The vast majority of academic historians subscribe to some version of Response #2. Conservative activists, almost all of whom are not professional historians, have spent a great deal of time and money in trying to make Response #3 a plausible alternative despite the fact that it is not rigorous and relies on a selective reading of out-of-context facts. In doing so, they have dismissed the many years of hard work and expertise upon which academic historians have built their conclusions. They have maligned professors as liberal, leftist, or radical propagandists who cannot be trusted to be evaluate evidence objectively.
There is a fairly straightforward way to settle this debate and it lies in examining the entire body of evidence on party realignment in holistic fashion. If that is the case, what more can be said? All along I have wondered why this even became a debate in the first place. Why are historians engaging the larger public on Twitter by debating something that was settled long ago? Why are non-experts allowed to challenge experts on their field of expertise and thereby force the experts to take time out of their day to prove, in fact, that they are experts? Answering these questions requires that we think about the worlds of conservative politics and right-wing media echo-chambers in which Dinesh D'Souza and company spend most of their time.
Who Exactly are these Wannabe Historians?
The individuals who have most vocally challenged the scholarly consensus on party realignment include D’Souza, Carol Swain, Candace Owens, Charlie Kirk, Tom Cotton, Eduardo Neret, and others. They sometimes appear on Fox News. D’Souza resigned as president of a Christian college amid charges of adultery and deception. He pled guilty to violating federal campaign finance laws a few years ago, but was pardoned by the current president* and White House occupant. Swain is a former academic who has done short videos for Prager University, which bills itself as the conservative alternative to academia. It is actually called “PragerU” because it is not a real university. It is basically a scam funded by oil tycoons. And it shows. Among its featured videos and articles are ones that endorse fossil fuels and disseminate climate denialism. One op-ed penned by Prager himself disparaged environmentalists, created a false dichotomy between conservation and jobs, and cited the work of Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish economist whose work was lambasted by experts for misuse of statistics (Oreskes and Conway 258). Watching Prager, in short, is more destructive than ignorance for it actively misinforms the viewer.
It cannot be coincidental that D’Souza, Owens, and Swain are all people of color. The posts in this series have documented in fine detail how the GOP has embraced white nationalism and has struggled with attracting non-white voters. With that knowledge in hand, it is not hard to guess how the elite white power structure that governs the GOP, cognizant of the party’s race problems, would attempt to cover them up and fool the public by putting forth people of color as their chief propagandists. Having recently read this piece on Owens’s background, I am more convinced than ever that her rapid advance was based much more on pure opportunism than any consistent commitment to core ideological principles. The worst part is how mainstream media willingly accommodates this cynical ploy by putting Owens and Cornell West on at the same time, giving them equal screen and air time when 80-90% of the African American voting population would be more inclined to agree with West (there are plenty of other examples of this kind of false objectivity in cable news, including a contrived debate between Charles Blow and Paris Denard). For all the time that conservatives spend whining about the liberal media, they sure do a good job over-representing black conservatives in positions of prominence on television.
D’Souza, Swain, Owens, and others engage in a feature (not a bug) that has long defined conservatism: anti-intellectualism. We see this virulent distrust of expertise in the refusal among conservatives to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence on human-caused climate change, the efficacy of vaccines, and human evolution. Swain exhibited this trait when she blamed “left-leaning academic elites and journalists” for purportedly fabricating the “myth” of the Southern Strategy. D’Souza similarly staked much of his early writing career on sloppy and inaccurate critiques of academia. While professors are not immune of course from helpful and valid criticisms and feedback that accompany any profession, the current iteration of anti-intellectualism so pervasive among today’s GOP is especially toxic and pernicious. To use the phrasing of Newt Gingrich, who may be more responsible than any other figure in recent memory for polarizing and dividing Washington and the American public, professors are “out of touch,” “coastal elites” who do not understand “real” and “hard-working” Americans.
One of the ways in which anti-intellectualism plays out in society is through the politicization of knowledge and information that should ideally be non-controversial. Don’t like the Congressional Budget Office study that says tax cuts don’t pay for themselves? Attack the economists! Don’t like the scientific data pointing to significant human-caused climate change? Attack the climate scientists! Don’t like the universities that introduce students to the evidence of racism, corruption, and greed that challenge cherished American institutions like the church, military, and business community? Attack the professors! Don’t like the judge that struck down North Carolina’s racial gerrymandering? Attack the judges! Don’t like the uncovering of the Access Hollywood tape or the coverage of the Mueller Report? Attack the liberal media! When one considers this increasingly long list, it is ironic and hypocritical indeed for conservatives to deride the “victimhood mentality” that supposedly plagues American universities. The tragedy is that rather than engage evidence or evaluate an argument based on the merits, conservatives who adopt this anti-intellectual posture effectively kill the messenger for reporting information they don’t want to hear.
For all of the “gotcha moments” and McCarthyist “watchlists” that try to get professors fired for radicalizing the youth, there is a stunning lack of curiosity and seriousness as to why professors, especially in the humanities, are so overwhelmingly liberal in the first place? Answering this question with due justice would require its own post, but briefly, it could be that professors are arming students with the facts and critical thinking skills that allow them to deconstruct and rebut misleading arguments, which tend to be disproportionately concentrated on the side of the political spectrum that lies more often. It could be the fact that it is disproportionately Republican politicians who want to cut funding for public schools, scuttle departments, or eliminate tenure. It could be that teachers and professors intrinsically value an open-mindedness to multiple ways of thinking and a fundamental belief in the equality of all human beings that conflicts with the emphasis on hierarchy, obedience, conformity, and authority that are mainstays of conservatism. In any case, just because professors are liberal, it does not mean that they can’t do their jobs well or that they “discriminate” against conservative students by giving them bad grades, which one study by a lifelong Republican debunked.
Professors are like everyone else in that they share the best and worst of humanity’s range of behavioral types. But what distinguishes professors from the general populace is that they have spent an inordinate amount of time reading books and articles, writing, publishing, and speaking in front of audiences. In other words, they are informed and educated. That leaves us with two generalizations that we can safely make about professors: 1) they are educated and 2) they are liberal. The odds are that these two variables are connected somehow, perhaps causally. Could it be that being more educated causes one to adopt a more liberal policy position? If that is true, and most of us agree that it is better to be more educated than less educated, then what exactly is the problem? Given the relationship between education and political liberalism, are we really ready to accept that by trying to thwart the spread of liberal ideas in the classroom, the D’Souza crowd is essentially yearning for a society that is less educated and thus more open to manipulation and control?
Why are they doing this?
No serious or respectable academic historian agrees with D’Souza. Kevin Kruse and others have repeatedly dunked on them on Twitter in humiliating fashion. So why would they continue to peddle disinformation? It could be that D’Souza won’t listen to anything written by a professional historian (bad); he won’t examine evidence that contradicts his views (even worse); or he believes there is something to be gained in persisting (frightening). Unfortunately there are large swaths of white suburbanites, rural whites, and whites without college degrees, especially among men over 50, who have been primed by decades of conservative media to be suspicious of academics. And in that sense, a depressingly high percentage of Americans will believe whatever D’Souza says, no matter how far-fetched, if he merely pushes the right buttons of permanent culture war.
It could also just be a cold political calculation. The larger conservative project, in addition to seeking to overturn the New Deal and Civil Rights Movement, has been fairly effective in weakening the institutions and norms that would prevent the rise of an authoritarian president* and give Republicans an advantage at the polls, despite their status as a minority of the population. Citizens’ United, gerrymandering, welcoming foreign interference in our elections, the attempt to put a citizenship question on the census, and voter suppression are all part of this project.
Education is now a more significant predictor of voting behavior compared to the past. It used to be in the 1990s that Republicans maintained an advantage among college-educated white voters. Now, they're increasingly identifying as Democratic while whites without a college degree are the bulwark of the GOP.
It may just be that Republicans have concluded that if college graduates vote for Democratic candidates, then the larger system of higher education helps the Democratic Party. Anything that could weaken higher education would, therefore, help Republicans. So if they can convince even a few unsuspecting people that college professors are out to radicalize the youth and suppress free speech, less people will attend college. And if less people attend college, there will be less professors, and presumably, more Republican voters. A sad calculation, isn’t it?
The trouble is, it might be working.
What Can We Do?
There’s certainly a compelling case that engaging the D’Souzas of the world will be counterproductive. It spreads misinformation and gives bullies and trolls the attention they are so desperate to obtain. It may also elevate your blood pressure to deal with non-sense! Then there are studies suggesting that if you come across someone like a climate denier or an anti-vaxxer, trying to convince them with facts and logic will only make them more stubborn in their views. Their ideas are so wrapped up in their identities as conservatives that if you show the absurdity of an idea like climate denialism, you are not just attacking a bad idea, but attacking the person. For all these reasons, I initially ignored D’Souza’s claims.
But then I noticed that his ideas weren’t going away, no matter how many times we debunked them. I sensed that this cadre of conservative activists were trying to throw into question decades of received wisdom that historians have worked hard to establish. They were trying to muddy the waters; to throw sand in the face of the umpire to prevent an accurate call on which political party is more open to demographic change and which party has descended into bigotry and white nationalism. Their hope is to maintain power by encouraging a sort of apathy among enough voters who will say “Both sides are bad,” and therefore “I’m gonna go with my gut” or “I’m gonna go with the guy [and it’s always a guy] who tells it like it is.” Or some other banal, meaningless catchphrase that should be unacceptable in a third grader, let alone a functioning adult. And in that sense I agree with fellow historian Christopher Deutsch, who argues that D'Souza is engaged in an electoral strategy. In an article for Tropics of Meta, Deutsch made a convincing case for dunking on D’Souza, noting with alarm the conservative assault on higher education in Wisconsin. Historians, whether they admit it or not, are locked in a battle that may threaten the very survival of their profession.
The larger backdrop to this discussion is that academia is not in very good shape. Even prior to 2008, the best you could say was that it was treading water. Then we suffered the worst recession since the 1930s. In spite of the fact that the stock market, unemployment, and consumer confidence have reached record levels in recent months, academia, especially the humanities, was essentially shut out of the ten-year economic recovery. The longer-term trend is that over the last four decades it has succumbed to a more privatized model that devalues the labor and artistry of teaching, which is shown in universities’ increasing reliance on part-time labor. Some adjunct professors with doctoral degrees live in cars or have to choose between paying rent and the health care not provided to them by their employers. This neoliberal business model leaves students with decades crippling student loan debt and as a result, rather than viewing public education as a journey in the exploration of ideas, too many students now adopt a customer mentality where professors are forced to compromise their ethics. The fundamental mission of a university is a ghost of what it once was.
D’Souza and his allies have aligned themselves with the forces that have already undermined academia. To the extent that public universities (prior to the neoliberal turn) are worth preserving, it is essential to push back vigorously on D’Souza’s commentary. Remember all the predictions from the 1990s that the Internet would democratize society? How wrong that turned out to be in the age of fake news, Russian bots, and misinformation. We need to take this challenge seriously. Historians are often faulted for not engaging with the public. Those of us who have dedicated our lives to the study of history have not just an opportunity, but an obligation, to fight quackery with evidence and analysis through public engagement.
Party Realignment Part 4: In U.S. History, the Philosophy of Limited Government has almost always had an Important Racial Dimension
In the last post I showed how Dinesh D’Souza, Carol Swain, Charlie Kirk, and Candace Owens were among those perpetuating this largely false belief that today’s Democratic Party is the direct descendant of the Party of Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan. Swain, in a video produced by a fake university which comes across as an apologia for Richard Nixon and a half-hearted attempt to resurrect Dwight Eisenhower into a civil rights hero, dismissed the notion of a “Southern Strategy.” The South became Republican, she says, not because of the Civil Rights Act sponsored by Democratic politicians, but because the South’s values had changed. It was apparently no longer defined by racism. According to Swain the [white] South turned to Republicans because the region's people are pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-small government.
Aside from the fact that it almost impossible to reduce a very complex topic to a 5-6 minute video, the overall stance is insidious. An outside observer who is unschooled in the intricacies of American history may find this video persuasive, thereby absolving the GOP of their complicity in racist policies. How unfortunate, I think, since there are lots of issues with Swain's version of events. Politifact ruled her claim as “false” and I’d like to add some of my own thoughts in a rebuttal.
If Swain insists that the South’s values have changed and are no longer defined by racism, I would like her to explain why Trump won the ex-Confederate states by 8.4% over Hillary Clinton. Saying that these voters merely believed in guns, conservative Christianity, and limited government while failing to mention race is a glaring and serious omission since Trump was so explicit about his racial resentment (discussed in the second post in this series). As badly as mainstream media covered the 2016 campaign, we still knew enough about him based on reporting to declare in no uncertain terms that Trump was a deranged, racist maniac, serial liar, and charlatan. And the white South still voted for him in large numbers.
In theory there is nothing inherently racist about the belief in limited government, supporting the right to bear arms, or being “pro-life,” which I would rephrase as adopting the anti-choice position advocated by predominantly white evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics while ignoring other issues that harm human life; namely, guns, foreign invasions, and human-caused climate change. The key problem is that in practice and historical experience, these positions have almost always had an important racial dimension. The individuals most likely to believe in guns, a conservative version of white Christianity, and limited government are also the same people most likely to prefer policies rooted in racial animus. As the rest of this post will make clear, the evidence is rather abundant, especially after the Civil War, that limited government philosophy was often a more abstract and respectable way of communicating one's preference for racial hierarchy.
Swain claims to have uncovered some sort of secret scandal that academic historians have spread a myth about southern Democrats switching parties over the Civil Rights Act. I have already discussed in the previous post why her focus on congressional votes exclusively is misleading, but I’d like to emphasize that no historian with whom I am familiar has ever argued that the Civil Rights Act was the only reason the white South went to the GOP. That’s a straw man. The party switch was a lot more drawn out and complicated.
