The South, Racism, and the GOP

There is a long-standing charge that the Republican Party’s electoral success in the South is due to racism. When the charge was levied 11 years ago by Paul Krugman, I addressed it here. Though my response was correct in the main, I would change some of it.

Dinesh D’Souza has given me the perfect opening. His recent article at American Greatness, “The Switch That Never Happened: How the South Really Went GOP” (July 29, 2018), addresses several recent variants on the thesis propounded by Krugman (and many others). D’Souza’s article is a very long adaptation of his new book, Death of a Nation. What follows is just a sample of D’Souza’s key points (the bracketed headings are mine):

[The Donkey in the Room: The Democrat Party as the Party of Theft]

Let’s begin with a critical question: Did the two parties switch platforms? In other words, is the GOP still the party of Lincoln or, as progressives insist, would Lincoln today be a Democrat?…

It should be obvious from [Lincoln’s own statements] that Lincoln’s basic ideology that people have a right to the fruits of their labor, and that government, if it gets involved at all, should merely provide idlers and indigents with the means to become self-supporting, is even today the basic ideology of Republicans. And it is equally clear that the confiscatory principle “You work, I eat” is even today the basic ideology of Democrats. The entire welfare state, from the New Deal through the Great Society to contemporary Democratic schemes, are all rooted in the same plantation philosophy of legally-sanctioned theft that Lincoln identified more than a century and a half ago.

[Cui Bono?]

[A] majority of blacks became Democrats in the 1930s. This was at a time when the Democratic Party was manifestly the party of segregation and the Ku Klux Klan. FDR, who got less than one-third of the black vote in 1932, got 75 percent of the black vote in 1936.

Why would blacks leave the party of emancipation and resistance to segregation and lynching and join the party of bigotry and white supremacy? The depressing answer is that blacks did it in exchange for the crumbs that they got from FDR’s New Deal. We have seen earlier how FDR designed the New Deal to exclude African-Americans and preserve Jim Crow. How delighted and amused FDR must have been to see blacks coming over to his camp even as his administration worked closely with racist Democrats to screw them over…..

So FDR bought off the African American vote at a bargain-basement price in the 1930s. Yet this secured the Democrats a decisive, but not unanimous, black vote. Democrats had around 75 percent, and they remained in that range from the 1930s through the 1960s. Then LBJ consciously directed a large portion of his Great Society benefits to blacks, and bought off another big chunk of the black vote for the Democratic Party.

Since LBJ, blacks have voted for Democrats in the 90 percent range. This second generation of blacks in overwhelming numbers gave their electoral consent to becoming part of LBJ’s Democratic plantation….

[T]he timing and motivation of the black switch is a decisive refutation of the progressive lie that blacks wisely left the Republican Party because they recognized it as the party of white supremacy, and joined the Democratic Party because they knew it had become the party of civil rights. That wasn’t the perception; neither was it the reality.

[What about Goldwater and Nixon?]

Nixon lost [Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia in 1968]. Goldwater won [four of those] states [plus South Carolina] in 1964, the only states he carried other than his native Arizona. Not that Goldwater was a racist—he was a founding member of the Arizona NAACP and had pushed to integrate the Arizona National Guard and the Phoenix public schools. He had supported the Civil Rights Act of 1957 which established a Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department, as well as another civil rights bill in 1960.

Goldwater objected to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on libertarian grounds; he did not believe the federal government was constitutionally authorized to regulate discrimination in the private sector. Sadly, Goldwater’s principled stand was misunderstood by many African-Americans, who saw Goldwater as a racist and his party, the GOP, as the party of racism.

These sensitivities on the part of blacks were, of course, understandable. Unfortunately for the GOP they cost the party dearly. Previously, Martin Luther King, Jr., had maintained his independence from both parties; now he joined the Democratic camp. And Goldwater paid not only with a disastrous election loss but also with the loss of his reputation: the characterization of Goldwater as a racist, although false, has endured as a staple among today’s progressives….

[Kevin] Phillips argued [in The Emerging Republican Majority] that Nixon understood that he could never win a majority by appealing to the Deep South. He had just seen Goldwater win the Deep South and lose the rest of the country in considerable part because of his position on the Civil Rights Act….

What Nixon did, according to Phillips, is appeal to the Sun Belt, “a new conservative entity stretching from Florida across Texas to California.” The Sun Belt reflected a modernizing economy grounded in defense, manufacturing, technology, and services and was—and still is—the fastest growing part of the country. Phillips argued that whoever wins the Sun Belt wins the presidency….

In the South itself, Nixon targeted the urban population of the Outer or Peripheral South. Nixon was not after the Deep South states of Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina or Alabama; he barely campaigned in those states. Rather, he was after the Peripheral South states of Florida, Texas, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia…. And within these states, Nixon’s campaign focused on cities: Tampa, Atlanta, Dallas, Little Rock, Norfolk, Raleigh, Nashville.

… Nixon appealed to these Peripheral South voters not on the basis of race but rather on the basis of Republican policies of entrepreneurial capitalism and economic success. In other words, he went after the Peripheral South’s nonracist, upwardly mobile voters, leaving the Deep South racists to the Democratic Party. And sure enough, in 1968 Nixon won Virginia, Tennessee, and Florida in the Peripheral South and the entire Deep South went to the racist Dixiecrat George Wallace.

How the South Became Republican

… This question is taken up in political scientists Byron Shafer and Richard Johnston’s important study, The End of Southern Exceptionalism….

