Demise of the Southern Democrat Is Now Nearly Complete

Nate Cohn, New York Times, December 4, 2014

After President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he reportedly told a fellow Democrat that the party had lost the South for a long time to come. It took more than a generation for old Southern loyalties to the Democrats to fade, but that vision is on the verge of being realized this weekend.

If Mary Landrieu, a Democratic senator from Louisiana, loses re-election in Saturday’s runoff election, as expected, the Republicans will have vanquished the last vestige of Democratic strength in the once solidly Democratic Deep South. In a region stretching from the high plains of Texas to the Atlantic coast of the Carolinas, Republicans would control not only every Senate seat, but every governor’s mansion and every state legislative body.

Democrats held or controlled nearly every one of them when Mr. Johnson signed that bill in 1964. And they still held a majority as recently as a decade ago. Ms. Landrieu’s defeat would essentially mark an end to the era of the Southern Democrats: the conservative, Southern, white officials, supported by white Southerners, whose conflicted views helped define American politics for half a century.

Today, nearly all of the Democrats holding federal or statewide office in the South will represent so-called “majority-minority” districts or areas with a large number of new residents from outside the region. In the states of the former Confederacy, Democrats will control Senate seats or governors’ mansions only in Virginia and Florida. Not coincidentally, those are the two Southern states where people born outside the state represent a majority of the population. These Democrats bear little resemblance to the Southern Democrats who won by attracting conservative white voters.

The dramatic decline of the Southern Democrats represents the culmination of a half-century of political realignment along racial and cultural lines. “Some of it is about Obama; most of it is about the longer-term realignment of white voter preferences,” said Guy Molyneux, a Democratic strategist. The shift has contributed to the polarization of national politics by replacing conservative Democrats, who often voted across party lines, with conservative Republicans who do not.

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In some states, the Republican advantage among white voters is nearly nine to one in presidential elections, a level of loyalty that rivals that of African-Americans for Democrats. What has changed is that Southern white voters are now nearly as hostile to born-and-bred Southern Democrats, like Ms. Landrieu, as they were to John Kerry or Barack Obama.

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The timing of the demise of the Southern Democrat is not coincidental. It reflects a complete cycle of generational replacement in the post-Jim Crow era. Old loyalties to the Democratic Party have died along with the generation of white Southerners who came of age during the era of the Solid South, before Brown v. Board of Education, before the Civil Rights Act.

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The demise of the Southern Democrats now puts the party at a distinct structural disadvantage in Congress, particularly in the House. The young, nonwhite and urban voters who have allowed Democrats to win in presidential elections are inefficiently concentrated in dense urban areas, where they are naturally drawn into overwhelmingly Democratic districts by congressional mapmakers. They are also concentrated in populous states, like California and New York, which get the same number of senators as Alabama or Mississippi.

It remains to be seen whether Republicans will continue to fare so well after Mr. Obama leaves the White House. Yet a Democratic rebound seems unlikely anytime soon. With Republicans now holding the advantage of incumbency, unless the region’s religiosity dims or the Democrats relent on their full-throated embrace of cultural liberalism, it may be theirs for a generation.

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