For a little more than a century the Democratic Party had hegemonic rule over the American South. Her empire stretched from Richmond to Birmingham, Biloxi to Atlanta. She produced some of the nation’s most notable politicians, amongst them are the names: Andrew Jackson, Jimmy Carter, William Clinton, Lyndon Banes Johnson, Hughy P. Long, Al Gore, and countless others. Her rise and fall is forever immortalized in the pages of history. As Senate Elections across the South this year pit Democrat incumbents in the fight of their lives against potential Conservative usurpers we are reminded that the past is very much so linked to the present. Could 2014 be the year the Democratic Party forever vanished from the lowlands of the Carolinas, the bayous of Louisiana, and the horse country of Virginia, or will in fact the South rise again for the Democrats of Dixie? In order to better formulate an answer it is best to turn to history to gauge what may lie ahead this November.
The rise of the Second Party System in 1828 gave birth to the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson. An outgrowth of Jefferson’s Democrat-Republican Party, Democrats catered to poor rural whites in the South. Their platform was populist in nature: universal suffrage for all white men (not just property owners), expansion Westward of “unclaimed” territory held by Native tribes, laizzes fair economics partnered with a limited federal government, and decentralization of the growingly corrupt national banking system. In essence, Jackson who himself came from humble rural beginnings embodied the image of the self-made man. In conjunction with such an image Jackson constructed a party that (he felt) would serve the interest of the common man. The Democratic Party and its “common man” resonated well with Southern whites at all levels of the planter system, and therefore benefited from relatively unchallenged autonomy beginning in the 1830s up until the Civil War.
Reconstruction and Jim Crow
The Republican Party dominated politics in the New South in the years following the Civil War during Reconstruction. Southerners refusal to recite the Iron Clad Oath, an influx of opportunistic Carpetbaggers from the North, enfranchisement of African-American freedmen, and the collaboration of Scalawags with Northern buerrcrats led to nearly ten years of Republican control of Southern politics. A backlash movement to these changing norms resulted in the resurrection of the Southern Democratic Party. Primarily by means of violence, paramilitary forces loosely associated with the party such as the KKK and the White League used violence to scare blacks away from the polls and force white Republicans out of office. This allowed for a swift return of Democrats to various elected positions. These conservative Democrats ran off a platform of white supremacy and “anti-Yankee” values. Their aim was to restore the ways of the Old South. This effort, and the reestablishment of Democratic hegemony in state legislatures and Governor offices throughout Dixie, gave rise to an era of racial segregation under the Jim Crow laws. Once again the party platform of the Democrats catered to all Southern whites, business and working class alike- and its system of strict racial segregation rooted in the revival of a reformed agrarian system would last for close to another century.
FDR and the New Deal
At the turn of the 20th century America experienced an immigration boom located primarily in the port cities of the Northeast. Unskilled and skilled laborers of various nationalities flocked the harbors of New York and Boston in hope for a better life, thus changing the face of the American “common man”. Naturally these immigrants gravitated towards the platform of the Democratic Party. Wealth inequality and poor labor conditions gave rise to labor unions, who pitted themselves against the Republican Robber Barons of the Gilded Age, shifting the economic platform of the national Democratic Party to the left. While Southern Democrats were initially hesitant to abandon laizzes fair economics in favor of the changing platform of the national party, the Great Depression and Dust Bowl changed everything by cloaking the South in poverty.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Workers Progress Administration, and Social Security resonated well in the South: providing jobs, economic relief, and new infrastructure to the region. This in turn converted Southern Democrats to a more liberal approach on the economy; uniting the Northern and Southern factions on fiscal matters pertaining to the “common man”. Known as the “Austin-Boston Alliance” the unified Democrat Party of laborers would reign supreme in national politics from the 1930s until the 1960s.
The Civil Rights Movement
After World War II, changing attitudes in the North and differing histories between the two regions led to a divide between the Northern and Southern factions of the party on the issue of Civil Rights. New England Democrats such as President John F. Kennedy and his brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy pushed for greater racial equality by enforcing Supreme Court decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education in an attempt to integrate Southern universities. Due to such differences the Austin-Boston Alliance began to wane. Despite a shared economic interest of the two regional factions, stark differences on the issue of Civil Rights weakened the party’s unity. Support for Democrats in local elections in the South soon began to eclipse support for Democrats, such as Kennedy, in national elections.
