The Chaotic Politics of the South

Biracial Politics: Conflict and Coalition in the Metropolitan South

by Chandler Davidson
Louisiana State University Press, 301 pp., $11.95

Let the Glory Out: My South and Its Politics

by Albert Gore
Viking, 307 pp., $8.95

For three quarters of a century the South was the geographic base of Democratic Presidential hopes. Whatever defection occurred elsewhere, whatever states were considered “doubtful,” or had to be “written off,” the eleven states of the former Confederacy were generally taken for granted. The core of solidarity and party loyalty hardened, the unquestioning attachment grew, and the overwhelming majorities increased the closer one came to the Black Belt and the Deep South.

The South was virtually undisputed Democratic territory. In the Presidential elections from 1876 to 1944, the Republican party received the electoral votes of Southern states in only nine instances out of a possible 198, and three of the nine occurred in 1876, five in 1928. Four of the eleven states maintained an unbroken record of Democratic loyalty and five went Republican only once. The Democrats ceased to be a party in the South and became the party of the South. Politics was a continuation of Civil War history by other means.

In the last twenty-odd years, this political picture of the South has gone through something like a mirror-image reversal. Of all the regions, the South has come to be the least reliable support for Democratic Presidential candidates, the last to be taken for granted, and the first to be written off. In each election since 1948, at least four Southern states have cast electoral ballots for the Presidential ticket of some other party. In 1964 the South’s support for the Democratic national ticket was weaker than that of any other section. In 1968 only one of the eleven states—Texas—remained in the Democratic column, and in 1972 none. Support for the Democratic Presidential candidates in the last two elections was weaker in the South than in any other section of the country—in 1972 some 10 percent lower than the national level.

The scale, the swiftness, and the depth of the South’s defection from the national Democratic party make it a political phenomenon without parallel in American history. Only one other political change—itself mainly a Southern phenomenon—is comparable: the Negro desertion of the Republican party. Through war and peace, depression and prosperity, and vastly different candidates and policies, these rigid party loyalties persisted long beyond the historic events that gave rise to them. No other historic events were more traumatic than those that gave birth to the South’s traditional party ties, and no ties seemed more unshakable—until they suddenly began to disintegrate.

At just about that time, by a fortunate coincidence, the late V. O. Key, Jr., made his classic study, which in 1949 was published as the monumental Southern Politics in State and Nation. It is the starting point for all subsequent investigations of its subject and the indispensable reference for understanding the extent and character of the Great Defection that has taken place since his work was published. At the time Key wrote, he could still speak of the Southern political system as a historical continuum coming down …

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