Posted: February 15, 2003
ifty years ago, "Republican" was more often a cuss word than a valid description of a living voter in the American South. Today, Republicans in the South command a majority of U.S. House and Senate seats and the allegiance of a plurality of voters. This book by political scientists (and twin brothers) Earl Black of Rice and Merle Black of Emory universities deftly explains how and why that transformation—which has produced the first nationally competitive two-party system since the 1850s—took place.
The Republican strategy almost from the time of the party's conception was to write off the "Solid South," dominated by the Democratic Party, and win overwhelming majorities in the North (by which the authors mean North, Midwest, and West) in order to make up for it. This meant that the Democrats only had to win a significant minority of the North in order to prevail. Not until the Great Depression, when the Republicans became the party of Hoover rather than the party of Lincoln in the North (and the party of Hoover and Lincoln in the South), did the weakness of this strategy become obvious. Now, in order to prevail, the GOP had to win majorities in the North that were completely unrealistic—very difficult to attain, and impossible to sustain (their shortlived congressional success in 1946 was a demonstration). Thus Republicans turned their eyes south.
At the same time, Democratic liberals were on the verge of trespassing on the unwritten compact that had given New Deal Democrats their national majorities: the South would guarantee Democratic victory, the national Democrats would protect Southern segregation. The first rumblings came in 1948, when Harry S. Truman's civil rights plank precipitated the "Dixiecrat" revolt, recently celebrated by (now former) Senate majority leader Trent Lott. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 marked the final rupture.
Yet as the Blacks describe, the Republican ascent was neither quick nor automatic. It came in at least five waves, each of which confronted a hostile environment and entrenched, adaptable Democratic power. The first was Eisenhower's candidate-centered campaign to pick off some peripheral Southern (Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas) states in 1952 and 1956, which did little for the party's congressional candidates. The second was the Goldwater moment, when Republicans penetrated the Deep South for the first time since Reconstruction. Local Democrats adapted, however, by becoming more conservative and emphasizing even more their independence from the national Democratic Party; few of the Republican congressmen brought in on the Goldwater tide survived. The later '60s were another such moment: the 1966 midterm elections brought in a group of anti-LBJ Republicans and George Wallace's 1968 presidential campaign served for many voters as a transit point out of Democratic loyalty. Yet, again, Democrats adapted. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the one-man, one-vote decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court combined to induce creative Democrats to begin building biracial coalitions in order to defeat conservative opponents.
To the Blacks, the Reagan presidency was the key moment in the South's partisan transformation: "In the South the Reagan realignment of the 1980s was a momentous achievement. By transforming the region's white electorate, Ronald Reagan's presidency made possible the Republicans' congressional breakthrough in the 1990s." Reagan both realigned the conservative voters, moving them from Democrats to Republicans, and dealigned the moderate voters, moving them from Democrats to independents, thus at least putting them in play for his party's candidates. Although Goldwater had begun the process of getting Southern whites to vote for Republican presidential candidates, it was Reagan who got them to change their party identification. Even then, the process was incomplete. Five new Southern Republican Senators elected in the 1980 Reagan landslide lost in 1986 after one term, most to moderate Democrats who assembled strong biracial coalitions.
Finally, this new pattern of voter identification—in combination with Bill Clinton's lurch leftward in 1993-94, not to mention congressional redistricting that concentrated black voters in "majority-minority districts"—produced the Republican surge of the 1990s. When the 104th Congress convened in January 1995, "times had indeed changed radically." All three top House Republicans were conservative Southerners, while no Southerners were represented in the Democratic leadership. By 2000, 13 of 22 Southern Senators and 71 of 125 Representatives were Republican, and the Republicans' congressional control hung by the thread of their Southern dominance.
What this means is that Republicans and Democrats have now traded places. The Republicans count on a large Southern surplus to carry the day, and can prevail by winning a large-enough minority of the North. But the limits to this strategy are clear. As the Blacks demonstrate, "If the old solid Democratic South has vanished, a comparably solid Republican South has not developed. Nor"—due to the complexity of Southern society—"is one likely to emerge." This means the margin for error elsewhere is quite small.
An interesting parallel emerges from this study. Just as Republicans used to concede the Solid South and try to overcome it in the North, making themselves vulnerable to cross-regional coalitions, they now concede the black vote (which is typically 90-95 percent Democratic) and must prevail by winning 60 percent or more of the white vote. Any Democrat who can win more than 40 percent of the white vote in a Southern state is in a very strong position to win the election. This phenomenon helps to explain why Democrats (like Al Gore in 2000) have fallen into ever more dramatic spasms of demagoguery in order to maintain their 9:1 ratio among black voters. It leaves open the question of why Republicans have not more aggressively courted black voters (or a subset thereof) on grounds of interest or principle, and why blacks have allowed their own leverage to be partly wasted by their own predictability.
The answer, according to Merle and Earl Black, is that Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan "permanently alienated" black voters by their use of "code words" like "states' rights." They stop short of accusing Goldwater or Reagan of racism—and indeed there is voluminous evidence outside of this book that such charges are unwarranted—but the important thing for purposes of voting behavior is the perception. Indeed, the authors argue that "Goldwater's aggressive and pugnacious Republicanism was disastrous" because it placed the Southern Republicans "squarely on the wrong side of the civil rights issue." This assessment of Goldwater's "disastrous" effect is, needless to say, contentious. It was Goldwater, after all, who served as a rallying point for the creation of an active Republican party organization in parts of the South that had not seen such a thing in living memory and who (as the authors themselves acknowledge) got many white Southerners to vote for a Republican for the first time in their lives. Nonetheless, the perceived moral fallout has bedeviled Republicans for 40 years.
