Fair warning, and apologies in advance: This essay contains lots and lots and LOTS of charts.
Back when I taught undergrad history (thank you, Lord, for early retirement!) I had to do it “blank slate”-style. That is: since my students knew so little, and what little they “knew” was all poz, I had to teach any topic using just a few basic visual aides and simple, point-to-point logic. (One of the main reasons I retired is that this is the kind of thing you’re supposed to learn in junior high, if not elementary school, but that’s a rant for another day).
For example, let’s take the Great Magic Party Switch of 1964 (hereafter, GMPS). Y’all know this one. It’s that mysterious day of days — July 2, 1964 — when all the Southern racists who absolutely weren’t Democrats, no way, no how, no siree, suddenly became Republicans, in protest over the signing of the Civil Rights Act. If I had to teach that one, I’d do it like this.
In truth, John F. Kennedy was a tax-cutting, cowboy imperialist warmonger who lied about WMDs, but as modern Dem presidential wannabes all claim to be JFK reborn, let’s take him as Liberalism’s gold standard. So here’s the electoral map of the 1960 presidential contest (The good folks at 270towin.com have done us the favor of updating the colors — back then, the Dems would’ve been shown in red):
Looks like Kennedy pretty much carried the “Solid South,” just like every Democratic presidential candidate did, all the way back to 1868. My Gilded Age history is a little rusty, but from what I remember this could pretty much be any election, pretty much any time after the Civil War — the Dem carries the South and one of the swing states (usually New York); the Republicans get the rest (their usual swing-state pickups were IL, IN, OH, PA). The oddities here from the GMPS perspective are Florida, Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota on the Democrat side, Virginia, Tennessee, and (arguably) Kentucky on the Republican. Keep those in mind, we’ll be coming back to them, but so far the GMPS theory seems to be holding up — after all, the South couldn’t magically switch to Republican without having been Democrat first.
Now let’s consider conservatism’s gold standard, Ronnie Ray-Gun. Here’s the 1980 election:
It’s looking pretty good for the GMPS theory. Reagan got the entire South except Georgia, the home state of incumbent president Jimmy Carter. Carter’s only other victories were Minnesota and the little cluster of states surrounding Virginia, plus Rhode Island — all of which Kennedy also carried in 1960.
So let’s check the intervening years. Just so we’re all on the same page, here’s our baseline year, 1960, again:
Anything jump out at you?
It seems to me that the GMPS is in serious trouble from jump street. Remember, our working theory is that all the racists in the South jumped ship from… well, not from the Democrats, certainly, since Democrats can’t be racist, so let’s stipulate that in some math-defying manner all the racists in the South who didn’t vote Democrat, and therefore aren’t on the hook for all those Democrat-passed Jim Crow laws, suddenly came out of the woodwork and started voting GOP between July 2, 1964, and the present. You’ll notice that the Democrats did pretty good in the formerly Solid South in 1964. They lost the hotbed of secession (LA, MS, AL, GA, SC), but held on to Kennedy’s wins in Texas, Arkansas, and North Carolina, and even flipped Florida, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. By my math, that’s the GOP netting exactly one state… pretty mild as far as backlashes go, especially considering that they actually lost two electoral votes in the process (47 to 49).
But let’s stipulate that Southerners, being illiterate inbred hicks, didn’t fully get the word on the Civil Rights Act before election day in November. Since there’s no point in shorting ourselves now, let’s also stipulate that Barry Goldwater was the worst candidate in the history of the world. Hell, let’s throw in residual grief for JFK influencing the electoral vote totals. It still seems that overall, the raaaacist South balked at their first chance to throw the Civil Rights Act-passing bums out.*
Which brings us to 1968.
My, that’s a colorful one!!! The gold (nice choice fellas) represents George Wallace, a racist candidate if ever there was one. Hell, he even had a proto-MAGA campaign slogan: “Stand Up for America.” If I were teaching this stuff, I’d stop here for several classes, because if the GMPS theory is true, then this chart is the pièce de résistance. You’ve got every Southern state except Texas going to one racist or another. Hell, you’ve even got all the kinda-Southern, as-chicken-fried-as-the-mood-strikes-them states like Maryland and Kentucky going racist, plus all the racists in….ummmmm… Wisconsin, California, and New Jersey, but hey, whatever, point is, that’s a whole lot of racism right there.
