Lott—Lott is essentially a Dixiecrat, born and raised, who defected to the Republicans mainly for electoral considerations; Frist, on the other hand, is much closer to the traditional national Republican mold, albeit with a southern flavor. And, as the Lott generation leaves politics, the Frist generation is taking over as the face of southern Republicanism—a change that hopefully will lead to the politics of race receding into history.