The South, realignment, and the consistency of political parties
I just got back from a family reunion in the South, specifically, the North Carolina/Tennessee mountain region. It really is a breathtakingly beautiful part of the country. In part because of my family roots, and in part just due to personal temperament, I’ve always felt an attachment to the South, despite never having lived in the region. For a political junkie like me, it’s hard to travel anywhere without considering the history and political dimensions of a place, and obviously entire careers have been made applying that thought process to the South.
The region is at the center of every story of political realignment; always a “solid South,” whether solidly Democratic or solidly Republican. The regional flip has become symbolic of a Party flip, and is at the root of one of the most enduring political narratives of the 20th century: that, at some point in the decades following the New Deal, a realignment occurred that was so complete that many partisans trace their political ancestry to the opposite Party of a century before. Many modern Democrats feel an ideological kinship to Teddy Roosevelt, Fightin’ Bob LaFollette, or even Abraham Lincoln while modern Republicans often claim the tradition of old ancestral Democrats like Jefferson, Jackson, or William Jennings Bryan – the exact trio Michael Lind lists as the ancestors of the modern Republican Party in Up From Conservatism[i]. Dozens of books have been written on the topic – enough to form a near sub-genre of political books – and while they often cite a different tipping point for the changes, each of them begin with the premise that the realignment did occur and was complete.
Obviously, I am not contending that no regional realignment occurred; that would take a mighty bit of denial. But the argument that the parties completely swapped values due to a series of mid-20th century tipping points is a view that only takes into account cultural issues and the role of government, a view that is often applied to any future realignment (which is usually assumed to be along pro-government/anti-government lines). Two quick side points: 1) as a Democrat, I feel most comfortable dealing with the history of my Party, so this is primarily from that point of view; 2) my argument is not whether or not a party has, at any given point in their history, lived up to its principles – just that the principles exist and are stable.
To sum up the most referenced tipping points, in the way they are most popularly described:
- Hubert Humphrey, Strom Thurmond and the walk-out at the ’48 Democratic convention. Several liberals within the Party, most famously Hubert Humphrey, advocated adding a “minority plank” to the 1948 Democratic platform, which was significantly stronger and more specific than the existing language on civil rights. Humphrey announced from the podium that “the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!” Following the adoption of the minority plank, Democrats from Mississippi and Alabama walked out of the convention and nominated Strom Thurmond as the nominee of the newly formed (and short-lived) Dixiecrat Party.
- Joe McCarthy, the age of the intellectual, and the egghead Left. Unlike the ’48 example, there was no single defining moment that distinguished the Left of the ‘50s from their predecessors. More likely, it was just an outcome of the (at least political, though I would argue actual) success of the New Deal and a lull in major post-war issues. Without a Great Depression or a World War, liberals turned increasingly to a showdown with McCarthy – a battle that, regardless of importance, was not particularly relevant to the lives of average Americans. The chasm between the intellectual Left and the old Democratic coalition grew and resulted in the nomination of Adlai Stevenson – the only Democratic Presidential nominee of the 1950s. Stevenson was the original “egghead,” or, as George Packer described, he was “the candidate of the arriviste intellectuals who as likely lived in suburbs as cities, worked for large universities and corporations, did not think of themselves first as Jews or Protestants, craved what Howe called ‘that restrained yet elegant style of life which Stevenson himself embodied’”[ii].
- The signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Of all of the supposed tipping points, this is probably the most popular. That popularity continues in part because LBJ himself called it; famously telling an aide that the Democratic Party had “lost the South for a generation.”
- Mayor Daley vs. the Yippies. When violence broke out during the protests at the ’68 Chicago convention, the Democratic coalition of blue-collar party regulars and young liberals fell apart. As this theory goes, Humphrey may have won the nomination, but the future of the Party belonged to the New Left. Four years later, the Party nominated George McGovern whose candidacy went down to epic defeat, carrying only Massachusetts and Washington DC. The Party never won back the regulars lost in Chicago, and instead built a new base out of the values of the New Left, while the Republicans began employing populist rhetoric to win voters previously considered Democratic stalwarts.
- The Reagan Democrats. In 1980, Reagan was able to finally pull away the socially conservative, working-class Americans who had been alienated by the New Left of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Reagan’s pro-American rhetoric and nostalgia for small-town values effectively took precedence over economic policies that had defined political constituencies in earlier years.
The proponents of all of these realignment theories love to use electoral maps. No proof like visual proof. Just look at the difference between the 1896 electoral map, the first of two contests that pitted Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan against Republican nominee William McKinley…
… and the 2008 Obama/McCain electoral map.*
A near-perfect inversion. These or similar maps have been the basis of explaining the changes in political parties, and their use is not accidental. As mentioned above, Bryan, like all populists, has always been a favorite target for realignment theorists; at least as often considered the ancestor of the modern Right as the modern Left. Or, to quote Lind again, “we should not be surprised that the grandchildren of free-silverites should become enamored of supply-side economics in the 1980s and the flat tax in the 1990s.[iii]” Well, yes we should, but that isn’t my point right now. Instead, I’m interested in the assumption that the South went for the Democrat only when the Democrat was rural and overtly religious (1896) and voted Republican as the Democratic Party became increasingly cosmopolitan. It wouldn’t play as neatly into the storyline to include the ’52 electoral map, the contest between Stevenson and Eisenhower…
So Adlai Stevenson, the candidate most representative of the growing cosmopolitan Left, carried the Deep South, parts of the Upper South, West Virginia, Kentucky, and nothing else. In fact, until 2000, the realignment was at best inconsistent – very clear in ’68 and ’88, very unclear in the Carter elections (in ’76, Carter carried every Southern state minus Virginia), and mixed in the ‘90s. But in the last three elections, the trends have solidified. When a Democrat’s support bleeds south, as it did in ’08, it’s a result of a national popularity rather than a regional realignment.
