How the South Rose Again

When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America by Ira Katznelson (W.W. Norton, 238 pages, $25.95)

The White House Looks South by William E. Leuchtenburg (Louisiana State University Press, 668 pages, $45.00)

White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism by (Kevin M. Kruse Princeton University Press, 325 pages, $35.00)

The End of Southern Exceptionalism: Class, Race, and Partisan Change in the Postwar South by Byron E. Shafer and Richard Johnston (Harvard University Press, 240 pages, $39.95)

Nothing has contributed more to the conservative ascendancy in American politics than the realignment of the South from solidly Democratic to reliably Republican. The South now furnishes the decisive votes for Republican control of the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House. Outside the South, Democrats still hold the advantage in the competition on all three fronts. But the Republican dominance of the South has grown so pronounced that it swamps the Democratic strengths elsewhere and provides the GOP with its margin of majority for both Congress and the White House.

Consider the Senate. In the 11 states of the old Confederacy plus Oklahoma and Kentucky -- the generally accepted political definition of the South -- Republicans hold 22 of the 26 Senate seats. In the rest of the country, Democrats control seven more Senate seats than the GOP. But that's not nearly enough to offset the lopsided Republican advantage in the South.

The same is true in the House. Outside the South, Democrats hold a 152-140 edge in House seats. But the GOP's 40-seat cushion in the South ensures that Illinois Republican Denny Hastert holds the speaker's gavel, not San Francisco Democrat Nancy Pelosi.
The imbalance is even more pronounced in the race for the White House. In 2000, Al Gore won just over 70 percent of the Electoral College votes at stake outside the South. But George W. Bush narrowly won the White House because he swept all 165 Electoral College votes in the 13 southern states. Four years later, John Kerry won 68 percent of the Electoral College votes outside the South. But Bush won because he again swept the 13 Southern states -- this time worth 168 Electoral College votes after population growth measured in the 2000 Census.

Democrats might someday cobble together a congressional or presidential majority with such limited southern support; Republicans, after all, frequently did precisely that from the 1880s to the 1920s. But it is never easy to overcome such a preponderant advantage in one region, as Republicans learned when the “solid-South” underpinned Democratic dominance in Washington for nearly four decades after the New Deal. One of the clearest lessons of the past decade is that Democrats will always face an uphill climb to power if they can't perform at least somewhat better in the South.

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Like all other aspects of southern life, southern politics beguiles writers. The South has probably inspired more classic works of political science and political history (think V.O. Key Jr. or C. Vann Woodward) than any other region, not to mention the greatest novel ever written about American politics, Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men. The fascination with the South is, in one sense, odd because for almost a full century after the Civil War, little ostensibly changed in a southern political system built around the twin exclusion of African Americans and Republicans. But novelists and historians alike have found irresistible material in the sweat and bombast, the intransigence and fear that characterized southern politics under segregation, and the electoral earthquakes that have reshaped the region since.

Three new books join this lengthy shelf. Each approaches the story from a distinctive angle. The White House Looks South by the respected historian (and adopted Southerner) William E. Leuchtenburg, is a conversational and discursive exploration of how Democratic Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson managed, mollified, submitted to, and confronted the South. This is more a meditation on these presidents than a systematic analysis of them. Leuchtenburg quotes other writers too much and presents too few specifics, yet his command of this history is so strong, and the story itself so powerful, that this often-meandering book courses at times with propulsive power.

The End of Southern Exceptionalism by Byron E. Shafer and Richard Johnston examines this history literally by the numbers. It is a work of hard-core quantitative political science that advances several provocative arguments but will probably put off anyone who isn't eager to decipher discussions about a “multinomial logistic regression converted to a probability distribution.”

In contrast, historian Kevin M. Kruse illuminates the story at ground level. In White Flight, a study of white resistance to desegregation in Atlanta, Kruse produces a panoramic and engaging portrayal of the struggle over desegregation in the self-styled “city too busy to hate.”