But what about guns and the “pro-life” position? Are there racial dimensions here, too? Yes, there are. Weapons ownership has historically been a white privilege in the American experience. The Virginia Slave Code of 1705 prohibited blacks from owning weapons. So did the Black Codes of 1865. Between these two events, the founding fathers enshrined the right to bear arms as part of a well-regulated militia in the Bill of Rights as part of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. While the framers inherited from England the concept of the right to bear arms, which they wanted colonists to invoke to push back against governmental tyranny, they also wanted the colonists to put down potential slave revolts and use deadly force against Native Americans. The reasons we have a Second Amendment are complex, but we cannot fully disentangle them from questions of race. Consider how in the 1960s, Governor Ronald Reagan of California favored gun control when it was predominantly African Americans in the form of the Black Panther Party who were constituting a largely imagined threat to whites.
Similarly, it is impossible to disentangle white evangelical Protestantism and the “Moral Majority” from questions of race. While Roe v. Wade and Engel v. Vitale, which outlawed prayer in public schools, certainly provided the core set of issues that energized the Moral Majority, so did desegregation of public schools. If we are trying to understand in a comprehensive way why so many white evangelical Protestants in the United States in the 1970s and 80s began to form an alliance with the GOP, we need to understand the controversy involving the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University in South Carolina.
Statistics show that white evangelicals have a troubling association with white nationalism--a sentiment that is beyond coincidental and which seems to have intensified during the Trump presidency. Consider the following:
* white evangelicals have largely supported Trump’s immigration policy that has resulted in the immoral and inhumane separation of families and possible human rights violations;
* of various groups surveyed in a Pew poll, white evangelicals were the least likeliest to say that the U.S. has a responsibility to accept refugees (see image below).
* according to a February 2017 Public Religion Research Institute survey, white evangelicals were the only group out of those surveyed to believe that Christians are more likely to face discrimination compared to Muslims in the United States.
* Just a few weeks before the 2016 election, 66 percent of white evangelical Protestants said the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values. Nearly as many favored building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico (64 percent) and temporarily banning Muslims from other countries from entering the U.S. (62 percent). And 63 percent believed that today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.
Now I'd like to move on to the core purpose of this entry, which is to show the long-standing historical link between limited government philosophy and racial animus.
1780s -- Thomas Jefferson and Enlightenment Philosophy
The author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States achieved worldwide fame for defending individual liberties against tyranny. Jefferson, of course, was a key figure in a broader, intercontinental cultural and intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment in which esteemed luminaries sought to apply reason, logic, and scientific principles to other realms of human life. As such, Jefferson sought to observe his own slaves, scientifically. The result, published as Notes on the State of Virginia, became one of the earliest iterations of scientific racism. Jefferson wrote, "A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight….But this may proceed from a want of forethought….They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient….their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection….that in memory they are equal to whites; in reason much inferior…in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous….It is not their condition then, but nature, which has produced this distinction…nature has been less bountiful to them in the endowments of the head….”
Slavery was such a fundamental component of the economic development that gave rise to the modern world--thereby giving extra leisure time so that elite men like Jefferson could ponder abstract topics--it would be difficult to separate the system of slavery from prevailing assumptions of ideology and political economy. It was during the Enlightenment period that classical liberalism enjoyed its heyday. One of the core features of this ideology was the protection of private property, free from governmental interference. What often gets left out is that slave property was included in most Americans' understanding of property. It is no coincidence that Enlightenment liberalism and the codification through law of race-based, chattel slavery in the American colonies occurred at roughly the same time. If early Americans cherished classical liberalism and designed a system of government that would deliberately protect the individual's right to property from the confiscatory hand of "Big Government," then the protection of slave property was a key motivating factor. For more on this topic, see the work of James Oakes.
Many of Jefferson’s fellow southerners and ideological heirs voiced constitutional objections to federal funding for internal improvements as a proxy for their racial fears. If a powerful federal government could finance transportation projects or charter a national bank, then in the hands of a northern abolitionist president, it could also wipe out slavery. There were certainly times when white southerners abandoned their penchant for limited government as the Louisiana Purchase and various fugitive slave acts demonstrated, but this ideological deviation almost always protected slavery.
1865 – Late Convention of Colored Men and Founding of the KKK
In each state groups of former slaves met to share their concerns and to request assistance from the federal government. The following message came from a convention of freedmen in Alexandria, Virginia. An excerpt of the message stated: “We warn you in time that our only safety is in keeping them under Governors of the military persuasion until you have amended the Federal Constitution that it will prohibit the States from making any distinction between citizens on account of race or color.”
That same year, in December, a group of ex-Confederate officers met in Pulaski, Tennessee, to found the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the nation’s oldest domestic terrorist organization. The Klan operated as the de facto military arm of the Democratic Party. Klan leaders required applicants to take an oath swearing that they would “oppose Negro equality both social and political,” to favor “a white man’s government.” In the very same section, applicants were asked to favor “constitutional liberty” and the “constitutional rights of the South” and the “inalienable right of self-preservation of the people against the exercise of arbitrary and unlicensed power.”
It is clear that the Klan oath wedded limited government philosophy with racism. African Americans, on the other hand, appealed to the federal government and military governors to protect them from race-based discrimination emanating from the individual states. Thus, it was in the Civil War era that African Americans came to understand that the federal government had a responsibility to protect everyone, including ethnic minorities. This was especially important in the southern states where whites were likely to use their majority status to enact policies that harmed African Americans.
1896 – Plessy v. Ferguson
In a 7-1 decision, the Supreme Court gave its stamp of approval to state-sponsored discrimination in public transportation. Plessy upheld Jim Crow laws as constitutional according to the 14th Amendment. Essentially this was a decision in favor of limited government since it was kneecapping the ability of federal authorities to use the 14th Amendment to provide equal access. Individual states were free to impose Jim Crow laws. In 1952, conservative jurist William Rehnquist wrote that he believed that Plessy was decided correctly. The implication was that Brown v. Board, which was then under consideration and would eventually supplant the Plessy precedent, rested on shaky constitutional grounds. Richard Nixon appointed Rehnquist to the High Court and in 1986, Ronald Reagan appointed Rehnquist to succeed Warren Burger as chief justice.
1954-56 – Brown v. Board and the “Southern Manifesto”
The connection between racism and limited government became clear once again during the modern Civil Rights Movement. Those who opposed Brown and insisted on maintaining state-sponsored segregation invoked the language of states' rights--one example of limited government.
On March 12, 1956, 19 Senators and 77 members of the House of Representatives signed the “Southern Manifesto,” a resolution condemning Brown. The resolution encouraged states to resist implementing its mandates. In 1958 the Court responded to this opposition by revisiting the Brown decision in Cooper v. Aaron, asserting that the states were bound by the ruling and affirming that its interpretation of the Constitution was the “supreme law of the land.” Here are some excerpts from this manifesto: “We regard the decision of the Supreme Court in the school cases as a clear abuse of judicial power. It climaxes a trend in the Federal judiciary undertaking to legislate, in derogation of the authority of Congress, and to encroach upon the reserved rights of the States and the people.”
One can see in the same document that many white southerners regarded state-sponsored segregation as consistent with an "originalist" interpretation of the Constitution. The document stated, “The original Constitution does not mention education. Neither does the 14th amendment nor any other amendment. The debates preceding the submission of the 14th amendment clearly show that there was no intent that it should affect the systems of education maintained by the States.” One of the important questions the Southern Manifesto forces us to ask is: can one disentangle the legal philosophy of originalism from the larger environment that spawned it, including racism against African Americans?
As if the connection between limited government, states’ rights, and racism was unclear, the document statements that said “We decry the Supreme Court’s encroachments on rights reserved to the States and to the people, contrary to established law and to the Constitution…We commend the motives of those States which have declared the intention to resist forced integration by any lawful means. . . .”
1960-64: Woolworth’s Lunch Counter and the Civil Rights Act
A group of African American college students organized sit-ins at Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, demanding equal accommodations at Woolworth’s lunch counter. Libertarians and many conservatives did not sympathize ideologically with the students. Philosophically they favored the business owners who wanted the freedom to do as they pleased, even if it was the freedom to discriminate. Any attempt to regulate private businesses by the federal government to provide equal access, no matter how righteous, was ultimately an infringement on “liberty." One wonders whether the African American students at Woolworth’s would be satisfied with the glib rejoinder that they had the “liberty” to seek out another business that would serve them, which sounds reminiscent of another shallow philosophy often advanced by conservatives: “liberty of contract.”
Fast forward to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned private businesses from discriminating against protected classes. Barry Goldwater, a founding father of modern conservatism, famously went before the Republican National Convention in San Francisco and said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” Another leading light of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley, opposed Brown and the Civil Rights Act in the National Review.
1980 – Reagan Campaign Speech
During the 1980 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Ronald Reagan stopped in Philadelphia, Mississippi, to deliver a speech at the Neshoba County Fair. Philadelphia was the location where three prominent civil rights activists had been murdered in 1964. In his speech, Reagan asserted his belief in “states’ rights.” The predominantly white crowd cheered but African Americans knew at the time what Reagan meant. This was coded, “dog-whistle” politics, and a watered-down version of what segregationists had recently advocated.
1981 – Lee Atwater Interview
Republican strategist Lee Atwater discussed the Southern Strategy in a 1981 interview later published in Southern Politics in the 1990s by Alexander P. Lamis. Here is part of the interview:
Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry Dent and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now [Reagan] doesn’t have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he’s campaigned on since 1964 [...] and that’s fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster...
Questioner: But the fact is, isn’t it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?
Atwater: Y’all don't quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
A celebrity-turned-martyr among Tea Partiers who proudly wave the Gadsden flag, Bundy is the epitome of your stereotypical older white man who feels personally aggrieved by the federal government and yet derives substantial benefits from it. He holds outlandish, asinine views about the power of the federal government and authority of local sheriffs. In what will most assuredly not come as any surprise to those who are familiar with libertarianism, Bundy just happens to spend a lot of time talking about “the Negro.” To see what I mean, watch this extremely racist video. This lunatic actually wondered out loud whether African Americans would be better off picking cotton, as they did under slavery, than receiving welfare.
The Tea Party:
In 2013, according to one survey, nearly 40% of libertarians identified as part of the Tea Party movement. Ostensibly a “grassroots” phenomenon that received generous funding from SuperPACs like Freedom Works and wide amplification from conservative media that just so happened to coincide with the ascent of the nation’s first African American president, the Tea Party is a prime example of using history inaccurately for political purposes. They claim to be concerned mostly about taxes (hence the acronym Taxed Enough Already), the national debt, and bank bailouts, just as the Founding Fathers presumably wanted liberty in the form of low taxes. We should emphasize that contemporaries of this famous 1773 event, which eventually became known as the “Tea Party” much later, referred to it as “the destruction of the tea” at the time. The term “Tea Party” came from the writings of a shoemaker, George Robert Twelves Hewes, who experienced the original tea-dumping firsthand but did not apply the term “Tea Party” until he wrote about his experience in the 1830s, about sixty years after the fact.
Tea Partiers should also be aware that the American Revolution, as scholars like Gary Nash have written, was more than just a tax revolt. It was also an opportunity to reorganize society and a multi-sided civil war that threatened to upend multiple forms of hierarchy. Those who have looked into the Tea Party, beyond the surface-level slogans about freedom and liberty, have found that its followers seem to be much more concerned about racialized issues like immigration and Obama’s birth certificate than their professed concern about taxes. Christopher Parker and Theda Skocpol have produced valuable studies on this topic. In one peer reviewed study by Eric D. Knowles et al., the authors concluded, “Broadly, the data support claims that the Tea Party is—for some White supporters, at least—a racially motivated movement. Anti-Black sentiment was associated with Tea Party identification across time points. This relationship, however, appeared to be masked by assertions of national decline and the embrace of libertarian ideology.” The authors add: “White identification appears to be a product of immersion in the [Tea Party] movement.”
Few accusations elicit more anger from Tea Partiers than the charge of racism. Yet when you ask Tea Partiers themselves what issues and policies they are most concerned about, time and time again the responses show much more preoccupation with racial issues than raw economic ones. And consider that the chief symbol of the Tea Party, the Gadsden flag, has been historically connected with white supremacy. It still is today. How can one not come away with this conclusion when looking at political protests where the Confederate, Nazi, and Gadsden flags are flown simultaneously? At the center of a famous lithograph by R.H. Howell, based on a drawing by Henry Cleenewerck, is the mantra: “OUR MOTTO: Southern Rights, Equality of the States, Don’t Tread on Me.” Cleenewerck witnessed a public demonstration in Savannah, Georgia, after Lincoln’s election in 1860. The demonstrators burned Lincoln in effigy. The men attending this demonstration were committing treason in the form of secession so that they could protect the $3 billion in slave property from a president who pledged to protect slave property in the South. Notice that the snake featured in this lithograph is very similar to the snake portrayed in the Gadsden flag. And both the anti-Lincoln demonstration of 1860 and today’s Tea Party movement use the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me.”
This article explores how many members of the fascist-leaning, white nationalist alt-right, including Richard Spencer and Gavin McInnes, got their start in libertarianism. David Neiwert, a journalist who has written extensively on the radical right and various hate groups, expanded upon these links in a recent Twitter thread. Many self-described libertarians, according to Neiwert, are actually just right-wing authoritarians. A shockingly large number of libertarians have absolutely rolled over for Donald Trump, who is easily the most authoritarian leader in the history of the U.S. presidency. Neiwert tweeted, “Recall that alt-right founder Richard Spencer started out dabbling in libertarianism. Many other alt-righters claim it in describing their origins: Milo Yiannopoulos. Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet. Augustus Invictus. “Crying Nazi” Christopher Cantwell….Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes still describes himself as a libertarian. To this day, large numbers of Proud Boys describe themselves as libertarian. So do many of the “III Percent” and Oath Keeper militiamen I’ve interviewed. Spencer lives in Whitefish, Montana, a region of the country where the “don’t tread on me” slogan and white nationalism are popular (think of the neo-Nazis and Aryan Nation types in Couer d’Alene, Idaho). If so many libertarians are more than willing to give up their supposed reverence for individual liberties in the support of authoritarians, we have to look beyond individual liberties to see what animates libertarians. Racism is a strong candidate.
