The Party Switch ‘Myth’

There are many odd features of the narrative based epistemology that governs party politics. One of them is the need for stories connecting the opposing party’s guilt and corruption, in the present day, to a history of guilt and corruption extending back over generations. This is an understandable instinct. Institutions do take on characters, and the cultures of institutions are heritable. Politically educated people should, however, recognize that political parties are particularly subject to change, over even short periods of time. The policies and cultural positions of the Democratic and Republican parties of today make them, in many respects, utterly unlike the Democratic and Republican parties of merely twenty-five years ago (or even ten). Nevertheless, American conservatives have been particularly adamant in tying the identity of the modern Democratic Party to the racist legacy of the Democratic Party of the nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. As a corollary, Republicans and conservatives have sought to elevate the perception of the modern GOP by connecting it to the abolitionist legacy of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil Rights Movement. To accomplish both these things, modern Republicans and conservatives have decried the story of the party switch (the idea that the Democratic and Republican parties switched places on matters of civil rights) as a myth. In so doing, we conservatives have created our own mythology around this period of history. For the sake of historical clarity, this counter mythology needs to be dispelled.

There is a crude version of the left-wing narrative around these events that is itself flawed. The ordinary telling that one hears is that the Republican Party, once the relative champion of civil rights in our two party system, embraced the bigotry of Southern white voters, starting in the late 1960s, soon after Democratic President Lyndon Johnson won the allegiance of African-Americans by signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Thus, African-Americans, still largely Republican, and Southern whites, who were still largely Democrats, switched allegiance en masse.

This isn’t quite true, however. By the time LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, most African-Americans were already Democrats, and had been for some time. In 1960, Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy won 68% of the black vote versus 32% for Richard Nixon. Yet he underperformed against Franklin Roosevelt, who won 71% of the black vote in his first re-election campaign in 1936.

For African-Americans then, the party switch was more a consequence of the impact of the Great Depression and the appeal of FDR’s New Deal than it was a consequence of LBJ’s civil rights legislation. It is also incorrect that white southern Democrats switched party affiliation to Republican in a fell swoop. Older white southern Democrats, in particular, remained Democrats as a rule into the 80s and early 90s. Republicans did not win a majority of congressional seats in the South until as late as 1994.

The core claim at the heart of the party switch myth, however, is not so much that white southerners and African-Americans immediately switched party affiliation following the Civil Rights Act and the advent of the Southern Strategy (this ignores the degree to which party affiliation was less tied to Americans’ larger sense of personal identity at that point in history). The core claim is that the appeal of the parties on the basis of perceived racial issues switched constituencies during this period. This is evidenced not so much by changes in voter registration (although black Republican registration did fall from 22% to 3% from 1960 to 1968) as it is by changes in voting patterns on the presidential level among demographics, starting in 1964. It is also evidenced by the actions and attitudes of key figures from the era.

In 1964, Republican nominee Barry Goldwater won the GOP presidential nomination on a hard right platform, opposing the Civil Rights Act. This split the party, losing him the support of prominent African-American Republicans like Jackie Robinson as well as moderate and liberal northeastern Republicans, such as George Romney. This position did help earn Goldwater support, however, in the only region of the country that would give it to him on election day: the Deep South.

The deep southern states include Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. These states were the heart of the Confederacy and the epicenter of the Jim Crow era oppression that the civil rights activism of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was primarily designed to oppose. Given the context of this particular election, it is difficult to imagine any reason for this region’s support of Goldwater’s candidacy other than his lonely stand in opposition to the dramatic federally enforced changes in social policy visited against the legal (and cultural) status quo of the South.

Conservatives, including Dennis Prager and Ben Shapiro, will acknowledge this fact, while pointing out that these deep southern states did not vote for Richard Nixon in 1968. This seems to disconfirm the notion that the Republican Party had developed an enduring appeal for white southerners on the basis of opposition to civil rights.

