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 with little change from its founders, the “Redeemers,” at the end of Reconstruction. It was white supremacy politics run by skilled leaders of the white minority in the Black Belt imposing their will on their states. Under their rule, the South could be regarded as “solid,” defined as “consistent and unquestioning attachment, by overwhelming majorities, to the Democratic party nationally.”

Key could still call the South a “one-party” region in 1949 in spite of the loosening of loyalty that took place the year before. Southern Republicans of that time were of three types—Presidential Republicans, who appeared timidly and only quadrennially, mountain Republicans locked in isolated enclaves, and Negro Republicans, who were thoroughly disenfranchised. Few in number, weak in influence, divided among themselves, and removed from strategic positions, oldstyle Southern Republicans were peripheral to the struggle for power. In only three states—North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee, each with old mountain Republican districts dating from the Civil War—could the Republicans be said to possess anything approximating the reality of a political party.

What competition there was remained everywhere under the cover of the local Democratic party, competition that varied widely in style and intensity, depending on the degree of intraparty factionalism and the occasional development of a statewide machine. Typical state politics were conducted among several factions, often vehicles for leaders whose followings were anchored in their localities. Within that pattern existed great complexity and distinctiveness in the political styles of different states—ranging from every-man-for-himself Florida to machine-controlled Virginia.

Among the Southern delegation in Congress, Key found a high degree of adherence to Democratic party regularity and little evidence of a conservative coalition between Southern Democrats and Republicans. In fact, during the 1920s and early 1930s, Southern Democrats tended to be more loyal supporters of the party in the House on party opposition votes than Northern Democrats. Southern delegations regularly supported New Deal economic measures. In roll calls distributed over congressional sessions from 1933 to 1945, Key found that majorities of Southern Democrats opposed majorities of Republicans in 70.5 percent of the roll calls studied and that in only a little more than 10 percent of them were majorities of Southern Democrats combined with Republicans in opposition to majorities of Northern Democrats.


What has happened since the “Key years” is the subject of The Changing Politics of the South, the work of fifteen political scientists. Professor William C. Havard, who has edited the book, has written a competent introduction, an analytical summary, and a bibliographical essay. The chapters on individual states vary in merit, though the quality is generally high, and a few, such as the one on Florida by Manning J. Dauer and that on Alabama by Donald S. Strong, are particularly good. There is also a study of the South in Congress by W. Wayne Shannon, which is excellent. Each chapter begins with the situation as V.O. Key left it, often with quotations from his book, and the common theme of each is the contrast between the old and the new.

Some of the more striking changes have occurred in Congress, both in the composition of the Southern delegations and in their voting behavior. For one thing, North and South have reversed positions as sources of Democratic majorities. When Lyndon Johnson became majority leader of the Senate in 1955 there were thirty-one Democrats in that body from Southern and border states and only eighteen Northern Democrats. By 1970 Southern and border Democrats had declined to nineteen and Northern numbers had risen to thirty-seven. Over the same years House Democratic members from Southern and border states declined from 130 to 98, while Northern Democrats had risen from 102 to 157. Republicans had captured six of the twenty-two senators from the Old Confederate states and twenty-seven of the 109 representative—six from Virginia, four from North Carolina, four from Tennessee, three from Alabama, three from Texas, three from Florida, two from Georgia, one from South Carolina, and one from Arkansas. In the 1972 election, Republicans picked up two additional Senate seats from the Confederate states, one from Virginia and one from North Carolina, and seven House seats from as many states.

It is not only in declining numbers from the South that the Democrats have suffered in Congress, but also in the diminishing loyalty and party regularity of those who remain. While Key found that in the 1930s and 1940s majorities of Southern Democrats in the House opposed majorities of Republicans in 70.3 percent of the roll calls, Professor Shannon in the present work discovers that the percentage of disagreements fell to 48 percent from 1951 to 1967, and in the last year studied to only 34.6 percent. The conservative coalition was rapidly being formed. While during the period of Key’s study only about 10 percent of the roll calls revealed an alliance between Southern Democrats and Republicans against Northern Democratic majorities, Shannon finds the percentage of such coalition votes rising in the recent period to 24.7 and reaching a maximum in 1967 of 35.8 percent.

