I concluded last week’s column with the following:
“…I believe that the Democratic Party needs to do far more for working-class voters – and not just in terms of discrete policies they can point to, but getting reacquainted with the 70 percent of America that does not have a college degree, and whose incomes have been declining for 35 to 40 years.
“I too often get the sense that when Democrats talk about working class people and issues, they are talking TO well-educated professional-class people ABOUT working class people, rather than to working class people directly.
“The Democrats used to have lots to offer people like that, but for 20 or more years they have done far too little. Part of the explanation for why that might be requires a discussion about why the New Deal coalition fractured in the 1960s(.)”
The national Democratic Party used to talk about the states of the old Confederacy as the “Solid South” – i.e., they could be counted on to vote Democratic in every election – for local, state and federal offices, from Reconstruction up through the mid-1960s.
According to the Wikipedia article on the “Solid South”:
“The Solid South or Southern bloc was the electoral voting bloc of the states of the Southern United States for issues that were regarded as particularly important to the interests of white Democrats in the southern states. The Southern bloc existed especially between 1877 (the end of Reconstruction) and 1964 (the year of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). During this period, the Democratic Party controlled state legislatures; most local and state officeholders in the South were Democrats, as were federal politicians elected from these states. Southern Democrats disenfranchised blacks in every state of the former Confederacy at the turn of the century. This resulted essentially in a one-party system, in which a candidate’s victory in Democratic primary elections was tantamount to election to the office itself. White primaries were another means that the Democrats used to consolidate their political power, excluding blacks from voting in primaries.”
It is no accident that the former confederate states voted Democratic: they did so mostly because the hated Abraham Lincoln had been a Republican, and so Southern conservatives formed an odd coalition with northern liberals to dominate the Democratic Party for nearly a century.
Race has always been a dominant ingredient in Southern politics. As Bob Dylan put it in his song “Only a Pawn In Their Game”:
“A South politician preaches to the poor white man/’You got more than the blacks don’t complain/You’re better than them, you were born with white skin,’ they explain/And the negro’s name/Is used, it is plain/For the politician’s gain/As he rises to fame/And the poor white remains/On the caboose of the train/But it ain’t him to blame/He’s only a pawn in their game.”
Even when the linkage to race was not apparent on the surface, it was still a decisive factor. For example, Southern opposition to labor unions has always been in part based in white supremacy: whites and blacks in a union together undermines the original purpose of the southern racial caste system, which was a method for the aristocracy to divide and rule: “Let’s you and him fight.”
One of the more shameful aspects of the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt was the way many of the programs were designed so that whites benefited more than blacks. For example, Social Security did not cover domestic workers, nor did it cover agricultural workers – both of which were examples of the few avenues to employment open to blacks in southern states in those days.
The old Democratic coalition was beginning to seriously fray by the 1940s. In the 1948 presidential election, the Democratic Party included support for civil rights in its platform, and in response southern Democrats walked out of the convention and formed the Dixiecrat Party and ran the late Sen. Strom Thurmond against both Harry Truman (the Democratic nominee) and Thomas Dewey (the Republican). Truman won a surprise victory over both candidates.
The death knell of the old order was the passage in 1964 and 1965 of the Civil and Voting rights acts, respectively. After he signed the Civil Rights Act into law, Lyndon Johnson said to his aide (and later journalist) Bill Moyers, “We’ve lost the South for a generation.”
Within that “generation,” the Republican Party had an increasing lock on the South, so that by 2010 they dominated the region as thoroughly as the Democrats once had.
President Obama’s election in 2008, however, showed that the South is slowly becoming a friendlier place for Democrats (and for an African American Democrat, at that.) He won Virginia and North Carolina, and was surprisingly close in South Carolina, Georgia and Missouri. Take heart, my fellow Democrats – good things are coming our way.
If I don’t see you before then, Happy Easter, everyone.
Matt Talbot is a writer and poet, as well as an old Benicia hand.