Realignment: The South becomes Republican


In the century after Reconstruction, the white South identified with the Democratic Party. The Democrats' lock on power was so strong, the region was called the Solid South. The Republicans controlled certain parts of the Appalachian mountains, but they sometimes did compete for statewide office in the border states. Before 1948, the southern Democrats saw their party as the defender of the southern way of life, which included a respect for states' rights and an appreciation for traditional southern values. They repeatedly warned against the aggressive designs of Northern liberals and Republicans, as well as the civil rights activists they denounced as "outside agitators." Thus there was a serious barrier to becoming a Republican.

In 1948 Democrats alienated white Southerners in two ways. The Democratic National Convention adopted a strong civil rights plank, leading to a walkout by Southerners. Two weeks later President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 integrating the armed forces. From 1948 onward, southern whites looked for political accommodation for their views.

By 1964, the Democratic lock on the South was decisively broken. The long-term cause was that the region was becoming more like the rest of the nation and could not long stand apart in terms of racial segregation. Modernization that brought factories, businesses, and cities, and millions of migrants from the North; far more people graduated from high school and college. Meanwhile the cotton and tobacco basis of the traditional South faded away, as former farmers moved to town or commuted to factory jobs. The immediate cause of the political transition involved civil rights. The civil rights movement caused enormous controversy in the white South with many attacking it as a violation of states' rights. When segregation was outlawed by court order and by the Civil Rights acts of 1964 and 1965, a die-hard element resisted integration, led by Democratic governors Orval Faubus of Arkansas, Lester Maddox of Georgia, and, especially George Wallace of Alabama. These populist governors appealed to a less-educated, blue-collar electorate that on economic grounds favored the Democratic party, but opposed segregation. After passage of the Civil Rights Act most Southerners accepted the integration of most institutions (except public schools). With the old barrier to becoming a Republican removed, traditional Southerners joined the new middle class and the Northern transplants in moving toward the Republican party. Integration thus liberated Southern politics, just as Martin Luther King had promised. Critics allege that the old racism has not totally disappeared but instead is hidden in the Republican vote, and can be seen in Nixon’s Southern Strategy[specify]. Meanwhile the newly enfranchised black voters supported Democratic candidates at the 85-90% level.

The South's transition to a Republican stronghold took decades. First the states started voting Republican in presidential elections—the Democrats countered that by nominating Southerners who could carry some states in the region, such as Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980, and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996; however, the strategy did not work with Al Gore in 2000. Then the states began electing Republican senators to fill open seats caused by retirements, and finally governors and state legislatures changed sides. Georgia was the last state to fall, with Sonny Perdue taking the governorship in 2002. Republicans aided the process with redistricting that protected the African American and Hispanic vote (as required by the Civil Rights laws), but split up the remaining white Democrats so that Republicans mostly would win. In 2006 the Supreme Court endorsed nearly all of the gerrymandering engineered by Tom DeLay that swung the Texas Congressional delegation to the GOP in 2004.

In addition to its white middle class base, Republicans attracted strong majorities from the evangelical Christian vote, which had been nonpolitical before 1980. The national Democratic Party's support for liberal social stances such as abortion drove many former Democrats into a Republican party that was embracing the conservative views on these issues. Conversely, liberal Republicans in the northeast began to join the Democratic Party. In 1969 in The Emerging Republican Majority, Kevin Phillips, argued that support from Southern whites and growth in the Sun Belt, among other factors, was driving an enduring Republican electoral realignment. Today, the South is again solid, but the reliable support is for Republican presidential candidates. Exit polls in 2004 showed that Bush led Kerry by 70-30% among whites, who comprised 71% of the Southern voters. Kerry had a 90-9% lead among the 18% of the voters who were black. One third of the Southerners said they were white evangelicals; they voted for Bush by 80-20%.