Journalist Mark Ames spent many hours searching for the February 1976 issue of Reason Magazine. It took him a long time to track it down, he suspected, because the current editors of Reason were understandably ashamed of what that particular issue showcased: a hotbed of Holocaust denialism pitched as “historical revisionism.” Reason has now made the issue available, but Ames’s discoveries were notable for showing how Ron Paul, the Koch Brothers, Murray Rothbard, and Holocaust deniers were linked in an incestuous web of wealth, power, and bigotry. Check out the whole issue in hard copy and one will find “Buy Gold!” advertisements. One gets the sense that an elaborate conspiracy involving the Rothschilds is only a page or click away. The gold standard is discreditable enough on its own given the historical evidence, but its embrace by racist cranks doesn’t help. The pages of Reason add to a substantial body evidence showing that while not every libertarian is a racist, their ideology clearly appeals to racists.
The Demographic Makeup of Libertarians:
Libertarians are disproportionately white men. Quite a few believe in conspiracy theories. According to one study, 7 percent of Americans identify as libertarian (though a 2014 Pew Research Center survey placed the number at 11 percent). Of those, two-thirds are men (68 percent) and nearly all are non-Hispanic whites (94 percent). Why is this the case? Cathy Young, a libertarian journalist interviewed in a New Republic article by Jeet Heer, suspected that “for a variety of reasons (whether innately psychological, culturally driven, or shaped by life experience), women are less likely to be drawn to political philosophies that emphasize self-reliance and risk. Women are also more likely to rely on government services, both as clients and as employees.” Historically, women like Jane Addams and Eleanor Roosevelt were key to building the U.S. welfare state that libertarians abhor. And libertarianism is generally hostile to the types of collective efforts that challenge sexism, including anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action, and paid leave. I cannot help but think this is related to the current gender gap in today’s politics: women favor Democrats over Republicans by significant margins.
One editor at Reason, Jesse Walker, agreed that the libertarian gender gap is real, arguing that for “various historically contingent sociological reasons, the American libertarian movement has drawn a lot on subcultures that are heavily male (computer programmers, for example), and that in turn had something of a self-perpetuating effect.” Aside from computer programming, libertarianism overlaps with other male-dominated subcultures such as science-fiction fandom, the gaming community, Men’s Rights Activists, and organized humanism/atheism. A more direct and cutting analysis came from journalist Kevin Drum at Mother Jones. Hardcore libertarianism, he opined, is a fantasy where the strongest and most self-reliant folks end up at the top of the heap, and a fair number of men share the fantasy that they are these folks. They believe they’ve been held back by rules and regulations designed to help the weak, and in a libertarian culture their talents would be obvious and they’d naturally rise to positions of power and influence.
The Ludwig Von Mises Institute
The Ludwig Von Mises Institute (LVMI) is a pseudo-scholarly think tank located in Auburn, Alabama that operates on the margins of academia but still manages to attract unsuspecting readers. It espouses “a radical libertarian view of government and economics inspired by the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, whom the institute says ‘showed that government intervention is always destructive.’” What a simplistic statement! Indeed, the institute, which publishes material that is not subject to independent, blind peer review, aims to “undermine statism in all its forms,” and its recent interest in neo-Confederate themes reflects that. One of the LVMI’s senior fellows, Walter Block, once stated that slavery “was not so bad – you pick cotton and sing songs.” Block also argued that white business owners had the right to exclude black customers at Woolworth’s because no one should be forced to associate with people against their will. In a libel lawsuit against the New York Times that a judge dismissed, 17 of Block’s fellow faculty members at Loyola University New Orleans wrote a joint letter calling on the university to “take the long overdue and necessary steps to condemn and censure Professor Block for his recurring public assaults on the values of Loyola University, its mission and the civil rights of all.”
Thomas DiLorenzo is a senior fellow at the LVMI. He’s a Lincoln iconoclast who has conflated Nazism and socialism, an interpretation so absurd and so thoroughly debunked by academic historians that it need not merit a reply here. The LVMI hosts 20 senior fellows and 0 are women. Of the 89, associated scholars, only 7 are women. Now take a look at the gender ratio of the LVMI’s staff to see that women serve in subservient positions in larger numbers. Based on profile pics, which is admittedly tricky and imprecise, very few senior fellows and associated scholars are people of color and none, as far as I can tell, are African American.
LVMI founder Lew Rockwell argued that the Civil War “transformed the American regime from a federalist system based on freedom to a centralized state that circumscribed liberty in the name of public order.” Desegregation in the civil rights era, he said, resulted in the “involuntary servitude” of (presumably white) business owners. In the past, Rockwell has praised the electoral success of European neofascists like Joerg Haider in Austria and Christoph Blocher in Switzerland. Both Rockwell and institute research director Jeffrey Tucker are listed on the racist League of the South's Web page as founding members — and both men deny their membership. Tucker has written for League publications, and many League members have taught at the institute's seminars and given presentations at its conferences. Rockwell, who is also vice president of the Center for Libertarian Studies, runs his own daily news Web site that often features articles by League members. From 1978 to 1982, Rockwell was Ron Paul’s congressional chief of staff. He later wrote anonymously for the Texas libertarian’s newsletters, which sympathized with the militia movement and peddled a lot of bigotry against blacks, gays, and Jews. The newsletter referred to African Americans as “animals” in at least one instance and lamented the fall of apartheid South Africa as “destruction of civilization.”
Some Concluding Thoughts
When we think of limited government philosophy in the modern U.S. context, we usually think of fiscal conservatism, lowering taxes, balanced budgets, and cutting funding for government programs. This discussion has shown that supporting “low taxes” is never purely about limited government in the abstract. This is because the consequence of lowering taxes means that the wealthy, who are overwhelmingly white, will be taxed less to fund social insurance programs that help the poor, who are more likely to be people of color.
The debates over the Affordable Care Act (ACA), aka “Obamacare,” are instructive. Part of the ACA included an expansion of Medicaid. While the framers of the ACA most likely intended the Medicaid expansion to apply to every state, the Supreme Court ruled that this portion of the law (and not the entire law) was unconstitutional. According to their version of federalism in which the federal government and state governments have shared, equal authority, the federal government could not compel the state governments to expand Medicaid.
On the surface, looking at this map shows that southern states resisted the expansion of a "Big Government" program like Medicaid. But the story doesn't end there. There's almost always an important racial component. A lot of African Americans live in the southern states that have denied Medicaid expansion. And it is African Americans and other people of color who are most harmed when Medicaid fails to expand. If that is the case, then all of a sudden a question that is supposedly abstract and purely about political ideology or jurisprudence ends up having real-life consequences involving questions of racial justice and social equality.
Someone with a skeptical eye may look at all of these maps, polls, and quotes and say, “Alright, Campbell, you’ve shown quite a bit of evidence that there is a link between limited government and racial animus, but how do you know if there’s a causal relationship? Can we prove that in most cases those who believe in limited government are actually racist? How do we know when folks genuinely believe in limited government without the racism?”
I hesitate a bit here because being trained as a historian, I am more interested in narrative and textual evidence compared to a social scientist like an economist or political scientist, who might be more apt to look for those causal links by running regressions. So if there are social scientists who read this and can come up with a common-sense way to measure causation, then by all means, please let me know. On the other hand, I am not sure that is something we can ultimately prove in a scientific sense, so I will leave you with these thoughts…
- One way to test this might be to see if a person if consistent about applying limited government philosophy. Do they favor limited government in all circumstances or only in circumstances in which the applicability of limited government philosophy happens to hurt people of color more than white folks? Do they claim to believe in limited government and fiscal responsibility but say nothing during the Trump tax cut or the Bush invasion of Iraq?
- Most Americans are ashamed to openly admit that they are racist. Adopting a political philosophy of limited government is one way for racists to espouse their views to the wider public without being shamed. Given the way that the federal government has protected the civil rights of minorities in U.S. history, it would make sense that someone who favors racial hierarchy would find anti-government or limited government philosophy appealing.
- Lee Atwater admitted that states’ rights, forced busing, and lower taxes were code for getting conservative whites to vote for Republicans. Essentially “limited government” was a campaign trick. He told the interviewer not to quote him, which indicates that he was saying something deeply honest that would expose him to scrutiny.
- Drawing on Professor James McPherson in his analysis of the causes of the Civil War, states’ rights was almost never an end in and of itself. States’ rights was a means to an end. States’ rights and limited government was a means to preserve slavery and limited government. And in the cases in which white southerners departed from states’ rights—fugitive slave acts, public support for transportation, foreign policy that extended slavery overseas—the larger purpose was almost always the preservation of racial hierarchy.
Further Reading--Suggestions Welcome!
Kuziemko and Washington, "Why Did the Democrats Lose the South?" (2018)
Nicole Hemmer, Messengers of the Right
Kevin Kruse, White Flight
Leah White Rigeur, The Loneliness of the Black Republican
Angie Maxwell, The Long Southern Strategy
Acharya, Blackwell, and Sen, Deep Roots
Carmines and Stimson, Issue Evolution
Thomas Schaller, Whistling Past Dixie
Eric Schickler, Racial Realignment
Black and Black, The Southern Republicans
Robert Mickey, Paths Out of Dixie
Nicholas A. Valentino and David O. Sears, "Old Times There are Not Forgotten" (2005)
Click here for the next post in this series.
Party Realignment Part 3: The (Intellectually Weak) Case for saying Nineteenth Century Democrats are the Same as today's Democrats
Response #3—that the two political parties have changed little over time and reflect their nineteenth-century origins—is the least persuasive and most problematic of the three possible responses to the student’s original question. As the rest of this post will show, this perspective is a misleading one propagated mostly by commentators who are not professional historians and which rests on a selective and out-of-context reading of facts, many of them trivial or anecdotal, that ignores quite a bit of countervailing evidence.
Is there ANY truth to Response #3?
It is rare when historical arguments are 100% false. Let's see if we can find any grain of truth in Response #3 before we dismantle it. In the presidential election of 1828, the John Quincy Adams campaigned portrayed Andrew Jackson as an “jackass,” or donkey, to describe the latter’s lack of formal education and unsuitability for the presidency. Jackson’s campaign actually embraced the donkey symbol and it has stuck to this day. The origins of the elephant imagery for the GOP go back to 1874, when famed political cartoonist Thomas Nash depicted them for Harper’s Magazine. The two parties still share these symbols but is there anything substantive beyond this surface-level similarity?
The most generous reading we can offer is that Republicans today are the party of Big Business, just as they were in the time of Lincoln and Herbert Hoover. Democrats have likewise maintained a mild suspicion of capitalism going back to the days of Jackson’s fight against the National Bank and William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech. Presumably they stood for “the common man,” to take Jackson’s campaign rhetoric at face value.
Moreover, in the nineteenth century it was Democrats, not Republicans, who were more likely to embrace newly-arrived immigrants and a multi-ethnic society, which is still true today (though the immigrants were exiting different countries at the time). Many northern Whigs in the 1840s were reform-minded, anti-slavery evangelical Protestants who became Lincoln Republicans. White evangelicals are overwhelmingly Republican today, too, though the sectional orientation of this trend has shifted since the highest percentage of evangelicals today live in the South (see map below). Another interesting commonality is that Democrats today mostly accept the benefits of free trade just as their low-tariff, nineteenth-century predecessors did, though historically this path from past to present has not been linear. Think of how the Democratic Party was once more strongly associated with labor unions that tend to favor a more "closed" economy that adherents of free trade reject. It is worth adding that favoring free trade seems to be at odds with an anti-capitalist mindset.
All of these caveats cast doubt on the helpfulness of Response #3. Since nineteenth-century and modern Democrats have always had their own men of business, there is good reason to be skeptical. Most scholars working in the historiography of Jacksonian era politics and political economy have rejected Charles Sellers’s view that the Bank War was an “acid test” in the fight between democracy and capitalism. The Bank War, according to the entrepreneurial perspective put forth by the likes of Bray Hammond and Richard Hofstadter, was really about making Wall Street wealthy at the expense of Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. The manner in which Amos Kendall and Roger Taney appropriated some of the pet banks’ deposits to finance their own investments lends credence to this view. Indeed, the non-trivial amount of merchants who were against the Second Bank in my own work confirms that the Bank War showcased an anti-monopolist and anti-privilege mindset, but this was not the same as being anti-capitalist. That Trump can gain at least some political traction by arguing that Republicans stand for the “forgotten [white] man” who is “left behind” by “coastal elites” and the cozy relationship between Wall Street and Democratic bigwigs like Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer suggests that there is more disruption than continuity in the evolution of the Democrats’ core ideas and constituencies.
For the most part, Responses #1, #2, and #3 are mutually exclusive. Considering the totality, weight, and volume of evidence that supports Response #2, it could very well be that any commonalities between modern and nineteenth-century Democrats are purely coincidental and too broad to be meaningful. The burden of proof is on those who maintain, in spite of nearly unanimous scholarly opinion to the contrary, that there is continuity in the party systems between the antebellum era and today. Thus far the proponents of Response #3 have not met this burden and it could be that it is an impossible threshold to pass.
Party Support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Conspiracy theorist, conservative provocateur, Reagan devotee, and ex-felon Dinesh D’Souza has made a career out of propagating the dishonest claim that current-day Democrats are the party of fascists and the KKK, implying that Republicans are the true guarantors of civil rights. According to D’Souza, there was no party switch, no “Southern Strategy,” and Democrats have always been the real racists. Variations of this argument have appeared on the Twitter handles of other conservative activists like Carol Swain, Charlie Kirk, and Candace Owens.
D’Souza’s claims rest on a few cherrypicked facts. One of them is that a higher percentage of Republicans voted “yes” on the Civil Rights Act compared to Democrats. A little bit of scratching beneath the surface, courtesy of Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, will show that even these isolated facts should be placed with their appropriate historical context.
