It’s treated like a historical and political axiom: During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the American racists, once loyal to the Democratic Party, switched allegiances in favor of the Republicans, and the socially tolerant and progressive Republicans switched their allegiance, to the Democratic Party. And thus, the Republican Party, the former party of Lincoln, devolved into a conglomerate of racism, intolerance, and prejudice, while the Democratic Party, the former party of Davis, became the party of acceptance. This is not merely a myth, but rather, a false narrative constituted of an amalgamation of myths.
For the purpose of this article, “the South” will refer to: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.
The first of these myths is that of the “Southern Strategy”: the electoral strategy used by the Republican Party through appealing to prejudiced southerners to poach their partisan loyalty from the Democrats. Most proponents of this theory attribute the conception of this strategy to then-former Vice President Richard M. Nixon.
However, the Republican Party began competitive in the South as early as 1928 during that year’s presidential election and the subsequent election of then-Secretary Herbert Hoover. For the first time in American history, a Republican came close to winning a majority of the former-Confederate states. Republicans, previously, were able to win a small number of southern states,
typically Confederacy-Union border states, such as Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia, but in 1928, President Hoover won nearly half of the states, capturing Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida, making substantial inroads into the Democratic South.
From there, Republicans and Democrats fought for the political loyalty of the South, with neither party coming to decisively dominate the region during presidential elections until the 2000 presidential election. In fact, during the 1976 presidential election, President Gerald Ford, vice president to Richard Nixon, the supposed architect of the alleged “Southern Strategy” who succeeded him upon his resignation, won only Virginia, with the rest of the South won by then-Governor Jimmy Carter.
In fact, Virginia, today, remains a safely Democratic state, while North Carolina and Florida are swing states in presidential elections. However, it is undeniable that, beginning in 1928, the Republican Party became noticeably competitive in a region impenetrable by the party decades prior. However, this did not occur during the 1960’s and 1970’s, as promulgated by proponents of the “Party Switch” and “South Strategy” narrative, which already casts doubt upon the Party Switch Theory–but it doesn’t explain why the South, a Democratic bulwark, reversed its political alignment to become largely Republican.
Economic issues consistently dominate American concerns when voting for elected officials, and, as Byron Shafer, a political scientist as the University of Wisconsin, stated: “But when folks [Southerners] went to the polling booths, they didn’t shoot off their own toes. They voted by their economic preferences, not racial preferences.” And, as the South’s economy modernized itself from a once poor and rural region into a heavily suburban and economically developed region, and, simultaneously, grew less racist, the South grew more Republican.
However, once-Democrats did not make an exodus from their party, but rather, successive generations of Southerners, as their economic conditions improved and they moved into the suburbs, they came to vote Republican, who largely concerned themselves with the economic state of the country. As documented in the New York Times, 53% of the high-income tercile voted Republican during the 1950’s, while, three decades later, 77% of the same demographic voted Republican. As the South evolved from poor and rural to wealthier and suburban, allegiance to the Republican Party grew, transforming much of the South into a solidly Republican region.
This shift to the Republican Party came largely due to the GOP’s focus on business, a position in maintained since the Gilded Age: an age of business-bolstering and small government conservatism. During this period was the 1896 presidential election, a realigning election during which then-Ohio Governor William McKinley ran a campaign advocating for the interests of business. During this campaign, McKinley advocated for high tariffs, in order to protect American business, and the Gold Standard, to protect against inflation. This positioned the Republican Party as the defenders against big business, attracting the Southerners, concerned with their economic prospects.
By Louis Gleason, Staff Writer