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Morning Jay: In Defense of the Southern Republicans

6:00 AM, Sep 28, 2011 • By JAY COST
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Over the last few days, Joan Walsh of Salon and Melissa Harris-Perry of the Nation have been debating if and when a white liberal is being racist for souring on Barack Obama. 

It's not my place to comment on an internecine battle on the left over the ontology of racism, but I do have to call a foul on this comment from Harris-Perry:

Just fifty years ago, nearly all white Democrats in the US South shifted parties rather than continuing to affiliate with the party of civil rights. No one can prove that this decision was made on the basis of racial bias, but the historical trend is so clear as to require mental gymnastics to imagine this was a choice not motivated by race.

To say that this is factually untrue would be a gross understatement. It's better to say that this assertion is not even in the same area code with what we commonly call “the truth.”

In 1960, Kennedy beat Nixon in the South by 5 points. In 1964, Johnson beat Goldwater by 3 points. In 1968, Nixon won just 35 percent of the Southern vote. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won 54 percent of the Southern vote, including a majority of Southern whites. Prior to 1980, the GOP only won a majority of the Southern vote once -- when Nixon swamped lefty peacenik George McGovern in 1972. As late as 1996, Bill Clinton lost the Southern white vote to Bob Dole by just 6 points.

In the House of Representatives, Republicans did not crack 40 percent of the Southern vote until 1978, and did not win a majority until 1994.

I think this comment speaks to a broader issue: the tendency of liberal Democrats to misrepresent the origins and nature of Southern Republicanism.

I offer three points to counter the crude charge that “GOP racism equals Southern votes:"

1. Southern Republicanism had little to do with Southern segregation.

The systematic repression of the constitutional rights of black citizens in the South was not due to mere racial enmity. Instead, it had as its origins the need of the elite doctor-lawyer-planter-merchant class that resided in the majority black counties of the deep South to retain its privileged position. If African Americans enjoyed the right to vote, this class would lose its power. 

These elites had nothing to do with the Republican party. Indeed, they actively resisted the entreaties of Republican Rutherford Hayes, who thought that, as former Whigs, they might unite with the GOP on economic issues. But that never happened. In fact, these hard-core segregationists were so staunchly committed to the Democratic party that they backed Al Smith (an anti-prohibition Catholic) over Herbert Hoover in 1928. 

Until roughly the 1980s, Southern Republicans were generally of two types. The first was the mountain Republicans of Eastern Tennessee, and Western Virginia and North Carolina, who were the descendants of former Whigs and Constitutional Unionists, and who had opposed secession. These mountain Republicans were not the friends of the elites, as they opposed the Crump machine in Tennessee and aligned with the populists in North Carolina and Virginia.

The second type of Southern Republican was not really found until after World War II, with the rise of the “New South” economy based on energy, shipping, defense, tourism, high-tech, and agribusiness. These sorts of people settled in cities like Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Miami, and Tampa, and were often Northern transplants. They were conservative on economic and cultural issues, and they were actually an implicit threat to the segregationist regime; after all, bank managers in Tampa or insurance executives in Houston had no economic reason to keep blacks and poor whites in the deep South suppressed. We can see the power of these voters as early as 1952, when Eisenhower won all five of those cities (and this despite the fact that the Democrats nominated for vice president Senator John Sparkman of Alabama, a staunch segregationist).  

Liberals like to point to the Goldwater campaign in 1964 as the origins of Southern Republicanism, but this is just not the case. It is a terrible shame that Goldwater – a principled conservative but an inept national politician – allowed his philosophical opposition to the Civil Rights Act to be appropriated by Southern segregationists. However, we have to remember that the Goldwater candidacy was a disaster that Republicans never repeated. If anything, Goldwater's lasting legacy was to show the Republicans what not to do.

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