Why Do Dems Lose in the South?
Don't blame civil rights.

The Wall Street Journal, Monday, March 8, 2004

Upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lyndon Johnson is said to have told aide Bill Moyers, "I think we have just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come."

At first blush, these words seem prophetic. Al Gore failed to carry a single Southern state in 2000, and in January John Kerry hinted that he may write off the entire region, with its 161 electoral votes. "Everybody always makes the mistake of looking South," Mr. Kerry said. "Al Gore proved he could have been president of the United States without winning one Southern state, including his own."

It's an article of faith among Democrats that Johnson's civil rights triumph is the reason for the GOP's advantage in the South (meaning the 11 states of the erstwhile Confederacy plus Kentucky). This is a morally satisfying story, and it no doubt helps explain black Americans' extraordinary loyalty to the party. But is it true?

Only in part. There's no question that the Civil Rights Act, along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is LBJ's proudest legacy. And it did produce a backlash in the Republican Party's favor in the next two elections. In 1964 Sen. Barry Goldwater, who had opposed the Civil Rights Act, carried five states in the Deep South, even as he was losing every non-Southern state except his native Arizona. In 1968 Richard Nixon pursued the famous "Southern strategy," and the region split its votes between him and segregationist Democrat George Wallace, running on the populist American Independent ticket. Hubert Humphrey carried only one Southern state, LBJ's Texas.

The narrative breaks down, however, in 1976. That year Jimmy Carter, a pro-civil rights former governor of Georgia, carried every Southern state but Virginia. Mr. Carter would have lost without the South; the rest of the country gave Gerald Ford 228 electoral votes, to just 170 for Mr. Carter.

By 1976 there was a strong national consensus in favor of the Civil Rights Act. Not only was there never a serious movement to repeal it, but President Nixon had signed an executive order in 1971 expanding the use of racial preferences to provide opportunities for minorities in federal contracting.

Even many segregationist politicians changed their views over time. Sen. Strom Thurmond left the Democratic Party in 1964 over the Civil Rights Act. In 1982 he supported legislation extending the Voting Rights Act, and the following year he backed a national holiday for Martin Luther King. He also voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which expanded the 1964 act in response to Supreme Court rulings that interpreted some of its provisions narrowly. Wallace, who stayed a Democrat, renounced segregation in his later years, winning a final term as Alabama governor in 1982 with the support of black voters.

Forty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, it strains credulity to suggest that lingering bitterness over that legislation accounts for today's Southern voting patterns. The act has been law for the entire life of every voter under 40, and older whites have, like Thurmond and Wallace, largely reconciled themselves to it.

So why does the South vote Republican? Part of the answer can be found in the election of 1972. The chief issue that year was another LBJ legacy: Vietnam. The war had split the Democratic Party four years earlier, and in 1972 the party cast its lot with the antiwar side, nominating George McGovern, who advocated immediate withdrawal. Nixon carried every Southern state, along with every state outside the South except Massachusetts.

Mr. McGovern's candidacy established the Democrats as weak on defense, and except for the anomaly of Mr. Carter's post-Watergate victory, the Republican nominee won every presidential election until 1992, when the Cold War was over and national security no longer seemed such a pressing matter.

Yet this is only a partial explanation. War and peace were not central to the 2000 campaign, and Al Gore still managed to lose every Southern state. It's hard to imagine that Michael Dukakis would have won any of them either, even if he had run after the Cold War's end. The South is the most conservative part of America, not just on defense but also on social issues such as crime, welfare, abortion, homosexuality and guns. By Southern lights, the Democratic Party is on the wrong side of all these issues.

Bill Clinton showed that a centrist Democrat can compete in the South. In his 1992 campaign, he touted his support for the death penalty and vowed to "end welfare as we know it"--a promise he kept, with the help of a Republican Congress, in time for his re-election. He signed the Defense of Marriage Act, and although he was solidly pro-choice on abortion, he made rhetorical nods to the other side, declaring in 1992 that he wanted abortion to be "safe, legal and rare." Mr. Clinton still lost most of the South, but he carried Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee, plus Georgia in 1992 and Florida in 1996.

Mr. Kerry, the Massachusetts liberal, seems unlikely to repeat Mr. Clinton's success. In the world after Sept. 11, his weakness on defense is a huge liability. He opposes capital punishment, voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, has shown no sympathy for abortion opponents, and last week left the campaign trail for the Capitol to cast a series of antigun votes. Come November, these issues will be far more salient to voters in the South, as well as in the rest of the country, than a civil rights battle that was settled decades ago.

To be sure, LBJ's stand on civil rights was good for the GOP, since it broke the Democratic Party's post-Civil War monopoly on the South, which was rooted entirely in the defense of segregation. It hardly needs saying that it was good for America too. But it was also good for the South.

Before LBJ in 1964, the last Southerner to receive a major party's nomination for president was Zachary Taylor, a Louisiana Whig, in 1848. (Woodrow Wilson was a Virginia native but a New Jersey resident.) Since 1968, and including a prospective Bush-Kerry matchup this year, nine of 20 major-party nominees, and five of nine victors, have hailed from the South.

By resolving the problem of segregation, which had cleaved the South from the rest of the country for a century, Johnson brought his region into the American mainstream. In this sense the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a political triumph as well as a moral one.

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