The modus operandi of this blog is to look at history as if it were a novel or a long verse poem. In those forms, the message being presented cannot be fully understood unless read as a whole. The same is true of history. Taken one line or even one paragraph at a time, the events of today may seem to say one thing but say something quite different in the fullness of time. Taking this concept even further, the comparison of history to the written word allows us to use concepts of grammar and syntax to obtain a better understanding of the intersection of current and past events. It also allows us to use the full power of similes and metaphors to use concepts from different “genres” of human understanding to explain concepts that we see in our rhymes. For example, during my times as a graduate student at the University of Kansas, it was very popular to use medical terms such as “ossify” – to turn into bone – to describe how the Soviet Union became less and less adaptable over time. For today’s History Rhyme, we will combine these useful tools to better explain the seemingly drastic shifts that occurred in the politics of the American South in the last fifty years. To describe the change, we will begin by using the wonderful term “contronym.” Later, to attempt to explain the changes we discover, we will borrow from the concept and terminology of “plate tectonics.”
According to Dictionary.com, a contronym is “any word that can be its own antonym.” Examples of this are cleave, sanction, and (my personal favorite) consult. In a narrow context, it is sometimes extremely difficult to have a true understanding of what these words mean in a sentence. When you read “he consulted her,” it is impossible with current usage of the term to know who the person seeking knowledge is. When news stories mention a sanction in regards to the events in Crimea, it could be support or condemnation. The topic of today’s rhyme is “the Solid South” which is often used to describe the generally monolithic nature of politics in the American South. This concept is a contronym because the predominant party in power has changed over time. If you ask someone in their 20s or 30s which party controls the South, they will reply “Republican” and they would be essentially correct. If you ask them if Democrats have ever been able to have power in that part of the country, they probably would look at you strangely. To this audience, there is no hint that the term “Solid South” could be anything but a description of the type of unity that has given the South such a strong role in contemporary Republican politics and leadership. However, if you asked someone who remembers events before the 1980s, a different set of memories can be brought back with the roles reversed between the Republicans and Democrats. It is not until we look at the whole story (starting with the end of Reconstruction in the late 19th century) that we see contronymical nature of the term “Solid South.”
To understand the reasons why a modern viewer would see a “Solid South” as a synonym for Republican domination, an examination of various election results and a sprinkling of headlines from across the Internet are helpful. If we look at presidential elections since 1980 in the states that comprised the old Confederacy, the success of Democratic candidates (with the notable exception of Jimmy Carter’s and Bill Clinton’s “native son” factor) has been minimal at best.1 In some areas of the South, the dominance of the Republican Party can be seen even more strikingly. For example, in an April 2013 story on Alabama.com, we learn that the Alabama Democratic party is so bad off that it was nearly bankrupt because, according to Alabama Democratic state party chairman Mark Kennedy, “newly elected Republican Party super majority in late 2010 passed legislation that banned PAC-to-PAC transfers and in so doing effectively dried up new dollars coming into the party.”2 In fact, the Democratic Party which the Encyclopedia of Alabama refers to as “not particularly close-knit or active,”3 is such a non-factor that the Republican primary winner in Alabama’s first district was considered a lock for winning the November general election. That contest was between a mainline Republican, Bradley Byrne, who was strongly supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Dean Young who was supported by the Tea Party. A final sign of the dominance of some areas of the South by the GOP can been seen in a March 6, 2014 tweet by Washington Post reporter Reid Wilson (@PostReid) that “not a single voter cast a ballot for a Dem Gov candidate in 21 Texas counties.” While there are other areas of the South that are more favorable to the Democrats and some areas that are becoming decidedly “purple” (a combination of red and blue), there is still enough Republican domination in the region to make the term “Solid South” still valid in our quick news and talk radio world.
While the “solidity” of the South for the GOP in modern times may not be absolutely beyond questioning, the same cannot be said of the original version of the “Solid South.” In the presidential elections of 1880-1964, the overwhelming majority of electoral votes from the former Confederate states went to the Democratic nominee or to a Democratic regional candidate such as Strom Thurmond of the “Dixiecrats” in 1948.4 The level of Democratic dominance can been seen more clearly when you move in for a closer look. For example, in the state of South Carolina, there were only Democratic governors for a 100 year period after the end of Reconstruction in 1876. The list of Lieutenant Governors (several of which who ended up becoming governor) does not include a Republican until 1995. When you examine the list of Senators from South Carolina, there are no Republicans on that list from the end of Reconstruction until 1964 and that early date only occurred because Senator Strom Thurmond switched parties in protest against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If you exclude Thurmond, it was not until 2003 that a Republican was elected to the Senate. Finally in the period between Reconstruction and the 1970s there were only four men elected to the U. S. House of Representatives who were not Democrats – none of which after 1897.5 That is not to say that all the Democrats were unified all the time. In South Carolina for examples, there were noteworthy feuds between those who supported and opposed the “New Deal” in the 1930s (e.g. Olin B. Johnson and “Cotton Ed” Smith) and the “War on Poverty” in the 1960s (e.g. Olin B. Johnson and Strom Thurmond). However, these divisions did not extend to the issue of segregation which was supported by all factions of the party in that period.