First, it is among the weakest intellectual defenses out there for an apologist of one political party to have to go back fifty-five years, during a tumultuous period in our nation’s past when the two parties were still in a state of flux and struggling to define themselves, to find the last time that this party took a praiseworthy stance on civil rights when mountains of accumulated evidence since then point to a very different historical record. But to the vote…yes, there were liberal and moderate Republicans, mostly from the North, who voted “yes” and there were conservative Democrats, mostly from the South, who voted “no.” Republican votes may have been crucial to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, but they were junior partners in the process and soon marginalized within their party. The two landmark pieces of legislation were introduced by Democratic presidents, ushered through Congress by Democratic committee chairs and leaders, given more votes in the end by Democrats than the GOP, and then signed by a Democratic president. 221 Democrats joined 112 Republicans in voting “yes” on the VRA in the House while 49 Democrats and 30 Republicans voted “yes” in the Senate.
Opposition to the two laws was a major reason why Republicans secured significant gains in the 1966 midterm elections, upon which they built to win the presidency in 1968. Since then, the Republican Party has won the white vote in every single presidential election. Notably, when Republicans first started winning in the South, they were note like those liberal and moderate Republicans who backed the Civil Rights Act. The new Republicans behaved like Dixiecrats.
Response #3 collapses under the slightest bit of scrutiny because it relies almost exclusively on examining the partisan composition of Congress while ignoring everything else. A more holistic approach to this question would consider state legislatures, ideology, ordinary voters, governorships, party platforms, etc. Included below is a chart showing the partisan affiliation of each state legislature from 1960 to 2018. The states that are blue mean that the Democrats controlled both houses of the state legislature; the red ones indicate Republicans ran both houses; the gray color shows there was a split. As late as 1990, Republicans were limited to controlling both houses of the state legislatures in only six states: North Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, South Dakota, New Hampshire, and Colorado. None of these were southern states. Yet after the 2018 elections, Republicans controlled both houses of 30 state legislatures, including all 11 states in the former Confederacy. Two trends have added to the GOP dominance of state legislatures in the South and elsewhere. Citizens' United has given Republicans as much as a 5-point advantage in some state legislative races. The low-turnout midterm election of 2010 placed Republicans in the fortuitous situation of using the latest technology to draw state and national-level legislative districts to their advantage. In other words, they gerrymandered to lock themselves in power.
The image above is proof of a very fundamental point that D’Souza and his acolytes have either failed to consider or ignored: the Southern strategy took a long time to pan out and it lasted far longer than Richard Nixon. The rollback of welfare benefits, deregulation of the financial sector, and reinforcement of “tough on crime” policies during the Clinton years might be plausibly viewed as a continuation of the Southern Strategy by a moderate Democrat. D’Souza posits that Richard Nixon could not have engaged in a Southern Strategy, in part, because there were plenty of southern Democrats in Congress in the 1990s. No academic historian denies the presence of these southern Democrats, and more importantly, their presence does not negate the notion that a Southern Strategy took place, especially when contemporaries like Kevin Phillips and Harry Dent wrote about it at the time.
Nor would we expect something as fundamental as a party switch to happen overnight, especially when one considers that it is common for parents to pass down party affiliation to their children. The maps included in Response #2 of this series demonstrate clearly that the increasing dominance of the GOP in the white South took place in fits and starts. Sometimes Democrats could briefly reverse this bleeding of white southerners from their party if they happened to run white southerners at the top of ticket ala Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. There were rumblings from white southerners who were uncomfortable with the Democratic Party as early as the 1930s. They often joined with Republicans in pushing back against FDR’s boldest reforms. Dixiecrats left the party in 1948 to support Thurmond, but returned for the next three presidential elections. Republicans made significant inroads in the electoral college in the South in 1964, based primarily on Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act, but this was the Deep South. Appalachia took a lot longer to turn red (see the map comparing Gore’s performance with Obama). An additional map created by the New York Times shows that even in the twenty-first century, the South has continued on a rightward trajectory.
As for Carol Swain’s emphasis on the fact that only 1 of the 21 Democratic US Senators who voted against the Civil Rights Act became a Republican (Strom Thurmond of South Carolina), Kruse has a very astute response. We would not expect members of Congress to switch political parties all that often because doing so would mean the loss of their seniority and status as a committee chairman in an era in which committee chairs exercised a lot of power. Thurmond was able to negotiate his way into keeping his seniority, but no other potential Republican could replicate the same deal. Eventually the Dixiecrats retired and their successors ran successfully as Republicans while maintaining the same opposition to federal civil rights legislation that Dixiecrats did. Such was the case with Trent Lott of Mississippi, who served as an aide to Democratic Representative William Colmer, head of the House Rules Committee. When Colmer retired in 1972, he handpicked Lott to fill the seat, but told him to run as a Republican. Lott did and won, eventually becoming Senate Majority Leader.
From Ideological Heterogeneity to Homogeneity: The Sorting of Liberals and Conservatives into Democrats and Republicans
To the extent that we can discern logical coherence in D’Souza’s statements, he seems to believe that a Democrat automatically equals a liberal, no matter what year we are examining. So if he can search through the semi-distant past to find a few examples of Democrats committing racist acts or making racist statements, he can imply that liberals have historically done these things. And if he believes that liberals have done racist things in the past, he can leap to the dubious conclusion that liberals today must be the real racists. Perhaps the most glaring flaw in this reasoning is that it misses the extent to which both Democrats and Republicans in the 1960s were ideologically fluid and heterogeneous organizations composed of liberal, moderate, and conservative members. Liberal Republicans in the North at this time could easily be more progressive on civil rights than conservative Democrats from the South. If one chooses to focus on the party affiliation of members of Congress—and again, this is only one piece of evidence among many—then the key to thing to understand is that liberals from both parties fought for civil rights at the federal level while conservatives opposed them.
To come at this from another vantage point, it may be more helpful to break down the votes on the Civil Rights Act in Congress according to North versus South, not Democrats versus Republicans. The two parties at this time were interregional coalitions with northern and southern members. There were Democrats who voted “no” on the Civil Rights Act because the party still clung to the vestiges of the “Solid South” of the Jim Crow Era. Indeed, the formal end to the Jim Crow era only came during 1964-65 with the passage of these landmark laws.
Today the two parties do not have this ideological diversity. If you’re a liberal, you’re almost assuredly a Democrat. And almost all conservatives are Republicans. The white South’s voters, a very large percentage of which are conservative, gradually transitioned from Democrats to Republicans because it became clear over time that the GOP, having banished its moderates, was the only conservative party.
This ideological sorting has been one of the most profound and consequential developments in the country’s political history in the last 50-60 years. It is related to the often-told characterization that Americans are now more politically divided than ever according to race, education, gender, ideology, religion, population density (rural, suburban, and urban), and even personality traits. It is the subject of a lengthy literature backed by innumerable graphs and polls. If D’Souza is to truly persuade rather than function as a professional troll who will be dismissed by any thoughtful person, he must demonstrate that he is aware of this literature of sorting.
When Does a New Model Successfully Replace an Old One?
History, like any academic discipline, thrives when long-cherished paradigms are continually challenged and reevaluated in good faith. Sometimes academics can make a name for themselves by overturning the previous model and by offering a new one. Media outlets and some scholarly journals, unfortunately, incentivize this type of work since an article that boldly overturns the decades of research propping up the old model is more likely to garner attention than the meticulous hard work that only confirms previous interpretations. Occasionally even reputable journals publish pieces that purport to overturn conventional wisdom even if the evidence upon which they rely is thin. This encourages us to ask, is D’Souza making a good faith attempt to overturn conventional wisdom? And how does one decide whether a new model can successfully replace the old one? Peer review, despite its many imperfections, is the answer.
I am confident that the arguments proffered by D’Souza et al (which are not made in good faith by the way) would not be published in high-ranking peer reviewed journals. “Preponderance of evidence” is a phrase we often hear in legal circles, but it may also apply to how historians make accurate statements out of complex events with conflicting pieces of evidence. If there are 100 different pieces of evidence in one direction—let’s call this the mainstream position that there was a party switch with regard to federal support for civil rights—and yet only 25 pieces that support D’Souza’s view, which we might call the contrarian view, the best we can say about the contrarian view is that the overall story is complex, but the white South switched from a Democratic to a Republican stronghold throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Saying anything less than this, or even worse, relegating it to a “myth” concocted by “left-leaning academic elites and journalists,” commits a grievous act of malpractice and mischaracterization of evidence. D’Souza et al. take the contrarian view because it places the political party they champion in the best possible light. But in doing so, they have ignored or minimized a much larger body of evidence that scholars have known about for a long time. They have failed to present enough evidence to overturn the mainstream response laid out in Response #2.
Here is the next post in this series.
In the first post in this series I examined the case for avoiding comparisons between political parties of the same name over long periods of time. Here I'll cover Response #2 to the student question, which is the position held by the vast majority of academic, scholarly historians. We might characterize this response as follows: though the trajectory may have been complex, circuitous, and punctuated by third-party candidates and convulsive events like war and depression, over the long term, the two parties have essentially switched.
There is a fairly robust body of evidence for this position, which can be seen by looking at the following factors:
⚬ Environmental Protection
⚬ Electoral Maps
⚬ Voting Blocs
⚬ Political Ideology
⚬ Civil Rights
⚬ Voting Rights
⚬ White Nationalism
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani once claimed in front of a crowd at the Republican National Convention that today’s GOP is the party of Teddy Roosevelt. Although it is true that Roosevelt was a Republican, Giuliani’s statement is misleading and demonstrates historical illiteracy on a very fundamental point. It may be that the ex-mayor was trying in vain to link today's GOP with a popular president whose visage appears on Mount Rushmore. TR helped create national parks out of his deep appreciation for the environment and placed 230 million acres of land under public protection. The modern GOP, however, has a fairly consistent track record of hostility toward environmental protection. It favors deregulation of polluters. It has rapaciously guarded the short-termism and outmoded business model of the fossil fuel industry by appointing climate deniers to public positions and by deliberately manufacturing doubt and uncertainty about the harmful consequences of human-caused climate change. Merchants of Doubt, the superb, award-winning book on the history of climate denialism written by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, is the authoritative text on this topic. The two authors show that conservative and libertarian think tanks like the Cato Institute and American Enterprise Institute, reinforced by the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, recapitulated the arguments of tobacco companies when it came to climate denialism. For all their concerns about freedom, opportunity, and the rights of the unborn, Republicans never seem to consider that future generations may also want the same freedoms and opportunities that can only be achieved by a more long-term, sustainable capitalism.
Judges appointed by Republican presidents sided with Exxon-Mobil over the Alaska fishermen who were victimized by the company’s infamous oil spill in 1988, forcing the company to pay out only a fraction of its initial damages. And while some Republicans today might find in TR a kindred spirit when it came to his masculinity and imperialism/jingoism, the “Trust Buster” ordered his Justice Department to break up monopolies, brought workers and managers together to settle a labor strike, fought for legislation that regulated the meatpacking and railroad industries, and argued for universal health insurance and a higher minimum wage—all of them anathema to the free market absolutists and plutocrats who run today’s Republican Party.
Electoral Maps: One of the most straightforward ways to illuminate the party switch is to look at how electoral maps have changed over time. The series of maps I have put together shows the electoral map in the South for every presidential election from 1944 to 2016 (This PDF is clearer than the image above). Red counties were won by Republicans; blue counties went Democratic; colors that were neither blue nor red indicate third-party wins. The darker the shade, the greater the margin of victory for that party.
There are a number of advantages to looking at county-level maps, which are conveniently available on Wikipedia, rather than the state-level maps that are commonly shown in textbooks and news reports. The former allow you to examine voting trends in greater detail compared to what would be possible in the latter. If you know that a certain section of counties in Alabama is shaded dark blue, and you also know that these counties have large majorities of African American residents, then you can conclude that African Americans were voting for Democrats in large numbers in these counties (this band or belt in Alabama is apparent in every presidential election since 1984). One limitation of state-level electoral maps is that the winner-take-all system prevents the viewer from seeing if a candidate won a state by a landslide or slim majority.
The South is an ideal region to highlight because it best represents the dramatic party switch that has occurred since the mid-20th century. It is also one of the best regions to show how race reliably predicts voter behavior. Read the series of maps from left to right and you can see long-term trends over 20 years, which smooths out freakish or exceptional cases like Watergate or the presence of a third-party candidate that attracts a large number of votes. Read it up and down and you can see the change in voter behavior over shorter, four-year periods.
My Main Observations of the Maps:
* in 1944 there was de facto one-party rule with the small exception of a few counties in the Appalachian regions of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. African Americans were not voting in large numbers due to the Jim Crow system so the Democratic Party maintained a virtual monopoly that we commonly refer to as the “Solid South,” which stretched back to roughly 1900 or even before.
* in 1948 and 1968, third-party candidates won electoral votes in the South.
* The long-term trajectory is clear: the white South moved toward the GOP while African Americans, whose turnout rates accelerated after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, moved toward Democrats. The most abrupt shift seems to have occurred between 1960 and 1964. In 1960, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy and Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson captured most of the South. Four years later, Barry Goldwater won several states in the Deep South by capitalizing on the white South’s resistance to the Civil Rights Act, which LBJ had signed into law. Nixon followed up on Goldwater’s anti-civil rights agenda with the “Southern Strategy,” which he continued with great success by winning reelection in 1972 in a landslide against a weak Democratic opponent, George McGovern.
* Four elections interrupted the long-term trajectory: 1976, 1980, 1992, and 1996. In each case, a southerner ran for the Democrats at the top of the ticket—Jimmy Carter was from Georgia and Bill Clinton was an Arkansas native. These elections show that the party switch did not happen overnight but played out over the long-term. They also suggest that from the 1970s to 1990s, the party switch was still in flux and that a Democrat could win southern votes if he was both a "favorite son" and politically moderate. It should be noted that 1976 was a somewhat unique election in that a president had recently resigned under the Watergate scandal.
