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All about race?

The left, from Howell Raines' New York Times to Bill Clinton, has argued that the modern Republican Party wins elections by playing to race because the modern Republican Party has racism at its core, starting with the civil rights movement. The standard Republican rebuttal is to point out that the segregationist south was primarily Democratic. The people filibustering the Civil Rights Act were Democrats. The people standing in schoolhouse doors were Democrats. The people passing Jim Crow laws and turning firehoses on voting rights marchers were Democrats. And this is completely true.

But as Partha points out (though erroneously including Ronald Reagan), that's not an entirely satisfactory answer:

Have they ever thought about why, during the Civil Rights movement, so many, including Trent Lott and Strom Thurmond, even Ronald Reagan for that matter, switched their party identifications from the Democratic Party to the Republican?
It's true that some of the former Dixiecrats switched parties -- though many (e.g. Robert Byrd and Fritz Hollings) did not -- during the civil rights era. But the argument that this proves the racism of the G.O.P. is overly simplistic. It would be foolish to deny that race played a role in their decisions to switch parties. But if that were the sole reason, if there were that many single-issue voters on the issue of race, then Trent Lott would have gotten his wish and Strom Thurmond would have been elected president. Or his spiritual successor, George Wallace. Needless to say, neither one was.

There's another answer. The pattern of switching can also be explained by the understanding that the switchers felt that the national Democratic Party had ceased to represent the views of these switchers on most key issues, from crime to foreign policy. Segregation was the last issue tying these people to the Democratic party. Once the national Democratic Party abandoned them on race, cutting this last tie, they saw no reason to remain in the party. In other words, in the complete absence of civil rights as an issue, the likelihood is that these politicians would also have joined the Republican Party, and in fact would have done so sooner. There's no way to prove this hypothetical, of course, but it does explain why non-Dixiecrats like Ronald Reagan were also switching parties at the time. And it fits the pattern of Nixon's success: Nixon was winning in much of the country, not just the South. In short, Dixiecrats were becoming Republicans for the same reason that so many other people were, not because the Republican Party ideology was based on racism.


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