… Shafer and Johnston show, first, that the South began its political shift in the Eisenhower era. Eisenhower, who won five Peripheral South states in 1956, was the first Republican to break the lock that the FDR Democrats had established in the South. Obviously, this early shift preceded the civil rights movement and cannot be attributed to it….

[T]he increasingly industrial “new South” was very receptive to the free market philosophy of the Republican Party. Thus Shafer and Johnston introduce class as a rival explanation to race for why the South became Republican. In the 1960s, however, they cannot ignore the race factor. Shafer and Johnson’s ingenuity is to find a way to test the two explanations—race and class—against each other, in order to figure out which one is more important.

Shafer and Johnston do this by dividing the South into two camps, the first made up of the wealthier, more industrial, more racially integrated South—this is the New South—and the second made up of the rural, agricultural, racially homogeneous South; this is the Old South that provided the historical base of the Democratic Party. Shafer and Johnson sensibly posit that if white Southerners are becoming Republican because of hostility to blacks, one would expect the Old South to move over first.

But, in fact, Shafer and Johnson find, through a detailed examination of the demographic data, this is not the case. The wealthier, more industrial, more integrated New South moves first into the Republican Party. This happens in the 1950s and 1960s. By contrast, the rural, agricultural, racially homogeneous Old South resists this movement.

[The Fault Is on the Left]

Eventually, the Old South also transitions into the GOP camp. But this is not until the late 1970s and through the 1980s, in response to the Reaganite appeal to free-market capitalism, patriotism, pro-life, school prayer, family values. These economic and social issues were far more central to Reagan’s message than race, and they struck a chord beyond—no less than within—the South. In 1980, Reagan lost just six states; in 1984 he lost only Walter Mondale’s home state of Minnesota. Obviously, Reagan didn’t need a specific Southern Strategy; he had an American strategy that proved wildly successful.

Reagan’s success, however, was made possible by the sharp leftward move by the Democratic Party starting with the nomination of George McGovern in 1972 and continuing through the 1970s. This swing to the left, especially on social and cultural issues like school prayer, pornography, recreational drugs and abortion, receives virtually no mention by progressive scholars because it disrupts their thesis that the trend in the South to the GOP was motivated primarily by race.

As far as congressional House and Senate seats are concerned, the South didn’t become solidly Republican until 1994. Again, this was due to the Newt Gingrich agenda that closely mirrored the Reagan agenda….

… The South has now become like the rest of the country. Southerners are Republican for the same reason that other Americans are Republican. And black Southerners vote Democratic for the same reason that blacks everywhere else vote Democratic. For whites no less than blacks, economic issues are predominant, foreign policy and social issues count too, and race has relatively little to do with it.

We can sum up by drawing two lines in the South, the line of racism and the line of Republican affiliation. When we draw these lines we see that they run in opposite directions. Survey data show that racism declines dramatically throughout the second half of the 20th century, and precisely during this period the South moves steadily into the GOP camp. Thus as the South becomes less racist, it becomes more Republican. The progressive narrative is in ruins.

Much of D’Souza’s narrative is captured in a simple graph, which I must explain before introducing and discussing it:

  • Drawing on Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, I recorded the percentages of the presidential popular vote cast for Republican candidates, by State, for every presidential election since the Civil War.
  • I sorted the States into two groups: (a) the 11 States of the Confederacy, and (b) all the others.
  • I derived, for the two groups and each election year, the mean and median values of the GOP candidates’ percentages of the popular vote.
  • I then computed, for each election year, ratios of the means and medians for the Confederate States to the the means and medians for the other States.

Here is the result:

The proximity of the means and medians attests to their validity as measures of the Confederacy’s political alignment with the rest of the nation. Values below 100 percent mean that the States of the Confederacy were less prone than other States to vote for GOP candidates. Values above 100 percent mean that the States of the Confederacy were more prone than other States to vote for GOP candidates. There was something like parity in only five elections: 1868, 1872, 1960, 1980, and 1984.

As Reconstruction ended in the South, Democrats gradually reasserted political control and began to suppress the black vote, which had been heavily Republican. The suppression of the black vote was, by the early 1900s, as complete as it would be. As a result of racist Democrat policies, the South had become overwhelmingly Democrat, and would remain so through the 1940s. (The only exception came in 1928, when the Democrat candidate was Al Smith, a Roman Catholic.)

D’Souza’s explanation for what happened after that is compelling and needs no elaboration. The South has become the North in reverse, growing strongly Republican (as the North has become strongly Democrat) for reasons of political ideology, not of race.

The real complaint of Krugman and other “progressives” is that Republicans have been winning elections far too often to suit them. They have a case of Republican Derangement Syndrome which is so severe that they can only attribute the GOP’s success to racism. That is because they are unwilling to attribute it to the inferiority of the “progressive” agenda.

The charge of racism is misdirected by 180 degrees. Racist “progressives” — theirs is the bigotry of low expectations — are conjoining psychological projection and an outdated stereotype of Southerners to paint Southern Republicans as knuckle-dragging racists.

Related reading: Dinesh D’Souza, “LBJ’s Democratic Plantation“, American Greatness, September 2, 2018

Related page and posts:

“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
The Culture War
Ruminations on the Left in America
Academic Ignorance
The Euphemism Conquers All
God-Like Minds
Non-Judgmentalism as Leftist Condescension
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
Retrospective Virtue-Signalling
Leftist Condescension
“Tribalists”, “Haters”, and Psychological Projection