* There has been quite a bit of continuity in the regional voting patterns between 2000 and 2016 with the exception that after 2000, there is: 1) an increasing urban-rural split between the parties and 2) the movement of Appalachia toward the GOP, which was not apparent in the 1970s and 80s. Indeed, this second example shows the need for considering trends over the long-term. It took many decades for the white South to turn fully Republican. The transformation happened first in the Deep South and then later in Appalachia (see below).
One useful map for showing the importance of race as a predictor of party loyalty in the American South is pictured at right. The map shows counties that voted for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 election, layered on top of cotton farms in 1860, which are marked by black dots. While various "Great Migrations" convey the story of African Americans leaving the South to pursue job opportunities during wartime and to escape the Jim Crow system, there were many ex-slaves who stayed behind. The descendants of slaves who picked cotton in the antebellum era have continued to live within a semi-circular band known as "The Black Belt," voting for Democratic candidates in high numbers.
Voting Blocs: To understand the party switch it is helpful to consider the history of voting patterns by white southerners and African Americans going back to the Civil War. Lincoln Republicans were the party of the Union and the victors in the Civil War that ended slavery, so it is unsurprising that African American men, empowered with the franchise as of 1870 by virtue of the 15th Amendment, would vote for Republicans in high numbers. During the brief period of Reconstruction, the Republican Party developed plans for building a party apparatus in the South based on carpetbaggers, scalawags, and freedmen, the ex-slaves who were to comprise 80% of the GOP’s voting base in the South. A racist campaign poster for the 1866 gubernatorial contest in Pennsylvania (pictured below) shows that it was widely acknowledged that Republicans stood for giving voting rights to African Americans. In turn, African Americans demonstrated loyalty to the GOP well into the 1920s and 30s.
Unfortunately for African Americans, the substantive gains of voting, elected office, property ownership, and due process of law were mostly overturned within a decade or two by white southerners who proved unwilling to accept the results of the Civil War. Many northerners, especially the titans of industry who longed for a cheap labor force that could produce raw materials at low cost, were complicit. The sharecropping system and lack of any significant redistribution of land or wealth kept most black farmers in a perpetual state of debt and dependency.
Most white southerners at this time were staunch Democrats, continuing a trend that went back to the antebellum era. The problem for Democrats was that Republicans were making gains in the North and West. To stay competitive in national elections, they had to lock up the South and hope to pick off a few northern states like New York. And to do this, they had to curtail black voting.
Enter voter disenfranchisement and domestic terrorism. A series of voter-related gimmicks passed by southern state legislatures, reinforced by physical intimidation, violence, lynching, and domestic terrorism committed by vigilante groups like the KKK, were lethally effective in drastically reducing black turnout. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and laws that disqualified voters with a criminal record were among the gimmicks that disproportionately targeted African American voters. The initial literacy tests were also disfranchising poor, illiterate whites in the South, and since Democrats needed these voters to win elections, they designed an escape hatch: the grandfather clause. Voters whose grandfathers had voted before the Civil War could bypass the literacy test. It would be difficult to design a voter scheme more obvious in its racism. The ancestors of almost all African Americans were slaves and therefore could not vote. They still had to take the arbitrarily enforced, convoluted, and unreasonably defined literacy tests, and unsurprisingly, African American voter participation fell off a cliff. When African Americans could count on the protection of federal troops and did not have to take literacy tests, they were able to elect African American candidates in the South. Yet this lasted only a few years and tragically, as late as 1992, the number of black southern legislators was still less than the number that had been elected in 1872!
The consequence of these nefarious efforts on the part of white Southern Democrats was a one-party monopoly that lasted 80-100 years. The Jim Crow era became synonymous with segregation, white supremacy, and “home rule.” As late as the early-1960s, which is within living memory of many folks alive today, pro-segregationist Democrat Jimmie Davis was governor of the state of Louisiana, which administered a literacy test for voting. My students are often shocked at the unreasonably high expectations of answering 30 trickily worded questions correctly within a span of ten minutes. The only logical conclusion is that this test was deliberately designed to fail those who took it.
When Did the Party Switch Start?
White southerners began to express dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party as early as the 1930s. Because the Democratic Party had a predominantly southern orientation at this time, southern congressmen controlled the all-important committee chairmanships in the House and Senate. As a condition for supporting the New Deal’s sweeping expansion of governmental intervention in the economy at the federal level, these men often insisted on the maintenance of Jim Crow. Opposition to federal anti-lynching laws, redlining involving the New Deal program known as the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), and the exclusion of domestic and agricultural workers (many of whom were African American) from social security were prominent examples of this phenomenon. Textbooks often describe this trend as a “southern veto” and indeed, the alliance of conservative white southern Democrats and Republicans stymied some of the more radical features of the New Deal and contributed to Congress passing the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act over Truman’s veto.
What needs to be emphasized, again at the risk of sounding repetitive, is that the party switch took a long time to fully materialize. It tended to ebb and flow. The long-term nature of the party switch is something that critics of Response #2 do not take into account. In 1948, Dixiecrats bolted the party but many returned for the next few elections. The 1968 election saw many southern Democrats support George Wallace and Richard Nixon won over many former Democrats in his 1972 trouncing of George McGovern, but the post-Watergate midterm elections in 1974 brought many southern Democrats back to Congress who would remain there until 1994.
Where does that leave us today? Trump won the South (as in 11 ex-Confederate states) by 8.4% points at popular vote in 2016, in large part because of his enthusiastic support among white southerners. Clinton won the non-South by 8.69% points at the popular vote. The reason this resulted in a 2.1% popular vote advantage for Clinton at the national level is because the non-South is more populous than the South.
White suburbanites and whites without a college degree, especially in rural parts of the South and midwestern Rustbelt, drove Trump to victory. The men and women who make up this group were still the largest voting bloc in the United States as of 2012 and they are overrepresented in the Midwestern states that Trump narrowly won to secure an electoral college majority.
If we look at these two maps together, we see that white voters without a college degree in the Midwest switched their support from Democrats in 2012 to Republicans in 2016, driving Trump to victory.
African Americans, meanwhile, stayed loyal to the GOP in 1932, but shifted in massive numbers to FDR in 1936. About 76% of northern blacks voted for FDR’s shellacking of Alf Landon in 1936.
You wouldn’t gather this from casually watching cable news shows, which often delight in the false objectivity of pitting a black Republican against a black Democrat in a split-screen debate format and giving them equal time to hash it out, but Democratic candidates consistently garner 80-90% of the black vote, making African American voters the most loyal and one-sided demographic group of all in the United States. In Doug Jones’s victory over Roy Moore in the special election for Alabama’s open Senate seat in 2017, Jones, the Democrat, won about 97% of the vote from black women.
Here are some other relevant facts: In the current Congress, there are 54 Democratic House members who are African American. Only 1, Will Hurd, is a Republican, and he is retiring. The ethnic composition of the House GOP is comprised almost entirely of white men while two-thirds of the Democratic majority are not.
Why Did the Party Switch Occur?
In a nutshell, the New Deal and Civil Rights Movement. Both empowered the federal government to provide economic security and civil rights in ways that liberals applauded and conservatives rejected. And in the South, party identification is a proxy for race so that a good many of the liberals are African Americans while the conservatives are mostly white.
During the era of Reconstruction it was a Republican president and his allies in Congress that destroyed the pro-slavery Confederacy, passed the Civil Rights Act that overturned the Black Codes, and enacted the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments that abolished slavery, guaranteed due process, equal rights, and birthright citizenship, and ensured the franchise for male ex-slaves, respectively. Accordingly, blacks voted Republican for many decades. By the 1960s, however, it was a Democratic president and his congressional allies that passed the most sweeping civil rights bill since Reconstruction (yes, there were liberal, northern Republicans who helped pass this bill and conservative, southern Democrats who opposed it as we will discuss in the next post). Between the 1930s and 1960s, the Democratic Party gradually replaced the Republican Party as the more liberal party. And empowering the federal government to protect civil rights was, and is, a key characteristic of what it means to be a liberal.
So momentous was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination on account of race in public facilities, that African American turnout for the Democratic presidential nominee increased from about 68% in 1960 to 94% in 1964. This record black turnout for Democrats would not be topped until over forty-four years later, when the first African American nominee of a major political party, Barack Obama, defeated Republican John McCain in 2008 (see below).
White southerners, as the upholders and beneficiaries of Jim Crow, have historically gravitated toward the political party that resisted federal enforcement of civil rights. They found in states’ rights and limited government a convenient ideological weapon for reinforcing racial hierarchy. Whereas the Democratic Party had articulated states’ rights from the mid-19th century to the New Deal, increasingly in the 1960s it was the Republican Party that stood for these values.
This transition can be demonstrated by looking at the evolution of the Republican Party Platform. For the 1960 election, the party put out a detailed section on civil rights. In 1964, this was reduced to a few a few lines. By 1968, Richard Nixon began to implement the “Southern Strategy” and accordingly, the 1968 platform contained no mention of civil rights.
Then in the 1980s, members of Congress had to vote on whether they would dedicate a federal holiday to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As of 2017, there were still members serving in Congress who had voted to accept or reject the proposal. Every single member of Congress who voted “no” was a Republican. They were:
- Richard Shelby (R-AL)
- Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
- John McCain (R-AZ)
- Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
- Johnny Isakson (R-GA)
- Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI)
- Hal Rogers (R-KY)
- John Culberson (R-TX)
- Steve Scalise (R-LA)
The long-term historical trend suggests that white southerners and African Americans vote in oppositional ways—the former, mostly conservative and wanting to limit the federal government with the latter wishing to empower the federal government to protect civil rights for minorities. Questions over “big” and “small” government (and those are very imprecise and context-specific terms) in the U.S. context are almost always interwoven with questions of race, social justice, and economic inequality. There is even some recent research that indicates that whites today who live in the parts of the South that used to be the largest slaveholding counties (the Black Belt) are more likely to oppose affirmative action, vote Republican, harbor racial resentment, and hold negative views of blacks. All of these trends, the authors conclude, point to the historical legacy of slavery and how racial attitudes get passed down over the generations.
Voter Suppression and Voting Rights
We can tell that the parties have switched since the early-20th century because the Democratic Party, unlike its Jim Crow antecedent, now supports federal protection of voting rights. The Shelby County Supreme Court decision, on the other hand, shows us that judges appointed by Republicans are willing to weaken the Voting Rights Act (VRA). In fact, Chief Justice John Roberts, while serving in the Reagan Justice Department, wrote a series of memos criticizing the VRA. The Republican hostility to safeguarding the franchise for African Americans was on full display in the Florida 2000 fiasco, which I wrote about at length. Florida’s history of mass incarceration, long voting lines on Election Day, and voter purges have a disproportionately negative impact on African American voters and may well have given Bush the presidency.
At the national level, racially discriminatory voter ID laws, enacted almost exclusively by Republicans, and virtually non-existent before 2006, are signs that Republicans have given up on persuasion and instead have resorted to a more watered down version of what late-19th century southern Democrats did. Voter ID laws and mass incarceration lend credence to what author Michelle Alexander has dubbed “the New Jim Crow.”
Lincoln Republicans, much more than Democrats at the time, were comfortable embracing the power of the federal government to promote civil rights for African Americans, environmental protections, and economic development. This put them in the Hamiltonian tradition. They raised an army to defeat the South, created a system of land-grant colleges, implemented some of the nation’s first income taxes, raised tariff rates, financed the transcontinental railroads, and chartered a system of federal banks. Those who see FDR’s New Deal as a radical and dangerous experiment in governmental interference in the economy might very well see a commonality in Lincoln’s Republicans, which is to say that Democrats from about 1830 to 1930 behaved like Jeffersonians.
A few years ago, the modern-day Democratic Party officially stopped using a name they had long used to mark a major fundraising event: the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. The move may have been purely symbolic but it also completed a decades long transition from the party of states’ rights to the party of civil rights. A party that currently celebrates diversity and inclusion saw little to venerate or replicate in two presidents in the early republic who owned slaves and did much to fortify slave interests. Indeed, the politicians most likely to celebrate Jefferson and Jackson would be Republicans and libertarians, not Democrats.
Readers who are still unconvinced of the commonality between modern-day Republicans and late-19th century Democrats may wish to consider which of the two main parties maintains a closer relationship with the Ku Klux Klan? Recall that the Klan, a domestic terrorist organization and military arm of the Democratic Party, murdered dozens, if not hundreds, of African Americans during the period of Reconstruction.
In 1991, David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the KKK, ran for governor of Louisiana as a Republican. He had previously been a Democrat. Duke and a KKK leader in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the old Confederacy, supported Trump for the 2016 election. Although Trump cravenly denied knowing Duke in a television interview, it is undeniable that Trump has unleashed a torrent of toxic white nationalism.
The full list of Trump’s racist comments and actions are too numerous to mention, but here are a few:
* Trump peddled the false birther conspiracy shortly before running for president
* He said this of Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing crime, they’re rapists....”
* He derided countries in Africa as “shithole countries”
* He had difficulty condemning neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates in Charlottesville, Virginia
* He implemented a travel ban (otherwise known as a Muslim ban) that was struck down several times as unconstitutional before a watered-down version took effect
* He believed that Judge Curiel could not rule with impartiality because of his Latino heritage.
* Many of Trump’s supporters wave the Confederate flag
* He has expressed a desire to remove birthright citizenship, a crucial part of the 14th Amendment that mid-19th century Republicans helped enact.
* Many of his supporters oppose the removal of Confederate statues and embrace a Lost Cause mythology regarding the importance of slavery in explaining the American Civil War
* According to one poll conducted in early-2016, 38% of South Carolina Trump supporters wish the South would have won the Civil War
* Before losing in court, the Trump administration planned to place a citizenship question on the decennial federal census, ostensibly to enforce the VRA, but in reality to weaken the political representation of non-white parts of the country.
* He told four members of Congress--all of them women of color and all of them American citizens--to go back to the "crime infested" countries from which they came.
