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The Capture of the South

In response to:

How Voting Rights Are Being Rigged from the October 27, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

David Cole’s review of two books on voting rights [NYR, October 27, 2016] contains several errors.

Jimmy Carter was not elected president in 1980. That was the year Carter lost to Ronald Reagan. The exit-poll figures cited are from 1976, the year Carter was indeed elected, carrying all southern states but Virginia.

Cole quotes LBJ’s oft-quoted prediction to Bill Moyers about delivering the South to the Republicans for a long time to come, implying that this was a predicted consequence of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In fact this was a comment on the passage of the Civil Rights Act the year before. Johnson saw the Voting Rights Act as a way to repair this damage by making moderate Democrats competitive in the South, which is why he instructed Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to prepare sweeping voting rights legislation well before the violent confrontation at Selma, Alabama.

Carter’s presidential election in 1976 represented a successful culmination of this political strategy, but it was by no means the end of the story. Carter was only the most famous of a cohort of New South governors elected between the 1970s and 1990s whose policies improved the well-being of black as well as white southerners. I detail these effects in my 2013 book, Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South.

Historians and political scientists differ on the reasons for the Republican capture of southern states in the past twenty years, but this relatively recent development was by no means an inevitable consequence of the Voting Rights Act. As the books under review make clear, what the South needs now more than ever is restoration and vigorous enforcement of the act.

Gavin Wright
William Robertson Coe Professor of American Economic History
Stanford University
Palo Alto, California

David Cole replies:

Gavin Wright is correct that LBJ’s comment was directed to the Civil Rights Act rather than to the Voting Rights Act. I also incorrectly attributed to LBJ a statement that the Voting Rights Act was “probably the nation’s finest hour in terms of civil rights.” It was John Lewis who said that, not LBJ.

The broader point remains that LBJ was concerned about losing the South to the Republicans by aligning Democrats with reforms that sought to defend the rights of African-Americans. Republicans from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump have sought to exploit that alignment to attract white voters to their side of the aisle. The principal point of my review was that this is, in the long run, a self-defeating strategy: if Republicans’ principal response to the fact that younger and minority voters are likely to vote against them is to seek to suppress their voting opportunities, as they did in the run-up to the 2016 election, they will alienate the very people both parties need to attract if they are to succeed in the long run. It turns out to have worked in the short term, but it is not a sustainable strategy.