Fellow Travelers

Friday, April 25, 2014

"Well, most of the members of the KKK were Democrats"

The Republican Party was founded in 1854 by anti-slavery activists. They were a liberal and progressive party at their inception, being openly abolitionist was an outrageous and extremist position at the time, on par with advocating gay marriage in the 1990s.

During and after the Civil War, socially liberal Republicans found themselves allied with economically conservative wealthy business owners in the North. The political power of the crony capitalists in the Republican Party led to the "Gilded Age" that followed the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt opposed this, and after his presidency, he took a lot of the progressive Republicans with him to the Bull Moose party. This followed a lot of drama between him and Taft with Taft taking the Republicans in a more economically conservative direction.

Those progressive former Republicans found a new home in the Democrats, especially the northern Democrats who had never been that much into the whole slavery gig. By the 1930s under the New Deal coalition of FDR, the Democrats had adopted a socially liberal and economically liberal platform. The corruption of the Republicans (inescapable because of the political power they'd wielded while Democrats were on the downswing, see "Teapot Dome Scandal") meant that the Democrats were able to get FDR into office, and he was a wildly popular president. The socially liberal Democrats were the ancestors of the abolitionist Republicans, and they began pushing for an end to segregation. They got support in many cases from moneyed interests, because the Socialists and Communists were doing a good job of pointing out the lack of racial freedom in America and tying it to capitalism, so a restoration of racial freedom would weaken the cause of those damned dirty reds. And so it did.

A big first step in establishing racial freedom was Truman's desegregation of the Armed Forces. This was pushed for heavily by returning black WW2 vets. This 1948 desegregation and wider pushes for the same by the national Democratic Party led to a splinter faction of segregationists breaking off from the Democrats in 1948, a group called the Dixiecrats. These guys assumed control of the state-level parties in nearly all of the Southern states. In the 1948 election, they took Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi. They continued to be an electoral force up until George Wallace in 1968 took Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia.

It's key to note that the 1948 Democratic Convention is the main switching point. This is the point that people who seek to associate present day Democrats with the KKK and Southern racism most often ignore. It's pretty simple, actually.
1. Hubert Humphrey, the Democrat mayor of Minneapolis, said the Democrats should "get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights"
2. A bunch of Southern Democrats, led by Strom Thurmond, walked out of the convention as a direct result.
3. Strom Thurmond was originally a Democrat. In 1964, as a direct result of the 1964 Voting Rights act, he switched to the Republican Party.
4. In modern American politics, which political party is talking the most about "states' rights"? Yeah, I thought so.

During the height of the civil rights movement, the Republican Party realized they had a political opportunity, particularly the wealthy economic conservatives. They could go after all these alienated Southerners who were former Democrats, and bring them over to the Republicans. It had been a hundred years since that most hated Republican, Abraham Lincoln, had left the scene. And now under the direction of northerners, the Democrats were definitely coming on strong for racial equality. This led to the Southern Strategy, and it's why there was never a George Wallace style run past 1968. The segregationists and white supremacists had a new home. As Nixon's political strategist Kevin Philips put it:
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.

His words were prophetic. By courting the Negrophobe whites, the Republicans have never since got more than 10 to 20 percent of the vote. Every state that was part of the Democrat "Solid South" is now part of the Republican "Solid South", and the only thing that changed is which party has the segregationists and its descendants as its members.

This is why when people say "Well the KKK was mostly Democrats" or "Republicans are the Party of Lincoln!", they're right in a way, but wrong if you know anything about 20th century American electoral and party politics.