POLITICS

Why Rush Limbaugh Is Only Partially Right About Democrats And The Confederate Flag

06/23/2015 01:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

Yes, Democrats were in power in South Carolina in 1962 when the Confederate flag was placed atop the Capitol. In fact, in many elections in the state that year, including the gubernatorial election, Democrats ran completely unopposed by Republicans.

Rush Limbaugh is correct about that. But what he left out is that many of 1962’s Democrats in the South were ideologically conservative and eventually became Republicans -- making the Confederate flag a Republican issue.

Partisanship in the South has a unique history, particularly since the 1960s. Republicans and Democrats have almost completely switched places in the former Confederate states. Here are a few of the many Republicans who were Democrats in the not-too-distant past:

Rick Perry, former Republican governor of Texas and current presidential candidate, was a Democrat until 1989, held office in the Texas legislature as a Democrat and even supported Democrat Al Gore’s presidential run in 1988.

Strom Thurmond, a senator from South Carolina known for opposing integration and being extremely conservative, was originally the Democratic senator from the state before changing his partisanship in 1964.

Another former Texas governor, John Connally, was a Democrat while serving as governor, but became a Republican in 1973.

Elizabeth Dole became a Republican in 1975. She served in the Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, then served one term as a senator from North Carolina from 2003-2009.

The shift from Democratic rule in the South -- which had been in place before the Civil War -- to Republican was due to the lack of fit between Southern Democrats and the rest of the Democratic Party. University of Oklahoma political science professor and Southern politics expert Ronald Keith Gaddie puts it this way: “The old Southern politics, that of the Democrats, was about the battle of party factions and moderate whites and conservative whites vying with each other for power. They did this while holding the line against a growing black presence in their party primaries.”

Southern Democrats were more conservative than their peers elsewhere in the nation, but that wasn’t a huge issue until the 1950s and 1960s, when the civil rights movement gained traction -- and the Democratic Party pushed for pro-civil rights legislation.

Voting on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 shows a clear distinction: Northern and Southern Democrats were completely split on the biggest domestic issue of the decade. Southern Democrats in the Senate voted 20-1 to defeat the act, while Northern Democrats voted 45-1 in favor of it.

From the 1960s forward, many Southern Democrats became Republicans. Still, it took a while for the Southern Democrats to realign themselves with the Republican Party. Democratic rule in the South was well-ingrained, as was dislike toward Republicans.

Gaddie notes that a lot of the movement from Democrat to Republican occurred relatively recently, resulting in changes for both parties: “Between 1988 and 2000, many whites in the South abandoned the Democrats for the GOP. This left behind a more liberal, more black Democratic Party. It also created a more diverse GOP. The Southern GOP contains every brand of conservatism imaginable.”

So while Limbaugh’s statement that it’s the Democrats’ fault that the Confederate flag was ever flown atop the South Carolina state Capitol is true, the rest of the story is that many Southern Democrats from that era eventually became Republicans.

That’s not to say that all Republicans are anti-civil rights or racist or pro-Confederacy. Clearly they are not -- many are calling for the flag to come down from its current location near the South Carolina Capitol. But a closer look at history shows that the flag is really a problem for today’s Republicans, not today’s Democrats.

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