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Why Southern Republicanism?

Benen and Kornacki oversimplify.

12:30 PM, Sep 3, 2010 • By JAY COST
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In a recent interview with Human Events, Mississippi governor Haley Barbour talks about the rise of Southern Republicans, arguing that it had to do with generational and economic transformations. Liberal bloggers Steve Benen and Steve Kornacki reject this argument in separate posts, arguing instead that the South’s move to Republicanism was tied up wholly in racial politics. 

Why Southern Republicanism?

Haley Barbour

Both Benen and Kornacki take one truthful element of the Southern realignment, expand it so that it explains the whole thing, then relentlessly hammer the same point for hundreds of subsequent words. Their work amounts to an oversimplified account of the partisan realignment of the South.

There is no doubt that race matters in the South.  Nor is there any doubt that the Democratic Party’s shift on the issue was a defining moment in the ongoing post-Roosevelt realignment, and that the GOP ultimately became the beneficiary of this shift. Let me stipulate all this clearly and unequivocally at the outset, with the addendum that race matters a great deal in the North, too.  Check out, for instance, the pattern of racialized voting in New York City’s 2009 mayoral election, drawn by Sean Trende.    

My point here is that Benen and Kornacki leave too much of the story on the cutting room floor. 

For starters, the rift between Northern and Southern factions within the Democratic party did not suddenly emerge at the 1948 convention or with the 1960s civil rights battle, as their pieces suggest. It could be seen as early as 1933.  A clique of Southern senators - Carter Glass and Harry Byrd of Virginia, Josiah Bailey of North Carolina, and Thomas Gore of Oklahoma - opposed many key items of the early New Deal. Southern resistance to FDR's reform agenda stiffened after his reelection in 1936.  They balked at his Supreme Court packing proposal, but there was more to it than that.  Thanks to the Wagner Act and the efforts of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, labor had won huge gains in Northern industry; many from that region were worried that Yankee capital would migrate from the high-wage North to the low-wage South.  Thus, the Fair Labor Standards Act was born, designed to phase in minimum wage and maximum hours that would principally affect Southern industry.  Southern Democrats managed to table it temporarily in the House. Even so, it eventually passed with virtually uniform support among Northern Democrats, but a split in the Southern Democratic caucus. FDR responded in 1938 by trying to purge anti-New Dealers via party primaries.  He concentrated mostly on Southern Democrats, and his attempts mostly failed.

Put simply, Roosevelt’s victory in 1936 signaled the arrival of organized labor as a political force in the North, and especially in the Democratic party.  The South, meanwhile, had resisted unionization.  By 1940, about 20 percent of all workers nationwide were unionized, but only 11 percent of Southern workers were.  This led to an intra-party economic cleavage centered around issues of labor and wages that has since become a major element of the Republican-Democratic divide of the 21st century.  It has to do with race – just as many things in the South do – but race was not the central point of this particular conflict.

Another factor in the drift of the Southern Democrats away from the Northern Democrats and to the GOP has to do with the great social and economic changes in the South since World War II.  The South has grown by leaps and bounds economically.  The Republican Party has always been the party of business development.  So is it a huge shock that the South, as it has gone from an agricultural region to a high tech and industrial leader, would become partial to the Grand Old Party?  

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