On the one hand, liberal Democrats have shamelessly milked Goldwater's vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for every black vote it was worth, as if the New Deal had not been built on the votes of segregationist Democrats. This old "silent compact" is the dirty little secret of modern liberalism. On the other hand, Republicans and conservatives have not necessarily come to terms with the degree to which they benefited from the anti-civil rights backlash of the 1960s. To be sure, Goldwater's commitment to strict constitutional construction, federalism, a strong defense, and anti-Communism made him a good fit with the South, even setting civil rights aside; a fortiori Reagan, with his conservative positions on social and moral issues. And it is notable that the great Republican surge in the South came in the 1980s and 1990s, when fundamental civil and voting rights were settled issues. But whatever made Southerners susceptible to Republican appeals, and whatever did ultimately shift them into the Republican column for the long term, it is clear that civil rights played a large role in triggering the exodus from the Democratic Party. Republicans are still carrying the burden of that fact today.
An account of his 2000 presidential campaign, Nader's Crash!ng the Party actually tells several overlapping stories: the progress of his outrage at the "morphing of the Democrats," the barriers to third-party activity in America, the surprising negative reaction of many erstwhile friends to his candidacy, the "smear campaign" against Nader orchestrated by Gore in the final weeks of the campaign, and the details of the campaign itself.
Crash!ng the Party suffers from numerous weaknesses. Nader's analysis is bombastic, pedantic, smug, and often tedious. He makes little effort to write for an audience that extends beyond the left fringe of American politics. Who else could accuse the New York Times of conveying right-wing corporate propaganda, could call the Brookings Institution a "conservative think-tank," and could positively refer to Huey Long, Lincoln Steffens, Henry Wallace, and Al Sharpton without a trace of ambivalence? Above all, despite all his concerns about the concentration of power in America, there is no acknowledgement that the single greatest concentration of power is in the federal government, largely due to the efforts of people like himself. No other entity—not General Motors, not Big Tobacco, not the drug companies—confiscates and spends $2 trillion a year, produces 70,000 pages of regulations, and can seize or immobilize a person's property almost at will. Indeed, Nader is remarkably oblivious to this dilemma.
Consequently, he is more than occasionally baffled by the sight of liberalism run amok. An extensive discourse on the stifling poverty of Camden, New Jersey points out that "it wasn't always this way," but never addresses the fact that it wasn't this way until the confluence in the 1960s of welfare dependency, liberal crime policies, and a variety of other leftist social engineering schemes. Likewise, Nader fumes at the bizarre intricacies of federal campaign finance law, without ever noticing that the 1974 law was the product of the same "get money out of politics" mantra that he champions today.
The result is a set of troubling contradictions. Soaring rhetoric about the importance of community and local solutions goes hand in hand with support for almost every centralizing edict of the federal government in the last 70 years. Frequent references to Thomas Jefferson as an inspirational figure coexist with a complete renunciation of his central doctrine, that government exists for the limited Lockean purposes of preserving life, liberty, and property.
Nonetheless, Nader provides two valuable services. First, Crash!ng the Party is a useful primer on why third parties in America have a very hard time taking root. More importantly, Nader's acerbic indictment of the modern Democratic Party, especially the Clinton-Gore Administration, provides a glimpse into the party's tortured soul. In contrast to George W. Bush and the Republicans, whom Nader merely dismisses condescendingly, Clinton and Gore (and their allies) are at the receiving end of a more-or-less continuous reviling. Nader attacks Clinton ("the boy wonder from Arkansas") for betraying liberalism on issues including NAFTA, GATT, the WTO, "phony welfare reform," oil drilling in Alaska and Florida, several instances of tort reform, a 1997 banking bill, the "notorious Telecommunications Act of 1996," the Freedom to Farm Act, and even the increase in the federal speed limit from 55 to 65. All in all, Nader concludes, "Ever since Clinton lost his reelection run for governor of Arkansas [in 1980], it seemed he was determined never again to lose an election by sticking to principles." Gore comes in for similar treatment. "Gore's disingenuousness had become more profound over the years, in part because he had not lost an election because of it." In short, Nader's party had "morphed" into "Republicrats" whose goal was "protective imitation" of the conservative party.
This unrelenting criticism points to an important sub-theme, which is the tension within the Democratic Party and the subterranean hostility to Clinton-Gore among the party faithful. Nader recounts conversation after conversation with Democratic party officials and activists who privately encouraged him, confiding that they were disgusted with the Clinton Administration, though in the end they hewed to the party line. How this tension plays itself out in the future will determine the direction of the Democratic Party, now that the "boy wonder" is unhappily retired.
These two books, though seemingly disparate, are linked. The new political dynamic that the Blacks describe is arguably the very source of Nader's discontent. The relevant chain of reasoning is short: The South, while leaning Republican, is now competitive; because the South is competitive, the nation is competitive; because the South is the pivot of that national competitiveness, both parties must appeal to it more directly than before. Democrats' failure to do so in the 1980s led to three big defeats. Three big defeats at the hands of the South led to Clinton. In sum, because the South can no longer be taken for granted by Democrats, Democrats have moved to the right to maintain presidential viability. At this point, the analyses of the Blacks and of Nader converge.
But there is a further complication. Because the solidly Democratic but conservative South is no more, both parties are more homogeneous at the congressional level than before—there has been an ideological sorting-out of the parties. Consequently, there is actually more differentiation between the parties—in other words, more intraparty unity and more interparty disagreement in congressional roll-call voting now than there was 35 years ago. Convergence of the presidential parties has coexisted with increased polarization of the congressional parties. Thus was "triangulation" born. This is a phenomenon that Nader neither acknowledges nor explains. For invective, read Nader. For understanding, read the Blacks.