Yet the history of the Southern Strategy (an admitted effort by certain Republican officials and strategists to capitalize on Southern racial animus by signaling support for anti-civil rights views) is traceable to this time. In 1969, assuming that GOP success in the 1966 midterms and Nixon’s election in 1968 were largely the result of Southern and ethnic white backlash against race legislation and Johnson’s Great Society, Republican strategist Kevin Phillips published a book entitled The Emerging Republican Majority. In it, he prophesizes that “White Democrats will desert their party in droves the moment it becomes a black party.” (Phillips meant this particularly with respect to presidential elections.)

He had good reason to think this. Following the massive gains made by the GOP among white voters in the several years after the Civil Rights Act, Phillips had steered Republican candidates in formerly liberal areas, including the Bronx, away from an embrace of the Great Society and towards opposition to expanding welfare, busing policies, housing subsidies and other Democratic policies that aimed to appeal to blacks. His methods were successful, and he was brought aboard Nixon’s campaign to apply his savvy.

Yet, if Phillips is right, how do we explain Nixon’s loss of the Deep South in 1968?

Actually, it’s not that difficult. Candidate Nixon, while winning most southern states, did not lose the Deep South to his democratic opponent Hubert Humphrey. He lost the deepest, most socially reactionary states to the most socially reactionary candidate in the race—Dixiecrat turned American Independent Party nominee, former Alabama governor George Wallace.

Wallace was infamous as a symbol of the Jim Crow south. His own temporary defection from the Democratic Party had everything to do with his dissatisfaction with the party’s embrace of racial integration and associated reforms (as did Senator Strom Thurmond’s permanent switch to the GOP). After failing to gain support for an announced primary challenge against John F. Kennedy (who did not live to run for re-election) in 64, Wallace proceeded to sweep the southern states of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas on the strength of his segregationist appeal. Nixon, however, won the deep southern state of South Carolina, along with every other southern state. The real loser in the South was Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey.

As Phillips is reported to have explained in 1970:

In the Outer South, the national Democratic party has begun to replace the G.O.P. as the symbol of alien causes—the Negro politicians and Federal interference with local autonomy. Hence, the shift to Republicanism, a trend which for the same reasons has engulfed the milder border states and will, Phillips insists, capture the perfervid Deep South when events force the abandonment of the more extreme Wallace alternative.

In 1964, overtures were reportedly floated from Governor Wallace to Barry Goldwater, offering to partner on a bipartisan, national ticket, given their common opposition to the Civil Rights Act and anti-states-rights legislation. (“It must be apparent to a one-eyed N—h who can’t see good outta his other eye that me and Goldwater would be a good ticket.”) For reasons of both strategy and personal distaste, it appears that Goldwater had no interest in such a partnership. Beyond this, the appeal of Goldwater to Wallace and southern segregationists generally in 1964 was not necessarily indicative of the nature of the ongoing appeal of the Republican Party, with respect to racial issues in the South. Goldwater, hero of the conservative movement, was nevertheless opposed by much of his own party at the time—a party that would go on to overwhelmingly support the Civil Rights Act in Congress. It is harder to explain why serious conservatives would have sought to link Wallace on a similarly conceived bipartisan ticket with a more promising conservative star—California Governor Ronald Reagan—as the conservative movement grew more influential in the Republican Party and more appealing in the South.

As Laura Kalman writes in Right Star Rising:

In May 1975 … Richard Viguerie launched Conservative Digest: A Magazine for the New Majority, designed to unite the followers of George Wallace and Ronald Reagan. “Our country, which badly needs a strong Winston Churchill, is stuck with a  weak Gerald Ford,” Viguerie proclaimed. The American Conservative Union had preordered five thousand copies of William Rusher’s call for a marriage between followers of Ronald Reagan and George Wallace, The Making of the New Majority Party, as a fundraising premium. 

