The Southern Paradox: The Democratic Party Below the Mason-Dixon Line

The Southern Paradox: The Democratic Party Below the Mason-Dixon Line

The Southern Paradox

The struggle for racial equality and the Democratic Party below the Mason-Dixon Line.


As long as there has been a US government, white Southerners have done their best to dominate it. They shoehorned the three-fifths clause into the Constitution, expanded slavery beyond the banks of the Mississippi River, started an armed rebellion to preserve that evil institution, created terrorist outfits like the Ku Klux Klan to sabotage Reconstruction, installed an American version of apartheid, and then fought the modern civil-rights movement with bombast, filibusters, and violence. In the 1960s, when a Democratic president and Congress finally passed laws that nullified the most blatantly racist statutes in the South, resentful whites below the Mason-Dixon Line began migrating to the Republican Party, which betrayed its Lincolnian roots in return for a sizable new constituency. The Mississippi voters who elected Cindy Hyde-Smith, a latter-day admirer of the Confederacy, to the US Senate last fall were merely extending a long, benighted tradition.

Yet in that same region often lurked another set of impulses that today’s progressives might cheer. In 1877, during a nationwide railroad strike, a Memphis newspaper asserted that the federal government should be “wrested from the hands of those who manipulate it to their own aggrandizement and to the oppression of the masses.” It was only one of many newspapers to champion the cause of organized labor. Three decades later, every major piece of legislation that President Woodrow Wilson signed to regulate big business—from a major anti-trust act to an eight-hour day for railroad workers—was crafted by a Democrat from one of the states that barred most African Americans from voting. Later, when Franklin Roosevelt sat in the White House, such landmark New Deal achievements as Social Security, the minimum wage, and protections for labor organizers would not have become law without the backing of explicitly racist lawmakers from Dixie.

The authors of two new books—David Bateman, Ira Katznelson, and John Lapinski in Southern Nation: Congress and White Supremacy After Reconstruction and Devin Caughey in The Unsolid South: Mass Politics and National Representation in a One-Party Enclave—take up this apparent contradiction and show how it helps to explain why the region switched from being the stronghold of one party to the base of its adversary.

Both books also come to a similar conclusion: that most white voters in the South, as well as the politicians they elected, were fine with egalitarian economic policies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries so long as they didn’t threaten to disrupt the Jim Crow order. Some endorsed these policies for purely instrumental reasons—as the price of sustaining an alliance with Democrats from the urban North who needed to win the votes of industrial workers. But others believed, with ample justification, that industrialists and Wall Street financiers ran the economy solely to benefit themselves, at the expense of small farmers and wage earners. Of course, the only exploitation these voters cared about was that suffered by white people, and this “egalitarian whiteness”—the concise term used by Bateman, Katznelson, and Lapinski to describe this combination of racial supremacy and working-class egalitarianism—helped keep the South solidly Democratic through the first half of the 20th century.

It is fitting that these historically minded works of political science bear the imprint of Princeton University Press. After all, the university’s most famous president was a distinguished political scientist who grew up in Dixie and, as the nation’s 28th president, instituted some notable reforms while also overseeing the segregation of a large part of the federal bureaucracy.

Southern Nation is the more ambitious of the two volumes. Its authors examine not just how Dixie Democrats forged and fought for a common agenda in Congress built around both white supremacy and taxing the rich, but also how much this agenda ended up shaping domestic policy writ large. When lawmakers from the South strongly favored a bill, such as the Federal Reserve Act or the 16th Amendment allowing Congress to impose an income tax, it passed. When they opposed a bill, such as the one proposed by Republicans in the late 1880s that would have enabled federal officials to supervise the conduct of elections all across the country, they nearly always managed to kill it.

And Southern politicians kept winning on Capitol Hill even when their party didn’t control the White House or either chamber of Congress. By the early 20th century, most Republicans had essentially given up the battle to secure the right to vote that the 15th Amendment had guaranteed to black men—a right that the Democrats, who ruled every Southern state, had gradually stripped away from them. Moreover, some GOP leaders were quite willing to endorse that effort: In his 1909 inaugural address, President William Howard Taft confidently proclaimed, “The danger of the control of an ignorant electorate has…passed. With this change, the interest which many of the Southern white citizens take in the welfare of the negroes has increased.” It is hard to overestimate the power of a bloc of lawmakers united by the aim of preserving a racial order and able to use their mastery of the rules to wear down, if not convert, the opposition.