What Have Some Prominent Historians said on this Topic?
* Manisha Sinha, "It Feels Like the Fall of Reconstruction," Huffington Post, November 22, 2016: "As a historian, I see uncanny and unsettling parallels between [Trump's election and] what happened with the overthrow of Reconstruction, America’s startling experiment in interracial democracy after the Civil War....The Ku Klux Klan, which endorsed Trump, led by the former Confederate general and slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest and other white vigilante groups unleashed a campaign of mass terror overthrowing black voting and Reconstruction state governments in the south. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, has built a career opposing civil rights and his middle name echoes that of the Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard....Donald Trump’s election, coming at the heels of the historic election of Barack Obama, is the second redemption of the white man’s democracy....The party of Lincoln that appealed to 'the better angels of our nature' is now the party of Trump, which appeals to its worst devils." In an article written for History News Network, Sinha wrote: "The GOP, however, has so completely shed its origins that today, as historians and political commentators have long noted, its stronghold lies in the former Confederacy, states that would also staunchly oppose civil and voting rights for African Americans in the twentieth century."
* Kevin Kruse, Personal Tweet, April 9, 2019, 1:24 PM, "You can take the Nixon archives, the word of GOP strategists and RNC chairmen, party switches by politicians and region, the GOP platforms, polling data, and all the rest. Or you can handwave all of it away and call the Southern Strategy a 'myth' because of a 'Prager U' video."
* Heather Cox Richardson, "A Political Historian Explains Why Republicans' Extreme Shift to the Right Could Backfire," Quartz, November 14, 2016: "The party of Abraham Lincoln once embraced equality and opportunity for all. Now Republican president-elect Donald Trump appears poised to take the netherworld of alt-right white nationalism mainstream....Today’s party would be unrecognizable to the Republican party of the 1850s, which was formed in an effort to guarantee that all hardworking Americans would have equal opportunities."
How to Reconcile Response #1 and #2
Readers may wonder how I can write one post explaining the reasons why we should not compare the Jacksonian Democrats to today’s Democrats and yet at the same time outline the case for the party switch. Aside from the fact that part of my intent in this series is to lay out the facts and merits for each position, regardless of whether I personally agree with all of them, there is also the difference between a specific and broad understanding of how political ideology evolves over time. The Trump-Jackson comparison is unhelpful for many reasons, but one of them is that it ignores or downplays many of the specific differences between the 1830s and today. The claim that modern-day Democrats are close to—but not exactly the same as—mid-19th century Republicans is based on a broad understanding of which party favors governmental assistance to civil rights, the environment, and economic development, which is akin to the way some might plausibly say that Democrats today are Hamiltonian while the current GOP is Jeffersonian in character. Besides, the Trump-Jackson analogy involved a comparison of two individuals whereas the narrative of the party switch entails long-term trends involving voting blocs, political philosophy, and electoral performance over multiple elections.
For the next post we will consider a third possible way of responding to the student's question about party realignment.
Party Realignment Part I: The Case for Avoiding Comparisons Between Nineteenth-Century Political Parties and Today
Imagine you are a professor teaching the early-US history survey. A student raises her/his hand and says, “I noticed you talked about the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson and the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. Are these the same parties that we have today?” This question presents the opportunity for a valuable teaching moment and an explanation of a topic of which many students do not hold a firm grasp: what the two political parties stand for today and how they have changed over time. Most professors, due to the demands of the profession and the need for getting through all of the material, will be unable to digress from their lesson plans for any extended period of time in order to fully explain the nuances and complexities of this topic, which is one of the reasons that I have created this blog series. Others may balk at the prospect of uttering anything that might be considered remotely controversial. But if one of the goals of a history class is to prepare students for being active, informed citizens in a participatory democracy, it is essential that they have this understanding.
There are at least three ways to respond to the student’s question: 1) We should not compare the Democratic and Republican Parties of the nineteenth century to today because so much has changed over time; 2) the evolution of party ideology and electoral realignment is complex but in essence, the two parties have switched roles since the nineteenth century; or 3) the Democrats of the nineteenth century are essentially the same as the Democrats of today, which is another way of saying that Republicans have always promoted civil rights. The point of this blog series is to analyze the merits of each response.
Is there a persuasive case for Response #1? Maybe.
The Key Issues Have Changed
Andrew Jackson is sometimes called the father of the Democratic Party. His supporters were initially known as “Jackson men” or “Jacksonians,” and by 1834 they were more consistently calling themselves “Jacksonian Democrats,” or just “Democrats." In the 1820s and 30s, the leading issues of the day over which the two parties battled were Indian Removal, tariffs, federal funding for internal improvements, Sunday mail delivery, rotation of office, slavery, and the national bank, which is the subject of my book. It goes without saying that we do not debate these issues today. The issues were handled, sometimes wisely, sometimes poorly, or sometimes neither. Eventually we moved on. Many issues of today, including human-caused climate change, various refugee crises, America’s rivalry with China, nuclear proliferation, equal pay for women playing professional sports, and how to avoid the constant distraction of the digital world, have almost no analog in the antebellum era. Thus, any direct parallels between the 1830s and today would be tenuous at best.
The Definition of Liberalism Has Changed
Liberalism in the early-19th century had a very different meaning than it does today in the United States. Modern liberalism now means that the federal government has a responsibility to provide a safety net for its citizens through social insurance programs, environmental protection, civil rights, and international law. A series of Democratic presidents—Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, JFK, and LBJ—gave liberalism its modern flavor. But in Jackson’s time, liberalism was best understood as a set of ideas that resembled modern-day libertarianism or what we might call classical liberalism. Limited government, self-interest, the protection of private property and other individual rights, free from governmental interference, were among the characteristics that defined classical liberalism.
Conservatism—defined broadly as the willingness to “conserve” the status quo in the face of more sweeping radical change—can differ widely depending on the time and context. A conservative in eighteenth century Europe may have been a staunch advocate of monarchy. A conservative in Mexico in the 1830s may have favored state sponsorship of the Catholic Church and autocracy while American conservatives in the very same period would have found these ideas distasteful. However much American conservatives in the twenty-first century cherish the tradition of established institutions like the church and military just as their early-19th century counterparts did, there is no doubt that these institutions have changed over time. The Catholic Church, Yale University, and the United States Army existed and thrived in the nineteenth century, but they are very different creatures today. The same might be said of the Democratic or Republican Parties.
Then there is classical republicanism, a belief in civic duty, self-sacrifice, the common good, equal rights, and the common good that drew upon ancient concepts of liberty and corruption, which seems to have fell out of the lexicon some time in the Long Nineteenth Century but whose core ideas may have been integrated in some form or another into modern liberalism and/or conservatism.
So was Andrew Jackson a liberal, conservative, or republican? One might make the case for all three. It is probably best to say that he was a liberal, though again, only in the classical sense. Modern-day liberals may find a few things to appreciate in Old Hickory, though they might find just as many, if not more, admirable characteristics in Jackson’s opponents, the Whigs, whose northern adherents often resisted the expansion of slavery and favored governmental sponsorship of economic development at the federal level.
The Country has Changed Radically Over Time
If you’re an American historian, as opposed to an ancient or medieval historian, it is relatively easy to draw parallels between past and present. Some of the most important themes in my book—state-sanctioned monopoly, an overbearing president that challenges checks and balances and violates norms, governmental regulation in the economy, favoritism in hiring public officials, corporate lobbying, the factors that shape social advancement, monetary policy, equal opportunity, and economic inequality wrought by larger forces—continue to elicit lively debates today. For scholars of the Vietnam War or Civil Rights Movement, the line between past and present is fairly straight. They do not need to try hard to read our current predicaments into the past if only because many of the historical actors alive at that time are still with us today. The further back in time we go, however, the more apparent the differences become. The lines begin to zig-zag or sometimes they end abruptly.
It is more difficult, and yet at the same time crucial for the job of an American historian, to highlight important differences the past and present. To do otherwise would be to sacrifice the complexity of the antebellum era and today. In the 190 years that have transpired since the Jacksonian period, the United States has undergone nothing less than a radical sea-change in the ethnic composition of its citizenry, its political economy, the relationship between the individual and federal government, its global and imperial presence, and the size and character of its economy.
In 1830, the size of the US economy was $1 billion. Today’s economy at $20 trillion is 20,000 times larger! In Jackson’s time about 77% of all workers were engaged in agriculture. Today it is about 1%. There was no income tax in Jackson’s time and the federal government obtained about 90% of its revenue from tariffs. Today we have federally guaranteed deposit insurance to prevent bank runs, a central bank tasked with ensuring price and employment stability through aggressive open-market operations that does not require a renewal of its charter every 20 years, a public-debt-to-GDP ratio around 100% (it was zero in 1835). The overwhelming majority of academic economists now accept that the US dollar does not need to be “backed” by any commodity since confidence and the ability to pay taxes with a currency are what really matter, to say nothing of the fact that the years in which the United States operated under a gold or specie standard were often years of crippling deflation and wild swings in prices and employment. Television, electricity, the automobile, air conditioning, and air travel have radically reshaped our lives. In 1832, a worldwide cholera epidemic engulfed the United States. It took two weeks to deliver a newspaper from the East Coast to St. Louis whereas news is now available to us instantaneously via the Internet. If one were to hop in a magical telephone booth that could transport you back in time to meet a character like Andrew Jackson ala Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, one would encounter something resembling a foreign country. For these reasons scholars must continually remind the public at large that any comparisons between today and the nineteenth century are bound to be imprecise and sticky.
According to one school of thought, every 20-50 years the country experiences a “critical realignment” election where the constituencies, key issues, political ideology, and regional performance of a political party shift significantly. The elections that typically meet the criteria of a critical realignment occurred in 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, 1968, and 1980, though some of these years can be debated. This is why we differentiate between a “First Party System” of Republicans and Federalists, and a “Second Party System” of Democrats and Whigs. Many broad philosophical ideas about the role of government in the economy transcend the party systems to be sure, but experts looking at the granular detail remind us that the Second Party System was no repeat of the first. There were many former Federalists who appreciated Jackson’s embodiment of a strong executive. And similarly, many Whigs had been former Jeffersonians. The Democrats of the 1850s, with their penchant for imperialism and the unapologetic expansion of slavery, differed in significant ways from the Jacksonian Democrats of the 1830s, who were often consumed with issues of monetary policy. The Republican Party of William McKinley was a different creature than the Party of Lincoln. In the 1910s and 20s, there were conflicts between Progressive and pro-business Republicans that pointed to a certain level of ideological heterogeneity that does not exist among the relative homogeneity of today’s Republicans. If there have been five different party systems, it does not make sense to compare the Democrats of today with the Democrats of the 19th century, let alone the Democrats of 1960. Democrats today may admire JFK but even the briefest glance at the electoral map of 1960 will show the Democratic Party’s strangely southern orientation.
The Trump-Jackson comparisons
The current White House occupant, encouraged by white nationalist Steve Bannon, fashions himself as a modern-day Andrew Jackson. Numerous media reports in the 2016 campaign season amplified this comparison and Trump, apparently oblivious to any potential for offense or irony, infamously met with current-day Native Americans while standing underneath a portrait of the seventh president.
Are these comparisons valid? Perhaps, but only in the broadest sense. Both men ran as populist outsiders railing against a corrupt “elite” or “establishment.” Both ascended to the White House not because of their political experience, but because of their larger-than-life, hyper-masculine personas. Both were accused by their opponents of behaving like dictators and demagogues and indeed both have shown a tendency to concentrate power in the executive branch while minimizing the role of Congress. Both maintained a voting base of white working-class voters in the North and white southerners. Both invoked nostalgia in their campaign messages. In addition, racial animus toward non-whites excited the voting bases of Jackson and Trump. In Jackson’s time the victims were African Americans and Native Americans while African Americans, along with immigrants, Hispanics, and Muslims, similarly bear the brunt of Trump’s bullying. Both have presided over a “spoils system” of sorts that often rewards the party faithful over the most qualified and meritorious. The two men are easily prone to anger and often seek revenge to settle personal conflicts. Old Hickory famously got into fist fights and fought at least one duel while today’s unruly president fights his duels on Twitter, much to delight of his rabid followers.
Upon first glance the similarities between Jackson (a Democrat) and Trump (a Republican) would seem to validate the narrative that the parties have switched. Yet a number of experts in antebellum era politics—including Mark Cheathem, myself, Dan Feller, Manisha Sinha, and James Roger Sharp—have expressed serious reservations over the utility of these comparisons. Here are some of the important differences between the two men that we have observed:
* Religion: In Jackson’s time, evangelical Christians were more likely to be Whig. Today they are among Trump’s most stalwart followers.
* Political experience: Jackson had been a representative, senator, and lawyer. Trump had no political experience prior to running for president.
* Military experience: Jackson was the famous Hero of the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 and had also fought the British as a child during the American Revolution. Trump avoided the draft in Vietnam, allegedly because of bone spurs.
* Social Background: Jackson had humble beginnings and became wealthy later in life. Trump was born into wealth and privilege. The latter relied on his father’s wealth to bail him out from a series of poor business decisions.
* Appointees: Jackson consistently appointed white men of ordinary means to public office. Sometimes these appointments evinced corruption and incompetence. Trump’s appointments are CEOs, corrupt lobbyists, climate denying oil executives, bank magnates, and plutocrats who oppose the worldview of the executive departments they are managing. Steve Mnuchin, Gary Cohn, Scott Pruitt, Rex Tillerson, Wilbur Ross, Tom Price, and Betsy DeVos are just a few examples.
* Popular Mandate: Jackson scored impressive victories in both the electoral college and popular vote. Trump lost the popular vote by over 2% and 2.87 million votes.
* Fiscal Policy: Jackson wanted to pay off the national debt and did so in 1835. Trump has made the debt worse through tax cuts and costly military spending. There are now trillion dollar deficits, which is somewhat troubling in that they are occurring during times of relative prosperity (when the next recession hits, presumably deficits will only increase since tax revenue will decrease--less people will have jobs--and social spending will either stay the same or even increase).
