Southern Democrats and Civil Rights

Via Jonathan Bernstein at Ten Miles Square, I ran across this meditation from Andrew Sullivan:

I cannot help but think of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, and how its legacy still poisons our politics. For a very long time, the deep cultural divide in this country was in part managed by the Democratic party. Its alliance of Southern conservatives and Northeastern liberals – perhaps exemplified by the Kennedy-Johnson ticket – gave what we now call parts of red and blue America a joint incentive to work out their differences through a common partisan affiliation. The had a fellowship that facilitated compromise. A less coherent ideological party structure actually created a more coherent political debate. I wonder if civil rights legislation would ever have been achieved without this.

This is an interesting departure from the usual “centrist” lament about the death of bipartisanship, which often invokes the cross-party coaliton that enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a prime exhibit of a lost paradise of civility.

But if civil rights legislation is the key measure of progress, I’m afraid its enactment is not a particularly good data point for the “management” of interregional conflict by the Democratic Party. Southern Democrats voted against the 1964 law by a margin of 87-7 in the House and 20-1 in the Senate (Ralph Yarborough of Texas being the only dissenter). Only when the subsequent Voting Rights Act of 1965 (supported by only four of seventeen Senate Democrats from the South) emancipated African-American voters, while Republicans successfully built a regional movement attracting southern segregationists, did the Democratic Party in the South move quickly towards becoming a biracial coalition. But that was also the process which was central to the realignment of the two parties towards the ideologically coherent (more or less) coalitions they are today.

In one limited respect, though, Andrew’s right about this: it was the desire of southern Democrats in the Senate (and most particularly their chieftain, Richard Russell) to promote Lyndon Johnson’s national career that led them to allow him to shepherd to enactment the (toothless) Civil Rights Act of 1957, without which LBJ would probably not have been (marginally) acceptable as a running-mate for Kennedy in 1960 (Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate devotes hundreds of pages to this saga). Russell and other southern Democrats, however, miscalculated that ol’ Lyndon would never champion a real civil rights bill, and LBJ was widely branded a Judas in the South for his actions in 1964. This all paved the way for Nixon’s “southern strategy,” of course, but the Tricky One was simply harvesting very low-hanging fruit.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.