Democrats love their stories. You can call them narratives, myths, fables or fairy tales, but they are just stories with one thing in common: they are all lies. Oh, there often may be some truth in them, but, taken in totality, the stories are not true.
The Democrats built their party on lies.
One of the most popular fairy tales that the Democrats tell is the Big Switcheroo. That fairy tale is the one they use to explain how the party of slavery, the KKK, Jim Crow, and segregation is the party of civil rights. According to this urban legend, when LBJ pushed thru the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, enraged racists abandoned the Democrats and raced into the welcoming arms of the Party of Lincoln.
Some people actually believe this.
What dividends this explanation pays for progressive Democrats! In effect, it erases most of their history and gives them a Get Out of Jail Free Card. Democrats have never publicly admitted their role over nearly two centuries of being the party of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, racial terrorism, the Ku Klux Klan, and also fascism and Nazism.
We still have one final mystery to clear up. If it wasn’t because of white supremacy, how did the South—not just the Upper or Peripheral South, but also the Deep South—finally end up in the Republican camp? This question is taken up in political scientists Byron Shafer and Richard Johnston’s important study, The End of Southern Exceptionalism. This work, relatively unknown and with an admittedly strange title, provides a decisive refutation of the whole progressive theory of the Southern Strategy and the big switch.
The key to Shafer and Johnston’s approach is to ask when the South moved into the GOP camp, and which voters actually moved from Democratic to Republican. 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.
Shafer and Johnston, like Kevin Phillips, contend that after the postwar economic boom of the late 1940s and 1950s, the 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 homogenous Old South resists this movement. In other words, during the civil rights period, the least racist white Southerners become Republicans and the most racist white Southerners stay recalcitrantly in the Democratic Party.
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. Leftist historian Kevin Kruse lists the Gingrich agenda—reducing taxes, ending the “marriage penalty,” and more generally reducing the size of government—and then darkly implies that “this sort of appeal” also had a hidden racial component. But everyone who voted for the Contract for America, and one suspects, Kruse also, knows that this is not the case. Small-government conservatism is not racism.
Finally, we can figure out the meaning of the title of Shafer and Johnston’s book. We are at “the end of Southern exceptionalism” because the South is no longer the racist preserve of the Democratic Party. 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.
Correlation is not causation.
The rooster crows and the sun rises. The two things might seem to be connected. But you would get laughed at if you claimed that the rooster’s crowing causes the sun to rise. A more obvious explanation is that the lightening of the eastern skyline right before dawn triggers the rooster to crow. But that hypothesis would still be subject to proof.
The more attenuated to events are from each other in time and/or space, the less likely it is that they are connected, or that one caused the other. We also have to consider other possible factors.
If LBJ’s signing of the CRA and VRA caused racist Democrats to migrate to the GOP then one would expect this to be reflected in voter registration records. Did large numbers of Democrats in the South reregister as Republicans in 1964-1966?
Did the GOP suddenly start winning elections in the South?
One thing that D’Souza doesn’t mention is the passage of time. As each year passes, some young people become old enough to vote. At the same time, some old people die and stop voting. (In the South that is, up North they don’t let a minor detail like death stop people from voting.)
Every person who was eligible to vote in 1965 is either old or dead. The vast majority of Southerners today were either born after or came of age after the Civil Rights Movement. What evidence is there that they are continuing the old racist legacy of the Democrats?
The KKK is just as dead in the South as it is everywhere else. Racial hate crime reporting shows that the majority of them allegedly take place outside of the South, even though more black people reside in the South than anywhere else. School desegregation took place in the South before it started in the North. There were busing riots in the mid-Seventies in Massachusetts.
So what explains the realignment of the parties? The truth is not black and white, it is left and right.
Once upon a time there were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Both parties were a mixture of Left and Right. As the Democrat party began moving farther and farther left, conservative Democrats began switching to the GOP. As conservatives began to dominate the GOP, liberal Republicans switched to the Democrats. The GOP did not become more extreme, it basically stayed where it was while the rest of the country became more liberal.
What were the issues that caused people to change? Lets’ see, Vietnam, OPEC, the Cold War, the economy, inflation, taxes, drugs, abortion, gay rights, No Nukes, the environment, Iran Hostages, The Fall of Communism, 9/11, Women’s Liberation, the Sexual Revolution, gun control, and immigration. That’s off the top of my head.
Southerners tend to be more conservative than Northerners and Westerners. This is true of black Southerners as well. That is a legacy of their Protestant religion – Baptists are notoriously opposed to having fun or spending money. If you are a conservative you will gravitate towards the party most closely aligned with your views.
In order to believe that the GOP is the party of racism and White Supremacy you would have to believe that all Republicans are part of a conspiracy to conceal their racism from the world. Republicans have all been taught a secret language of coded speech, winks, nudges and dogwhistles.
To believe that Donald Trump is a racist you have to believe that he not only concealed his hatred for black folks for decades, but that a rich guy from Queens somehow learned to communicate in the secret language of racists.