It has been said for decades that when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he quipped “We have lost the South for a generation.” There is no solid proof that LBJ said any such thing, but in his book Moyers on America: A Journalist and His Times (via Google Books preview), Bill Moyers stated:
When he signed the act he was euphoric, but late that very night I found him in a melancholy mood as he lay in bed reading the bulldog edition of the Washington Post with headlines celebrating the day. I asked him what was troubling him. “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come,” he said.
So maybe LBJ said it, maybe not…but this is where our current partisan divide and the long game of political power began in earnest. Sure, there had been quite a bit of smoke before, but it was on July 2nd, 1964, the day on which the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by LBJ, that the smoke first burst into the flame, and the Pandora’s Box of conservative/liberal partisanship political contest was opened. Pandora’s out now, and she ain’t goin’ back in.
As with all history, one must first consider statements in the context of the time. In 1964, the Deep South was called the “Democratic Solid South”. It had been Democratic since Reconstruction, and Southern Democrats were famously racist. Remember George Wallace? From his inaugural speech as governor of Georgia in 1963:
Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history. Let us rise to the call of freedom- loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say . . . segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.
George Wallace was a Democrat. So was my family acquaintance U.S. Senator James O. Eastland, who was for a generation the most powerful racist in America, having spearheaded the creation of the “Segregation Academy” system in the Deep South in protest against the Brown v. Board of Education decision. When Republicans point this out in political debate, they’re ignoring the fact that at the time, both major parties had strong liberal and conservative contingents. The Democrats of the Deep South were as conservative then as their Republican counterparts today. The conservative/liberal partisan split was not nearly the factor that it is today.
The deeply-ingrained racism of the Deep South, combined with LBJ’s embrace of civil rights as an indelible part of his “Great Society” initiative, signified the beginnings of a party-wide shift away from racism, and the fact that LBJ was able to effectively initiate such a shift says much about how much power he wielded within the Democratic party. It’s often been said that if not for Vietnam and his own racism, LBJ would have stood beside JFK, FDR, and Obama as one of the great Democratic presidents.
Ever the opportunist, Richard Nixon saw this leftward shift of the Democratic party as a golden chance to break up the Democratic Solid South by appealing to racist whites. His campaign strategist, self-taught “ethnologist” Kevin Philips described this chance in his now-infamous “Southern Strategy” quote in an interview with the New York Times:
“All the talk about Republicans making inroads into the Negro vote is persiflage. Even ‘Jake the Snake’ [Senator Jacob K. Javits] only gets 20 per cent. From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that . . . but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.”
(On a side note, I strongly recommend reading the New York Times article linked to above, for it shows how little the political argument and strategy has changed over the decades hence.)
This was Nixon’s strategy for gaining power in the short term (thus validating the quote alleged to have seen stated by LBJ above), and it worked very well indeed, as evinced by his landslide victory in the 1972 election; however, LBJ was playing the long game, and seems to have understood that whatever happened in the short term, the Civil Rights Act would be of great benefit to the Democratic party in the long run.
Nixon’s campaign adviser Philips was castigated by politicians of both parties for his proclamations concerning the Southern Strategy, but his prediction has been proven accurate over the succeeding generations. From the same article, Philips made another interesting observation:
[Philips] doesn’t dismiss liberal fears that there is a potential for fascism in the new conservative majority. “The popular conservative majority now taking shape, like past popular movements, is vulnerable to aberration. With its important component of military, apprehensive bourgeois and law‐and‐order‐seeking individuals, there is a proclivity toward authoritarianism and over‐reaction to the liberal engendered permissiveness and anarchy of the sixties. This is a danger the Administration should watch carefully.”
(One wonders what Kevin Philips would say about the current Republican administration.)
It is at this point that we must step back and look at America’s political trends from the greatest possible height, for it is only from there that we can see where we’re going as a nation, and how the conservative/liberal partisanship game has progressed. As I have stated many times before, in every nation, there is one and only one socioeconomically-dominant group, whether that group is racial, ethnic, or religious in nature, and when that group begins (rightly or wrongly) to believe its dominance is being threatened, it will “circle the wagons” and take actions to preserve its dominance. In demographic terms, white Protestants are the socioeconomically- and political-dominant group in America and have been since our nation’s founding. This was what lay behind the original rise of the KKK, lynchings, and Jim Crow, and is the driving force for voter suppression, racial gerrymandering, and Trump’s goal of a wall on our southern border today. It really is all about race.
In other words, the conservative/liberal political power struggle continues, and white conservatives are using every tool at their command to preserve what they have…and we’re now entering the most dangerous phase of the game, for the current resident of the White House is willfully ignorant of the world around him, and appears to be mentally and emotionally unstable.
But I digress. From Nixon all the way through the George W. Bush administration, white conservatives sometimes lost political dominance, but at no time did most of them truly believe their socioeconomic dominance was threatened. They believed their place at the top of the political pyramid was assured for the foreseeable future. This is why the Republicans (the party of white conservatives) did not feel threatened by giving overwhelming support to the re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006. But then, a certain black man named Barack Obama was elected and moved into the White House, and studies began to show that America would become “majority-minority” in a few decades. All of a sudden, white conservatives realized that their socioeconomic dominance was not as secure as they’d thought. This is why the Republicans in Congress - many of whom had voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act just seven years earlier - were ecstatic when the Supreme Court gutted the VRA in 2013. Historically speaking, that total 180-degree turn of total support for the VRA to total opposition to the same happened in a relative blink of an eye. The fear driving such attitudes among whites is precisely what Dianna Anderson found as a Democratic campaign adviser in Iowa in 2016. It’s a great read, and I strongly recommend it.
What white conservatives don’t seem to realize, though, is that such is only another example of sacrificing long-term success for short-term gains. Yes, the Republicans won the White House, the Senate, and the House in 2016, and Trump was able to install two (and may soon install a third) Supreme Court Justice to cement conservative power in the nation’s highest court. But all these gains are only temporary. White conservatives did indeed circle the wagons and do their utmost to preserve their socioeconomic dominance, but they were only able to do so by spreading fear of those who aren’t white conservatives. Ensuring such a solid and reliable voting bloc was effective, but short-sighted…because short of genocide or ethnic cleansing, there is absolutely nothing that white conservatives can do to slow (much less prevent) the demographic shift that is occurring on a macro scale, that will in less than thirty years bring us an America where whites are no longer a majority.
That is the advantage that the Democratic party has in the long game. In order to preserve their short-term gains, the GOP has sacrificed almost all credibility they had among minorities and immigrants, and the racism and prejudice the GOP has engendered will not magically disappear from the memories of those experiencing it today. The Democratic party, on the other hand, has positioned itself as a true big-tent party and (as long as we remain true to the liberal values of opposing all racism and prejudice) is positioned very well indeed for the long game, for several decades to come.