The GOP and the South

THE GOP AND THE SOUTH….Clay Risen wrote a piece in the Boston Globe last week about a new book, The End of Southern Exceptionalism, by Richard Johnston and Byron Shafer. Johnston and Shafer argue that the reason the South became a Republican stronghold following World War II was due less to racial backlash than to the postwar growth of suburbia, with its natural affinity for Republican economic policies:

As the South boomed and Sunbelt cities added millions of suburban residents, they argue, its burgeoning middle classes naturally tilted to the Republicans’ fiscal conservatism, which promised tax cuts and smaller government programs.

“The engine of partisan change in the postwar South was, first and foremost, economic development and an associated politics of social class,” they conclude after sifting through reams of electoral and polling data. “The impact of legal desegregation and an associated politics of racial identity had to be understood through its interaction with economic development.” In other words, the Southern realignment wasn’t about white racial backlash. Rather, it was about a new, middle-class South that focused mostly on economic issues and only secondarily on race.

But perhaps this puts the cart before the horse. After all, it’s not a natural law that suburbs have to be conservative, so it’s worth asking why suburbia is so conservative in the first place. A few months ago Kevin Kruse sent me a copy of his book White Flight, which I just started reading over the weekend, and he argues that, in fact, suburban economic conservatism is inextricably linked with racial backlash:

On the surface, the world of white suburbia looked little like the world of white supremacy. But these worlds did have much in common ? from the remakably similar levels of racial, social, and political homogeneity to their shared ideologies that stressed individual rights over communal responsibilities, privatization over public welfare, and “free enterprise” above everything else. By withdrawing to the suburbs and recreating its world there, the politics of massive resistance continued to thrive for decades after its supposed death.

Since I haven’t finished the book I need to be careful summarizing Kruse’s argument, but basically he suggests that the crude Klan-style racism that dominated attention at the national level during the postwar years was actually fairly ineffective, and was quickly replaced by more sophisticated segregationist arguments that were less overtly racist: namely that whites weren’t fighting against the rights of others but for rights of their own:

….the “right” to select their neighbors, their employees, and their children’s classmates, the “right” to do as they pleased with their private property and private businesses, and, perhaps most important, the “right” to remain free from what they saw as dangerous encroachments by the federal government.

This core set of beliefs, which was originally just an acceptable public face for private segregationist sentiment, was carried into post-WWII suburbs by whites fleeing central cities, where they found a sympathetic reception in the Republican Party. Eventually these beliefs became the bedrock economic principles of the party, and as Southern whites became increasingly influential within the GOP its economic policies became ever more radicalized.

So: was Republican ascendancy in the South due primarily to economic likemindedness or to racial backlash? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Via Ed Kilgore.