Why the South is No Longer Democratic

Kevin Baker makes some odd claims in his Sunday New York Times piece assessing the Democratic Party. His title claim, that demography will not save the Democrats, is certainly a fair one, but after that, he ventures into some weird territory.

For one thing, he makes the argument that the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights in the 1960s was not the reason that Democrats started losing elections in the South. This is one of the central tenets for the understanding of modern American politics, so he’d better have some good evidence to show why it isn’t true. His evidence, though, is that Democrats were still winning elections in the South after 1964:

Going into the 1994 elections, Democrats still held 16 of the 30 United States Senate seats from the 15 Southern states (which I define as the 11 states of the Confederacy, plus Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and West Virginia), and nearly two-thirds of the Southern seats in the House. On a state level, the figures were even more one-sided. Democrats held 12 of the 15 Southern governorships, and 29 of the 30 state legislative chambers…. It’s only in the last two decades that these numbers flipped.

Here’s the thing about that. Yes, Democrats were still holding many Southern seats until the 1990s, but only because those were held by longstanding Democratic incumbents who had first been elected back when the South was friendlier to the party. Just to look at the Senate of 1993-94, the Democratic caucus included Southern incumbents like Fritz Hollings (first elected in 1966), Sam Nunn (1972), Bennet Johnston (1972), and Dale Bumpers (1974). These people won office at a time when Republicans were still rare in the South and anyone who was advanced enough in their career to win a Senate seat would have started out in the Democratic Party prior to the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. After that, Southern voters would continue to return these senators to their seats for decades, even if they’d begun voting Republican at the presidential level. Only after those incumbents’ retirements did their seats go red.

This is not a rejection of the civil rights story of party change. This is exactly what party change looks like. A dramatic shift changes the way voters make political decisions, but incumbents are usually somewhat insulated from these shifts. So the shift of the South from Democratic to Republican took the length of an incumbent’s career to complete. But it did happen, and it was sparked by the Civil Rights Act.

Baker, however, rejecting this history, is then forced to come up with some other reason why Democrats started losing the South over the past few decades. This happened, he says, because Democrats stopped championing “big things” like the New Deal, the GI Bill, etc.:

Today’s Democratic Party, with its finely calibrated, top-down fixes, does not offer anything so transformative. It seems scared of its own shadow, which is probably why it keeps reassuring itself that its triumph is inevitable. It needs instead to fully acknowledge just how devastating the recession was for working people everywhere in America, and what a generation of largely flat wages did to their aspirations even before that. It needs to take on hard fights, even against powerful forces, like pharmaceutical and insurance companies that presume to tell us the limits of what our health care can be or energy companies that would tell us what the world’s climate can endure.

Did I miss something? Isn’t that exactly what Democrats have been doing in recent years? Wasn’t the massive stimulus bill from 2009 an acknowledgment of the depths of the recession? Wasn’t health care reform a “hard fight… against powerful forces”? Wasn’t financial sector reform the same?

Moreover, there’s very good evidence that Democrats lost control of the U.S. House in 2010 because of the vote for health care reform. In other words, the Democratic Party did precisely what Baker wanted it to do by taking on a “big thing,” and not only did this not help them win elections, it actually cost them control of Congress.

We are living through an era of remarkable and unprecedented competitiveness between the major parties. Every election seems to bring a new mandate for one party and a determination that the other party will never govern again until it completely changes its ways. And yet the exact opposite happens two years later. Let’s not over-interpret the results of one election, and let’s not dismiss the dramatic and important change that happened in the South over many elections. We won’t get any better at charting out the future if we ignore the past.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.