Books: Earl and Merle Black's The Rise of Southern Republicans

Culture Watch

Mr. Lowe heads the president's office at the National Endowment for Democracy.

ADVOCATES of activist government in the United States have long looked with envy at West European countries with ideologically based party systems. In 1950, a special committee of the American Political Science Association (APSA) argued:"An effective party system requires, first, that the parties are able to bring forth programs to which they commit themselves and, second, that the parties possess sufficient internal cohesion to carry out these programs."

Thirteen years later, during the Kennedy administration, the political scientist James MacGregor Burns, reflecting a widely held view in the profession, bemoaned what he called"The Deadlock of Democracy." The main culprit was a fragmented politics that prevented parties from developing clear, undiluted national platforms, compounded by a congressional committee system that bestowed power on those members best able to insulate themselves from two-party competition. Behind the high-flown academic analysis was a clear bias in favor of the agendas of presidents from the Democratic party.

TODAY American politics has become nationalized. Intraparty divisions are not what they were as recently as a generation ago. There are many possible explanations for this transformation, including the growth of the federal government, a surge in America's geographical mobility, and the influence of an increasingly nationalized news media.

But by far the most significant factor has been the movement of the eleven states of the old Confederacy away from one-party domination. In 1950, the year the special APSA Committee issued its report, there was not a single Republican senator from the South. And of the 105 southern House members, a total of two were from the GOP.

Today, by contrast, for the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans hold majorities in both of the South's congressional delegations: 13 of 22 senators and 71 of 125 representatives. Meanwhile, the region's congressional Democratic delegation, in dramatic contrast to the days when southern barons clashed with northern liberals, votes more often than not with their fellow Democratic party members from other regions.

In"The Rise of Southern Republicans," brothers Earl and Merle Black explain the partisan realignment that has brought the South into the national political mainstream. The Blacks, who are not (as one might think from their names) drivers on the NASCAR circuit, but rather longtime serious students of southern politics, focus most of their attention on the congressional arena, where voting patterns reflect long-term partisan loyalty more closely than at the presidential level.

The authors' workmanlike competence, complete with tables, charts, and graphs, mirrors the bland style of contemporary southern politics, which differs starkly from the colorful era that produced the demagogic politician immortalized in such classics as"All the King's Men" and"The Earl of Louisiana." Nonetheless, the story the authors of"The Rise of Southern Republicans" tell is a fascinating one, with implications for American politics that are both profound and uncertain.

The roughly ninety-year period from the end of Reconstruction to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was the heyday of Democratic party dominance in the South. While the political tides were shifting in other parts of the country, the"solid South" remained committed to the party that promised not to disturb Jim Crow. That commitment was reinforced by the congressional seniority system, which enabled long-serving"old bulls" like Senator James Eastland of Mississippi and"Judge" Howard Smith of Virginia to thwart the party's more activist wing, particularly following the growth of the Democratic party in the North during and after the Great Depression.

It is hard to convey to anyone who did not grow up in the South before the civil rights era (as I did) just how strange the concept of southern Republicanism was as recently as a couple of generations ago. The authors quote Trent Lott, a onetime staffer for a Democratic congressman from Mississippi, who recalled that while growing up during the 1940s and 1950s, he"never met a live Republican." The GOP was no match for the ghosts of the"War Between the States." Bitter memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction, combined with the death of the short-lived populist movement of the late nineteenth century, set the tone of southern politics for the next century. According to the authors, the pattern was in place by the early 1870s, when the South became the largest regional bloc in Congress.

Racial politics based on white supremacy could best be served, particularly in those parts of the South with substantial black populations (sometimes referred to as"black belts"), by one-party dominance. According to the late Harvard professor V.O. Key Jr., himself a native Texan, in his 1949 study of the region's politics:"Two party competition would have been fatal to the status of black-belt whites. It would have meant in the 1890s an appeal to the Negro vote and it would have meant (and it did for a time) Negro rule in some black-belt counties."

ACCORDING TO KEY, it was the black-belt states of the Deep South (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana) that dominated the politics of the region. This would continue to be the case until the Republicans began to gain a foothold.

Still, despite the tendency of northerners, in Key's wonderful phrase,"to regard the South as one large Mississippi," there has always been another South, one with smaller numbers of blacks, higher levels of urbanization, greater social and economic diversity, and even some mountainous areas that opposed secession. The authors point out that it was this subregion they refer to as the"Peripheral" South (consisting of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida, and Texas) that was susceptible to periodic Republican inroads even before the demise of regional Democratic dominance, and whose demographics today make it more of a Republican stronghold than the Deep South.

IF THE CIVIL WAR and Reconstruction cemented the attachment of the South to the Democratic party, the Great Depression served only to reinforce it, as the national Democratic party's appeal to the" common man" would have strong resonance throughout the region. When the New Deal brought to Washington a new group of Democrats who would set the party on a different course, southern Democrats in Congress would forge coalitions with conservative Republicans to thwart liberal legislation and delay the advent of civil and voting rights for blacks.

A major turning point came in 1957 with Lyndon Johnson's masterful shepherding through the Senate of the first Civil Rights Act. Within a decade, the South's politics would be turned upside down, with the Republican Barry Goldwater carrying all five states of the Deep South in 1964 and the third-party George Wallace carrying four of the five (plus Arkansas) four years later.

