The Myth Of The Republican/Democrat “Switch” On Civil Rights

The tidy narrative of Democrats and Republicans "switching" on civil rights is belied by a cursory examination of the facts.

democrat-kkk crop

In an attempt to break the Democrats’ near monopoly on the black vote, Donald Trump last week visited a black church in Detroit and held a roundtable meeting with black civic leaders in Philadelphia. But it was his remarks in Everett, Washington that really got Democrats’ knickers in a bunch. “It is the Democratic Party that is the party of slavery, the party of Jim Crow and the party of opposition,” said Trump.

Democrats can’t deny these historical truths so they try to render them irrelevant by resorting to the Great Switch hypothesis. Yes, they will admit, the Democrats used to be a bunch of racist dirtbags but the parties have “switched,” so please don’t bring it up.

To be sure, there was a “switch” in American politics but it occurred within the Democratic Party. For the great majority of its history, the Democrats were a white grievance party that discriminated against blacks but from the 1960s onward they despised and scapegoated whites instead. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Today they offer blacks preference—a commodity that Republicans, most of whom still believe that people should be treated without regard to race, can’t compete with. Judging by voting patterns, blacks appear to like preference quite a bit. Whites who don’t like being treated as second class citizens are labeled “racists”and treated as the ideological heirs of Jim Crow.

That’s not of course how Democrats tell the story. According to their childishly simple version, white southerners were, are, and ever shall be racist. If you want to know which party pushes a racist agenda just take note of which party white southerners prefer. The South has traditionally voted as a bloc (the “solid South”) because it has always been animated by racism–or so the legend goes.

The Great Switch supposedly happened sometime in the 1960s when the Democrats repented of their bigoted ways and the Republicans rushed in to woo the racist voters they left behind. The precise moment that the Great Switch took place is hard to pinpoint though 1964 is often cited because it was the year of the Civil Rights Act. Democrats never explain how exactly the Republicans won over the racist South by voting 80% in favor of the Civil Rights Act (a horrible law, by the way), but that’s their story and they’re sticking to it. Another year often cited is 1968 when Richard Nixon employed a so-called “southern strategy”—coded appeals to southerners’ latent racism—to win election.

The South’s messy breakup with the Democratic Party is a lot more complicated than Democrats would have you believe. It involves third parties, double-talking politicians, and divergent party wings. It also involves imprecise definitions of what constitutes the South. For the purposes of this article, I will define the South as the eleven former Confederate States of America: Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia.

A perspective on the South’s political transformation can be found by examining Electoral College returns. Anyone who examines the evidence, I believe, will find that the Democrats’ tidy “switch” hypothesis disintegrates under examination.

The solid South really was solidly Democratic from the end of Reconstruction through 1924. Democratic unity, however, began to exhibit cracks when the party nominated Al Smith for president in 1928. Smith, a Catholic, lost five out of eleven southern states. While anti-Catholic bigotry may have played a role in his disappointing returns, Smith won only one state outside of the South. Southerners were in fact Smith’s biggest supporters.

Franklin Roosevelt was enormously popular in the South, winning every southern state in four consecutive elections. According to today’s liberal Democrats’ logic, I must conclude that Roosevelt was a racist; and as a matter of fact, he kind of was—at least toward Japanese-Americans. Is that why the solid South supported Roosevelt? Well, no. Race isn’t now and wasn’t then the be-all and end-all of southern politics. The South supported FDR because they were blind supporters of the Democratic Party and because the South benefited from the New Deal’s transfer of wealth from rich states to poor states.

In 1948, the South was again fractured with the Democratic incumbent Harry Truman winning seven southern states and losing four to the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond. In late July of that year Truman had issued an executive order desegregating the armed forces and still he managed to win seven states and a supermajority of their electoral votes. Truman was less popular in the South than Roosevelt but he was still popular. I don’t know how this could possibly have happened unless southern politics was not singularly focused on the issue of race as we have been led to believe.

The solid South once again failed to live up to its name in the 1950s. In the first of two matchups between Dwight Eisenhower and the liberal Democrat Adlai Stevenson, the South was divided with Stevenson winning seven states and Eisenhower winning four. Four years later, Eisenhower fared slightly better in the South. In both elections, Stevenson was trounced almost everywhere outside of the South.

The 1960 election is problematic for the proponents of the Great Switch hypothesis because their darling John F. Kennedy was the racist party’s candidate—this being still four or eight years before the supposed switch took place. The electoral map that year was a patchwork—six southern states plus five faithless electors going to Kennedy, three states going to Nixon, and two states—Mississippi and Alabama—going to Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd, who wasn’t actually a declared candidate. Who was the racist candidate in this election? This being pre-switch, I guess it would have to be Kennedy. How else could he have won a majority of southern states and a supermajority of southern electoral votes?

In 1964 the South was again split, with six states going to Johnson (who was pretty racist, by the way) and five going to Barry Goldwater. Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Act though his party didn’t. Johnson, on the other hand, had a long history of segregationist sympathies and he belonged to the party that filibustered the bill, though he signed it into law. Who’s the racist here? We can’t tell simply by looking at which candidate southerners preferred because they were divided. Also, was this election pre-switch or post-switch? That depends on whom you ask.

Dixieland was once again divided in 1968 when one state voted for Humphrey, five for Nixon and five for the independent George Wallace, a former Democrat who would later return to his party. Nixon crushed Humphrey across the map.

If Nixon had courted racist southerners in 1968, he burned them by introducing minority hiring quotas in his first term. I don’t mean to imply that Nixon’s support for discriminatory hiring practices (against whites) is in any way laudable but it does seem an odd way to win the redneck vote. And yet the South voted overwhelmingly for Nixon in 1972—just like the rest of America. That’s right, every southern state broke for the guy most responsible for minority hiring quotas. Southerners gave him more support than they had four years earlier. What happened?

Things got really weird in 1976 when the South was once again solid and blue. Four years after all eleven southern states voted for the Republican Nixon, ten switched back and voted for the Democrat Carter. As a southerner himself, Jimmy Carter knew how to talk to southern audiences but he was no conservative and certainly not a a crypto-segregationist. How could this have happened post-switch? Either the Democrats became racist again for one election cycle or the South stopped being racist for one election cycle.

The South turned on Carter in 1980 much like the rest of America though his home state of Georgia stuck by him. Southern support for the Democrats would continue to plummet through the elections of 1984 and 1988 but would resurge again with the candidacy of another liberal southern governor, Bill Clinton.

The theory that the perpetually racist South suddenly changed party allegiance because of “civil rights” reforms is simply not supported by the facts. A more plausible explanation is that racial issues were never the sole driver, or even the primary driver, of southern voting trends. Southerners did begin to leave the party in the 1960s and 1970s, though mostly because the Democrats were well on their way to becoming the anti-Christian party, the job-killing party, and the blame-America-first party. But here’s another idea—is it possible that white southerners began to leave the Democratic Party because they found that the party had already rejected them? It’s a theory worth exploring.

Benny Huang is a lonely conservative in the very liberal Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. He strives to make the world a better place through his writing. He is a veteran.