The authors of Southern Nation make their argument through a rigorous analysis of scores of legislative conflicts and outcomes. In less skillful hands, this could make for a long slog through a series of arcane disputes among politicians whom even most historians of the period ignore. But Bateman, Katznelson, and Lapinski know how to tell a good story, which on occasion also turns out to be a rather dramatic one. In 1922, for example, Congress had a sizable Republican majority, and the party, which still retained traces of its abolitionist heritage, seemed poised to pass an anti-lynching bill that black activists and journalists like Ida B. Wells had long advocated. It would have been the first significant blow against legal racism since the end of Reconstruction, in 1877. The bill’s sponsors even persuaded one border-state Democrat, as well as seven of his Northern colleagues, to support it. But Southerners in the Senate found ways to slow down the process and threatened to filibuster the measure if it came up for debate on the floor. By the end of the year, the GOP’s leaders had surrendered and moved on. As the authors note, “The belief that the South could unilaterally, and relatively easily, defeat civil rights legislation would endure for decades.”

Dixie lawmakers also kept regulations placed on a critical part of the economy from undercutting the Jim Crow order. In 1906, Congress—then under GOP control—passed the Hepburn Act, a landmark measure that set an upper limit on railroad rates and required the transport firms to file annual reports with the Interstate Commerce Commission. Southern lawmakers made clear that they hoped to vote for the measure but would filibuster it to death if it included language that did away with segregated passenger cars. Progressive Republicans acquiesced to their Democratic colleagues. “After the deed was done,” the authors write, “a black paper from Indianapolis mocked the sight of the ‘old parties join[ing] hands on the color line.’”

Southern Nation’s single-minded emphasis on the grim achievements of a determined group of Dixiecrats neglects the influence that Democrats from other regions had on the party’s increasing commitment to anti-corporate and pro-labor causes. During the early 20th century, the bosses of New York’s Tammany Hall called for the municipal ownership of utilities and the inspection of factories and groomed progressives like Alfred E. Smith and Robert Wagner to become leaders, first in New York State and then on a national scale. In his three runs for the presidency, William Jennings Bryan, who hailed from Nebraska, courted unions and argued for passing a strongly progressive income tax and clapping the violators of antitrust laws in jail. During his 1908 campaign, Bryan won the endorsement of the American Federation of Labor—the start of a long, if often troubled, marriage between the Democrats and organized labor.

Even so, the authors of Southern Nation are right to emphasize the considerable sway of segregationists over the party in the first half of the 20th century. No leading Democrat from the North or West was willing to risk dividing his party by standing up for the rights of black people. “Egalitarian whiteness” even wormed its way into some of the landmark bills of the New Deal. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, written by Wagner, excluded workers who toiled in agriculture or other people’s homes—the only occupations available to most black people in the South at the time. When first enacted, Social Security also left those same groups out in the cold.

But even as Northern Democrats wrote such racist exclusions into law, their Dixie brethren were beginning to doubt that Roosevelt and the coalition he built really had their best interests at heart. As the mass suffering of the Depression faded, a growing number of Southern politicians voiced alarm that the interracial unions of the CIO, which undergirded the Democrats in the industrial North, might shatter the Jim Crow order if they organized successfully in the South as well. When, in 1947, a bipartisan majority passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which restricted strikes and boycotts and allowed states to pass “right-to-work” laws, only four Southern Democratic senators voted to uphold President Harry Truman’s veto.

Though most Democrats did not yet realize it, this vote marked a momentous disruption in the strong transregional coalition that had governed the nation since the early 1930s. The gap widened in 1948, when Hubert Humphrey and other liberal Democrats succeeded in getting a strong civil-rights plank added to the platform on which Truman would run that fall. Furious at this break with the party’s fidelity to Jim Crow, a group of segregationists bolted from the Democratic convention and nominated a States’ Rights ticket headed by South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. From the end of Reconstruction until the 1950s, Democrats had won every single Senate election and nearly every House seat in the South. But by the time George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, conservative Republicans held a majority of those offices. The consequences of that rightward turn produced a sea change in American politics.

In The Unsolid South, Devin Caughey uncovers the roots of this transformation in the many combative primaries fought among Southern Democrats in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Party officials either prohibited blacks from voting in these contests or made it difficult or even dangerous for them to do so. But the primaries, in which only a white “selectorate” (as Caughey calls it) took part, still turned into pitched battles between those who defended the New Deal and hoped to expand it and those who warned that a party led by FDR and his liberal successors was beholden to powerful unions that could not be trusted to uphold white supremacy.