All of these figures show a striking decline in Southern adherence to Democratic regularity. As recently as 1953-54, not a single Democrat in the House of Representatives voted as often with Republican as with Democratic majorities, but in 1967-68 no fewer than fifty-three did so, and all but one were from the Southern and border states. They included the entire Democratic delegations of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Mississippi and the great majority from six other states. A party divided by such sectional cleavages is obviously in serious trouble.

That the national Democratic party has yet to face up to its problems is evident from the workings of the seniority system in the award of the powerful chairmanships of House standing committees. In no Congress from 1950 to 1968 have fewer than a majority of these strategic posts been held by men from the eleven states of the former Confederacy. Embracing only a quarter of the national population, these states have controlled from half to nearly two-thirds of the standing committee chairmanships. That over half of the House Democrats who voted more often with Republicans than with Democrats on important liberal-conservative issues held committee or subcommittee chairmanships suggests the paradoxical rewards of disloyalty. The impact of these Democrats on national policy was far more telling than the more flamboyant convention walkouts and third-party Presidential campaigns, and they more than compensated for the loss of Southern influence in Presidential politics.

The policies and specific issues over which the Southern congressmen joined the conservative coalition and defied their party were not limited to racial matters. The revolt cut across the most important and basic party policies on domestic welfare and regulation, foreign policy, and civil liberties. More than half the coalition votes in 1969, for example, involved domestic, social, and economic legislation of the kind that was central to the Kennedy and Johnson programs. They expressed hostility to urban social and welfare bills, increased spending, and growth of federal activities at the expense of state control. They opposed rat control laws, funds for model cities, local autonomy for the District of Columbia, rent supplements, food stamps, and federal as opposed to state control over crime and education.


On civil liberties, Southerners joined the coalition to defend the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Subversive Activities Control Board. In foreign affairs, they sought to cut appropriations for foreign aid and stop trade with nations doing business with North Vietnam. The closer the issues came to racial concerns, whether in questions of “law and order,” “wasteful spending,” housing, welfare, or civil rights, the greater the degree of Southern cohesion and conservatism.

Southern congressmen have not been uniformly conservative and vary widely in the degree to which they vote with Republicans. Those who join the conservative coalition have been more likely to represent rural districts, districts with large black populations, and constituencies that have deserted the Democratic ticket in Presidential elections. Southern recruits for the conservative coalition in Congress have increased with the rise of “race politics” and the growing identification of Northern Democrats with civil rights. Southern politicians found less and less in common with the labor-Catholic-ethnic-civil-rights politics that sustained Democrats who represented Northern metropolitan areas. No social base for that kind of politics really existed in the South. Democratic representatives from the South grew more estranged from the national party as their numbers diminished and as growing Northern Democratic majorities took control in Congress and in party affairs. Since 1950, Southerners in the House have more nearly resembled Republicans than Northern Democrats on nearly 40 percent of party opposition roll calls, and the resemblance has increased markedly in recent years.

Presidential politics obviously differ from congressional and local politics in the South, but here, too, the temptation to desert the Democratic cause has been stronger for some types of Southerners than for others. The Dixiecrat rebellion of 1948 carried four states in the Deep South, but even there, it was a victory led by the professional business classes in the Black Belt against the poorer white counties of the hill country, the Gulf Coast, and the pineywoods. New Deal and Fair Deal economic and welfare policies still appealed to the poorer white counties and their historic antagonism to the planter-businessman oligarchy was intensified by the anti-New Deal economic policies of the white leaders in the Black Belt.

In the 1952 election persistent Democratic loyalties and resistance in the white counties to Black Belt reactionaries kept General Eisenhower from winning any states in the Deep South. The Eisenhower Southern victories in that year were in the “rim” states of Florida, Texas, Virginia, and Tennessee. His main source of strength there lay in the cities, where industrial and commercial prosperity had bred a business-minded conservatism similar to that of middle-class Republicanism in other parts of the country. To these “modern” converts he added the old traditional mountain Republicans of Virginia and Tennessee, and the Northern and Western migrants to Florida and Texas. In 1956 Eisenhower carried the same rim states and with the aid of New Orleans and the French parishes added Louisiana. Nixon in 1960 ran strong in Deep South cities but carried none of their states and only Virginia, Tennessee, and Florida of the Eisenhower South.

Southern strategy for the Goldwater campaign of 1964 was aimed directly at the Dixiecratic mentality of the Deep South, and from that limited perspective was enormously successful. Goldwater carried all four Dixiecratic states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana—plus Georgia, but no other state in the Union save Arizona. He won strong support in the other Southern states, but while Democratic loyalties were strained by the civil rights movement, they were not to be swept away by Dixiecratic racism and reactionary politics under a Republican label.

