"It was a deliberate choice ... and a sin": How GOP really became the party of the South

Today's GOP is very different from the one at its founding, historian Heather Cox Richardson tells Salon

Published December 24, 2014 3:00PM (EST)

                    (AP/Dave Martin)
(AP/Dave Martin)

When Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu was finally confronted with the inevitable and rather unceremoniously ousted by the state's conservative voters, the political media had mostly moved on to its next attraction. But as some commentators noted, Landrieu's loss, while no longer significant in terms of the Senate's partisan balance of power, was a watershed moment that quite likely served as the ultimate end of an era. After once being so consistently and reliably Democratic that it was called the "Solid South," the states that once comprised the Confederate States of America were now almost entirely Republican. The long transformation of the party of Lincoln into the party of Perry was essentially complete.

Interested in getting a big-picture view of just how total and remarkable the Republican Party's migration to the South has really been, Salon recently called Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson, author of the recent released "To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party," to discuss the fall of the Southern Democrat and the rise of the Dixie Republican. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

When the GOP was founded in the 1850s, how many of the key players were Southerners — or at least people who thought of themselves, culturally, as Southerners?

That would be pretty much zero. The Republican Party is the first really sectional party. The parties had always been national, in part because they didn't have telegraphs (so it was easy for you to say one thing in one section of the country and another thing somewhere else) ...

But during the Civil War, the Republican Party ran the country itself — not all Democrats, but many of the Democrats had left — and what they did was so enormously popular that when the war was over not only were all African-Americans in the South Republican voters ... [but many whites were too].

But the central dynamics of the Republican Party were less about race than they were (I'm going to get myself into trouble for this) about class. Republicans wanted the government to promote equal opportunity for the guys at the bottom, so a lot of Southern whites jumped onto the Republican Party — not a majority, but the idea that only black people were Republicans is wrong. When the KKK starts going after people in the late 1860s, they're murdering white people as well as black people; the people they're murdering are Republicans.

And were there many rank-and-file white supporters of the GOP before the Civil War? Or was it at that point much more of a Northern coalition?

There really weren't [white Republicans in the South] before the Civil War because the Republican Party was so young. It really only starts to formulate in 1854, and it really only starts to articulate its principles in 1856 and then snowball in 1858.

But by then, the Southern leaders and the Southern newspapers are so invested in the idea of the Democratic Party retaining control of the government that they paint Republicans as what they call "Black Republicans," who are going to come down to the South and force racial equality at the point of bayonet. And then in 1859, we have John Brown doing that — completely unsuccessfully, and he's a lunatic — but for Southern whites ... they look at the Republicans as being virtually satanic.

What was it that made Southern whites, at least for a while, change their minds?

During and especially after the war, the Republicans ... they don't kill anybody. If you think about it, it's astonishing that for a rebellion of that size (more than 600,000 dead; more than $2.5 billion in debt) nobody hangs for their participation ... (some people are hanged, but for other crimes) and that's astonishing. So [Southern whites] start to feel that maybe [Republicans] aren't the devil incarnate.

The first thing Republicans do for the South is to [create] the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands and try to put impoverished black and white Southerners on land and give them food and medical care (they were literally starving to death). And the second thing they try to do ... is to pass a bill providing public education not only for the states that were in rebellion but for all the border states as well. And this is so incredibly popular, that Johnson vetoes it because he knows that if it passes the Republicans will win in the South from then on.

So it sounds like the Republicans go from being a kind of sectional or regional party to, by the end of the war, at least trying to really be a national entity in terms of their support and their interests.

Absolutely one of the reasons that Lincoln is so moderate (compared to many [Republican] congressmen) is because he knows he must establish a national party. Remember, he won with a plurality of the vote in 1860 — only about 40 percent of the popular vote. He did not win a majority. And if the Republicans are going to continue to win as a majority, they've got to pick up Southern voters.

So what is it that happens during Reconstruction that eventually turns Southern whites so strongly against Republicans?

[Democratic President Andrew] Johnson looks at [Republican reforms] and he recognizes that the Republicans are popular enough that if he doesn't do something to rein them in, a Democrat will never be elected [president] again. He's got a personal stake in that, but he's also concerned about the growth of federal government; he thinks it's way too big already, because [due to] patronage, [the government] is only hiring Republicans and they will always vote Republican and then pretty soon there won't be any Democrats.

So he vetoes [two ambitious and popular Republican bills] ... and in his explanation for his two vetoes ... he pulls together a number of things: The idea that if you let everybody have a say in American society, [voters] will redistribute wealth; he pulls together racism; and he pulls together hatred of Republicans on the part of Democrats. So he says that these bills — which are designed to help white people as well as black people — are a deliberate attempt by Republicans to redistribute tax dollars ... to black people ... and bleed "hardworking white men" dry for the sake of African-Americans.

That link, right there, [between] taxes and helping black people — regardless of what it does for society or regardless of how good it is for everyone — is still the language we use; we're taking from "makers" and giving to "takers."

All right, so what explains why the South, after being so solidly Democratic for so long, begins moving in the 20th century toward the GOP? The usual answer is that it's due to to the civil rights movement — but I've also seen some argue (mostly from the right, but sometimes from the far left) that the South was already moving toward the Republicans in the '40s and '50s, so race politics just put fuel on a fire that was already burning.

Well, yes, the South and West were moving toward the Republicans in the '40s, but it was not clear which direction the Republican Party was going to [on race issues]. It's really worth remembering that Brown v. Board of education is [decided] by Earl Warren, who is a Republican politician; it's a Republican [Supreme] Court; and Warren is appointed by Eisenhower, a Republican president ...

Right. So once the civil rights movement gets into full swing, and a Democratic president passes the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, is it pretty much a straight line from then to now in terms of the South going Republican and, in a way, the Republican Party going Southern?

It didn't have to happen the way it did ... but Nixon, who is a moderate [as vice president] to Eisenhower, ends up playing the Southern strategy; and then, of course, it runs through Reagan (who is very deliberately using it) and then into the present. But did that have to happen? No, I don't think it did. It was a deliberate choice on the part of the Republican politicos to do that; and it's a sin.

When you think about where the Republican Party situated itself regionally and ideologically at its founding, and where it places itself on the same axes today, the irony is so striking that it feels almost heavy-handed.

As Lincoln said when somebody was arguing with him once ... it's like two men who fight so hard they fight into one another's coats. Yes, it to me looks very much like the Republicans and the Democrats have switched sides.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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