On History, Race, and the Mythical Party Switch
The New York Times’ Nate Cohen had an interesting article yesterday looking at the decline of Democrats in the South. A lot of liberals predictably reacted to the article by assuming it confirms a popular historical myth among Democrats that the parties switched places in the 1960’s and Republicans have dominated the South since due to their appeal to the historically racist voters in the region. However, despite the left’s constant repetition of this claim, it has no basis in reality. In fact, even the data in the article disproves this version of history. While the Democrat dominance of the South did begin to decline in the 1960’s, they still controlled a majority of the region’s governors’ mansions, senators’ seats, and state legislative bodies in 2002. It was not until very recently that Republicans truly began dominating the South, which completely dispels the notion that the dominance is due to some type of party switch in the 1960’s.
The history here actually isn’t that complex, but it is often misunderstood or twisted for political reasons. Liberals use the anecdote of Lyndon Johnson telling a fellow Democrat that the Party had lost the South for a long time to come after he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as support for the claim that the Parties switched places. LBJ actually turned out to be partially right about this, but not for the reason that liberals have come to believe. Liberals assume that the reason for the shift against Democrats in the South after 1964 is that a lot of the racist southern Democrats started voting Republican because Democrats had supported Civil Rights. This version ignores the fact that Republicans in the legislature voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at a much higher rate than Democrats. Furthermore, it ignores the reason that Democrats had dominated the Southern vote before that point. A lot of racist southerners voted exclusively for Democrats because they were the Party that protected institutional racism in the South. They were the Party that consistently stood in the way of reforms and Civil Rights legislation. The reason they lost their unilateral control after the 1960’s wasn’t because racists switched parties, but because racism was no longer a primary electoral issue. Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act and other reforms, institutional racism had officially lost. The people that voted primarily on that issue were dying out and becoming less relevant with every election, thus Democrats that had previously relied on those voters began to lose their complete dominance in the South. Their decline was gradual as more and more voters started voting based on issues that were not related to race. In this way, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did hurt the Democrats electoral performance in the South, but only because they lost their leverage as the Party that protected institutional racism.
The next question is why did LBJ (D), who often exhibited racist tendencies himself, sign Civil Rights legislation that would clearly hurt his Party? The answer is that LBJ was a smart political strategist. He foresaw that Americans were turning against racism and recognized the Democrats would be left behind if they continued to rely on a strategy focused on protecting institutionalized racism. Instead, LBJ decided he would give up the Democrat’s complete dominance in the South in exchange for a strategy of dominating a completely different group, also by exploiting racial issues. LBJ reportedly told two Democrat Governors that between his signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his Great Society proposals, he will “have them nigg**s voting Democratic for the next two hundred years.” In other words, LBJ made a calculated choice to give up exploiting racial issues to dominate the southern vote in order to exploit racial issues to dominate the African American vote. This divisive strategy was largely successful for Democrats and remains in tact today.
The real tragedy of this strategy wasn’t the impact on electoral outcomes, but the destruction of opportunity for African Americans. Prior to the 1960’s reforms, the African American family was one of the most stable institutions in American society. African Americans recognized that they could not rely on government for support, and instead often relied on their family and community. In addition, African Americans recognized that they needed to work 10 times as hard to overcome the barriers they faced and achieve even minor successes. These realities built up a foundation of incredible work ethic and untapped potential that were sure to lead to incredible achievements as soon as the discriminatory racial barriers came down. Unfortunately, that all changed with LBJ’s “War on Poverty”. These policies failed to decrease poverty, but they managed to trap many African Americans in an inescapable cycle of dependency. Government began to replace and diminish the strong institutions that African Americans had previously built up. The biggest casualty was the destruction of the African American family. Prior to the start of the “War on Poverty,” out-of-wedlock African American births were at 24.2% in 1963. After decades of liberal policies eating away at the formerly strong family institution, out-of-wedlock African American births reached a peak of 72.3% in 2008. An out-of-wedlock birth is a major indicator for future poverty and criminal activity. Despite these challenges, African Americans have come a long way since the racial barriers they faced in the past, but it is disheartening to realize the potential that was lost for that community. That full potential will only be realized once African Americans can escape the cycles of dependency that began with LBJ.
I strongly recommend National Review’s Kevin Williamson’s post on the myth discussed above: