The Greatest Trade in American Political History
Once upon a time, Democrats were the party of slavery, states' rights, secession and nullification. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, the solid Democratic south sought the "Redemption" of the former Confederate States with the reestablishment of white supremacy through violence and voter suppression. For a hundred years, the architects and enforcers of Jim Crow's poll taxes and literacy tests, lynchings and cross-burnings, Klan rallies and White Citizens Councils, and segregation and separate but equal primarily called the Democratic Party their home.
But that was all before the Great Trade.
During the height of the civil rights movement in the middle of the 20th century, the Republican and Democratic parties were transformed by the greatest swap of political philosophies, personalities and constituencies in modern history. The integration of the American military in 1948, the end of state-mandated separate but equal schooling with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 upended both parties. The Democrats' slow but steady embrace of the civil rights movement and the GOP's response with its Southern Strategy literally changed the complexion of both parties.
Thanks to the Great Trade, Democrats became the party of civil rights and the liberty for all, while the GOP became the bastion of backlash. Republicans acquired states' rights, secession and nullification in exchange for Democratic ownership of the general welfare, due process and equal protection in a more perfect Union. Democrats got John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the GOP got Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond. Over time, the Party of FDR, JFK and LBJ got New England and the new West, while the solid south went to the Party of Lincoln. As a result of the Great Trade, it is now the Democrats who carry on the legacy of Abraham Lincoln's "new birth of freedom" and the Great Emancipator himself.
But once again, Republicans are trying to whitewash their shameful present by instead pointing fingers at the Democrats' shameful past. Led by former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese and former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell, the right-wing American Civil Rights Union (ACRU) unveiled its version of "The Truth about Jim Crow." Noting that "Democrats were in complete control of the South during the entire Jim Crow era, from 1877 through 1965," ACRU crowed:
The public should come away understanding the three most important facts about Jim Crow: Jim Crow was Dehumanizing; Jim Crow was Deadly; and Jim Crow was Democratic.
The National Review's John Fund was quick to regurgitate the conservative talking point. Fund, who for years has waged a jihad against mythical voter fraud in order sell the GOP's draconian voter suppression schemes across the nation, this week wrote that he was "Setting the Record Straight on Jim Crow":
But the political enforcement of Jim Crow was entirely in Democratic hands. The Ku Klux Klan functioned as the paramilitary wing of the Democratic party, and it was used to drive Republicans out of the South after the Civil War. Before he took up the cause of civil rights as president, Lyndon Johnson acting as Senate majority leader blocked the GOP's 1956 civil-rights bill, and gutted Eisenhower's 1957 Civil Rights Act. Democratic senators filibustered the GOP's 1960 Civil Rights Act.
"Is it fair," Fund snidely asks before answering himself, "to remind people of the awful historical antecedents that can lurk within a political party?"
Of course, it's fair. But fairness also requires acknowledging to readers (as Fund's allies at the ACRU did not) that history did not end in 1965. By then, the great trade was well underway, and the exodus of virulently racist southern conservatives from the Democratic Party was greeted with open arms by the Republican Party.
Recall that in less than five years between 1961 and 1965, America witnessed the Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer, the March on Washington and the Kennedy administration's intervention to integrate the all-white University of Alabama. On June 11, 1963, President Kennedy used a nationally televised address to explain the essence of the civil rights struggle to the American people:
We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.
The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
After Kennedy's assassination, President Lyndon Johnson used outpouring of grief and the growing support for the civil movement to ensure the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Civil Rights Act.
To be sure, on civil rights national Democratic leaders had followed and not led. But among their voters in the South and the white working class, Democrats would pay a steep price for their belated championing of equality and social justice. LBJ knew this at the time, lamenting before the ink was dry on the Civil Rights Act in 1964:
"There goes the South for a generation."
As it has turned out, it has been two generations. While the nation's rapidly changing demographics give now Democrats some hope for the future in Florida, North Carolina and Texas, the South has been a Republican fortress ever since Johnson left the Oval Office.
In just eight years, LBJ's 1964 landslide victory with 61 percent of the vote was completely reversed. In 1972, Richard Nixon won 60 percent of the popular vote and a staggering 520 electoral votes. "In the eight years in between," Richard Perlstein wrote in Nixonland, "the battle lines that define our culture and politics were forged in blood and fire." As Perlstein summed up the story behind the dynamic at work:
It is the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.
Even before candidate and President Nixon started executing Kevin Phillip's "Southern Strategy," Tricky Dick was already putting his formula of backlash politics to work in the 1966 midterms. Decades before the Tea Party and Fox News, Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck warned about New Black Panthers, birth certificates, death panels and FEMA concentration camps from the nation's first African-American president (one they deemed a "racist" and an "angry black man" who "hates white people"), Richard Nixon hit the trail after the Watts Riots of 1965:
He was campaigning in traditionally Republican districts where a Democratic congressman had won in 1964 on Lyndon Johnson's coattails, but was likely to be swept out in the conservative backlash.
For instance, Iowa's first district. A five-term Republican, Fred Schwengel, was running to recover the seat he'd lost to a young political science professor from the Bronx named John Schmidhauser. One day, Representative Schmidhauser appeared at a farm bureau meeting, prepared for a grilling on the Democrats' agricultural policies. The questions, though, were all on rumors that Chicago's Negro rioters were about to engulf Iowa in waves, traveling, for some reason, "on motorcycles." The liberal political science professor was as vulnerable as a sapling...Now that farmers were afraid that Martin Luther King would send Negro biker gangs to rape their children, the Republican restoration seemed inevitable.
In 1970, Nixon's henchman Kevin Phillips explained how it would all come to pass.
"From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that... but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats."
And to be sure, Phillips' "Negrophobes" and their elected enablers began making the Republican Party their home. Like his home state of Texas, Governor John Connally, the same man wounded in JFK's limousine in Dallas, switched parties, served as Nixon's Treasury Secretary and ran for the 1980 GOP presidential nomination. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, others swapped blue for red as well. Before North Carolina's Jesse Helms switched over, South Carolina Senator and former Dixiecrat presidential nominee Strom Thurmond bolted over the Civil Rights Act. Thurmond's most famous contribution to America's national discourse came in 1948:
''All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement."
(During his presidency, George W. Bush would eulogize Jesse Helms as "an unwavering champion of those struggling for liberty" and praised the late Strom Thurmond for "the tremendous love he had for his constituents.")
In 1972, a young Trent Lott similarly jumped ship. Thirty years later, Mississippi GOP Senator Lott praised Thurmond on the occasion of his 100th birthday:
"I want to say this about my state: when Strom Thurmond ran for President, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
The Council of Conservative Citizens, the successor to the dreaded White Citizens' Councils of Jim Crow days, couldn't agree more. Which is why Haley Barbour, who campaigned for governor of Mississippi wearing a lapel pin of the state's Confederate flag he vowed to maintain, was a fixture at the CCC's events. Lott, too, was a speaker in 1992 at an event of the Council of Conservative Citizens. Among its offerings in seething racial hatred is a "Wanted" poster of Abraham Lincoln. Lott also offered his rebel yell in the virulently neo-Confederate Southern Partisan, where in 1984 he called the Civil War "the War of Northern Aggression." (Former Missouri Senator and Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft went a step further, praising Southern Partisan for "defending Southern patriots like Lee, Jackson and Davis" and adding "We've all got to stand up and speak in this respect or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda.")
To complete that conversion, candidate Ronald Reagan traveled to Philadelphia, Mississippi to kick-off his 1980 presidential campaign. There, where civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were slaughtered in 1964, Reagan declared "I believe in states' rights." Reagan, who had denounced the so-called "welfare queen," the "strapping young buck" and declared the 1965 Voting Rights Act "humiliated the South," soon had more company among southern conservatives in Republican ranks. In 1983, Texan Phil Gramm joined the GOP. Eleven years later, Alabama's Richard Shelby followed suit. It's no wonder that casual race-baiting long-discredited notions like states' rights, secession, and nullification are now standard fare on today's Republican menu.
