The changing ideologies of America’s political parties.
The two political parties have undergone serious changes in their histories. The Democratic and Republican parties have each existed for over 150 years and are two of the oldest political organizations anywhere in the world. The shifts each party has undergone and the voters they’ve traded back-and-forth could fill a book. But I’m choosing to focus on the shifts the parties underwent from the 1990s to the present day. This is an important time in American political history, as it was the moment when Republican in-roads in the American south began to seep down the ballot.
The ancestral strength of Democrats in the south is an article all to itself, but here is an abbreviated version:
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Democrats were the party of the segregationist south with white southerners being their most loyal supporters. Republicans were the more socially progressive party. In the 1930s, black voters began to move over into the Democratic camp thanks to the liberal policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The increased power of northern liberals and african-americans led to the Democratic party adding a support for civil rights to the party’s platform in 1948. This prompted southern democrats, now called Dixiecrats, to walk out and nominate South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond for President. Democrats went from being strong with black voters, to being dominant with them in the mid-1960s following the passage of the civil rights act under Democratic president Lyndon Johnson. Seeing the Democrats lose their grip on the south, Republicans implemented what became known as the Southern strategy running conservative Republicans, who often used dog whistle politics to win over the former Democratic voters. It took time but by the 90s Republicans began to win Senate, House and Governor seats in states the party once was non-existent in. Even Thurmond himself switched parties in 1964.
Now we’re in the 90s. Democrats still hold significant power in the south, mainly thanks to voters who still consider themselves “Democrats” even though they’ve split with the party’s liberal majority on a number of issues. These voters may vote with the Republicans in high profile races, like the presidency, but when it comes to “down-ballot” races like for congress or local office, they still go with the Democrats. And of course, Democrats are doing overwhelmingly well with black voters. The overwhelming support from black voters, coupled with support from a significant contingent of the white population, is enough to keep Democrats competitive in the south.
That’s how when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, a former southern governor himself, the Democrats held 2 senate seats each in Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas, along with 1 seat each in South Carolina, Georgia, Texas and Oklahoma. In the House Democrats held a majority with 258 seats, continuing their dominance in the lower house which they had controlled since the 1954 midterms.
That would all change two years later. That’s when the so-called Republican Revolution happened under Newt Gingrich. For the next 10 years Republicans would consolidate their power in the south, particularly under President George W. Bush who was the first Republican president to truly dominate the south in an election that wasn’t a landslide. Democrats still held legitimate power in the south with a few seats outside of the african-american majority districts.
Then Barack Obama was elected president.
In 2010, Republicans hit southern democrats with its 3rd and arguably most powerful wave leaving behind only a handful of blue specks on the congressional map. Any seat Republicans didn’t win in 2010 they did in 2014. 2014 was the true death blow to Southern Democrats. Now most districts in the south that send Democrats to congress are either urban or ones which are mandated to be majority-minority by the voting rights act. Despite Democrats making in-roads in some suburban districts in Texas and South Carolina, Republicans now hold a death grip on the American south.
This may seem like a downer ending, but this isn’t an ending at all. Politics don’t end, it just keeps changing. A lot of times it changes for the worse, but sometimes it does get better. The south has seen shifts recently with states like Texas and Georgia going from fiercely conservative to competitive.
While the years ahead may seem dark for progressive forces in these states, things are always changing. While the work of activists, and organizers in Ithaca and the northern states are extremely important, the work of people in conservative states is even more important. Republicans gained ground in the south because they were prepared to strike when the moment needed it. Democrats gained in Georgia because their organization was prepped to shock the world in 2020. The work of progressive activists in southern states like Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas or South Carolina is the bedrock of a hopeful future. Those working those states or any other hostile area must be commended because it is a labor of love, love for their state and their fellow citizens, which lays that bedrock.
George Christopher is a senior Journalism major who always has something to say about the latest political trends. They can be reached at email@example.com.
Art by Julia Young.