On the evening of July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson lay down beneath the grand canopy of his four post bed in The White House’s 2nd floor living room, exhausted; his mind surely swirling with that mixture of clear conscience and unshakable dread unique to politicians who have acted upon principles of equality at the expense of the prejudices of their voting base. Just a few hours earlier, President Johnson had addressed the nation as he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, urging those watching at home to “close the springs of racial poison” and “make our nation whole.”
Johnson knew that the legislation he signed would change the very fabric of American life—that it was necessary next step in the process of atoning for the legacy of slavery, sharecropping and the scars left from a perpetual diminution of black and brown humanity. At the same time, Johnson knew better than most that the desire for equality professed in the Civil Rights Act was not shared by all and that backlash was inevitable, especially in the cradle of the Jim Crow South. As the President lay in bed, a young Bill Moyers, then his press secretary, noticed him lost in thought and asked him what was the matter. Looking back at Moyers, Johnson replied with his usual West Texas drawl, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
Thus began the 50 year purge of the Southern White Democrat from the halls of Congress—a purge that ended this November when John Barrow (pronounced “bare-ah”) lost his re-election bid for Georgia’s 12th Congressional District to Republican businessman Rick Allen. Barrow, a man who had garnered a reputation as an escape artist after surviving 5 elections and 2 different redistricting schemes that jam-packed his district with Republican-leaning voters, couldn’t manage to overcome the demographic odds this time around, although it wasn’t for lack of trying. Watching his campaign ads and looking at his voting record in the House, it’s quite clear that Barrow is white and that he is southern, but there’s not much that suggests he’s a Democrat.
Like many of his Blue Dog Democratic colleagues who found themselves on the losing end of the ballot this year, Barrow did just about everything he could to distance himself from President Obama and “Washington Democrats” during his campaign. In one ad, Barrow brags about voting 54% of the time with John Boehner, supporting the Keystone XL pipeline, “leading the efforts to repeal the Obamacare mandates” and getting endorsements from the Chamber of Commerce and the NRA. In another ad, he holds a bolt-action rifle in his hands while talking about how much he loves the 2nd Amendment, signing off by saying, “I approve this message because these are my guns now…and ain’t nobody going to take them away.”
Unfortunately, the alarmingly conservative rhetoric in Barrow’s ads wasn’t just political posturing. During his 10 years in Washington, Barrow managed to rack up the 4th most conservative voting record of any Democrat according to the American Conservative Union, a ranking evidenced by the fact that 69% of the bills he cosponsored in 2013 were introduced by Republicans. Of course, there wasn’t really anything Barrow could have done to change the outcome of last week’s election. As the representative of the 4th most Republican county in the country currently held by a Democrat, he was legislating on borrowed time. The simple fact of the matter is that the names and policies of Barrow and the 7 other Southern White Democratic Representatives who have been defeated by the GOP since 2008 have become inextricably linked with President Obama, which is the kiss of death for any white politician in the rural south.
There are people who say that the exodus of White Democrats from the South isn’t about race, and those people are wrong. With the exception of Louisiana, who broke ranks to support Eisenhower in 1956, not one of the deep south states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina) voted for a Republican Presidential candidate between 1876—the last year of Reconstruction—and 1960. From 1964 onward—after the Democrats became the de facto party of civil rights and the GOP started embracing the “Southern Strategy” that has come to define the shape of the party since—only Georgia’s own Jimmy Carter has managed to win the deep south for the Dems.
Many Americans blithely assume that Democrats have always been on the liberal end of the political spectrum, but that simply wasn’t the case. Before the “Reagan Revolution” in the 1980s polarized the bipartisan political landscape, party identities were much more muddled. For instance, in 1936 the almost 90% of voters in the Deep South showed their willingness to support Keynesian economic policies and a strong federal government by casting their votes for Franklin Delano Roosevelt—perhaps the most liberal President in our nation’s history. But, in that same election, deep south voters elected Democrats like South Carolina’s “Cotton Ed” Smith, a man who Time called a “conscientious objector to the 20th Century” and Mississippi’s Theodore Bilbo, who vowed to send “the entire Negro race” back to Africa. Back in those days, economic and socio-cultural ideologies weren’t the package deal they generally are now, which helps to explain the fact that a larger percentage of Republicans voted for the Voting Rights Act of 1964 than did their Democratic counterparts.