The collapse of remaining Southern Democratic loyalties in Presidential politics occurred in 1968. The tipping point came with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the dispatch of federal registrars through the South to enroll Negro voters. This along with the increasing Democratic sponsorship of black rights and social programs completed the alienation of the white counties. The old Populist territories of the upcountry and the pineywoods beyond the Black Belt had stuck with the Democratic ticket through the defections of 1948 through 1964, and still preferred a Populist program; but now they had had enough. The second Reconstruction did what the first Reconstruction had done to Southern politics once before—brought the poorer whites under the sway of Black Belt white supremacy politics and conservative economics.

Hubert Humphrey carried only 237 of the 1,105 counties in the South in 1968 and all but eighty-three of them were in Texas. The Democratic candidate polled 31 percent of the vote, though probably no more than 20 percent of the white vote. Nixon and George Wallace split the rest almost evenly, 34.6 percent to 34.4 percent. Wallace captured Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Arkansas, with his strongest showing in the poorer counties. Nixon took the remaining states except Texas. United only in rebellion, the two Southern traditions of revolt were still divided by party lines. Essentially what Nixon did in 1972 was to combine the Wallace vote of 1968 with his own of that year and add enough more to take Texas. The Democratic percentage of the white vote was even smaller than in 1968. In Presidential politics Democratic fortunes could not sink much lower—if the blacks remained loyal.

If the history of the Southern Democratic party for the last twenty-odd years has been one of defection from the national Democratic party in Presidential politics and disloyalty in congressional support for the party’s program, what of the future? How much longer will Southern Democrats cling to a pro forma membership in a party that they no longer serve and that no longer serves them? Three Democratic congressmen from the South have been stripped of their seniority for disloyalty, two have defected to the Republicans, and more and more have been unseated by Republican opponents. Is a one-party Republican South, a two-party South with three-party variations, or as one scholar suggests, a “no-party” South the way of the future?

The solid electoral vote and the overwhelming popular majorities for Nixon and Agnew in 1972 can be quite misleading. A sizable part of the popular vote for Nixon, perhaps a half, represented another protest against the national Democratic party rather than a real shift in party allegiance. The most recent polls on party identification show a major disaffection with the Democratic party but no corresponding Republican gains. While the proportion of Mississippians who identified themselves as Democrats had dropped to 46 percent, the level of Republican identification was only 6 percent.

Throughout the South 47 percent identified themselves as Democrats, 19 as Republicans, and 34 as Independents. The Democratic percentage has been dropping since 1960, but to a lesser extent so has the Republican, while the Independent percentage has nearly doubled. The Southern shift has in some degree anticipated the more recent national inconsistency between Presidential ballots and state and local voting. Party discipline and authority are in general decline, and the two-party system is in bad health nationally.

In the next Congress, Republicans will have two more senators and seven more members of the House from the South. But fourteen of the senators and seventy-five of the representatives from the region will remain on the Democratic side. Republican gains in state legislatures have been even slower and smaller. In the lower houses of Southern state legislatures at present Republicans hold only 13 percent of the seats and slightly less than that percentage in the upper houses. Only in Florida and Tennessee does their proportion of seats approach 50 percent of the total number held by the Democrats.

What prospect there is for Republican competitiveness and two-party politics is confined largely to the rim states. From the metropolitan districts of those states have come most of the Southern Republican congressmen. They represent the “normal” or “modern” as opposed to the “protest” Republicans, who wait for another Goldwater or vote for Nixon on busing when no Dixiecratic alternative is available. The “protest” states of the Deep South seem for the present anchored to race issues, so much so that in most of them the black minority constitutes whatever basis still exists for a national Democratic party.

In spite of this bleak prospect there is still serious talk of reviving the old Populist coalition of blacks with white workers and small farmers. The Populist revolt of the 1890s was followed by disfranchisement laws that eliminated not only black voters but a large percentage of whites as well. Participation in Southern elections fell precipitantly well below 30 percent of the electorate. V. O. Key once demonstrated that the non-voters were largely lower-class whites and blacks, and held that their absence from the polls explained the conservatism of the South’s politics. The voting-age population of the South as a whole, he showed, was at least as liberal as the non-South on economic issues, and the non-voting population was considerably to the left of the small electorate of that period.

