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 1968, with 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.
First, 1968, as the Vietnam War approached its high-water mark and the antiwar movement was starting to roll:
Nixon picked up some of the states of the Old Confederacy, largely because of their pro-military tradition and support for the war. “Wallace,” for those of you born yesterday, was Democrat George Wallace, a rabid segregationist who founded the American Independent Party and ran for president on its ticket. He won 13 percent of the popular vote, and carried five states in the Deep South for a total of 46 electoral votes.
Four years later, Nixon faced the first modern Democratic Party presidential candidate, George McGovern, who ran on a “Come Home, America” platform, and on whose campaign many of today’s radicals cut their teeth. Two items of note in the linked video clip: Missouri Senator Tom Eagleton was McGovern’s first running mate, who got dumped by the Compassion Party after it came out that he had been hospitalized for clinical depression and had undergone shock therapy. The other is McGovern’s extensive quote from “This Land is Your Land,” a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary written by the communist fellow-traveler, Woody Guthrie.
Yes, the South voted for the Republican — but so did every other state except for Massachusetts, which was the first indication of just how far gone the Bay State already was.
Four years later, Nixon was in San Clemente in the aftermath of Watergate, and a Southern governor named Jimmy Carter, whose only claim to the White House was that he was not RMN, was running against the Accidental President, Jerry Ford:
Yes, twelve years after the Solid South supposedly flipped to the GOP, here it was, back again, helping to elevate a native son past the Michigander. The two Reagan wipeouts of 1980 and 1984 began the alignment of the South with the GOP — but it was partly reversed by Bill Clinton in 1992:
The Republican ascendancy in Dixie is associated with the rise of the southern middle class, the increasingly trenchant conservative critique of Communism and the welfare state, the Vietnam controversy and the rise of the counterculture, law-and-order concerns rooted in the urban chaos that ran rampant from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, and the incorporation of the radical Left into the Democratic party. Individual events, especially the freak show that was the 1968 Democratic convention, helped solidify conservatives’ affiliation with the Republican party. Democrats might argue that some of these concerns — especially welfare and crime — are “dog whistles” or “code” for race and racism, but this criticism is shallow in light of the evidence and the real saliency of those issues among U.S. voters of all backgrounds and both parties for decades. Indeed, Democrats who argue that the best policies for black Americans are those that are soft on crime and generous with welfare are engaged in much the same sort of cynical racial calculation President Johnson was practicing when he informed skeptical southern governors that his plan for the Great Society was “to have them niggers voting Democratic for the next two hundred years.” Johnson’s crude racism is, happily, largely a relic of the past, but his strategy endures.
So the next time a Regressive tries to repeat the Thurmond myth, show him the maps — and make the Democrats own their history. They don’t like it very much, and who can blame them?