A CWRU political scientist traces the rise of the two-party South and his evolution as a chronicler of it.
By Alexander P. Lamis
When I set out for Greenville in pursuit of George Wallace that warm October morning in 1967, I had no idea I would later write a scholarly book about Southern politics.
l was a college senior working as a reporter for WCSC-TV, the CBS affiliate in Charleston, South Carolina, my home town. Even though Greenville was 200 miles to the north, the impending visit to the South Carolina upcountry by the segregationist Alabama governor was no minor event, and the news director said I could go.<br.< p=””>
On the scene of the airport press conference, the first scheduled event of Wallace’s two-day visit, I was impressed to be in the company of veteran reporters from as far away as Augusta, Georgia. At the appointed time, the short, well-built politician walked in, and his press secretary, signaling the start of the questioning, announced, “Gentlemen, Governor Wallace.”
To my surprise, no one jumped in with the first question. A minute of silence crept by. I had prepared a question, but, surrounded by seasoned journalists, I had no intention of going first. Thirty more seconds of silence. It was becoming downright embarrassing; so, I plunged in. “Governor, down in Charleston over the weekend, the KKK held a rally in a field and burned some crosses and endorsed your candidacy for president. Do you accept that sort of support?
What came next immediately confirmed my instinct to remain silent and let the adults lead the way. Governor Wallace turned toward me, moving those famous bushy eyebrows in an awful-looking scowl, and started jabbing his finger in my direction. “You people in the news media are always trying to identify me with the Ku Klux Klan. I have never been a member nor have I ever been to one of their rallies.” And on and on he went with his tirade.
Then, abruptly, he shifted tone and began to talk in a reasonable, even plaintive fashion about the difficulties of running for president, all the obstacles a country boy from Alabama faced, and how, of course, he had to take support in his uphill struggle from wherever he could get it. Other questions came quickly now, and the affair ended a half hour later.
There followed a lesson about successful politicians that I have never forgotten. As soon as the press conference ended. Wallace came bolting over to me grabbed me by the arm, and with a huge grin on his face, said, “Son. you better watch out for those KKK boys. They gonna get you.” The lighthearted. non-threatening way he now addressed me despite the words themselves-so sharply contrasted with his response to my question when the cameras were running that I was stunned.
Anyone who could so quickly charm the object of his recent verbal assault certainly had some subtle and effective qualities I had been unaware of. Years later when Wallace won his fifth gubernatorial term, in 1982, with ninety percent of the black vote, I was less surprised than many of my colleagues. I knew how clever he could be.
Through working in television news during my last two years at the College of Charleston. I was able to observe in action many other important political figures, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Hubert H. Humphrey, Richard Nixon. Gerald Ford, Strom Thurmond and Ronald Reagan.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965―twin products of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society―were just then transforming Southern politics away from a one-party system dominated by an all-white Democratic party dedicated to the preservation of racial segregation. In the I 964 election, South Carolina and four other Deep South states had been swept by Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee, shattering traditional Democratic voting patterns and beginning Dixie’s long march toward two-party politics.
I had little perspective on what was happening in the region. Observing politicians and understanding what they were up to, of course, are far from the same activity. Lacking the analytical skills necessary to gain deeper insight, I accepted the personalities and events of that time for what they appeared to be on the face of things. Later I came to realize how important those observations were to shaping the course of my research.
In 1973, after service in the US Navy, a tour of Europe, and a few newspaper reporting jobs, I entered graduate school at Vanderbilt University. It would be neat and logical to write that I went to graduate school to find the tools to help me understand the Southern political world I had observed as a college-age journalist. While it worked out that way, it didn’t happen quite like that.
My interest in politics extended beyond the American South to national political institutions and processes-Congress, the Presidency, the courts, interest groups, and political parties and elections, among other American topics-as well as to politics in foreign countries and between nation-states and other international actors. It was to these pursuits that my graduate training was directed.
Recognizing that the best advice to budding novelists is to go to Paris, if you must, but write about what you know, I decided to draw on my firsthand acquaintance with the Southern political scene, master the Southern “literature,” and try to make a contribution to it, first with a dissertation and then a book. To me, the most interesting topic in Southern politics was the collapse of the one party system that I had witnessed in the mid 1960s and its replacement by a complex set of arrangements not then clearly understood. I adopted a broad approach that included interviews with politicians and political observers, analysis of election returns, and surveys of newspaper accounts of politics in each of the eleven Southern states.
The Southern Democracy of the one-party era was rooted in the desire to preserve white supremacy. The argument, in its most basic form, went as follows: If whites remained united in a ruling, segregationist Democratic party, blacks would be isolated from the political process and unable to offer their support to competing white groups and to bargain for an end to their treatment as second-class citizens.
Through the lifetime of President Franklin Roosevelt, the national Democratic party leadership, dependent on powerful Southern Democratic interests, refused to take the lead in fighting racial segregation and discrimination in the South. When the national Democratic party moved off dead center on the question of equal rights for blacks, starting slowly with President Harry Truman in 1948 and ending momentously with President Johnson in 1964, the Southern rationale for white unity in the Democratic party collapsed and the region’s politics underwent a massive restructuring that still is not complete today.
The broad outline of what transpired is portrayed in the accompanying figure below, which, in essence, is a simple picture of the death of the solidly Democratic South. The figure charts the decline of Democratic party strength as measured by voter support both for presidential candidates and for candidates at lower ballot levels. The bottom line-the Democratic vote for president in the South-pinpoints the initial break in 1948 when President Truman cautiously began the national Democratic embrace of the civil-rights cause. The line also depicts the bottom falling out of Southern Democratic voting for president in the late 1960s and early I 970s in the aftermath of President Johnson’s dramatic actions. Also shown is a partial recovery in 1976 when a Georgian, Jimmy Carter, was the party’s standard bearer.