With the re-enfranchisement of the blacks and the upsurge of white registration, the drop-out elements are now on the way to being restored to the Southern electorate. Within ten years the percentage of blacks of voting age who were registered jumped from 28 to 65, and white registration increased rapidly at the same time. If Key was right, the potential should soon exist for a revitalization of Southern politics. That potential would obviously be nullified if, as happened when blacks were first enfranchised, the newly registered black voters could be divided from the newly registered whites over race issues.

Chandler Davidson in Biracial Politics contends that the racial barrier can be transcended by a class appeal on economic issues. His hope, based on a case study of political participation in Houston, is that the way is open for a biracial coalition in the Populist tradition. Davidson contends that “working-class racism has been exaggerated, and that there are many whites who can be persuaded to support political programs which are racially and economically just.” He finds no hope for the Negro in black separatism or in either of the old parties as now constituted. The Populist strategy of “unashamed class politics” he believes to be the best course for both races, and he finds reason to hope for its success. In fact he is persuaded that “a large part of the white Southern electorate is presently receptive to progressive change.”

Before writing this off as wishful scholarship buried hopelessly under the Nixon landslide, before concluding that the Southern Strategy has finally fused the South into a monolithic bloc of McKinley economics and white-supremacy racism, and before dismissing Southern Populism as a liberal delusion, one should hear out the testimony of a curiously qualified witness.

It is ironic to offer Senator Albert Gore as chief witness for the defense of optimism when he was a prime victim of reaction, crushed under a barrage of Southern Strategy in his campaign for re-election to the Senate in 1970. Tennessee, moreover, came out of that disaster as the only Southern state with two Republican senators and a Republican governor. Yet Gore’s Let the Glory Out, part autobiography and part political analysis, confidently predicts that “the future will bring a South essentially different than that foreseen by the prophets of doom or by the hate-filled prognosticators of an ’emerging Republican majority,’ ” that, in fact, the time is ripe for “the resurgence of a progressive, Populist-oriented Democratic party.”

Gore emerged as “a young Populist from Tennessee” in the Great Depression and in 1938 began his thirty-two years in Congress—seven terms in the House and three in the Senate. He built that career on a platform to the left of any elected politician south of him and of most of those to the north. He was called a deserter of the South for his defense of civil rights and a traitor to his country for his opposition to the Vietnam war. Anyone who has seen him on the TV screen interrogating a witness will never forget those unblinking, hypnotic eyes and frozen accusatory features, and will have known at a glance there was no Southern good-old-boyism in him. His colleagues knew it too, and if they dared not trifle with him, neither did they encourage his well-known Presidential ambitions.

Albert Gore once declared it his mission “to fan into flame that residual populism which lies deep in the hearts of all Democrats.” In 1970, that flame flickered low in Tennessee, but Gore insists that his personal defeat was a perverse exception to the general trend of progressive Democratic resurgence in the Southern elections that year. He recounts in detail the several Republican upsets and Democratic comebacks. “In every case where the Democrats won,” he writes, “they did so in part by uniting with newly enfranchised black voters and most of the Wallace vote.” The great majority of Wallace voters, he maintains, are “not generally conservative on economic and social propositions,” only on race. And he argues that they are not as irrevocably committed on that subject as is generally assumed. “If and when they overcome their racism, they will support governments that try to meet their demands.”

If and when. Certainly not in 1972. Not even with two black congressmen from the South, the first since 1901 and the first ones ever of the Democratic persuasion. Nor do a few successful biracial coalitions turn the tide. The tide of racial animus was running high nationally in 1972, and the Southern manifestation came in like a wave on top of it. A remarkable number of Southerners, black as well as white, agree with Gore that the tide is likely to recede in the South before it does elsewhere.

Whether that hope is justified or not, the fluid and chaotic politics of the present South contain many unpredictable possibilities. If parties are more unstable, they are less under control of bosses. If labor is less organized, it is under less political domination and less able to exclude black workers from jobs. If blacks are less experienced politically, they are more open to coalition and experiment. If cities are as segregated as elsewhere, they are less polarized, and they are growing and changing instead of declining and stagnating. Out of all this social upheaval is likely to come a number of surprises that will upset old stereotypes about the politics of the South. They need not, of course, all be pleasant surprises.

This Issue

December 14, 1972