The way we were

In order to escape their truly wretched past (click on the link for my short book on the subject), modern Democrats have adopted as an article of faith the bedtime story that, thanks to Tricky Dick Nixon’s “southern strategy,” the racists who had been the backbone of their party for the better part of a century suddenly switched to the GOP en masse some time around 1968with the happy result that now all the racists are on the right. Presto — instant virtuousness and a clean slate!

It’s a lie, of course. But don’t take it from me, take it from my National Review colleague Kevin Williamson, who addressed this issue brilliantly last year:

Worse than the myth and the cliché is the outright lie, the utter fabrication with malice aforethought, and my nominee for the worst of them is the popular but indefensible belief that the two major U.S. political parties somehow “switched places” vis-à-vis protecting the rights of black Americans, a development believed to be roughly concurrent with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the rise of Richard Nixon. That Republicans have let Democrats get away with this mountebankery is a symptom of their political fecklessness, and in letting them get away with it the GOP has allowed itself to be cut off rhetorically from a pantheon of Republican political heroes, from Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to Susan B. Anthony, who represent an expression of conservative ideals as true and relevant today as it was in the 19th century. Perhaps even worse, the Democrats have been allowed to rhetorically bury their Bull Connors, their longstanding affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan, and their pitiless opposition to practically every major piece of civil-rights legislation for a century. 

As Kevin goes on to point out:

If the parties had in some meaningful way flipped on civil rights, one would expect that to show up in the electoral results in the years following the Democrats’ 1964 about-face on the issue. Nothing of the sort happened: Of the 21 Democratic senators who opposed the 1964 act, only one would ever change parties. Nor did the segregationist constituencies that elected these Democrats throw them out in favor of Republicans: The remaining 20 continued to be elected as Democrats or were replaced by Democrats. It was, on average, nearly a quarter of a century before those seats went Republican. If southern rednecks ditched the Democrats because of a civil-rights law passed in 1964, it is strange that they waited until the late 1980s and early 1990s to do so.

And yet this myth persists — in fact, it’s just about the only response today’s Democrats have to their own sordid history: pinning it on the other guy. It makes them profoundly uncomfortable that among the 21 who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can be found Albert Arnold Gore, Sr., the founder of the Hillbilly Dynasty; Robert “KKK” Byrd, the Conscience of the Senate; and Sleepin’ Sam Ervin of Watergate fame.

Just for laughs, let’s take a look at the electoral maps for 1968 (Nixon-Humphrey), 1972 (Nixon-McGovern), 1976 (Carter-Ford), and 1992 (Clinton-Bush) to see how the South voted.