The Democratic Party’s historic switch from segregationism to civil rights was a political rarity
Every once in a while, I get a comment here from someone who thinks a clever point is made by recalling the days when the Democratic Party was dominated to a great degree by Southern segregationists.
Such comments seem oblivious to the fact that the Democrats long ago cut their ties with segregationists. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he privately said to an aide: “We have lost the South for a generation.”
LBJ’s prediction was borne out in part by the extent to which the Democratic and Republican parties gradually traded places on matters of race. The GOP, which once had a healthy moderate-liberal wing, long ago adopted the so-called Southern strategy and now finds itself reduced to mostly a Southern party. Remember, it wasn’t for nothing that Strom Thurmond and so many of his fellow segregationists switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. By the same token, does anybody seriously think that Abe Lincoln would feel at home in today’s GOP?
Still, as Seth Masket argues HERE, such major shifts by political parties are historically exceptional:
The Democrats’ shift from being the party of white supremacy to the party of civil rights was pretty much a singular act in American political history. Parties rarely pull off a major shift on a hot-button issue (that’s what killed the Whigs in the 1850s), and indeed it was a very costly shift for the Democrats, breaking their electoral lock on the southern states and ultimately ending their four-decade run of controlling the House of Representatives. To be sure, parties do evolve slowly on some issues, but the parties are much better defined by consistency than change…
Why is there so little party change? …Because parties are dominated by the major issue activists and donors who get involved in party nomination contests. They won’t tolerate candidates who don’t care about the issues important to them, and they’ll find themselves a candidate who does.
(NOTE: The image above is a Democratic Party election poster from the 1860s.)