Each of these three books revolves around the same question: What broke the Democrats' hold on a South once so solid that Roosevelt never lost a southern state in four presidential campaigns, and Republicans, still bearing the cross of the Civil War, failed to elect a single U.S. senator from the region from 1903 through 1961?

Almost all versions of the disaffected South story focus on race. In this telling, the critical event sundering the South from the Democratic Party is the white backlash against the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts under Johnson in the 1960s (anticipated, to some extent, by the 1948 Dixiecrat revolt against Harry Truman's first tentative steps toward civil rights). As Leuchtenburg recounts, Johnson famously lamented upon signing the Civil Rights Act that he had just “delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

With revisionist zeal, Shafer and Johnston want to recast this picture. They don't deny that white resistance to civil rights influenced the South's realignment, but they argue that race was less important than class in fueling the GOP's advance. The growth after World War II of a southern white middle-class open to Republican small-government arguments, they insist, drove the GOP's gains across the region. “The engine of partisan change in the postwar South was, first and foremost, economic development and an associated politics of social class,” they write.

Their principal evidence for this conclusion consists of polling results from the University of Michigan's American National Election Studies that found Republicans are advancing faster in the South among affluent than lower-income whites. The authors also show that from the 1960s on, Republicans ran more strongly than Democrats among Southerners who viewed government more as problem than solution.

Shafer and Johnston are rigorous and dogged in their use of polling results and imaginative in their attempts to find data that can empirically test conventional assumptions; for those who can stomach the gristle of regression analyses, there's much to chew on in this book. But the authors protest too much. By telling their story solely through polling results, they ignore the flesh-and-blood reality of decades of Republican presidential and state-level campaigns that signaled sympathy for white Southerners resisting the civil-rights revolution. No one watching Barry Goldwater in 1964 or Ronald Reagan in 1980 could conclude that those candidates believed tax cuts alone would break the Democratic hold on the South.

Even the data cited by Shafer and Johnston show that from the 1960s through the 1990s, in races for national office, Republicans ran best among the Southerners most resistant to government action to promote racial equity. And the authors ignore the extent to which, during the critical period, whites may have been more receptive to small-government arguments because they believed that public programs disproportionately benefited minorities -- the dynamic that pollster Stanley B. Greenberg mapped in his path-breaking study of Macomb County, Michigan, during the early 1980s. Shafer and Johnston are right to see more than race alone in the South's political transformation. But at their most dogmatic, the two seem to be arguing that the rise of air conditioning (because it sped the South's economic development) played a larger role in realigning the region than the decline of segregation.

Kruse's surprisingly engaging book is a useful corrective, though it pushes to the other extreme in its conclusions. In other hands this might have been a myopic case study. But Kruse brings vividly to life the Atlanta of the 1950s and 1960s, taking readers from the mayor's office, to black churches and elite corporate boardrooms, to the block-by-block, sometimes house-to-house, battle over racial transition in blue-collar neighborhoods, as the city grappled with integration in housing, schools, public transportation, hotels, and restaurants.

Kruse inverts the economics-first conclusion of Shafer and Johnson: He sees the small-government arguments of modern conservatism almost entirely as an expression of white antipathy to equal rights. Whites, especially in the South, have retreated from support for activist government precisely to the extent they believe it can benefit blacks, he argues. At “the start of the twenty-first century,” Kruse writes, “the politics created by white flight are not simply still present; they are predominant.”

It's true that the South's states-rights ideology took root to defend first slavery and then segregation from federal interference. During the Depression era, conservative Southerners resisted some of Roosevelt's key economic initiatives and fought unions partly because they worried they might empower African Americans to confront white supremacy more forcefully. And through the modern era, racial resentments have sometimes contributed to the success of anti-tax and anti-spending arguments, as Greenberg found in Macomb County.

