How the South Switched Sides

It turned the landscape upside down from New Deal to GOP revival

IN the current national realignment, the role or place of the South seems especially large. It's at least a bit ironic that states whose decision to secede was triggered by the election of the first Republican president 135 years ago are now leading a serious Republican drive to reclaim majority status.

Democratic leaders and strategists are naturally unhappy about the political transformation of the South. For well over a century the region was their party's best stronghold. Now that long political ride is over. It's against this backdrop that Michael Lind decries in a recent New Republic article what he calls the "southernization" of the Republican party.

Lind's argument is that the GOP's position in Dixie is now so dominant that ideas emanating from the region have enveloped the party nationally. The South has become the Republicans' ideological pacesetter, and this is terrible because the region's politics are so narrow and mean-spirited. Lind's piece is strong testimony to how much the loss of the South hurts Democrats. He doesn't stress, of course, that his party welcomed and courted the South through the years when it kept African-Americans in chains, and the long era of gross discrimination known as "Jim Crow."

The South's remaining a major part of the Democrats' governing majority long after it had left the party philosophically is perhaps the most striking feature of modern US politics. As everyone knows, the South began its exodus from Democratic ranks in presidential voting a full half-century ago, when South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond led the States Rights challenge to President Harry Truman. Since 1968 the region has been the Democrats' worst in presidential competition. That the southern realignment began at the top of the ticket isn't unusual. But the length of time it took to filter down, even to the next level of congressional voting, is without precedent.

During the New Deal era the South was the most liberal region, racial issues aside (and they were not central to the era's agenda). Polls show that white southerners gave higher support to FDR's programs than did their counterparts elsewhere in the US. But by the 1960s, the South had swung entirely around, becoming the most conservative section. This was in part in response to the civil rights revolution, of course, but also to a host of social issues beyond race, and to the region's rapid industrial development.

The Civil War was a uniquely powerful event. It bred in the defeated region partisan loyalties and antipathies that proved unusually durable, except where the national parties' policy differences were so focused that they overcame history. It wasn't until last year's elections that the states of the Old Confederacy first returned a Republican majority to the US House of Representatives. Even then it was narrow: 64 Republican representatives elected in the region compared to 61 Democrats.

The 1994 shift, however, produced a huge change. Had the South voted in 1994 as it did in 1992, or in any other contest since Reconstruction, Richard Gephardt, not Newt Gingrich, would be Speaker today.

The Democrats' long control of Congress - unbroken in the case of the House from 1955 until 1994 - has no precedent in any other era. An army of analysts has sought to account for it. We have said that it resulted, in particular, from incumbents' accumulating campaign resources that dwarf those available to most challengers. The Democrats doubtless have benefited from incumbency advantages. But the position of the South was probably more important. The region's special history begot a befuddling political result: For three to four decades, the most conservative part of the country sustained a liberal majority in the national legislature.

Had the South given the Republicans even a modest majority in congressional balloting, the GOP would have won Congress on several occasions during the Democrats' long reign. The House would have gone Republican in 1966, for example, and in 1968. It may be objected that such historical "what ifs" are silly. Southern voters in fact returned huge Democratic legislative majorities in every congressional election up to 1994. My point here is that it was unique historical residue, not current policy preferences, that led to this result. And perhaps more than any other factor, the anomalous regional outcome led to the country's extended experience with divided government.

As the New Deal era ended, the Republicans began winning the presidency with some regularity - gaining the office in seven of the 11 contests since 1952. They made no progress in Congress, however. For an extended span, the South's shift from the most liberal part of the US (during the New Deal) to the most conservative (in our postindustrial-era) was scarcely evident in legislative outcomes.

What made last year's election results different was that for the first time the philosophic realignment which has been going on nationally for 25 years, really manifested itself in voting in the South. The Republicans saw their popular vote in the region's House contests surge from 42 percent in 1990 and 47 percent in 1992, to 57 percent in 1994. This finally gave them control of Congress.

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