The Myth of the Big Southern Republican Party Switch

By Benjamin Olsen | United States

The big switch is a long debated topic on whether or not the Republican party espoused racist ideas and ‘switched’ their party’s ideals in order to gain the southern vote. The idea that the South switched from Democrat to Republican overnight in order to oppose the Civil Rights Act is absurd. In fact, it shows a complete lack of understanding of history and economics.

The Republican party has its roots in the tumultuous time preceding the American Civil War, and the party was founded on the main principle of abolishing slavery. Its goal was to oppose the Democratic party in all dealings and to ensure that all new states or territories would enter the union as free-soil, where no man could suffer under the yoke of another man. After the war, the Republican party had accomplished most of its initial goals.

In the following years, they adopted the economic ideas of a free market. After all, the only way to get the South back on its feet was to allow the market to operate freely. This provided unprecedented growth in the United States. The problem with the free market after the Civil War, however, is that the South did not have the infrastructure to sustain the type of markets needed. Their fields had been salted and their raw exports they benefited from before the war had dried up.

The desolation of the South led to the inevitable meddling of government through tax-breaks, cronyism, and nepotism. The South was unable to partake in the free market that flourished under U. S. Grant’s presidency. The following presidents continued to meddle in the market. The result? The free market collapsed, giving way to defective cronyism.

Cronyism is a corrupt market economy where special interests control the government. This is achieved slowly and surely through political insider trading, campaign donations, and returned favors. The familiar images of the late 1800s are indicative of cronyism. The South’s voting bloc started to favor those who could revive the dying economy in the South. This means that even as soon as 50 years after the Civil War, votes in the South were going to Republican candidates. In 1868 alone, Tennessee, Alabama, North and South Carolina, Florida and Arkansas voted for U. S. Grant. On the other hand, New York, a Republican state, lit up blue for the first time. The South was more worried about getting back on its feet instead of preserving an institution that anyone could see was dead.

Fast forward to the progressive era. The new wave of socialism and fascism left many in both mainstream parties feeling disenfranchised. The parties seemed to gravitate towards the extremes and left many moderates scrambling for a party to call home. The South, throughout the progressive era, shifted and voted for the Democratic party, which favored populist ideologies. Populism sought to look after ordinary people and this idea was attractive to many ordinary people in the South. This is often because they thought they did not have the wealth and power of the North.

Enter the Great Depression. With the Republicans in charge when the market collapsed, many people looked to the populist ideas of the Democrats to save them. The people subsequently elected FDR to 4 terms. His New Deal policies put people to work, but unbeknownst to them, his policies, including a trade war, may have been responsible for the Depression’s decade and a half length.

FDR’s agricultural regulations led to the destruction of the once profitable business of farming. Farmers left their fields and fled to the city, effectively killing the industry until technology was able to bring it back from the dead. However, with the victory over the Axis powers in World War II, the US economy boomed. Most Americans, no matter their region, voted Democrat, electing Harry Truman. After Truman’s presidency, Eisenhower won in a landslide, reflecting his popularity after WWII. The map lit up blue once again when the South voted for JFK.

Most believers of the ‘Switch’ point to the election of 1964 as proof of the idea that Republicans were harping on racist ideas to win votes. The mastermind behind this plan that they point to is Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was a senator from Arizona who opposed two sections of the Civil Rights Act. The two articles regulated private businesses and forced them to cater to everyone. He saw this as unconstitutional and difficult to enforce. Therefore, he voted against the act.

However, he is not a racist for doing so. He did, though, accurately predict that the sections would lead to racial quotas. It is worth noting that Goldwater was a big supporter of the 24th Amendment, which made poll taxes illegal. He also strongly favored movements to pass civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1960. Goldwater ran in ‘64 for president and many in the Deep South voted for him, perhaps misunderstanding his opposition to the Civil Rights Act or instead favoring his campaign promises of cutting back welfare programs and freeing the markets.

In 1968 the South voted for 3rd party candidate George Wallace, whose campaign was founded on complete segregation. ‘72 saw a landslide for Republican candidate Richard Nixon who promised to end the Vietnam war and restore law and order. In ‘76 the South chose to switch back to Democrat to elect Jimmy Carter. In ‘80, with another crippled economy, the South voted for a Republican again, electing Ronald Reagan. With continued economic growth and a full boom in effect, the South voted red again. And in ‘92, the South voted for Bill Clinton, going back to Democrat. But with the economy suffering under Clinton, the South decided to switch once more and voted for Republican George Bush.

After presenting the voting pattern of the South, it is hard to draw a line where the switch took place. The possible conclusion is that there was not a switch and rather the South does not vote as one racist bloc, but after their own interests, such as a good economy. The South has been voting for Republicans since immediately after the Civil War. There have been racist Republicans that have preyed on the racist tendencies of the deep South. There have been racist Democrats that have done likewise. However, race is not the only issue in an election, and economics has always played a larger role. Racial issues are important, but are not always most prevalent.

To support 71 Republic, please donate to our Patreon, which you can find here.

Featured Image Source