One of the most remarkable political developments of the last quarter of the 20th century was ascent of the Republican Party to the domination of the Presidency and to competitive parity in the Congress.
More remarkable is the change that permitted that to happen: the rise of Republicanism in the South.
How did it happen?
The Republican Party faced several obstacles to overcome in the immediate post-WWII period.
First, the legacy of the Civil War limited the appeal of Republicans in the South. The Republican Party formed in the mid-1850s on the ruins of the old Whig Party with the aim of stopping the expansion of slavery into the unorganized western territories of the United States. When Abraham Lincoln captured the Presidency and Republicans gained control of the Congress in the 1860 elections, the South seceded. The subsequent American Civil War, abolition of slavery, and post-war Reconstruction, poisoned the minds of Southern citizens against the Republicans.
Second, the memories of the Great Depression, which occurred on the Republican Party watch, reduced the appeal of the Republicans in all regions of the country. The depression proved especially dire in the already impoverished South.
Third, Republicans found it difficult to distinguish themselves on major issues from the traditionally conservative southern Democrats. Both southern Democrats and Republicans supported business enterprise, opposed unions, and adhered to the principle of limited federal government. Among the only issues on which the Republicans distinguished themselves from the Democrats included the New Deal and race relations. Many southern Democrats embraced the New Deal because it brought federal programs to a region with historically low state and federal taxes. This meant a net transfer of the wealth from the more affluent areas of the country that paid the taxes to the less affluent South that received the benefits. Republicans, of course, opposed the enactment of most New Deal reforms. The issue of segregation and the race baiting rhetoric that accompanied it carried more weight among whites who lived in the rural areas that contained more black residents. The very small base of Southern support for Republicans-- the mountainous regions of Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia and the small but growing suburbs--contained few black residents. Race relations played only a negligible role among Republicans.
Last, the southern Democrats enjoyed important and influential positions with the Congressional and Senate committee system. Through these positions, they successfully brought New Deal pork to the South while at the same time resisted efforts by other Democrats and Republicans outside the South to challenge racial arrangements in the South.
Developments in the 1960s and 1970s, first in the South then later outside the South, tore the Democratic Party apart and slowly dissolved the traditional ties of southern voters to that party.
First, the South experienced a growth of suburbs in such metropolitan areas as Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Miami. Both immigration from other regions of the country and from the rural South fueled this development. Prosperous middle class voters in the burbs became a receptive audience for the Republican message of low taxes without the race baiting rhetoric offered by traditional conservative Democrats. The most famous Republican to emerge from the new southern suburbs was Representative George Bush in 1964.
Second, and most important, the Civil Rights Movement challenged traditional southern racial arrangements. The movement eventually secured intervention from the federal government and made manifest the sectional divisions within the Democratic Party. After northern Democrats and Republicans in Congress enacted a series of civil rights laws in the 1950s and 1960s, southern Democrats retrenched. They failed, however, to stop the federal enforcement of civil rights laws. Because of their intransigence, southern Democrats soon found themselves removed by the majority northern Democrats from their influential committee chairmanships.
Events outside the South, too, fractured the Democratic Party. While the liberal northern Democrats purged conservative southern Democrats on the right from influential party positions, they found themselves under siege from their left. The rise of the so-called New Left challenged the traditional liberalism of the Democratic Party. The New Left not only supported the Civil Rights Movement, but also feminism, the sexual revolution, radical environmentalism, and an end to the war in Viet Nam. The New Left was more than than just a counter-cultural revolt against America, but also a rejection of traditional Kennedy, Johnson, and Humphrey liberalism. The radical challenge became most visible at the nationally televised brawl remembered as the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Combined with the urban riots that erupted in cities in the north and the west coast, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968 and Robert F. Kennedy two months later, these events seemed to show an American coming apart. The decade of the 1960s closed on a very different note for Democrats than that hopeful beginning following the election of John Kennedy in 1960.
Southern voters reacted with protest votes. They continued to send conservative Democrats state offices and to the United States House and Senate but abandoned the party in the 1964 presidential race. Five Deep South states left the Democratic fold for Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. The vote was a protest vote because it really did not begin some new abiding loyalty for the Republicans. Moreover, Goldwater opposed segregation. He said it was “morally wrong” and “economically bad.” He just did not believe that the government possessed the constitutional authority to coerce the states. In addition, four years later in 1968 the South went with Alabama governor George Wallace, a traditional southern segregationist, rather than with Republican Richard Nixon. Nixon captured the South for the Republicans in 1972, but the rest of the nation went with Nixon as well. And the south returned to the Democratic Party of Jimmy Carter in 1976. But Republican Presidential candidates had finally broken through. They served as the vanguard for the Republican success in the South.
The decisive candidate proved to be Ronald Reagan. Although he often preached the message of limited government, his main theme of the campaign was the incompetence of the government under President Carter and its sense of resignation about the economic problems facing Americans:
He made the following promise at the Republican Convention:
Reagan, of course, won in a landslide, winning the electoral vote by a 489-49 margin. He captured all but six states. Reagan's won by the slimmest of margins, however, in the South. In six Southern states, his margin of victory was less that two percent. Four years later, running against Northern liberal Walter Mondale, Reagan won the electoral vote 535-3. This time Reagan swept the South by large margins.
As the Democrats continued to run Northern liberals for President and to advocate a progressive agenda that included affirmative action, racial quotas, abortion, and homosexual marriage, more and more Southerners abandoned their traditional party. The Democrats garnered Southern support with Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, but during mid-term elections in 1994, the Republicans captured the majority of Southern congressional delegations. Republicans have enjoyed their own “Solid South” ever since.