Matthew Yglesias disagrees with Paul Krugman about the role of race in turning the South Republican, arguing that economic and social conservatism did shift Southerners toward the GOP, not just racism. Noting the role white supremacy played in the South’s pre-civil-rights political alignment Yglesias writes, “Racism is a key part of the story, but it plays a much bigger role in explaining why Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy won South Carolina than in explaining why Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush won there.”
Yglesias is mostly right, although there has always been a constituency for a liberal-ish economic populism in the South. On economics, George Wallace, for example, was no conservative. But I think he raises a point that is often lost in the chest-beating over the Republicans’ Southern Strategy. The Democrats followed a similar strategy into the early 1960s.
Liberal Democrats like FDR and Adlai Stevenson included segregationists on their tickets to keep the Jim Crow South in the Democratic electoral coalition. Lyndon Johnson did not support civil rights legislation until he decided to run for president. The fact that Johnson’s pre-presidential civil rights record was worse than Barry Goldwater’s didn’t disqualify him from John F. Kennedy’s ticket in 1960 — it probably helped him get on the ticket. Woodrow Wilson was both a progressive and a segregationist.
Neither Richard Nixon nor Ronald Reagan ever supported segregation. Nixon played a key role in integrating Southern schools and expanding affirmative action. For all the talk of Willie Horton and “white hands,” the South’s realignment toward the GOP had far less to do with race than the Democrats’ century-long hold on the region. But nobody ever says that the Democratic victories of the 1930s and ’40s were tainted.
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