The best part of"The Rise of Southern Republicans" is the analysis of the factors that delayed the extension of Republican success in the South to the grassroots. Conservative Democratic senators and congressmen continued to chair key committees from which they could deliver goods and services to constituents, support popular Great Society programs such as Medicare, and demonstrate enough independence from national party leaders to make them trusted in their districts.

But cracks would soon begin to appear. While the Deep South would continue to be grounded in the politics of race, the Peripheral South, with its growing middle class, was beginning to focus on economic issues. And at the same time that blacks were beginning to be enfranchised on a large scale, congressional Democrats were beginning to demand more accountability within the party to its national (i.e., liberal) wing, particularly following the Watergate landslide of 1974.

It took Ronald Reagan to complete the realignment. In the words of the authors,"his optimistic conservatism and successful performance in office made the Republican party respectable and useful for millions of Southern whites." The Reagan realignment was based on a top-down approach to party-building that both realigned white conservatives and neutralized white moderates, persuading those who were not prepared to become Republicans to think of themselves as independents. These trends were reinforced by long-term demographic factors based on migration patterns among blacks (out) and whites (in) that, by 1990, made the South look more like the rest of the nation than ever before.

President Reagan's attachment to traditional values and his calls for lower taxes, a stronger military, and slowed federal spending"resonated powerfully among conservative and moderate whites in the South." An important new element of the southern Republican coalition was the religious right, which saw much to laud in the GOP's national platform. By 1984, for the first time in the 20th century, the Democratic party could claim the loyalty of fewer than half of southern whites (43 percent).

Five years later, Newt Gingrich was elected to the House Republican leadership, setting the party on a path toward aggressive recruitment and fund-raising aimed at reducing"the immense surplus of southern seats that House Democrats had enjoyed throughout the twentieth century." In 1994, 84 percent of southern white conservatives and 48 percent of southern white moderates voted for Republican congressional candidates. Republicans were now in control of a majority of southern House seats. Exit polls conducted two years later confirmed that southern Republican support was dominant in both rural and metropolitan areas.

THE REAGAN REALIGNMENT not only transformed the face of southern Republicanism, it also produced significant consequences for Democrats, whose base of support now ironically rested with the blacks the party had long disenfranchised. As the authors note, with conservative voters increasingly preferring to cast their ballots in Republican primaries,"Democratic Senate candidates can now safely ignore the preferences of the most conservative whites."

The result has been the emergence of southern Democratic senators in step with the national party. Another important dynamic that emerged in the 1990s has been the creation of majority black districts which, by ghettoizing black voting strength, has paved the way for the election of additional Republicans.

For the first time since the pre-Civil War era of Democrats and Whigs, two American parties now face one another without major internal divisions, fulfilling the goal of those who have advocated a coherent political system with clearly defined partisan differences. What are its implications? Careful analysts that they are, the brothers Black are content to reach the end of their study of southern voting patterns without risking a great deal of speculation about the future. They do point out, as The Weekly Standard's Christopher Caldwell argued after the demise of the Gingrich revolution, that the Republican party, having made the conservative South its strongest base of support, faces the danger of becoming a minority party by alienating non-southern moderates needed to maintain national power. They also point out that Republicans are by no means guaranteed regional domination, since they concede at least 90 percent of the black vote in any given contest.

ARE THERE BENEFITS to be derived from the political realignment of the South for the region and for the nation? In the South's patterns of one-party voting, V.O. Key identified a phenomenon he called the politics of"friends and neighbors," i.e., a form of extreme localism by which candidates for state office pulled overwhelming majorities in their home counties and heavy support in adjacent counties. The result was"the absence of stable, well-organized, state-wide factions of like-minded citizens formed to advocate measures of common concern." For all of their shortcomings, political parties with identifiable policy goals, continuity in their leadership, and accountable candidacies, are far superior to what Key referred to as"pulverized factionalism." A party system without continuity, accountability, or responsible leadership was always ripe for demagogic appeals based on personality (a quality that applies in many struggling new democracies and quasi-democracies around the world today) with all the resulting problems for democracy itself. Happily, the South's demagogic politics are a thing of the past.

What about the nation as a whole? Certainly the clarity provided by coherent parties is to be welcomed. But as long as the national partisan balance is as close as it is today, the kind of party government favored by early advocates of clearly defined parties will simply be an illusion. This is reinforced by the dramatic increase in the number of safe congressional seats, which makes it very difficult for large-scale partisan change to occur in any given election.

AS MADISON PREDICTED, governing a large diverse society is best achieved by the building of temporary coalitions. Contemporary issues such as agriculture, trade, and energy that tend to have more of a regional than a partisan focus and that rarely fall neatly along the ideological divide will continue to provide a counterweight to the streamlined politics of partisan division. Still, the rise of two-party competition in the most populous and fastest-growing region of the country will, in the long run, have a significant impact on American politics. Earl and Merle Black have given us a thoughtful epitaph for the once-solid South.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Standard.

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William H. Leckie, Jr. - 7/18/2002

What Lowe neglects to explore is the role of race in the shift to the GOP label in the South and the consequences that flowed from the Nixonian "southern strategy." The GOP has updated after inheriting it the role of the old southern Democracy, and what the period from Nixon to Reagan saw--in a kind of neo-Bourbonism with a spiffed-up, slicked down Wallacite flavor thanks to William Simon's inspired idea for a corporate-sponsored ideological crusade--the nationalization of the social and economic agenda of the post-Reconstruction south. This would not have been possible without racial reaction. Avatars of the right must know this, and if they deny it, they're hypocrites at best.