Political Plate Tectonics in the Civil Rights Era

08/26/2013 02:04 pm ET | Updated Oct 26, 2013

A Morning Joe discussion with Kevin Williamson about his recent National Review piece on President Eisenhower and his moderate temperament (relative to today's GOP) ended with a disagreement he had with MSNBC's Steve Kornacki over when the South turned Red (watch the segment here to hear the argument at the end). Plate tectonics, whether continental or ideological, happen over a period of time. Thus, a review of election results in Southern states coupled with the knowledge of concurrent Civil Rights advancements should provide a historic seismograph of the ideological drift.

Southern Realignment

Steve's initial point is tacitly understood by political scientists: the South voted for the Democratic Party for nearly a century as a consequence of Lincoln's Republican Party and Reconstruction. (Given the disparate definitions that may be used for the 'deep south' or 'peripheral south', I will focus on LA, MS, AL, GA, and SC when referring to the South in this article). Despite a few outlier elections, this trend continued in the Southern states until around 1948.

In 1948, Strom Thurmond (a Southern Democrat who later turned Republican) ran as a third party candidate in opposition to Truman's support to end segregation. This led to the following partitioning of the electoral vote in the South for the Democratic, Republican, and Thurman percent of the vote (respectively):

LA: 32.75 - 17.45 - 49.07 (Democratic vote in 1944 was 80.6 percent)
MS: 10.1 - 2.6 - 87.17 (Democratic vote in 1944 was 93.6 percent)
AL: 0 - 19.04 - 79.75 (Democratic vote in 1944 was 81.3 percent)
GA: 60.8 - 18.3 - 20.3 (Democratic vote in 1944 was 81.7 percent)
SC: 24.1 - 3.8 - 71.97 (Democratic vote in 1944 was 87.6 percent)

Strom Thurmond offered Pro-Segregationist Democrats in the South an additional option, separate from the national Democratic Party which was becoming increasingly Liberal in its stance on Civil Rights issues. In 1964, Barry Goldwater offered Pro-Segregationist voters another chance to curtail current progress on Civil Rights. While Eisenhower had signed two Civil Rights Acts himself (the first since 1875), Goldwater was firmly opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The CRA's passage began the erosion of the solid Democratic South, and Goldwater's firm opposition to it led to him being the first Republican Presidential Candidate to win all states in the Deep South.

Thus, Kevin Williamson stated in error that Eisenhower garnered a stronger share of the Southern vote than Goldwater did (assuming we're talking about the same 5 states). Consider Eisenhower's percent of the vote (1952 and 1956) to Goldwater's (1964):

LA: (47.1 and 53.3) vs. (56.8)
MS: (39.6 and 24.5) vs. (87.14)
AL: (35 and 39.4) vs. (69.45)
GA: (30.3 and 32.65) vs. (54.1)
SC: (49.3 and 25.2) vs. (58.9)

That was only a precursor to what happened in 1968.

In 1968, following passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many Southern Democrats began to defect... but not immediately to the Republican Party. While voters in the South had supported Goldwater in 1964, Richard Nixon was not the paragon of Civil Rights opposition they desired, given that he helped move the 1957 Civil Rights Act through Congress (which may explain why Nixon won 36 percent of the Black vote in 1968). With Southerners who were opposed to Civil Rights recognizing that they no longer had a home in the increasingly Liberal Democratic Party, and the fact that the Republican Party's candidate had helped pass Civil Rights legislation, they were left in an ideological limbo and once again supported a segregationist third-party candidate: George Wallace.

This led to the following partitioning of the electoral vote in several Southern states for the Democratic, Republican, and Wallace percent of the vote (respectively):

LA: 28.2 - 23.5 - 48.32
MS: 23 - 13.5 - 63.5
AL: 18.7 - 13.99 - 65.86
GA: 26.75 - 30.4 - 42.8
SC: 29.6 - 38.1 - 32.3

With no third-party candidate in 1972, the realignment of the South from being solidly Democratic to solidly Republican was complete, as Nixon won 65.3 percent or more of the Republican vote in each Southern state. 1976 offers what Mark Halperin might call a holiday from history, as the trends reverse for one election cycle (due possibly to people voting Democratic to punish Nixon and Agnew, Carter's appeal as a Democrat from a southern state, and the ideologically polarizing effects of the Roe v Wade decision not causing its own rupture in political plate tectonics yet).

The South didn't complete its realignment with the Republican Party in 1964. Rather, from 1948 with Strom Thurmond to 1968 with George Wallace, southerners sought candidates they felt were loyal to their positions on Civil Rights issues. Some retained faith in the Democratic Party in the 1950's until Segregationists began to defect. Indeed, the realignment of the South was a gradual process, beginning in the late 1940s, and culminating in former anti-Civil Rights ideologies being couched in the Republican Party.

Point goes to Steve Kornacki.

Migration of the Black Vote

Kevin was right that no Republican has won the Black vote since President Hoover (who was AGAINST anti-lynching laws) in 1932. He is only partially correct, however, in stating that the New Deal is what prompted Blacks' transition to the Democratic Party. States (especially in the South) tended to enact New Deal policies in discriminatory ways, and FDR's administration did not directly address these issues while trying to keep the support of Southern Whites.

As the 1936 election approached, however, FDR began to realize the potential power of the Black vote & made a significant push to win Black voters(something Democrats should be doing to secure the support of Asian voters) - which he succeeded in doing in the 1936 election. This should not be taken as evidence that Black voters supported FDR as a result of New Deal programs. As Daphney Daniel (2012) writes, "The lack of substantial change in the conditions of African-Americans and a rise in Democratic outreach is evidence that New Deal policies were not the determining factor inciting the swing of black votes from one party to another."

Thus, Kevin was right that the Black vote started to shift in the 1930s and 40s, though not as a consequence of the New Deal.

Partial point goes to Kevin Williamson.