One of the starkest examples in Caughey’s book comes from a rural district in South Carolina. In 1948, Hugo Sims, a World War II veteran in his late 20s, took on John J. Riley, the incumbent congressman, who often voted with right-wing Republicans. Although Sims had the backing of the local CIO textile union, he ran on banal slogans like “The man who gets elected will be the one who knows and is liked by the most people” and swept the primary. Once he got to Washington, Sims supported every significant measure that the Truman administration proposed. The young pol insisted that he could “work out a liberal program a Southerner can run on and get elected.” But he neglected the growing hostility of his white constituents to Truman’s Fair Deal, which included presidential statements of support for civil rights and the desegregation of the armed forces. “We call it the Raw Deal down here,” snapped one white farmer. In the 1950 primary, Riley took on Sims again; this time, he crushed his young rival by 20 percentage points.

A decade before this, another young Southern congressman, one Lyndon Baines Johnson from Texas, had already learned the dangers of poking at the vitals of the racist order. In 1938, Johnson watched Maury Maverick, a liberal firebrand from San Antonio, lose his bid for renomination after he became the only Southern member of Congress to endorse a federal law against lynching. “I can go [only] so far in Texas…my people won’t take it,” Johnson complained to a fellow New Dealer. “Maury forgot that and he is not here…. There’s nothing more useless than a dead liberal.” Yet in the late ’50s, Johnson risked angering his own constituents and broke with his Southern colleagues to help pass a civil-rights act, the first since Reconstruction. By then, however, he had become the shrewd majority leader of the Democratic Caucus and wanted desperately to be president.

While Caughey’s study is empirically impressive, it lacks the popular touch that makes Southern Nation a pleasing, if lengthy, read. Those unfamiliar with social-science methods who come across such chapter subtitles as “Details of the Group-Level IRT Models” and “Variation Across Issue Domains” may decide that The Unsolid South is not for them. But Caughey’s granular text explains as well as any previous history why white Southerners were primed to vote for a conservative Republican like Barry Goldwater years before he ran for president in 1964. Except for just two occasions—when segregationist George Wallace ran as an independent in 1968, and when Jimmy Carter ran as a Democrat in 1976—a majority of white Southerners have cast their ballots for the Republican candidate in every presidential election since then.

These richly detailed books provide a sober, enlightening analysis of why Southern Democrats endured so long and prospered—before abandoning their partisan home for the embrace of a Republican Party led by the likes of Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and the Bushes. But the authors seldom mention those episodes in the Southern past that, taken together, enable one to imagine a different, interracial, and more egalitarian path for the South.

In the 1880s and early 1890s, black and white Southerners organized in segregated branches of the Farmers’ Alliance and in the People’s Party to battle the harm that “the money power” was doing to the livelihood of small farmers. In the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, the Highlander Folk Center in rural Tennessee nurtured interracial movements for labor and black freedom that eventually helped shake up the entire region in the 1960s. And last fall, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Andrew Gillum in Florida, and Beto O’Rourke in Texas all came close to writing a far more hopeful chapter in Dixie’s electoral history.

For now, however, most white Southerners continue to embody the same paradox that their ancestors did: They’re happy to benefit from the federal programs enacted by Democrats over the past century, while scorning the idea that the federal government should help black folks in equal ways. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, the last Democratic senator from South Carolina (he retired in 2005), was fond of telling an anecdote about one of his white constituents who embodied this view. It is worth repeating in full:

A veteran returning from Korea went to college on the GI Bill, bought his house with an FHA loan, saw his kids born in a VA hospital, started a business with an SBA loan, got electricity from TVA and, later, water from an EPA project. His parents, living on Social Security, retired to a farm, got electricity from REA, and had their soil tested by the USDA. When his father became ill, the family was saved from financial ruin by Medicare, and a life was saved with a drug developed through NIH. His kids participated in the school lunch program, learned physics from teachers trained in an NSF program, and went to college with guaranteed student loans. He drove to work on the Interstate and moored his boat in a channel dredged by Army engineers. When floods hit, he took Amtrak to Washington to apply for disaster relief and spent some time in the Smithsonian museums. Then one day, he got mad. He wrote his senator an angry letter. “Get the government off my back,” he wrote. “I’m tired of paying taxes for all those programs created for ungrateful people!”

Only Democrats, of any race, who can speak truth to such Southerners and make them like it will finally put the long, painful dilemma of Dixie politics behind us.

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