The top line, a composite of the vote for three major offices below the presidential level and a good measure of overall Democratic strength, illustrates the precipitous decline of Dixie’s Democratic party. If one views the figure from the Republican perspective, it shows the rapid takeoff of the GOP in the South after the party was energized by Senator Goldwater’s triumph in the Deep South following his highly publicized vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Southern Republican growth in the first decade after 1964 was fueled by white antagonism toward all things remotely connected with the national Democratic integrationists. The GOP had to share this harvest of while-backlash votes with Governor Wallace, who, as a Democrat, added confusion to the early years of partisan competition until it became clear in the mid-1970s that he had been passed over by the historical forces reshaping Southern Democratic politics.
Equally important, the collapse of the racial rationale for the one-party South allowed the economic and philosophical foundation of party politics that had existed outside the South since the New Deal 10 filter into the region’s emerging two-party structure. Dixie’s Republicans argued that Southerners now had the option of voting at the state level for the true national conservative party. Under the Southern one-party system, there had always been considerable competition between conservatives and liberals, but the struggle occurred with both sides carrying the Democratic label.
The GOP’s economic-conservative appeal is crucial to understanding how Republicans in the region were able to build a substantial and lasting base of support in the post-1964 years. In the relative calm of today, Republicans stress the economic-conservative aspect of their party’s Southern growth, while they understandably play down or even deny the role of the race issue.
Following President Nixon’s sweeping reelection in 1972, the rest of the 1970, witnessed a reversal of the subpresidential trend, which is shown in the figure’s top line as a mild increase in Democratic strength. There was more to the change than merely voter disgust with Watergate and the recession of I 974–or even Southern pride that the party of George McGovern could nominate a Georgian for president. Unraveling why this reversal occurred takes us a long way toward understanding the nature of contemporary Southern politics.
After the Southern Democratic party was forced to abandon white supremacy, there occurred a remarkable irony: The former party of segregation became the home of the region’s newly enfranchised blacks. Clever white Democratic politicians shrewdly sized up what was happening and put together in state after state a fascinating coalition of nearly all blacks and those whites who had weathered the integration crisis with their Democratic voting inclinations intact.
The potency of this coalition was surpassed only by the deep tensions existing between its two elements. Apart from the natural difficulties that came with attempting to resolve decades of racial antagonism, there is a fundamental economic divergence of interest in the two wings of the Democratic coalition. The legacy of segregation is starkly illustrated by US census data. For example, in South Carolina in 1970, 49.7 percent of the state’s blacks lived below the poverty line; the figure for South Carolina’s whites was 12.3 percent.
In the main, despite the potential for conflict, the ideologically diverse, black-white Democratic coalition has held its own throughout the 1970s and 1980s. To list its beneficiaries is to produce an honor roll of Southern Democratic politicians: Charles Robb of Virginia; Sam Nunn of Georgia; Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt of North Carolina; Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles of Florida; Lloyd Bentsen of Texas; and Dick Riley and Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, among scores of others. They are known as “Southern moderates,” which, though imprecise, does serve to differentiate them from Huey Long Democrats, who are in short supply these days south of the Mason Dixon line.
In order to hold together their biracial alliance, the Southern Democratic “moderates” often have engaged in a political tightrope walk that requires Olympian balancing. This performance, to put it mildly, has irritated the Republicans, who could see no logic in the majorities that were regularly checking their advance. One Georgia GOP leader remarked in 1974 that the conservative whites and liberal blacks “are voting hand in hand, and when they do, they’re squeezing the lives out of us. And yet there’s no tie-in between the two at all. Ideologically, they’re as far apart as night and day.”
At the presidential level, the GOP has had its greatest success in breaking the coalition. Waller Mondale and Michael Dukakis came lip woefully short of white Southern Democratic votes in 1984 and 1988. Even President Carter had a substantial drop-off in white support in 1980.
But below the presidential level, the Democratic black-white coalition continues to coast along, even gaining strength in 1988, as the figure indicates. Wrapped up in its uncertain fate is to be found the future of Southern politics in the 1990s.
I finished my study of Southern politics in 1984, and it was published that fall by Oxford University Press as The Two-Party South. The book came out in paperback in 1986. I added a hundred pages in 1988, and the expanded edition appeared in hardback that fall. A new paperback edition with a chapter on the 1988 elections-along with treatment of the historic 1989 election of an African-American, L. Douglas Wilder, to be governor of Virginia-appeared earlier this fall.
Despite my continuing interest in Southern politics, my research focus has shifted in recent years to national electoral and party system change. The Southern component certainly is part of the picture, but there remain many questions of national scope that I am now studying. The term most commonly used to refer to these changes is realignment, and it is to the question of whether we have had a major national realignment since the famous New Deal realignment of the 1930, that my new project is directed.
As part of this research, I am delving into voting patterns in the thirty-nine non-Southern states; Ohio trends are especially intriguing and usefully representative of other diverse Northern industrial states. Last summer I conducted interviews in ten states stretching from Wisconsin to Oregon.
The project is only now taking shape, and it is too early to speculate about findings. This fall semester I am teaching a course on the 1990 midterm elections, and my students and I will be scrutinizing the November 1990 results closely. Everyone agrees that the decade of the 1960s and the years since exhibited tremendous ferment in the national party system. Sorting out the diverse elements involved and weaving them together in an accurate analytical narrative is the task at hand.
CWRU Magazine, November 1990