* Approach to Voting: While higher voter turnout preceded Jackson’s election in 1828, Jackson himself is historically linked with more people voting and more democracy. Trump and the GOP, on the other hand, are notorious for erecting onerous obstacles to voting through racially discriminatory Voter ID laws, hyping bogus and exaggerated claims of voter fraud, cutting early voting, and defending felon disenfranchisement laws.
* Gender: Jackson stood up for Peggy Eaton. Trump has had three wives and has faced credible allegations of having sexually assaulted some 15-20 women.
* Money in politics: One of the most consistent criticisms of the Second Bank of the United States was that it could use its vast financial resources to bribe members of Congress and the press. Trump has very likely engaged in money laundering and he is the leader of a party that defends unlimited and anonymous corporate donations on free speech grounds as shown in the Citizens’ United Supreme Court decision.
* Respect for Institutions: Jackson attacked the Bank on constitutional grounds and worked with his cabinet to edit the presidential addresses before he delivered them. Based on his tweets and public statements, Trump may not even know the basics of what is contained in the Constitution. His ceaseless attacks of the FBI, judges, and the media demonstrate a vicious contempt for American institutions.
* National unity: Jackson had supporters in Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and virtually every southern state. During the nullification crisis, Jackson stood for union. Trump has made little effort to unify the country and instead relies on highly divisive and inflammatory rhetoric that aggravates his opponents while whipping up his base into a frenzy.
* Claim to the presidency: Jackson’s experience in politics and the military gave him a legitimate claim to run for national office. Trump’s sole selling point for the presidency was that he was a shrewd businessman. Like so many facets of Trump’s life and career, this was a fraud and scam. Trump declared bankruptcy several times. Between 1985 and 1994, according to tax information obtained by the New York Times, Trump’s casino, hotel, and apartment building businesses lost $1.17 billion, perhaps more than any individual American taxpayer during the period.
* Campaigning: The Trump campaign welcomed help from a foreign adversary, Russia, to help defeat Hillary Clinton and most likely obstructed an investigation into this conspiracy on numerous occasions. The equivalent in Jackson’s time would be working with Great Britain to steal private information from John Quincy Adams and then weaponizing this information through a concerted media campaign of misinformation. This most assuredly did not happen in 1828.
* Lying: According to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker Database, Trump has told over 10,000 lies since Inauguration Day, despite not having served one full term. There is a level of dishonesty, mendacity, distraction, gaslighting, and obfuscation of reality that has no equivalent during the Age of Jackson.
Lest one accuse me of being a Jackson apologist, I am not. I merely want historical comparisons to be precise and to discard ones that are not. Many scholars, students, and the larger public often clamor for a connection between past and present because this is one of the easiest ways to make history meaningful and relevant for their lives. The Trump-Jackson comparison does more to obscure than illuminate. It is not one that I would employ in my scholarly work. If we must have a historical analog to Trump, Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, or George Wallace would make far better candidates than Jackson. Or better yet, it might be best to recognize that Trump is an anomaly and sui generis case in American politics.
Does this mean that the larger project of comparing 19th-century politics with today is a fool’s errand? Not necessarily. In the next post I will show that there is abundant evidence of a party shift between Democrats and Republicans over time.
I was asked recently in a conversation about my book if the denunciations of the 1% coming from Bernie and Warren and those who participated in the Occupy Movement were reminiscent of the Jacksonian criticisms of the Second Bank of the United States, which is to say that perhaps the Democratic Party has always despised financial institutions? My reply was that I was very wary of comparing the Democratic Party of the 1830s to today. Both share the donkey symbol but that's about it. Very few, if any, Democratic politicians today would cite Jackson as an intellectual predecessor. There's a reason the Democratic Party recently abandoned the "Jefferson-Jackson" dinner ceremony and that Democrats are much more likely to advocate replacing the seventh president with Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill compared to Republicans. Those who cite Jackson today as intellectual influences would most likely be libertarians, not Democrats, and to that extent I suppose I disagree with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s contention that there was a semi-linear path between the Jacksonians and the New Dealers, who are much more beloved among today’s Democrats.
I used this question as an opportunity to bring up the infamous Twitter debates between the Dinesh D’Souza, Candace Owens, and Charlie Kirk crowd, and the overwhelming majority of scholarly academic historians who stand opposed to them. I wanted to do this because we may have students who don’t have a particularly strong grasp on today’s politics and who may be voting soon; who look at this “debate,” if you want to call it that, and don’t know who to believe, particularly if (heaven forbid) they are immersed in a Fox News and Rush Limbaugh media environment.
The verdict is in. It was never really a debate at all. My position aligns with the view of scholars who argue that today’s Republicans are philosophically and ideologically much closer to—but not exactly the same as—early and late-19th century Democrats and that today’s Democrats are much closer to Lincoln Republicans.
But how do we know this? During the second or third year of my doctoral program at UCSB I attended a workshop and the theme of historical thinking came up. Having done graduate work for a few years (I also had a terminal master’s degree at that point), I was a bit embarrassed to raise my hand and say that I was not sure what it meant to think like a historian. But I’ve always been of the belief that you’re never going to learn something unless you have the courage to ask what might be considered a stupid question in front of others. I want my students to think this way. Harold Marcuse, grandson of the world-famous German philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, chimed in that any historian should be able to answer the question, “how do we know this?” I was a TA once for Beth Depalma-Digeser’s ancient history class. As I thought about this more, any reputable scholar should be able to do this. A biologist should be able to explain how we know that evolution is true; a climatologist or glaciologist should explain why we know humans are the dominant cause of climate change; and a doctor should be able to explain why vaccines do not cause autism.
So why is the Democratic Party of the 1830s so different from today’s Democratic Party? Aside from the fact that the issues themselves change—we’re not debating the legality of a national Bank, whether we should remove Cherokees from the land of their ancestors, or whether federal funding for internal improvements is consistent with a strict reading of the Constitution—I will point to the older group of political scientists and historians who have pointed to the 5-6 or “change elections” in which the electoral map shifts in discernible ways. 1932, 1896, 1980, and 1860 are often included in this discussion. So if there have indeed been 5-6 change elections then there is no way that today’s Democrats would have that much in common with the Jacksonians.
But this is not all. We can also look at ideology and voting blocs. Lincoln Republicans were much more philosophically disposed to embracing the power of the federal government to promote civil rights for African Americans, environmental protections, and economic development whereas 19th century Democrats, with their emphasis on states’ rights, limited government, and racial animus toward African Americans as expressed in morally indefensible poll taxes and literacy tests, sound much closer to today’s Republicans.
Another way to come at this issue is to examine voting blocs. In the 19th century, white southerners were more likely to be Democrats. Today most of them are Republicans. Similarly, African Americans voted heavily Republican in the late-19th and early-20th centuries but gradually became Democrats throughout the mid-20th century as a response to the New Deal and Civil Rights Movement. The two shifts are inseparable: as soon as the Democrats of FDR and LBJ began to embrace modern liberalism and the welfare state, African Americans gravitated toward them while Republicans found political success in appealing to racial resentment among white southerners—a tactic they have kept alive with Trump.
Historians have known about this for a long time. This concept has permeated textbooks for many years. D’Souza, Owens, and Kirk not only ignore a ton of history, but the few examples they do cite are most often out of context, anecdotal, and misleading. They’re so off base and absurd that their arguments are almost beneath the dignity of those who have pursued history as a professional calling. But the problem is that their zombie lies are propagated by powerful corporate interests who benefit from anti-intellectualism and distracting the American public from having a basic knowledge of history. In that sense we all have an obligation to stand up for professional standards and evidence-based arguments. If you want more information, consult Heather Cox Richardson, Lawrence Glickman, and the three Kevins—Kevin Kruse, Kevin Levin, and Kevin Gannon.
As the third most-populous state in the union with a closely divided electorate, Florida has emerged as the crown jewel of swing states in presidential election years. In each presidential contest since 1996, the Sunshine State has delivered its sizable slate of electoral votes to the man who became president. Yet a compelling case could be made that the state is only purple in an artificial sense. Without its punitive criminal justice system and restrictive voting laws, Florida could very well be a blue state.
There are both long-term and short-term causes of the mess that is Florida's election laws, but one might point to the late-1990s as a turning point. In 1997, the city of Miami held a mayor election that was corrupted by absentee ballots with forged signatures. Some 36 people were arrested in one of the few proven cases of voter fraud that has occurred in the last thirty years. A Florida judge voided the election results and ordered a do-over.
The state responded by hiring an outside firm tasked with purging felons and deceased voters from the polls. The company, Database Technologies of Boca Raton, drew up a deeply flawed list of about 58,000 names. It contained many Floridians with only misdemeanor offenses, and others with no criminal records at all, sometimes because they had names similar to those of felons. African Americans, who comprised 11 percent of registered voters in the state, made up 44 percent of those targeted for removal due to felony convictions. In some cases even election supervisors appeared on the list. Because of these flaws, local officials urged the state government in Tallahassee to throw out the list. But the state refused. It ordered county supervisors to remove these names from the list of eligible voters prior to the November 2000 elections and as a result, thousands of people showed up to vote and were informed, incorrectly, that they would be unable to cast a ballot. Overseeing this disastrous voter purge was Governor Jeb Bush, brother of the candidate who would suspiciously claim victory in Florida. Thanks to the winner-take-all system, Bush was rewarded with all of Florida’s electoral votes and with them, the presidency, despite the fact that Al Gore won the popular vote at the national level by over 500,000 votes.
Florida is one of only three states in the union (Kentucky and Iowa are the others) that permanently disenfranchises convicted felons, even after they have served parole and probation. Scholars of voting rights have pointed out that this makes the United States uniquely punitive among democracies. Canada’s Supreme Court, for example, has ruled that disenfranchisement laws for criminals are unconstitutional. A man who makes a silly mistake at age 20 that results in a felony—either because he has been caught up with the wrong group of friends, didn’t think before he acted, or for some other reason—may find himself at age 80, after having turned his life around completely as a result of many decades of hard work, remorse, regret, reflection, and discipline, still deprived of one of the key planks of citizenship and civic duty in a democracy. The felony need not have stemmed from a serious crime. Some of the petty crimes that can cost a Floridian the right to vote for life include tampering with someone else’s fishing gear; stealing property worth more than $300; stealing razors; stealing a shopping cart; possessing excess trout, snook, or redfish during the community harvest; killing, injuring, or possessing an alligator egg without the proper authority.
Some scholars like Ciara Torres-Spelliscy argue that felon disenfranchisement laws entail a number of harmful consequences. Aside from being overly punitive, they make flawed voter purges more likely. If there were no laws on the books permanently barring ex-felons from voting, there would be much less need to implement purges that carry a high risk of removing legitimate voters from the polls. In addition, felon disenfranchisement laws set up something known as a prison gerrymander. This phenomenon gives disproportionate political influence to the voters living in districts where prisons are located. It tends to transfer political power away from urban areas (where most crimes are committed) to rural areas (where most prisons are located). Keep in mind that the representational structure of the United States Senate already prioritizes rural interests (a voter in rural Wyoming has about 70-80 times the voting power in the US Senate as a resident from California, an imbalance the founding fathers most likely did not foresee).
Prior to the 2000 election, between 500,000 and 600,000 ex-felons in Florida were barred from the polls, including at least 139,000 African Americans. Thus, even before any votes were cast, Florida’s history of mass incarceration lent a very significant structural and institutional advantage to the Republican candidate. Given that the margin of victory was only 537 votes, this advantage may have very well been determinative.
We will never know for certain that Gore would have become president had it not been for these racially discriminatory voter purges. This is partly because counterfactuals always contain an element of uncertainty. Perhaps the Bush campaign would have worked even harder to mobilize undecided voters without the purges. Or some other unforeseen factor could have intervened in Bush’s favor.
But the statistical evidence sure is compelling. After the election the NAACP sued the state of Florida for violating the Voting Rights Act (VRA). As a result of the settlement, Database Technologies ran the names of its 2000 purge list using stricter criteria. The revised list turned up more than 12,000 voters who were mistakenly labeled as felons and blocked from voting. Edward Hailes, acting general counsel of the US Civil Rights Commission, knew that if 44% (over 5200) of the 12,000 purged voters were African American and that African Americans typically vote for Democrats 80 to 90% of the time, then over 4700 black Democrats could have been denied the franchise on Election Day. 4700 is nearly nine times greater than Bush's margin of victory.
To add insult to injury, Americans have been deprived of the confidence and certainty that their president was legitimately elected because the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision of December 2000 halted the statewide recount then under way. Bush v. Gore was less a carefully reasoned verdict grounded in august constitutional principles and more a hardball tactic in which the Court’s conservative members found themselves in the unprecedented position of choosing the person who would name their successors. It was not entirely clear that the Court needed to take the case at all for there were no major constitutional issues at stake. In addition, the Court stunned observers and pundits by declaring that its decision applied only in this particular circumstance and thus, would not set a precedent for later decisions.
The Court used the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause to stop the recount. If there was going to be a recount, the Court reasoned, the state of Florida needed to recount votes in all of its counties, not just the ones flagged by the Gore campaign. But the Court also addressed the Electoral Count Act of 1887, a statute passed during the Gilded Age as a response to another disputed election in which the person who became president, Rutherford B. Hayes, lost the popular vote. And here again the Court's interpretation was questionable. In the Court's view, the legislation meant that if a state wished to have its electoral votes counted, it needed to wrap up any recounts by a deadline of December 12. Left unclear by the vague wording of the legislation, however, was what precisely should happen if a state did not resolve any ballot-counting issues by the deadline and whether the Supreme Court, rather than Congress or the states, should be intervening in these types of disputes at all.
Several newspapers and accounting firms have concluded that in many scenarios, depending on how strictly one counts the disputed ballots, Bush still would have won without the Supreme Court’s help, though these same studies suggest that more voters went to the polls in Florida intending to vote for Gore.
