The Democrats, being intellectually dishonest, cling to the myth that the two parties “switched places” on racial issues in the 1960s, that Senator Landrieu’s troubles are a consequence of that reversal, and that the general Southern realignment is evidence that the Republican party is a comfortable home for bigots, Confederate revanchists, and others with dodgy racial politics.
This is a strange line of argument, and an indefensible one once the evidence is considered. Democrats remained the favored party in the South for decades and decades after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, controlling a majority of governorships, Senate seats, state legislative bodies, etc., well into the 21st century.
Strange that redneck bigots would wait for so many decades to punish the Democrats for giving up cross-burning; my own experience with that particular demographic suggests that its members do not in general have that sort of attention span.
In reality, the Republican party in the South was not the party of peckerwood-trash segregationists; the GOP made its first Southern inroads among relatively affluent, educated, suburban voters, i.e., basically the same people who were Republicans everywhere else in the country, and the Southern voters least interested in segregation. And that began in the 1920s, not the 1960s. But it really picked up during the New Deal, with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s support among Southern white voters diminishing as his Prussian-style command-and-control economic fantasies became more audacious.
When Democrats push their “trading places” legend, they insistently (and dishonestly) ignore that their party, which was the party of Southern voters before Lyndon Johnson finally got on the right side of the lynching-law issue, was also the party of Southern voters long after Democrats finally packed away their white hoods for good. Instead, they will point to the presidential-election maps, which tell a different story.
It was the 1994 midterm — 30 years after the fight over the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — that announced the real realignment in Southern politics. As with the New Deal, economic issues rather than racial ones were once again front and center. Bill Clinton had had the poor sense to put his wife in charge of a cockamamie project to quasi-nationalize American health care — terrible idea, right? — and Republicans responded with the Contract with America, an eight-point agenda that had zilch to do with race. Only the very finest sensibilities of the dog-whistle detectors at MSNBC could derive a racial agenda out of “require that all laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply to Congress,” “cut committee staff by one-third,” or “require committee meetings to be open to the public.” (Go ahead — find the racial subtext; I’ll wait.) It was that election that saw the Southern congressional delegation go Republican for the first time. And while Clinton would still win a few Southern states in 1996, Democratic presidential candidates would subsequently find themselves largely shut out of the South outside of Florida and Virginia.
That the Democratic party has attempted to hijack for itself credit for the hard and often bloody work performed for a century almost exclusively by Republicans, from Lincoln to Eisenhower, is a reminder that the party of Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton is not a place for men with a very developed sense of decency.
That being the case, Democrats should spare us their batty tales about Louisiana sending off the South’s last Democratic senator — a sanctimonious white lady if ever there was one — because white bigots are being inspired by a governor one generation away from Punjab, Haitian refugees representing Utah in the House, and this National Review cruise aficionado. From George Wallace’s infamous stand in the schoolhouse door to Barack Obama’s, embarrassing racial politics are the Democrats’ bread and butter. And what happened in the 1960s wasn’t the parties’ “changing places” on racism and civil rights; it was the Democrats’ — some of them, at least — joining the ranks of civilized human beings for the first time.
It only took them a century.
Mr. Williamson provides plenty more detail and analysis to bolster his case. Remember this next time someone tries to push the "switched places" nonsense.