All of the changes of the second half of the 20th century did happen, and all caused an evolution in emphasis on each of the Parties. But why, after decades of “tipping points,” did the new map finally crystallize only ten years ago, the election that led to the coining of Red States and Blue States?
One of the leading predictors of political party has always been the political party of the parents. Ancestral partisanship, in the past, trumped ideology. But as the 20th century wore on, voting for “the person, not the party” became a mark of political maturity, breaking many people of the centuries-old practice of voting the way their parents and grandparents had voted. Without the ancestral ties, realignment could be swift and complete.
With so much talk about newly forming coalitions, the meaning of the Tea Party, and a predicted realignment that breaks down along lines more relevant to today’s conversation, it’s interesting to note that what once took multiple igniters and decades of gradual change to complete could now theoretically be accomplished in one or two election cycles. Party structures are increasingly obsolete, a fact I view as a negative, but also as a point of fact.
People simply don’t identify with Party labels as strongly as they once did, leaving political philosophy and cultural identifiers as the primary determinates of voting. To stay relevant, the Parties end up polarizing along the same lines as the electorate – cultural and ideological. The only open question is how those divisions are interpreted. For instance, there has been a lot of consideration here and elsewhere of a possible liberaltarian realignment. That is one interpretation, and would divide up the map in certain ways that can be predicted. Such a coalition would probably skew younger, better educated, and more mobile – all factors that are easy to imagine having a larger constituency in California than West Virginia. If, as it’s usually imagined, the Democratic Party is the inheritor of this coalition, then the current electoral map is likely to continue along the lines it has over the past three elections, with the possible swap of the currently Democratic rust belt for the currently Republican (but quickly cracking) new West.
But that’s not the only possible outcome. For the Democratic Party, it is possible to draw a straight line from Jackson to Obama, passing through Bryan, FDR, LBJ, and most other major Democrats in between – including Adlai Stevenson. This argument would suggest that all the tipping point events that sparked the current ideological demographics (roughly: single women, minorities, city-dwellers, and the professional classes vs. white men, Southerners, gun-owners, and church-goers) were made on the basis of changes in emphasis and issues, not underlying principle.
I’m thinking here of the new ideological groupings suggested by Noah Millman at The American Scene a few months ago. With these labels, the Democratic Party has been at times liberal or conservative, reactionary or progressive, but they have almost always fit this definition of “Left.” Millman argues that “issues of the individual versus authority are not fundamental to the left-right axis,” and further, that “a left-wing perspective is animated by failure and the consequences thereof,” while a right-wing perspective seeks to “design a system that adequately rewards success.” While I don’t fully agree with that categorization, the theme of protecting those left behind – either by denouncing or championing government – has been a relative constant of the Democratic Party, while the Republican Party has advocated policies that prioritize the encouragement of success over the defense of the less-successful.
When Andrew Jackson opposed the re-chartering of the National Bank, he did so because he believed the bank tended “to aggravate the inequality of fortunes; to make the rich richer and the poor poorer; to multiply nabobs and paupers[iv].” For Jackson, the best argument against the Bank was the outcome, not the Constitutionality (although that was a secondary point for him). Not a great leap from these views to FDR’s views about the evils of “economic royalists.”
The end result is dueling narratives: in one, the ideological differences are about the appropriate role of government and the balance between individual liberties and social justice; in the other, government is a side point, a tool equally likely to do harm and good. What matters isn’t the tool, it’s the constituency – the interests of society’s winners balanced against the interests of its losers. That would create an entirely different electoral map, one that would likely look closer to the maps of the late 19th century, but with Texas, Washington, and the new West moving into the Republican column (they were Democratic states in 1896) and the rust belt and the Midwest (Republican states a century ago) going for the Democrats.
Realistically, I think the first scenario is the most likely to take hold for now. The role of government is being more hotly debated than the purpose of government. Almost everyone who predicts a coming realignment believes that some sort of small-l libertarianism (socially liberal, economically conservative) would be one of the two surviving factions. Its opposite is not described nearly as consistently – sometimes assumed to be Statist or Leftist, other times small-minded and reactionary – all depending on the political perspective of the observer.
But in an age with diminishing ancestral partisanship, these coalitions can change very quickly. Coalitions dissolve, issues change, and political parties react – or at least try to – in order to stay relevant. The fact that this process has sped up over the last several decades is all the more reason to assume that people will increasingly associate a stable set of values to each Party. Role of government is not that value – its consideration leads to connections between Jefferson and Goldwater, hardly something that has remained stable through all the incarnations of each Party. But the winner/loser divide Millman described is relatively stable, properly connecting Hamilton to Goldwater to the Tea Party crowd (who tend to be better educated and higher income than the average American).
As for the role of the South in any future realignment, my trip didn’t offer any clues. The very limited number of political conversations I had mostly betrayed, if anything, a centrist character to the region; a fairly even mix of moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans. I ate a lot of amazing Southern food, got to relax on a porch swing, and even caught lightning bugs with a few children in my cousin’s back yard. Not a bad way to spend a few days.
*Thomas Schaller uses almost the same elections to make the realignment point in Whistling Past Dixie. Instead of the 2008 map, he uses the 2004 map – the most recent election results at the time of the book’s publication. I substituted the ’08 data, but the point is still the same.
[i] Up From Conservatism, 123
[ii] Blood of the Liberals, 154
[iii] Up From Conservatism, 183
[iv] Party of the People, 146