Is Southern Conservatism Just Plain Old Racism?
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As events in Ferguson continue to dominate public political attention, it’s worthwhile to take a step back and take a long hard look at how we got here. Why did the Democratic “Solid South” of old become such a stronghold of Republican strength? Lyndon Johnson, one of the smartest Southern politicians ever, had no doubt in his mind — “There goes the South for a generation,” he reportedly said, after signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
But the South was already halfway out the door at the time. Missouri, with a fair amount of Southern culture in its veins, is nonetheless a border state, home to Harry Truman, whose enunciation of a civil rights agenda, followed by integration of the armed forces and strong civil rights platform in 1948, led to the walkout of the Dixiecrats, which cost him a dramatic 20 percent drop in the share of the Southern vote from where it had been in 1944. That launched a transitional era that is strangely lost to most who ponder such things today.
This lack of longer historical memory is part of what helps to support a popular brand of revisionism that claims the South turned Republican because the people there embraced “principled” “small-government” conservatism. There are numerous problems with this explanation. First, if that’s why the South changed, then why didn’t the shift happen earlier? Second, if the change is explained by gradual economic development (as some such as Real Clear Politics senior analysis Sean Trende have argued), then why did Herbert Hoover do almost as well in 1928 as Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952? And why did the Democratic share of the Southern vote drop precipitously by 20 percent in 1948, as noted above, the year the Democrats put a civil rights plank in their platform, and the Dixiecrats walked out?
Third, what exactly is meant by “small-government conservatism”? And how does that square with the fact that Southern states almost universally get far more money from the federal government than they send in by way of taxes? And finally, how to explain the findings in a 2005 paper by Nicholas Valentino and David Sears, which found that “whites residing in the old Confederacy continue to display more racial antagonism and ideological conservatism than non-Southern whites,” and that “Racial conservatism has become linked more closely to presidential voting and party identification over time in the white South”?
But there’s also another problem with the “it’s-not-race-it’s-principled-small-government-conservatism” explanation — namely that race and small government conservatism are inextricably linked. This is not to say that all small government conservatives are racists. But it is to say that racial attitudes and attitudes toward robust government activism are strongly linked, statistically; the more positive (or negative) your attitudes toward activist government are, the more positive (or negative) your attitudes toward blacks are likely to be, and vice versa as well. Negative racial attitudes manifest both in terms of opposition to black political power, and in blaming blacks for their subordinate status. If this sounds like a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t sort of situation, you’re right. That’s exactly what it is.
As I explained in a recent article, the earliest statistical evidence of this relationship came from one of the classic studies of American public opinion:
The year after the March on Washington, pioneer pollsters Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril conducted surveys that were the basis for their 1967 book, The Political Beliefs of Americans; a Study of Public Opinion. They found that those opposed to five forms of federal spending were three times as likely as those who supported the spending to think that blacks should have “less influence” in politics. Since blacks only had five representatives of Congress at the time—just over 1%, compared to 11% of the population—the notion that they had too much influence was ludicrous on its face—and clearly racist. Yet, that’s precisely what 60% of those ‘small government conservatives’—people like Rand Paul and the Tea Partiers—believed.