During his 1964 presidential campaign, Sen. Barry Goldwater declined to risk an outright anti-civil rights position, but he hinted that some of the civil rights legislation passed under Lyndon Johnson might be unconstitutional. Goldwater took the electoral votes of five southern states, the only states he won outside of his home state of Arizona.
From these beginnings, Richard Nixon developed his “Southern Strategy” in 1968 and divided the southern state electoral votes with Alabama Gov. George Wallace. As Goldwater did in ’64, Nixon refrained from using overt anti-civil rights language, but he freely inserted such code words as “unconstitutional” and “law and order” into his speeches.
In 1964, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, the 1948 Dixiecrat presidential candidate, backed Goldwater and switched over to the Republican Party. This set off a stampede of southern defectors to the GOP and sounded the death knell for the Democratic “Solid South.” But all this change did was to make honest men of southern Democrats who had been voting all along with conservative Republicans on most issues since Reconstruction times. There was no change in ideology, only in party labels. In an arrangement known as the “Unholy Alliance,” southerners voted with the GOP on labor and economic issues. In turn, Republican conservatives either supported the southerners on votes involving racial matters or conveniently absented themselves from voting.
To hold southern loyalties, GOP strategists zeroed in on the one thing that southerners share without question, their religious faith. Since pre-Civil War times, southerners have embraced a belief system known to social scientists as Southern Civil Religion. Their convictions were rooted in a literal interpretation of the Bible, especially where certain passages appear to support the south’s former position on slavery, and later, segregation. If God instructed us how to treat slaves in the Old Testament, and Paul advised slaves to obey their masters in the New, southerners concluded that God must approve of slavery.
Another factor in the GOP’s takeover was the southerner’s low tolerance for ambiguity. Everything must be black and white, no shades of gray. The Republicans’ campaign rhetoric accommodated that need with plenty of answers and few questions.
In order to hold their political loyalties, the GOP promised action on three issues dear to southerners’ hearts: restoral of prayer in public schools, a ban on abortion and the reversal of court decisions and legislation favoring gay rights.
To date, the Republicans have delivered exactly zilch on their promises.
In my opinion, the southern Democrats’ mass defection to the GOP hasn’t been entirely good for the political health of our country. In the past, regardless of which party held the White House and Congress, America has been relatively free from the excesses of political radicalism because both major parties had liberal and conservative wings. This fact, and our unique constitutional system of checks and balances, has provided an ideological stability often lacking in European parliamentary democracies. But today there are few conservative Democrats left and no liberal Republicans.
To me, that’s a bit scary.
George B. Reed, Jr. is retired from AT&T and a former history teacher in the Hamilton County school system. He lives in Fort Oglethorpe and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-858-3501.