Why Did the South Stay Democratic So Long?

Jonathan Chait is right about this:

If the mid-20th century forms your frame of reference, the Obama years represent a regrettable turn away from normality. But an even longer view of history leads to the conclusion that the trends of the Obama years have simply brought the two parties back into their natural resting position. The amazing thing about southern Democrats is not the scale of their fall, but the heights they were able to sustain in the face of all logic.

In truth, the whole transition of the South and its various subregions from Democratic to Republican hegemony–itself an oversimplification since somewhere between two to five former states of the Confederacy are arguably trending back towards the Donkey Party–is a complicated story. In a number of states, the period from the 60s through the 90s was a long back-and-forth struggle between the two parties. Depending on the state, southern Republicans might include very poor Appalachian whites who favored big public works projects; urban and suburban business and professional people not much different (other than in degrees of religiosity) than their counterparts elsewhere; yankee retirees fixated on keeping income taxes low or non-existent; exotic outliers like Florida’s Cuban-Americans and Louisiana’s Cajun Catholics; and of course rural whites hostile to race-mixing and other kinds of cultural change. Democrats had largely abandoned racism by the mid-1970s (Jimmy Carter’s presidential candidacy, backed by the King family and by George Wallace, was a major inflection point), but remained more-or-less as conservative as local circumstances allowed or demanded.

Arkansas and Georgia were the great holdouts in earlier Republican waves (though Arkansas did elect a relatively liberal Republican–a Rockefeller no less–as governor in 1966). Georgia had the right balance of urban minority voters, suburban whites focused on education, and a shrinking but still sizable number of small city/town and rural whites pulling the donkey lever, to hold off GOPers for decades, with a few exceptions (Bo Callaway actually won the popular vote for the governorship over segregationist Lester Maddox in 1966, but didn’t win a majority, and so the legislature elected Maddox on a party-line vote; Mack Mattingly won a flukey Senate seat in 1980 over the aging alcoholic and former race demagogue Herman Talmadge). One of the Democratic governors I worked for, Joe Frank Harris, would have almost certainly have been a Republican a decade later; another, Zell Miller, did in fact change parties. Meanwhile, the myth of the southern Democratic “populist” who could make economic appeals trump race became a distant memory; the closest thing to a “populist” pol in post-Civil Rights Georgia was probably Miller.

In several states Republicans were regularly divided between genteel corporate shills who still believed in things like public education, and vicious reactionaries who could have put on white hoods without looking a bit out of place. Increasingly the Christian Right dominated southern Republicanism, which lubricated the transition of rural whites to the GOP while perhaps holding down GOP margins in the more suburbs.

In any event, the breezy generalizations so often made about the South miss an awful lot of important points, which makes you wonder if the associated prophecies are off, too. Yes, the realignment of southern rural and small-town whites is now virtually complete. The possibility of a “replacement” Democratic coalition depends on how many retirees, secular suburbanites, transplants, knowledge workers, and of course minority voters are in any one place, and sometimes it also depends on real-life events such as GOP misgovernment. That’s another reason I see no need for Democrats to “Dump Dixie,” though they’d be foolish to consider most of it anything other than missionary territory at the moment.

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.