When one adds the hanging chads, butterfly ballots, Jewish American voters who mistakenly cast votes for third party candidate, Pat Buchanan, and the Brooks Brothers Riot to the mix of discriminatory felon disenfranchisement laws and legally dubious voter purges, it is hard not to come away with the conclusion that Florida was an unmitigated disaster. The redux with Trump's victory in Florida sixteen years later forces liberals and progressives to constantly relive a traumatic experience that has set the nation on a downward spiral of destruction from which it may never recover. One wonders whether all the horrifying scenarios that have transpired since 2000—9/11, the disastrous, wasteful, and unnecessary Iraq War, domestic surveillance, the metastasis of the national security state, the torture at Abu Ghraib, the abuse of human rights at Guantanamo Bay, the botched and deadly response to Hurricane Katrina—could have been avoided had the Supreme Court not intervened in such a way. Since many in the historical profession like to emphasize the inherent contingency in watershed moments like the Florida election, one cannot help but wonder in agony whether events could have turned out much differently, and much more promisingly.
Journalist Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot, posited that the Florida election debacle had other long-term consequences in that it led to a new wave of disenfranchisement efforts. Republicans realized that in close elections even small manipulations in the voter rolls could change the outcome. Bush appointed two justices to the Supreme Court—John Roberts and Samuel Alito—who both voted to strike down Section 5 of the VRA in the Shelby County decision.
A report published by the Civil Rights Commission in 2001 accused then-Governor Jeb Bush and his secretary of state, Katherine Harris, of “gross dereliction” of duty, adding that they chose to ignore mounting evidence of problems. One passage stated: “After carefully and fully examining all the evidence, the Commission found a strong basis for concluding that violations of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act occurred in Florida.” But instead of investigating these violations, the Bush administration sought to politicize the Justice Department and hype the infinitesimal problem of voter fraud.
Since the Florida fiasco, conservatives have continued to wield power, but without the legitimacy of majority rule. A court of conservatives hard-liners anointed a conservative presidential candidate who did not win the most votes, who then went on to appoint more conservatives to the courts who then ruled in ways that helped conservative voters, thus cementing, perpetuating, and prolonging conservative rule. Citizens’ United (money in politics), Janus (kneecapping labor unions), Shelby (undermining the Voting Rights Act), and other cases, have only reinforced this dynamic. So what is it that ultimately keeps Republicans in power despite their tenuous claims to majority support? An irredeemably partisan Supreme Court? Felon disenfranchisement laws? Voter purges? The War on Drugs? The answer is all of the above.
The legal precedent for Florida’s felon disenfranchisement laws can be found in federal and state constitutions. Under the “penalty clause” of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, states that disenfranchised large segments of the electorate would lose some of their representation in the House. The Radical Republicans then spearheading Reconstruction wanted to preempt any attempt by white southerners to concoct loopholes that would disenfranchise African American voters. How prescient they were! Crucially, there was some important fine print. The amendment carved out an exception to allow for disenfranchisement for those who had participated in a rebellion or committed a crime. The word “rebellion” was most likely a reference to the Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers, including an estimated 150,000-200,000 black troops, had fought tirelessly, and even died, to put down a treasonous insurrection and Radical Republicans were understandably outraged by the non-trivial amount of ex-Confederates who voted in elections and even ascended to elected office in 1865 and 1866. Disenfranchising ex-Confederates was okay with them. Despite the fact that many southern states would later enact loopholes that disenfranchised African Americans for nearly a century, they never lost any representation in the House; this part of the penalty clause was never enforced.
Yet in Richardson v. Ramirez (1974), the Supreme Court addressed the other part of the penalty clause, upholding felon disenfranchisement laws as constitutional. History professors can shake their heads at the realization that there is yet another irony in the 14th Amendment that has resulted in inequality. U.S. History textbooks commonly state that the High Court during the Gilded Age, paradoxically, interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to protect the rights of corporations much more often than the civil rights of African Americans. With the Richardson decision, it became clear once again that an amendment originally designed to ensure citizenship and civil rights for the formerly enslaved was now making it more difficult for African Americans to vote in the twenty-first century!
Felony disenfranchisement laws were also written into Florida’s various territorial and state constitutions. The 1838 constitution of the Florida Territory contained a felon disenfranchisement provision, as did the state's 1868 constitution. Today’s felon disenfranchisement law in Florida is a cruel vestige of the era when white southern Democrats were enacting poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses—and at the same time either actively promoting or remaining apathetic about the violence and intimidation that came from domestic terrorist groups like the KKK—in order to suppress black participation in the voting process.
There were substantive gains for African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement to be sure, but unfortunately, the War on Drugs has only worsened the racial disparities caused by felon disenfranchisement laws. As Michelle Alexander persuasively argued in The New Jim Crow, there came a time in the 1970s when it was no longer acceptable for American politicians to state publicly that they opposed civil rights. Instead they used coded language like “law and order,” “tough on crime,” “forced busing,” or “states’ rights,” all of which were central to Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the white resentment that did much to undermine the New Deal order. For Alexander, mass incarceration, voter purges, and voter ID laws, are more insidious—though no less pernicious—manifestations of the original Jim Crow.
Statistics suggest that there is an empirical basis to Alexander’s arguments. The population of the United States in 1976 was approximately 218 million. It was 309 million in 2010, an increase of 42%. Yet in the same 34-year period, according to the Sentencing Project, the number of disenfranchised felons jumped from 1.17 million to 5.85 million, an increase of over 400%. As of 2016, the total number of disenfranchised felons in the country stands at 6.1 million. Over 7.4 percent (about 1 in 13) of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.8 percent (about 1 in 55) of the non-African American population.
It is undeniable that the War on Drugs has played a major role in creating these outlandishly large figures. Florida’s prison population ballooned during the tough-on-crime 1980s and 1990s, with African Americans disproportionately locked up. A state-by-state analysis in 2009 indicated that Florida more severely and more routinely punishes minor marijuana crimes. If one is caught possessing more than 20 grams of marijuana, one can be charged with a felony punishable by a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a maximum fine of $5,000. Of the 6.1 million disenfranchised felons in the US, an estimated 1.5-1.7 million live in Florida, the overwhelming majority of whom have already completed their sentences. Florida has nearly 3 times as many disenfranchised ex-felons as Texas, the next highest state. So although less than 7% of the nation’s population lived in Florida in 2016, the state was home to almost 27% of the nation’s disenfranchised felons.
There is a process for restoring the voting rights of ex-felons in Florida, but it is altogether cumbersome, timely, costly, and capricious. Ex-felons have to wait five years after the completion of their sentence, apply for the restoration of civil rights, and travel potentially hundreds of miles to Tallahassee to appear before a clemency board consisting of the governor, attorney general, and agriculture commissioner. After listening to a five-minute speech in which the applicant ideally demonstrates contrition, the governor essentially calls the shots on the board, deciding on a whim whether to restore voting rights. There are almost no standards. Members of the board have in the past asked if applicants attend church or how many children they’ve fathered and with how many women—bizarre questions that would be considered invasive or illegal in other contexts.
Much of the degree to which civil rights are restored to ex-felons in Florida depends on who happens to be governor. The Supreme Court has ruled that states cannot automatically restore voting rights because this power has historically fell under the governor’s pardoning power, which is almost absolute. Bush approved just one-fifth of the 385,522 applications for voting-rights restoration submitted during his eight years in office. His successor, Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat, was much more lenient. In 2008, more than 85,000 ex-offenders had their rights restored—more than during Bush’s entire tenure. But even Crist had to contend with a reduced staff due to budget cuts, making it more difficult to work through the tremendous backlog. In his final year in office, fewer than 6,000 people had their rights restored.
The record under Republican Rick Scott has been nothing less than abysmal. Restorations nearly ground to a halt with just 78 applications approved in 2011. The clemency board meets only four times per year and hears less than 100 cases every time it meets. This was because Scott implemented new rules that effectively slowed down the process of restoration. Noting that Scott was more likely to pardon applicants with conservative views, a federal judge ruled that Scott’s plans were arbitrary and unconstitutional for violating free speech and equal protection.
2000 should have made it abundantly clear that Florida was inept and incapable of administering an election that was fair, equitable, and efficient in terms of wait time. One could imagine in this situation that a federal agency staffed with non-partisan, career civil servants could oversee Florida’s elections to provide equal protection of the laws—the part of the Fourteenth Amendment that can and should be interpreted to make longer wait times in communities of color untenable. Yet conservative jurists have consistently viewed this type of federal oversight as anathema to the type of federalism they hold dear.
The consequences of leaving voting laws up to the individual states are such that if a political party gains full control of both legislative houses and the governor’s mansion (sometimes called the trifecta), and that political party decides that less people voting is critical to maintaining power, that party has a lot of options of making it more difficult to vote. And this is what continues to happen in Florida election cycle after election cycle despite all the negative publicity and empty promises of reform. After winning election during the “Tea Party” wave of 2010, Governor Scott launched a voter purge in 2012 known as “Project Integrity.” Ostensibly designed to remove non-citizens from the rolls, Project Integrity was panned by critics as a thinly veiled attempt to disenfranchise a disproportionate share of Hispanics and African Americans. Florida officials said they had drawn up an initial list of 182,000 potential non-citizens. But that number was reduced to fewer than 200 after election officials acknowledged errors on the original list. In identifying potential non-citizens, Florida officials sent their information to county election supervisors who then mailed letters to voters requesting proof they were U.S. citizens. If no response was received, the voter was dropped from the rolls.
A voter who believes that s/he is entitled to vote but has been mistakenly removed the polls by these purges creates an administrative headache on Election Day. It contributes to longer lines. And studies show that longer wait times are more likely to occur in counties with large Hispanic populations. But this was not the only destructive weapon in Scott’s quiver. The governor also cut early voting prior to the 2012 election. And unfortunately, there is no requirement in Florida for delegating a minimum amount of voting machines, poll workers, and money to a given precinct. South Carolina, for example, requires that there should be 1 poll worker for every 250 voters. It should come as no surprise that a Brennan Center for Justice report found in its study of South Carolina, Maryland, and Florida, that there were fewer voting machines for minority precincts. Of the three states, only Florida had a statewide and systematic problem.
Reports of long lines for voting in Florida on Election Day 2012 were pervasive, especially in the poor parts of town or precincts near universities (not coincidentally both of these constituencies tend to vote for Democrats). To be fair, the anecdotal reports of six and seven hour waits, while widely reported, were far from typical. Most people voted in 15 minutes or less. And while the governor and state legislature exert considerable control over the voting laws of Florida, local officials also maintain some autonomy. Minority precincts are often managed by minority officials who are tasked with providing voting machines. Since it is unlikely that most Hispanic or African American local officials would deliberately suppress voting rights of Hispanic or African American voters, part of the explanation for long lines may lie in the failure to prepare for an unexpected surge of voters on Election Day.
On the other hand, the average wait time of 23 minutes for an African American voter in Florida, while not excessively burdensome, was almost twice the average wait time for a white voter in 2012. One would think that after the calamity of 2000, Florida would work to redeem itself by developing a fair and efficient voting system. But a New York Time study showed that Florida ranked dead last in terms of wait time for the 2012 election. The significance of the long lines is that some voters will invariably give up. They see the long lines and then don’t follow through. This would strike most people as unfair but Republicans are practically counting on discouraged voters because they know that confusion at the polls may help them win. On election night in 2012, an estimated 200,000-215,000 Florida voters gave up and went home because they could not wait any longer in line. Reporting by the Orlando Sentinel suggests that the majority were Obama voters, so had they been able to cast a ballot, Obama would have increased his margin of victory over Romney in Florida by about 15,000 votes.
8-hour wait times, while rare, are inexcusable in the world’s wealthiest country and one that chauvinistically and arrogantly waves the stars and stripes at every moment and which has ostensibly fought countless wars on behalf of freedom and democracy. Martin Luther King’s searing critique of the Vietnam War, eloquently and powerfully echoing W. E. B. Du Bois and other civil rights activists of earlier generations, still rings true today: it is tough to ask an African American to fight overseas for freedom abroad when he does not have freedom at home at the ballot box.
Tying the franchise to mass incarceration is bound to create racial inequities because the criminal justice system disproportionately targets people of color. We know from the work of Michelle Alexander that whites, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans all consume drugs at roughly the same rate. Drug consumption for each ethnic group falls between the narrow range of 8-12% of the population. Yet the US prison population, which is the largest in the world, contains a disproportionately high number of blacks and Hispanics. So when Florida takes away the vote based on a felony, it violates the principle of equality under the law and harms constituencies that are likely to vote for Democrats.
In November 2018, Florida voters had a chance to begin to rectify this injustice. A proposed ballot initiative, Amendment 4, would provide for the restoration of voting rights after ex-felons had served their time and probation, so long as the crime they committed was not a sex crime. The amendment needed a supermajority of 60% to become law. Surprisingly, it got 65%. Sensing the erosion of their power, Florida Republicans dragged their heels and erected new obstacles by passing a law requiring that before voting, ex-felons must pay all of the court fees from their sentencing or have them be excused by a judge. Democrats have argued that this is essentially a poll tax since felons may be fined up to $500,000 for their crime and then saddled with a vast array of administrative fees. Unfortunately for them, Republicans control the state legislature, governor’s mansion, and Supreme Court of Florida so it is entirely possible that the GOP will end up thwarting the will of a clear majority of the voters. The cunning and duplicity of Republican lawmakers who design tricks to prevent people from voting knows no bounds. If the past two decades are any guide, we won’t be able to count on Republicans prioritizing fairness and equity with the franchise. If they did, a good many of them would be out of a job.
Many thanks to Mark Cheathem for publishing this post in which I explain some of the major contributions and arguments of my book.
Disclaimer: This is my personal blog. While I do my best to offer reasonable conclusions based on verifiable, peer reviewed evidence, I neither speak for my employers, nor do I require my students to read or agree with the thoughts expressed here. Opinions are my own.