Until Eisenhower ran for president in 1952, white southerners were solidly Democratic. It was said that a white southerner would vote for a Democrat even if he was a big, ugly, yellow dog. (This is where the phrase “yellow dog Democrat” comes from). Between 1952 and 1996, white southerners made a slow transition to the Republican Party.
Why was that? As a white southerner myself, I was told as a child that Democrats were once conservative and supported “states’ rights”, while Republicans were liberals who wanted to centralize government. Now the Republicans are the “conservatives, and the Democrats are the “liberals”. That’s the common conservative narrative. As I grew older, I was exposed to the liberal narrative. I was told that the racists, who used “state’s rights” as an excuse to discriminate against blacks without Federal interference, once dominated the Democratic Party. But now the Democrats support civil rights, and those old racists went Republican to support Reagan who gave a speech at a site where a black guy was lynched. I’m sorry to say this, but it’s hard to find a site in the south where a black guy wasn’t lynched. I’m ashamed of this history, but it is a fact that needs to be noted here.
So, why did white southerners really switch Republican? Let me start by debunking the liberal narrative. Eisenhower was a civil rights moderate on the surface, but recent revisions of his history in light of new evidence shows that he was far more favorable to civil rights than appeared. While that is up for debate, Ike was certainly not a racist or a segregationist. He was, however, the first Republican presidential candidate to make a significant dent in the old solid south. Now let’s fast forward to 1964. Lyndon Johnson passed two landmark pieces of civil rights legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While white southerners did strongly support Barry Goldwater for President in 1964, they continued supporting their state and local Democrats. Furthermore, as late as 1996, you could still find many white southern conservative Democrats in office. However, by 1996, these Democrats had become very favorable to civil rights and racial equality (consider Lawton Chiles for example). Furthermore, there were plenty of southern Democrats in office who appealed to white and black voters effectively. If white southerners switched Republican in response to Civil Rights legislation, why did it take so long? In 1976, every southern state except Virginia went to Democrat Jimmy Carter, a white southerner who strongly supported, and still supports racial equality. Even during the Gingrich Revolution of 1994 and 1996, the South was increasingly purple (made up of Republicans and Democrats). Clearly there was far more going on in the minds of white southerners than “Dag nabbit! We gotta sit at the same table with the colored people now”. Actually, growing up in the 1980s south – You know, with all the Reagan voters? – I remember being taught that Martin Luther King was a hero that we should all admire. Oh yeah, and we love Reagan.
While the liberal narrative is most absurd, the conservative narrative is also flawed. Consider what the old south stood for, other than racism. They stood for states’ rights, clearly. They strongly opposed the FED. They opposed most military intervention and expansion, usually favoring isolation. This is what it meant to be conservative in, say, 1920. Now compare that to the “conservatives” of the Bush era. Bush attempted to nationalize marriage, trampling states’ rights, with a “Protection of Marriage” amendment, nationally defining marriage as “one man, one woman”. No Child Left Behind was a major intrusion on the rights of states to run education. Then there was the very costly war in Iraq. I don’t doubt the old white south would have supported the invasion of Afghanistan. We were attacked by Al Qaeda, they were operating out of Afghanistan, so we attacked Afghanistan. Makes sense. But Iraq? We invaded Iraq supposedly to confiscate WMDs, but ultimately the justification arguments rested on the claim that the US was freeing the Iraqi people from a horrible dictator. It was called “Operation Iraqi Freedom” after all. The US, or “the Union” as it was known during the Civil War, then proceeded to occupy Iraq and begin RECONSTRUCTION! Did white southerners respond to that Republican from Connecticut (Bush) with, “Hey Yankee, mind yer own damned business and go back to Connecticut!”? We called the old Democrats “conservative”, and now we call the Republicans “conservative”, but clearly this word has a very different meaning today in practice.
In conclusion, more extensive study needs to be done into the many reasons why white southerners slowly transitioned to the Republican Party, but the claims of racism and the claims that the two parties swapped ideologies are based on cherry-picked facts and largely ignore historical context. I suspect it was a mixture of rising religious fundamentalism (and GOP appeals to that), shifting economic preferences largely from the Reagan era, and a continued disdain for affirmative action by white southerners who otherwise supported most civil rights goals by the 1990s. If anything, the switch to the GOP is indicative of the reality that white southerners no longer vote based on old racial tensions and bitter memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction.