National Review’s Kevin Williamson has a new article about the parties’ historical positions on civil rights, which I guess is a preview of an upcoming book which I guess is going to make the argument that the point of the Great Society was to turn the nation into helpless wards of the government so that they would vote for Democrats from then on. Which is both silly (in that it is historical nonsense) and pernicious (because it attacks motives, and because it assumes a lack of agency on the part of most voters), but isn’t the main point of the current article, so I’ll mostly stick with that.

(Okay, I have to put this somewhere. Jonathan Chait has written a terrific piece on Williamson’s article, and he posted it as I was finishing this one. I’m just going to leave mine as is — it’s very much overlapping, but he focuses more on Republicans and I’m more interested here in the Democrats. You should read his).

Williamson makes the case that Republicans have always been in favor of civil rights against the racist Democrats. It’s perfectly fair for Republicans to point to their long history of supporting civil rights, up through the adoption of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And it’s also certainly true that the history of the Democratic Party is filled with racism.

But it’s bizarre to say that the Democrats didn’t flip on civil rights.

[T]hose southerners who defected from the Democratic party in the 1960s and thereafter did so to join a Republican party that was far more enlightened on racial issues than were the Democrats of the era, and had been for a century. There is no radical break in the Republicans’ civil-rights history: From abolition to Reconstruction to the anti-lynching laws, from the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964, there exists a line that is by no means perfectly straight or unwavering but that nonetheless connects the politics of Lincoln with those of Dwight D. Eisenhower. And from slavery and secession to remorseless opposition to everything from Reconstruction to the anti-lynching laws, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, there exists a similarly identifiable line connecting John Calhoun and Lyndon Baines Johnson. Supporting civil-rights reform was not a radical turnaround for congressional Republicans in 1964, but it was a radical turnaround for Johnson and the Democrats.

You know what’s missing from Williamson’s version of Democratic Party history?

Three things. Hubert Humphrey; two-thirds; and African Americans.

Humphrey: you would never know from reading this quite long article that there was a northern wing of the Democratic Party at all. Democrats, for Williamson, were Southern Democrats, and they collectively and inexplicably had a “radical turnaround” in 1964. But of course that’s not even remotely true. The real story is that the Democratic Party essentially split in two over time, with the Southern branch eventually disappearing. The key event is the 1948 Democratic National Convention, at which Humphrey gave a famous speech in favor of a strong civil rights plank, and the South responded by walking out and running a separate campaign.

Two thirds: That’s the infamous rule that required a Democratic presidential nominee to get two-thirds of the delegates, thus insuring a Southern veto over the nomination. It was finally repealed in 1936, leading, eventually, to a presidential wing of the party which was liberal on civil rights. It’s very fair to criticize Adlai Stevenson’s civil rights record, but John Kennedy in 1960 was clearly in favor of civil rights. For that matter, Williamson makes Truman’s support to be some sort of trivial footnote, but that’s not true;  Note, too, that whatever LBJ’s true feelings about race, it was clear by then — including in 1957 — that a solid segregationist would no longer be a viable presidential candidate, because civil rights was highly salient and the party majority would insist on it.

African Americans: In Williamson’s account, they are a purely passive constituency, to be manipulated by cynical white politicians. That’s not what actually happened. It is certainly true that in northern black voters were a key swing constituency in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and that appealing to them was a key driver of both Democratic and Republican support for civil rights. However, black politicians and civil rights leaders were active combatants in the fight over the Democratic Party, throughout the crucial period. That included, famously, the (losing) fight to seat the Mississippi Freedom Party at the 1964 convention, but it was also true among the small but growing group of (northern) black Democratic Members of the House.

What happened to the Southern Democratic Party? Some of it died off. Some remained very conservative and switched to the Republican Party. Some became mainstream liberals — that’s the story of Robert Byrd, who (as Williamson and Republicans in general are eager to remind everyone) was a Klan member and opposed civil rights early in his Congressional career, but switched entirely before long.

Did the parties swap places? Not really, exactly. The old Southern Democratic position is no longer found anywhere near the mainstream of American politics; for all practical purposes, it just disappeared. It is unfair and wrong to say that the current Republican Party adopted that position. However, it’s juts as fair to note that the Goldwater/Reagan Republican Party has consistently opposed the policy preferences of civil rights leaders and the overwhelming majority of rank-and-file African Americans for the last few decades, while the liberal wing of the Republican Party, the wing that actively and strongly fought for civil rights, disappeared too.

As for the Democrats: they completely adopted the Humphrey position on civil rights. That’s as clear a flip in position from where the Democratic Party was before FDR as possible. As a continuing organization, the Democrats certainly should be — and to the best of my knowledge generally are — ashamed of Woodrow Wilson and other twentieth (and nineteenth) century disgraces, and not exactly proud of how long it took to overcome that. But they did overcome it, absolutely and completely, long ago, and that’s a proud part of their history that they should celebrate.

Williamson’s version of history bears little resemblance to what really happened. Chait recommends that if Republicans really want to be the civil rights party, they should support same-sex marriage. What I’d suggest is that the first step Republicans could take if they really want to be the party of Lincoln and the party whose liberal wing strongly supported civil rights would be to support the position of civil rights leaders on voting, right now, and give up on the various schemes Republicans have been pushing that will have the effect of reducing African American voting participation.

I suspect that is what the majority of the Republican Party of the civil rights era — and the majority of the Democratic Party of the civil rights era — would have wanted.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.