That same year, the second annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC, to which this author has spoken), now the country’s most important annual conservative gathering, produced a “Committee on Conservative Alternatives,” tasked with fielding candidates to staff a third-party presidential ticket, which could unite conservative Republicans and those they considered conservative Democrats. Members of this committee included conservative trailblazer Phyllis Schlafly, prominent figures from the National Review and the American Conservative Union, and former assistants to Ronald Reagan and George Wallace. CPAC’s website describes their motivations: “many conservatives … concluded that it was time to junk the enfeebled GOP and found a new, truly conservative, party, linking forces with the followers of Alabama Gov. George Wallace, whose message had demonstrated surprising resonance in the country at large.”

Like Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan seems to have had a distaste for Wallace, and resisted attempts to link his political fortunes to him. But also, like Goldwater, Reagan had opposed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act on the basis of their infringing upon state’s rights, in line with the position of Wallace and the Dixiecrat South. The evidence that prominent conservatives from the mid 60s to 70s saw some degree of philosophical kinship in the political culture of the white Democratic South is clear. That leading Republican strategists and politicians saw and sought to exploit a shift in southern white political sympathies to the advantage of the Republican Party on matters of race is also clear. Finally, the outcomes of the national elections that followed the Civil Rights Act are largely consistent with the shifting of these partisan sympathies on the national level.

Does this mean that a change in white voters’ perceptions of the parties’ racial sympathies, particularly in the South, is the only explanation for the long-term switch that occurred in this demographics’ party loyalty from the 1960s to today? Certainly not. Univariate explanations for shifts in the political landscape are always tempting. But race-related policies and prejudices are but one explosive factor in the multifaceted set of causes that have led American politics to evolve as they have.

Even before Goldwater, Republican president Dwight Eisenhower won the South, along with an overwhelming majority of the country, on the basis of a strong economy and towering international stature—and perhaps in spite of his having integrated the armed forces. In 1976, liberal Democrat Jimmy Carter defeated Republican president Gerald Ford, handily winning the South. This is oft cited to indicate that there really had been no shift in the white South towards the Republican Party on the basis of perceived pro-white political attitudes. Yet Jimmy Carter was a southerner himself, which earned him favor in the region—a phenomenon from which even Bill Clinton would benefit, to a degree. At least as importantly, Jimmy Carter was America’s first evangelical president, at a moment when evangelical political consciousness was sweeping the country, particularly the South. (There is a reasonable argument to be made that the advent of unified evangelical politics and concerns over religious liberty had even more to do with white southerners’ embrace of the GOP than did matters of race.) The decline of the Republican brand, following Watergate, may also have been a factor. Industrialization of the South also shifted some of the economic interests of the region. A historical fixation on the explanatory power of racial politics has blurred a much more complicated picture.

Neither the Democratic nor the Republican parties are innately racist. Modern Republicans will frequently comment that Republicans in Congress supported the Civil Rights Act in greater percentages than did Democrats of the time. This is true, and a function of the fact that a greater percentage of Democrats represented constituencies in the South. However, 96% of northern Democrats supported the legislation, while 0% of southern Republicans did. This suggests that it is not party but region and culture that tend to be the major drivers of our political and social sensibilities. Though there is surely some virtuous cycle of mutual influence, parties tend to reflect and adapt to the attitudes of their constituents more often than they define them.

While the claim that the appeal of the parties on the basis of racial issues switched following the passage of the Civil Rights Act is true enough, there is a greater truth that conservatives who resist this claim often make which deserves to be acknowledged: the South changed its racial attitudes over time. It has changed, just as America has changed. Whether its overarching racial culture has changed nearly enough to meet the higher aspirations of our ideals of racial equality today is a separate question. But the South that the Republican Party represents today is not the South of George Wallace and the neo-segregationists. There is enough to legitimately challenge in the positions, practices and racial politics of both parties today without reaching back to slavery, the Southern Strategy and Jim Crow.

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  1. I guess you’re not old enough to know that the Southern states voted Democrat in every election up until the election of Richard Nixon. Other than the brief election period of Jimmy Carter in 1976 not one Democrat has won the Solid South in a presidential election.

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