How the Party of Lincoln Became the Party of the South

February 18, 2014

This feature is part of a new RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the ongoing research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

For decades in U.S. politics, the South has loomed as a GOP stronghold. But according to Doug McAdam, a current RSF Visiting Scholar and Professor of Sociology at Stanford University, it took a complicated set of political shifts in order to transform what was once the party of Lincoln to the party of Dixie. Though today Democrats and Republicans in Congress are more politically polarized than ever before, McAdam notes that prior to the 60s, the two parties were far more similar, with Republicans consistently showing liberal voting records on issues related to race. What, then, accounts for the GOP’s modern incarnation as a right-leaning party with conservative views on race?

In the years following the Civil War and Reconstruction, the white South retained a visceral hatred of the GOP (aka: the party of Lincoln), returning overwhelming majorities for the Democrats in every presidential race from 1880 to 1944. Even during landslide victories for Republican candidates, the South remained steadfastly Democratic. A good example came in 1928 when only the Deep South (and Massachusetts) deprived Herbert Hoover of a clean sweep of the electoral map.

However, things began to change as domestic politics in America became fractious with the onset of the Cold War. McAdam identifies several major shifts in the transformation of the South from Democrat to Republican—beginning with Democrat Harry Truman’s administration in the 1940s. With the racist policies of the Jim Crow South an international relations liability during the Cold War, Truman embraced the need for limited civil rights reform. Predictably, this spurred a backlash by segregationists in the South, who reacted by forming a States’ Rights Party to challenge Truman in 1948. Though Truman narrowly won reelection, the Dixiecrats, led by Strom Thurmond, managed to capture several southern states:'

The South remained Democratic for a time after this flare-up (voting for Democrat Adlai Stevenson against Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, and voting for Democrat John F. Kennedy in 1960), but the Dixiecrats would rear their heads again in the 1960s as a response to the momentum of the civil rights movement. Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy after his assassination, famously pursued an aggressive program of civil rights that angered the South. Several Southern states responded by voting for a Republican (Barry Goldwater) in 1964 for the first time in history:

In 1968, segregationist George Wallace, then the governor of Alabama, revived the States Rights Party and challenged Humphrey and Nixon in the general election. Determined to compete with Wallace for the votes of the white South, Republican candidate Richard Nixon swung to the right as part of his “Southern Strategy” and was elected, though (as Thurmond before him) Wallace did manage to capture several Southern states. Worried by his razor-thin margin in the election, Nixon spent much of his first term in office shoring up his Southern support by reversing federal policies on desegregation, attempting to roll back parts of the Voting Rights Act, and nominating two Southern racial conservatives to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. As McAdam states, “After his 1972 landslide victory, Republicans were perfectly positioned to realize Nixon’s vision of a new, overwhelmingly white, racially conservative majority.”

However, the Watergate scandal and the Democratic Party’s nomination of Southerner Jimmy Carter in 1976 temporarily derailed the South’s full embrace of the GOP. It wasn’t until 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan would run for office, that the South would become firmly entrenched as a Republican stronghold in presidential politics. Taking a cue from Nixon, Reagan reignited the discussion of welfare as a dog-whistle for racial politics, promoted a small-government/anti-tax agenda, and mobilized the Christian Right—all of which famously formed the hard-right base of the GOP today.

Though many tend to think of the “Reagan Revolution” as the catalyst for the modern, right-wing GOP, McAdam’s historical account shows that the South’s transformation into the most reliably red zone in U.S. politics was long in the making, and the result of a fundamental shift in the racial geography of American politics.

To read more about Doug McAdam’s work at the Russell Sage Foundation, click here.

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