A portrait of how Republicans won the South

September 06, 1992|By Matthew Rees

THE VITAL SOUTH: HOW PRESIDENTS ARE ELECTED. Earl and Merle Black. Harvard University. 400 pages. $29.95. Remember those political science books you had to slug through in college that were so boring they made government out to be even worse than it really is? This is not one of those books.

In "The Vital South: How Presidents Are Elected," identical twins Earl and Merle Black deliver a straightforward portrait of the increasingly important role the South plays in the selection of U.S. presidents. Perhaps of greater significance is that this even-handed account offers readable prose accessible not just to members of the American Political Science Association, but also college freshmen who think the Electoral College is an institution of higher education.

Building on their award-winning 1987 work, "Politics and Society in the South," the Blacks discuss at great length the consequences of partisan realignment in Southern politics. With the 11 states of the Old Confederacy now the single largest region in the United States, its transformation, write the authors, "from a sturdy Democratic base into a prominent Republican stronghold has shaken the foundations of modern presidential politics." The Democrats' loss of the South, which began in 1948 and was all but completed by 1968, is perhaps the single greatest reason why they have been locked out of the White House for 20 of the past 24 years.

But why the transformation in the Southern political landscape? The Democratic Party's embrace of liberalism, particularly on racial issues, partially explains the transformation. Harry Truman's decision in 1948 to put the Democratic Party on the side of civil rights triggered a revolt that led many Southern segregationists to leave the party. These segregationists organized themselves into the Dixiecrat Party and ran Strom Thurmond for President against Truman, winning the electoral votes of four Southern states.

The revolt simmered throughout the 1950s and early '60s. Nixon and Kennedy on the national tickets did not serve as a realigning force for conservative Southern Democrats. But even Lyndon Johnson acknowledged to an aide shortly after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come." Johnson's presence on the Democratic ticket in 1964, combined with the Republicans' nomination of the racially conservative Barry Goldwater, delivered five Deep South states to the Arizona senator and re-opened the Democratic wounds exposed 16 years before.

As the authors point out, short-term healing of these wounds was prevented by the presence of George Wallace in the Democratic primaries of 1968 and 1972. But the long-term healing also was prevented by changes in Democratic Party rules engineered at the 1968 convention. The new rules, which placed a greater emphasis on primaries in the presidential nominating process, effectively shifted power away from the more conservative party bosses and to the more progressive Democratic primary voters.

According to the Blacks, these changes "have revolutionized the politics of Democratic presidential nominations in the South." Indeed, the immediate result was delegations to the 1972 Democratic convention like California's, which was described approvingly by New Age guru Shirley MacLaine as looking like "a couple of high schools, a grape boycott, a Black Panther rally, and four or five politicians who walked in the wrong door."

Based on such assessments, it's not surprising that conservatives, particularly Southerners, have withdrawn from the Democratic apparatus and moved into the Republican Party. These conservatives, the Blacks write, "have climbed aboard the Republican vessel and advanced at a smart clip in the general direction of the captain's quarters." This "Southernization" of the GOP explains the party's nomination of explicitly conservative candidates dating to 1964 and also helps explain the party's success in presidential elections dating to 1968.

Using statistics, tables and maps, the Blacks show just how much strength the Republicans have when it comes time to elect a president. For example: the 39 states that have voted Republican in all or nearly all of the last six presidential elections control 74 percent of the electoral votes. Similarly, if Republican candidates continue to win clean sweeps in the South, as they have done in the last three presidential elections (minus Georgia in 1980), Democratic candidates need 69 percent of the non-Southern electoral vote to recapture the White House. "The electoral components of the Republicans' current advantage," the authors say, "have no parallels in the history of the Republican Party."

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