Now that we have established what the “Solid South” meant in its historical context and how it exists now, one final question begs asking – what happened? How could a region that was so monolithically Democratic up to the 1960s be significantly Republican now? The key to understanding this is to notice that while we have a shift in titles from one party to another, we do not have a shift in some of the general tendencies of those in power. The Democratic Party in the South during the previous period was physically and socially conservative, and deeply suspicious of the power of the bureaucracy in Washington (especially once the New Deal era began). The current Republican Party is most of those things. One major difference between the Democratic era of the South in the past and the Republican one now is the issue of segregation. Due to societal and legal changes since the 1960s, an overt policy of segregation is no longer possible. To explain such a change that on one level seems so drastic, but on the other does not; we will now borrow from the terminology and concepts of the field of plate tectonics. In that field there are three general types of interactions between plates – convergent boundaries, transform boundaries and divergent boundaries.
When considering “tectonic” activity, we think of the spectacularly violent events that occur in places like the Indian Ocean (e.g. the Christmas tsunami of 2004) or at the San Andreas Fault. It is tempting to think of the change in the South from a Democratic bastion to a Republican one in these terms. However, the wholesale movement of the power elites of the South from one side to another refutes this analogy. The transform boundary is also not a good metaphor. It exists when two plates slide by each other while going in different directions with limited interaction. That sounds more like the way that the United States and Canada have gone in different directions without too much strife (well at least since the War of 1812) than the American South. This leaves us with the divergent boundary. This model makes sense when you consider that the political parties of today are quite different than they were in the pre-WWII era, when parties were more of a “big tent” where vastly differing groups could co-exist. This meant on the Republican side you could have internationalists such as Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan and isolationists such as Robert Taft of Ohio. On the Democratic side, you were able to have big-city machine politicians such as Edward Flynn or Jim Farley in the same party as rural segregationists such as Senators J. William Fulbright of Arkansas or Richard Russell of Georgia. However, after World War II ended, tensions that had been building with the growing Federal power created by the New Deal and the war led to rising tensions in the Democratic Party. The end result was a drifting away of the Southern Democrats into the Republican camp. Whether you view this as being due to a growing liberalism and big government focus of Northern Democrats or the Southern Democrats resentment at the end of legal segregation is a topic that may have to be addressed at another time. Regardless of the reason, the end result was that these two political plates in the old Democratic Party drifted apart and a new Southern and Republican continent was formed. How long that continent stays intact before it collides with issues such as the changing demographics of the Unites States population or in the growing push by some Republicans to purge those who are “insufficiently Republican”6 remains to be seen. We will know in the fullness of time. And so the story continues…
1. The only other example of Democratic presidential success were Barack Obama’s 2008 victory in North Carolina, his 2012 victory in Virginia and his 2008 & 2012 victories in Florida. The latter examples way say more about the changing nature of Virginia and Florida politics than we will discuss at this time.
2. “The Alabama Democratic Party: Almost bankrupt and its Executive Board still doubles its travel budget” posted 4/11/13 by Charles J. Dean on Alabama.com (http://blog.al.com.wire/2013/04/the_alabama_democratic_party_a.html)
3. “Democratic Party in Alabama” (http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1561)
4. The exceptions were: Harding winning Tennessee in 1920; Hoover winning Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia in 1928; Eisenhower winning Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia in 1952; Eisenhower winning Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia in 1956; and Nixon winning Florida, Tennessee and Virginia in 1960.
5. The four were Edmund W. M. Mackey (1882-84), Robert Smalls (1882-87), Thomas E. Miller (1890-91) and George W. Murray (1893-97). Murray was the last African-American elected to US House from South Carolina until Tim Scott was in 2010.
6. “Insufficiently Republican? State GOP to consider challenges to 18 candidates for office” posted 2/17/14 by Brendan Kirby on Alabama.com (http://blog.al.com/wire/2014/02/insufficiently_republican_stat.html)
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