Of course, the parade of Democratic official turned Republican matches the transformation of the two parties' core constituencies. If (as Chris Bowers suggests) LBJ's signature on the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago represents the actual "moment Democrats lost the white working class vote," political scientist Elisabeth Jacobs showed this was an overwhelmingly southern transformation.
On average, Democratic presidential candidates prospects with self-identified white working class voters have diminished somewhat over time. (See Figure 4.) Yet, the downward trend in Democratic presidential vote choice between 1956 and 2008 is concentrated amongst the Southern white working class. (See Figure 5.) White working class presidential party vote choice for non-Southerners is remarkably stable over time; if anything, the period between 1984 and 2008 has been one of improvement for the Democrats amongst this group. The opposite is true in the South. Prior to the 1960s rights revolutions (including, most notably for the South, the major upheavals of the Civil Rights Movement), a strong majority of the Southern white working class voted for Democratic candidates. Southern white working class voting appears to have settled into a basic equilibrium with Reagan's 1984 election, with the notable exception of an uptick for Clinton's first election in 1992, and again for Obama's 2008 election gambit.
...The defection of the white South from the Democratic Party plays a central role in driving the overarching story of white working class politics. As Bartels succinctly summarizes: "Democratic presidential vote share has declined by almost 20 percentage points among [S]outhern whites without college degrees. Among non-southern whites without college degrees, it has declined by one percentage point. That's it. Fourteen elections, 52 years, one percentage point." The same basic relationship holds across all income groups of non-college educated whites: a 20-point-gap between the South and the rest of the country. This is Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy come to life, not a widespread national defection of white working class voters from the Democratic Party. Case in point: in 2008, Obama won 54 percent of whites with incomes under $50,000 outside of the South, while he secured just 35 percent of this group in the South.
But this and other pictures of "the rise of the southern GOP since the Civil Rights Act" have flip-side. While Republicans have enjoyed a solid and growing edge among white voters over in recent decades, Democrats are running up ever larger margins among minority populations which are growing much faster. African-Americans consistently vote for Democratic presidential candidates by 90 percent or more. And after narrowing the gap among Hispanic voters to 53 to 44 percent for President Bush's reelection, Republicans got clobbered in 2012 by 71 to 27 percent. These two charts from Chris Cillizza and Ezra Klein tell the grim tale for the GOP:
That's why RNC chairman Reince Priebus ordered a post-mortem after Mitt Romney's defeat in 2012. And it's also why, among other steps, the Republicans plan a "$10 million outreach effort to includes hiring national political directors for Hispanic, Asian-Pacific and African American voters and elevating minorities within the party."
But none of that will matter if voters grasp the GOP's transparent insincerity. After all, House Republicans have blocked comprehensive immigration reform. GOP leaders like Paul Ryan continue to traffic in dog whistle language like "makers and takers" and lazy "inner city men" who are transforming "the safety net into a hammock." And rather than reach out to minority voters, Republicans in state across the country have instead advanced a wave of harsh voter identification laws and other vote suppression efforts designed to keep those very groups from the ballot box, all despite numerous studies confirming that voter fraud is virtually nonexistent.
That's why the likes of John Fund and his Republican allies engineering the GOP's 21st century voter suppression campaign badly need a sleight of hand. Apparently, they believe they've found it by reminding Americans that once upon a time Democrats were the party of racists and Jim Crow. But no one should be misled. As Jamelle Bouie explained, "If black voters reject Republicans, it's not because they've been fooled by Democrats, but because they've been alienated by 50 years of revanchist right-wing populism."
Which is exactly right. The Great Trade commenced 50 years ago. The GOP got the racism, xenophobia and dog whistle politics from the dark side of America's past. In exchange, Democrats got King and Lincoln, human dignity and social equality, and the claim highest ideals from the nation's founding documents for the future of all Americans.