But like Shafer and Johnston, Kruse pushes a valid argument too far. Race alone has never entirely explained the hostility to government activism from Southern conservatives, as Leuchtenburg shows in his compelling account of Roosevelt's strained relationship with the region. To mollify the South, Roosevelt mostly shunned the growing demands by blacks for greater racial equality. And, as will be discussed more below, he even permitted southerners to structure many of his economic programs in ways that perpetuated racial inequality.

But while Roosevelt's deference on race brought him support from southern Democrats early in his presidency for key initiatives such as Social Security, tension steadily grew over his vision of an activist government working to boost living standards through public investment and support for unionization. Over time, many southern Democrats increasingly regarded that agenda as a threat to the low-wage, low-tax, low–public-service traditions that benefited the region's economic elites and imposed as great a cost on low-income whites as blacks.

As far back as 1938, Roosevelt delivered a combative speech in Gainesville, Georgia, condemning the South's history of minimal public services and low-wage employment. Roosevelt's words thrilled southern liberals who saw an energetic government as the key both to economically developing the region and building an enduring majority in local politics around class, not racial, interests. But many in the conservative mainstream of southern Democratic leadership denounced Roosevelt's agenda as a threat to free enterprise and personal liberty. That conflict anticipated later developments. On the one hand, the vision that FDR offered would later inspire successful post-integration southern Democrats like Bill Clinton and Jim Hunt. And, on the other, the anti-Roosevelt Democrats made the same arguments that would help elect Republicans across the South generations later. By 1944, Leuchtenburg writes, Roosevelt faced such widespread resistance to his fourth nomination from southern Democrats that Texas Democratic Sen. “Pappy” Lee O'Daniel “called the president a greater menace than Hitler.”

That account of Roosevelt's struggles with the South (despite his racial deference) highlights one of most consistent strengths across these three books: Each shows, in a different way, the breadth of the disagreements that divided the region from the Democrats. Reading through these works, the wonder isn't that Democrats have lost their preeminence in the South, but rather that it took so long. Leuchtenburg's verdict on the cause of the divorce seems the most balanced: Race played the dominant role in the critical period, but differences over taxes, spending, and the overall reach of government -- sometimes intersecting with race, at other points operating independently -- exacerbated the tension.

In the years since the civil-rights era, race has receded as a direct factor in southern campaigns. And while Republican anti-tax arguments still strike a powerful chord, centrist Democrats (especially in governors' races) have made progress at rebuilding a constituency for an activist government that promotes economic development and improves the public schools. Neither race nor the role of government is the largest hurdle now facing southern Democrats. Rather their principal problem is the GOP's overwhelming strength with religiously devout voters (especially white evangelical Protestants) who believe Democrats don't represent their views on social issues and national security.

That trend is beyond the historical period these three books examine. As a result, none sheds much light on the contemporary political competition in the South (though Kruse probably comes closest). Yet, in the fourth and most provocative work considered here, Ira Katznelson passionately argues that the history of the South's long struggle with race still raises questions urgent for the nation to address today.

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Katznelson's short but powerful When Affirmative Action Was White finds a fresh vein in this well-mined terrain: the cost to African Americans of the policies that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations adopted to conciliate southern Democrats.

According to Katznelson, Roosevelt's deference to the South in shaping the New Deal -- compounded by similar decisions under Truman -- represented a critical “branching moment” separating the economic fortunes of whites and blacks. Katznelson acknowledges that programs from Social Security to the GI Bill greatly benefited blacks who participated in them. But he charges that Roosevelt and Truman, to win votes for their domestic agenda, allowed southern legislators to structure the key economic programs in ways that denied blacks their fair share of benefits. By uplifting whites while largely excluding blacks, he concludes, the federal government under Roosevelt and Truman practiced a form of affirmative action for whites and permanently widened the socioeconomic gap between the races.

The initial Social Security legislation, for instance, excluded agricultural and domestic workers -- a decision that denied benefits to 65 percent of blacks nationwide and as much as 80 percent in some southern states. (That decision, not reversed until nearly two decades later, tilted the legislation so baldly against African Americans that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People testified against it.)

