My last post demonstrated that, contrary to popular belief, Democrats, not Republicans, opposed virtually every civil rights advancement since the Civil War era. A related historical myth nearly as seldom examined is that, around the 1960s, liberal Democrats pushed racist “conservative” Democrats out of their party and over to the GOP, where racism has since taken its natural refuge.
This narrative was recently summarized by Jonathan Chait:
Southern white supremacy operated out of the Democratic Party beginning in the nineteenth century, but the party began attracting northern liberals, including African-Americans, into an ideologically cumbersome coalition. Over time the liberals prevailed, forcing the Democratic Party to support civil rights, and driving conservative (and especially southern) whites out, where they realigned with the Republican Party.
The evidence typically offered to bolster this argument may persuade those unfamiliar with history, but students of the subject know better.
One oft-cited piece of evidence, for instance, is the case of Strom Thurmond — a segregationist and once-conservative Senate Democrat who ran for president in 1948 in opposition to civil rights, and who sixteen years later became a Republican.
Chait points to Thurmond as “instructive” of a “conservative revolt” within the Democratic Party.
This is news to the history books. Thurmond was the single “conservative” Democratic senator who switched parties. Of the remaining segregationist Senators of that time, Ann Coulter stresses that “all but one [Strom Thurmond] remained Democrats for the rest of their lives — and not conservative Democrats.” In fact, she adds, ten of the twelve Democrats held incontestably left-wing positions, including “opposition to Senator Joe McCarthy, opposition to the Vietnam War, support for the New Deal and Great Society programs, support for the United Nations, opposition to Nixon and a 100 percent rating from NARAL.” Only two could arguably be described as “conservative” Democrats (for a list of senators and their policy positions, see pages 177-8 of Coulter’s “Mugged.”). Segregation, contrary to prevailing belief, was a liberal stance.
And nor were trends outside Congress much different. The vast majority of segregationists were Democrats who remained so until death, such as Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, Commissioner of Birmingham Public Safety Bull Connor, Governor Lester Maddox of Georgia, and Governor George Wallace of Alabama. Thus, peddling Thurmond as evidence of some seismic shift of racist conservatives joining the Republican Party betrays gross ignorance of history.
Other evidence generally raised on behalf of this putative conservative realignment is the so-called Republican “Southern Strategy.” But that topic will be reserved for a future post.
Cross-posted at diversityofideas.blogspot.com