Lyndon Banes Johnson who assumed office after President’ Kennedy’s assassination attempted to heal this discord. A Southern Democrat himself, he was a black sheep in the sense he whole heartedly supported the Civil Rights Act, and saw it as a political opportunity to enfranchise black voters into the Democratic base. Playing off the national mood of mourning following Kennedy’s untimely death, Johnson miraculously mustered enough support to pass the Civil Rights Act by framing it as a means of honoring Kennedy’s legacy. The Civil Rights Act was enacted into law in 1964. Despite some relative sense of party unity on the issue during voting, the Austin Boston alliance soon began to crumble thereafter. White southerner voters, deeply opposed to such social changes, began to do the unthinkable: slowly defect to Lincoln’s Republican Party. Post-
Post-Civil Rights Act Decline
The defection of white Southerners from the Democratic Base after the passage of the Civil Rights Act was a gradual process that spanned the course of several decades. A few turning points in this process, however, are worth taking note of. In 1964 Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson for the Presidency. Although he lost, his opposition to the Civil Rights Act drew the support of many suburban and urban white Southerners, who tended to have higher incomes, and were less reliant on government programs compared to rural white Southerners who voted for Johnson (though Goldwater drew from that demographic as well). Johnson’s Great Society Programs and War on Poverty remained popular with Southern Whites in Appalachia during the late 60s. Yet continued disfavor of racial integration policies promoted by Democrats in the North prompted Former Alabama Governor and Democrat George Wallace to run as a third party candidate in the 1968 Presidential Election.
Wallace ran as an independent and an alternative to the Democratic Party’s national platform of pro-integration and against the Democratic Party’s nominee Hubert Humphrey who supported such measures. Wallace’s candidacy split the Democratic vote of the South, with half of the Southern states voting for Conservative Nixon and half voting for Wallace. This divide allowed Nixon, the Republican candidate, to win the White House.
Nixon’s resignation amid the Watergate Scandal shrouded the Republican Party in shame and unpopularity and allowed for the brief comeback of the Democrats in the South during the mid-70s as Jimmy Carter the Democrat from Georgia swept the Presidential vote. However, the revival was short lived. Carter’s failure as a leader and inability to resolve the economic and foreign crises of the late 70s, once again diminished white Southern support.
Working class and wealthy Southerners alike now turned to the enthusiastic and charming candidate from California in the 1980 election: Ronald Reagan. Reagan preached free market “bootstrap” principles and limited government, he was also hawkish on military and foreign relation issues with the Soviet Union. He gave the impression of a strong leader with a plan to restore “American values” to the economy, the country, and world as a whole, all of the qualities Carter lacked. In many senses, Reagan resembled more of Andrew Jackson, the original “conservative” Democrat, more than Carter did. He also was an adamant social conservative and a vocal Protestant Christian, which complimented Southern cultural ideals. In 1980, every Southern State, except Carter’s home state of Georgia voted for Reagan. Similar trends occurred in later elections such as George H.W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis. Democratic hegemony in the South was over.
The Clinton Years to Present
In 1992, the young and charming Democrat Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton ran for President against incumbent George H.W. Bush. A Southerner, and a member of the New Democrat centrist wing of the party, Clinton was able to appeal to both white and black Southerners as well as appease Northerner Liberals. Though socially liberal, Clinton was open to ideas of welfare reform, free trade, and tax credits for the middle class. His fiscal centrism, rooted in populist ideals, resonated well with Southerners and reminded them of an era when Democrats weren’t always proponents of big government solutions to the economy.
Although he did not win the entire South, he won his home state of Arkansas, his Vice President Al Gore’s State Tennessee, as well as Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia. He would later retain all of such states, except for Georgia, in his bid for reelection as President in 1996. Southern Democrat candidates of the 1990s and present times tend to follow suit similar to Clinton: they are in all essences centrists with populist agendas. They communicate to voters the same message Democrats in the South have always tried to vocalize: that they are the party for the “common man”. While the South remains a region that is deeply religious and therefore very socially conservative, Democratic hegemony is unlikely to be reinstated. However, populist approaches to the economy on issues such as minimum wage, workers rights, block grants for healthcare and education, etc. still curry favor with both blue collar whites. Coupled with the almost guaranteed racial minority vote, this pseudo-base of blue collar whites has allowed Senators like Mary Landreiu, Kay Hagan, and Mark Pryor to win elections in the past. At the same time, contemporary Southern Democrats just like those throughout history, walk a tight rope in terms of their relationship with the more liberal national party. They have enough of a relationship with the establishment where they are dependable for votes on certain key issues, but at the same time keep enough distance that they don’t alienate their more conservative base.
The National Democratic Party, in particular the President, remain extremely unpopular in the South with non-minority voters. This poses a challenge for incumbent Democrats in the region during the 2014 Senate Elections, once again bringing up the issue of distancing themselves from the rest of the party. But all is not lost. Latino and black populations tend to almost always vote Democrat, and as these demographics in the region grow, so do their numbers at the polls. At the same time, the all too recent economic downturn and a weakened middle class allows the populist economic pitches of Southern Democrats to remain relevant and complimentary of attitudes amongst working class whites. Just as it has been the past two hundred winning this demographic will be crucial if the Democratic Party is to survive in the South.