In other cases, Katznelson writes, southern Democrats won decentralized control of New Deal training and relief programs that allowed local officials to blatantly discriminate against blacks. While whites benefited from military training in economically valuable skills during World War II, racial segregation in the armed forces denied comparable opportunities to African Americans.

The postwar GI Bill compounded the inequity. Because a much smaller percentage of blacks than whites were admitted to the military during World War II, fewer qualified for the wide-ranging benefits from the legislation (which Katznelson says flatly, “created middle-class America”). And even many black veterans were denied benefits because they could use them only at overcrowded black colleges and training institutions that lacked enough space to meet the demand. In all, more than twice as large a share of white veterans as black attended college through the GI Bill.

Katznelson presents this argument with the barely contained ferocity of a prosecutor. He finds stronger evidence of southern fingerprints on some policies (labor law) than on others (Social Security). At times this impassioned and cogent book is almost too taut: Katznelson might have slowed down long enough to present more supporting evidence for his individual allegations. And like all prosecutors, he slights exculpatory evidence. In A New Deal for Blacks, the most comprehensive survey of Roosevelt's impact on African Americans, Harvard Sitkoff notes that despite “the continuity of discrimination and segregation,” the federal government under Roosevelt “aided blacks to an unprecedented extent both substantively and symbolically.”

But the evidence Katznelson marshals, on most fronts, is original and convincing. And his conclusion is challenging: This history, he argues, should justify “even more extensive affirmative action” programs than exist today. Given the intertwined attitudes about race and government that Kruse explores, even sympathetic readers may question the political wisdom of proposing new government benefits overtly targeted to minorities (Katznelson, at one point, praises race-neutral initiatives to uplift the poor). But any politician who wants to make a case for reviving race-specific aid to blacks isn't likely to find a stronger brief than the one Katznelson presents here.

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The most gripping sections in Leuchtenburg explore the personal conflicts within Truman and Johnson as they confronted segregation. Raised on the border of the old South (Johnson in the Texas Hill Country, Truman in Missouri), both the descendents of slaveholders, each man shared much of the segregationists' racial prejudices. Yet each fundamentally believed that America's ideals demanded equal rights for blacks. And each believed the South would never fully rejoin American life so long as it wore the shackles of segregation.

In many ways the 40 years since the passage of the landmark civil-rights laws have fulfilled their vision. Since the fall of segregation, the South has become more affluent and more diverse both socially (with steady in-migration from other regions) and economically (with enormous investment from domestic and international companies). It looks more like America than it did a generation ago, and its political leaders no longer carry an insurmountable stigma beyond its borders. For the full century from the Civil War until the passage of the Civil Rights Act, no southerner won the presidency (except, arguably, Virginia-born Woodrow Wilson, who made his name as president of Princeton and governor of New Jersey). Since segregation fell, southerners have won six of the 11 presidential elections (even excluding transplanted Yankee George H.W. Bush).

Yet in other respects the South remains a place apart, especially in American politics. Religion infuses political life there more pervasively than anywhere else; anti-government, anti-tax messages resonate more powerfully than in almost any other part of the country, and so do hawkish positions on national security.

The singular qualities of the South present Republicans with a challenge Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson would recognize. It's no coincidence that Republicans have lost ground among socially liberal voters along the coasts and in the population centers of the upper Midwest as their agenda and message have tilted more toward the uncompromising priorities of southern conservatives. Overwhelming southern support provides Republicans a formidable floor in the competition between the parties, but it may also impose on them a ceiling. Indeed, the South's political transformation has left both parties in a precarious position. Democrats are unlikely to regain the upper hand in American politics unless they solve at least some of the South's interlocking riddles of race, class, and culture. But integrating the South into a stable majority coalition may prove as difficult for Republicans in the new century as it was for Democrats in the last.

Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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