Appropriately enough, both parties contributed to the creation of our modern political climate after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. On the Democratic side, the ringleader of the party’s conservative wing was George Wallace, a man who made his name in Alabama politics by being the most fiercely segregationist candidate in the state. Those who remember Wallace usually imagine him defiantly straddling the doorway to the University of Alabama in protest of forced racial integration or proclaiming at his gubernatorial inauguration, “segregation now…segregation tomorrow…segregation forever”, but, Wallace’s history with race relations isn’t so cut and dry. During his days as a trial court judge and early in his political career, Wallace was seen as a racial moderate in Alabama, earning a reputation as being respectful to blacks in the courtroom and garnering the endorsement of the NAACP in the 1958 gubernatorial election. However, after he lost that race to a relatively hard-line segregationist, Wallace turned to aides before giving his concession speech and said, “well boys, no other son-of-a-bitch will ever out-nigger me again.” 4 years later, he was moving into the Governor’s Mansion in Montgomery.
With that being said, it didn’t take long for Wallace to tone down his overtly racist rhetoric in the years following the passage of the Voting Rights Act, when it became culturally inappropriate—even in the deep south—to speak openly in support of segregation. Instead, he discovered that it was more politically profitable to appeal to people’s racial fears and prejudices through coded language that carried significant racial undertones for his supporters, whether they realized it or not. In effect, Wallace was the originator of dog whistle politics.(1) He was the one who first resurrected the specious states’ rights arguments of old pro-slavery southerners like John Calhoun to defend racist policies and he was the one who realized that the racial fears of millions of whites in the south and all across the country could be the foundation for sweeping electoral success.
On the Republican side of the equation was Barry Goldwater, the godfather of neoconservatism and the architect of what was essentially a test run for the Southern Strategy that turned the deep south varying shades of red. Goldwater’s rejection of the Civil Rights Act and his appeals for small government fell on deaf ears though, as he was soundly defeated by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 Presidential election. It would take another 8 years for the Southern Strategy to fully come into it’s own under President Nixon and cement the GOP as the party of the white man and, by extension, the south. Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman summed up the point and purpose of the Southern Strategy succinctly in his diary when he wrote that, “[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t remove racism from politics. If anything, it made the role of race doubly important because it opened up the floodgates for every dread thing the white southerner had spent the past 3 centuries fretting over to become reality. In the words of Southern journalist Ron Duncan, being a poor white in the South in those days was, “to be taught all your life that the bogeyman is a Negro and then have him move in next door.”(2) LBJ might’ve talked about closing the springs of racial poison, but all most white southerners wanted was for the doors of their schools and communities and restaurants to remain closed to people of color. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 may have been a victory for racial equality and human decency, but it was defeat for whites in the south. For them, all of this was nothing short of a Second Reconstruction. When President Johnson signed that piece of legislation, he signed away the only thing many of them had to hang their hat on, namely, that when they got home at night and pulled the covers over their head they could always count on the fact that they were better than the black man.
For the past half century, the Republican Party has been perfecting their role as caretaker of this anxious hate. They have stoked the fears of southern whites by building up the black bogeyman to terrifying heights, using euphemisms like “law and order,” “welfare queens” and “property rights” to appeal to their cultivated racial revulsion. In the process, the GOP discovered that intense racial animus was not reserved solely for the south. It could be found all through America’s heartland and in the suburbs and exurbs of her cities. However, it was never so strong as it was in the south and for decades the GOP slowly whittled down the White Democrats in their midst—forcing them farther and farther to right until they recoiled from the label of liberal like a hand from a hot flame. But there was no amount of conservative cache that could save them once there was a black man in The White House and a sea of white faces in the state legislatures.
Democrats may retain The White House and regain control of Congress in the near future, but they will not elect a white candidate from the deep south anytime soon. It took 50 years for LBJ’s actions to officially give over all of the south to the Republican Party and I have a feeling it will take even more time than that for the Democrats to get it back.
(1) For a much more in-depth and, frankly, insightful look at the evolution of coded racial messaging in American politics, check out Ian Haney López’s excellent book, “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class”
(2) I could only include a snippet view of Duncan’s quote in the link, but I strongly encourage anyone interested in the issues discussed in this article to check out Jason Sokol’s book,“There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights.”