On 21 January 2021 Dr. Maarten Zwiers, assistant professor of history at the University of Groningen, gave an online lecture about the changing relationship between the Democratic Party and the southern states entitled: “The Democratic Party and the US South.”
The Democratic Party was long the hegemonic power in the South; however, over the course of the last decades this hegemony shifted towards the Republican Party. How did this come to be? During the 1860s there was a clear divide between North and South, the South being the Democratic Party powerhouse and the North being a bastion of the Republican Party. After the Civil War, during the period of Reconstruction, the former Confederacy was placed under federal occupation and characterized by Republican governments, a period often seen by southern whites as a humiliating page in their history. In response, they unleashed a backlash against federal occupation—a process they called “Redemption”—and took back state control in the 1870s. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century the Democratic Party wrested back power at the state level. The period witnessed major racist violence. Organizations such as the KKK and the White League trace its origins back to this period. With African Americans increasingly barred from voting and politics, the Republican Party lost virtually all of its power in the South. The South essentially became dominated by one party, the Democrats, who stood for segregation and white supremacy, although the party was internally divided and characterized by strong geographic factionalism.
From the 1930s onwards the South began to undergo a political realignment. This is partly due to the policies of Franklin D Roosevelt, who appealed to the working classes and African American communities in the northern states. As the northern Democratic Party began to pander to African American voters, the southern Democratic Party began to radicalize to uphold white supremacy and segregation. After the Second World War this culminated in the Dixiecrat Revolt, whereby a group of southern Democrats established a new political party called the States’ Rights Democratic Party. The new party failed and most Dixiecrats returned to the Democratic Party, but the incident illustrates the split within the Democratic Party on issues of civil rights and segregation.
The Great White Switch (1964-1980)
With an emerging civil rights movement in the late 1950s and northern Democrats increasingly reaching out to African American voters, the stage was set for a more radical shift in the 1960s, when Democratic President John F. Kennedy openly embraced civil rights and called for an end to segregation in the South. After his assassination in 1963, President Johnson turned these promises into a reality with the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). As he signed those landmark acts, his party began to lose white voters in the South. Republican politicians were quick to capitalize on the issue and began to win elections in the South from 1964 on, especially by embracing issues related to “states’ rights.” This shift did not occur overnight, and indeed as late as 1976 most southerners voted for Democratic president Jimmy Carter. But Reagan’s 1980 campaign, based on more state autonomy and a scaling back of federal “intrusion,” consolidated a massive shift of white voters in the South to the Republican Party. From the 1980s on, the South became a bulwark for the Republican Party.
Present & Future
This bulwark has begun to crack in recent years. Dr. Zwiers explained how Georgia became an important swing state in the 2020 election, ultimately going to Joe Biden with a difference of 15.000 votes and subsequently voting for two Democratic senators. He explained that the cracks in the South now appear to have more to do with a rural-urban divide. Southern states with large urban populations (such as Virginia and now Georgia) are becoming competitive again, as urban voters tend to favor the Democratic Party.
Dr. Zwiers concluded his lecture by looking to the future. He suggested that in order for the Democratic Party to win back the Deep South, it has to genuinely address economic problems confronting southern communities. Whether the new Biden administration will be able to make real headway on this in the current era of deeply polarized and dysfunctional politics remains to be seen.
The lecture was followed by an interesting Q&A session, during which especially difference between urban and rural areas was further highlighted. Questions regarding the Electoral College and voter suppression were also examined. Additionally, the importance of historical memory was addressed, especially as it relates to whites southerners’ embrace of a culture of victimhood and how that motivates southern politics.
More than 40 people attended the lecture. The lecture was recorded and is available at the RIAS YouTube channel.