But maybe not. Let’s look at two other oddly-colored election charts:
Those are the results of the only third-party runs in the modern(-ish) era that carried a state (for simplicity’s sake I’m omitting Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign, which didn’t carry a state despite netting nearly 20 million votes — nearly half Bill Clinton’s vote share). At this point in my classroom, we’d have to hem and haw around for 45 minutes until somebody stated the obvious, but it’s pretty clear that third parties siphon most of their support almost exclusively off one of the other two parties. In 1912 it was Teddy Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” party torpedoing the Republicans; in 1860 it was Stephen A. Douglas and John Bell screwing over the Democrats.
Which is big trouble for the GMPS theory, because all the really racist racists had a viable candidate to vote for, which meant that all the Democrats had to do is not run a total loser…. Alas, that’s what they did, but not before shooting themselves in the foot in so many other ways. As we all know, incumbents have a huge advantage; the Dems squandered theirs in 1968 when LBJ withdrew. Which made their primaries a multi-way battle royale… until Robert F. Kennedy got shot (not in the foot), which cleared the way, sort of, for Eugene McCarthy, who was himself shot in the back (metaphorically) by Hubert Humphrey, whose Hillary Clintonesque maneuverings with the delegate counts at the convention secured him the nomination….
…. of all but the Dixiecrats. They’re the GMPS’s version of the boogeyman. If you press a GMPS believer almost to the point of actual physical torture, he’ll admit that yes, there were some racists in the Democratic party… but they were all “Dixiecrats,” so they don’t count. But wait: here’s that chart again:
Oops. If all of those racists were going to vote GOP until the “Dixiecrats” pulled their stunt, Humphrey should’ve sailed to victory in the Deep South. It probably wouldn’t have mattered in the end — only figuring out who your candidate is in late August, at a convention surrounded by nationally televised riots, will really put you behind the eight ball — but according to GMPS theory, the former slave states should’ve been as blue in 1968 as they were in the mist-shrouded yesteryear of 1960, what with the racists going to Nixon and the uber-racists going to Wallace and all.
Which brings us to the “Southern Strategy,” the lynchpin (sorry) of Great Magic Party Switch theory. You know this one, I’m sure, almost as well as you know the GMPS itself, but since the kids don’t, I’d explain it like this: The racists in the GOP figured they could get all the other racists in the South back onside by making racist appeals, racistly, in the election of 1972. Let’s go to the tape:
Holy guacamole, look at all that racism!!! Except, ummm, not. You might recall that all the way back in 1964, we stipulated for the purposes of argument that Barry Goldwater was the worst candidate in the history of the world. We don’t have to stipulate in George McGovern’s case. He had all the charisma of Mitt Romney and the granite personal integrity of John Kerry… or maybe vice versa, but anyway, it doesn’t matter, because the dude somehow ended up being outflanked as a peacenik on Vietnam by Richard fucking Nixon, the guy who was actually running the goddamn war. Even if we grant the biggest possible advantage to the then-still-unknown Watergate break-in, you’re still left with the question of how not just the South, but the entire United States, with the noble exceptions of Massachusetts and DC, got racismizized (it’s a word, look it up) by the “Southern Strategy.”
I know, I know, everyone who pushes the GMPS also believes that all of America is incorrigibly racist, but in 1972 blacks were at most just 13% of the population, and the ones who didn’t live in the South were heavily concentrated in a few heavily urbanized areas. So the question of just exactly how the Democrats lost all those true-blue, heavily unionized states in the Rust Belt, plus the entire Midwest, Northeast, Northwest, and Southwest, in just twelve years is still gonna be on the midterm.
It’s a wordy question, I know, and Millennials are notso-hotso with the reading comprehension, so I’d probably frame it like this:
But dat Southern Strategy tho, as I think the kids these days say. I’m no fancy big-city lawyer, but it seems to me that all those awful racist Southern states voted Democrat in 1976. It also seems to me that the Dems’ candidate that year, one James Earl Carter Jr., was the goofiest, most cornpone-soundin’ redneck this side of Bill Clinton. His opponent, by contrast, was Gerald Ford, an incumbent with such sex appeal that the only thing anyone remembered about him was his football career back in the 1930s. Still, the guy’s original name was Leslie Lynch King Jr., for pete’s sake — if anyone could quarterback a Southern Strategy, it’d be that guy. Alas….
Which brings us to 1980, but by now I think even the slowest of my students would have gotten the point, or slit their wrists from sheer boredom. So class, let’s end with a quick pop quiz:
The Great Magic Party Switch of 1964 really happened, true or false?
*Yes yes, I know, the Dems fought tooth and nail against the Civil Rights Act, but there’s only so much poz you can blow up in one lesson. If I were doing this in the classroom, I’d make that an extra credit project — go look up the actual partisan breakdown of votes on the CRA, both House and Senate.