Why should anyone have been surprised that the senator who led the Republican Party of 2002 paid homage to the States Rights Party of 1948? Those Dixiecrats fatally extolled by Trent Lott at the hundredth birthday celebration of their onetime presidential nominee Strom Thurmond were very much a template for today’s Republican Party. Lott’s expedient demotion does not change the core affinity between the two parties–a kinship ignored in the year-end controversy over whether the senator from Mississippi is a segregationist. Sure, segregation (aka “states’ rights”) was the centerpiece of the Dixiecrats’ platform. But the exploitation of race has never been an end in itself. Then and now, it is an emotional means to a pragmatic political and economic goal: The key objective shared by Republicans and Dixiecrats is a government that’s a passive referee overseeing a status quo of unfettered free enterprise rather than a dynamic agent of social progress.
Many seem to have been under the impression that the 1948 Dixiecrat revolt–the Southern bolt from the Democratic Party in protest of Harry Truman’s civil rights plank–was some spontaneous redneck uprising of rebel-yelling snuff-dippers. Actually, it was quite the opposite, a power play carefully orchestrated by the corporate mandarins of the region (or their lawyers), many of whom answered to parent companies in the North. The racial demagogy they used to achieve the secession was a tried-and-true ploy of those so-called better classes, usually trotted out when the not-so-good classes (poor whites and blacks) were forming an alliance across the color line that threatened the oligarchy of planters and industrialists who had historically ruled the South. This particular white-supremacist tantrum had been brewing since Franklin Roosevelt created the Committee on Fair Employment Practice in 1941, seeking to end race discrimination in wartime defense industries. Truman was proposing to make the FEPC a permanent agency.
The most persistent of the pesky biracial movements bucking the established order was organized labor. Southern bosses had long used racist propaganda and vigilantes to foment strife between black and white workers, with the goal of keeping the unions weak and wages depressed. The aim of those powerful business interests was to roll back the New Deal. Roosevelt had posed many challenges to corporate omnipotence, and the boldest of them was Section 7(a) of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, which guaranteed workers the right to organize and bargain collectively. The same representatives of organized money who spearheaded the vicious campaign against Roosevelt became the brain trust of the Dixiecrat Party. That in turn morphed into the segregationist resistance of the civil rights era and is now the Republican Party of what was once the Solid (Democratic) South.
What the racist Southern gentlemen of old and the modern-day Republicans have both cannily appreciated is that poor people do not like to consider themselves poor. Low-income whites would rather identify with the rich folks than with their own class, especially if their partners in poverty happen to be black. That helps explain why, in clinging to its nostalgia for the underdog (“special interests” to the überdogs), the pre-Clinton Democratic Party lost much of its base–the Reagan Democrats–to the rival party. The now Solid Republican South is a tribute to the cleverness of the haves at getting the have-nots to work against their own interests: The main attraction the Republicans hold for the “regular people” who make up the bulk of their Southern constituency is that they are the party of the white man.