Matthew Yglesias challenges Zell Miller’s interpretation of the rise of the GOP in the South:

Miller manages to not even mention the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act or the Goldwater campaign or the Wallace campaign or Nixon’s Southern Strategy. I’m not going to tell you that race is the only reason the Democrats went from “solid south” to “can’t win the south” in a generation, but unless you’re out of your mind you have to concede that it was a pretty important part of the story.

I agree that race is part of the story, although probably not nearly as important as Matt posits. After all, the rise of the GOP as a majority party in the South happened in the 1980s, not the 1960s. Indeed, as Miller notes, Kennedy won over Nixon in a big way in 1960.

And Miller does at least mention the race issue:

We’re further along in racial politics than the national Democrats ever could imagine or choose to believe.

Minority Southerners complete high school at the same rate as whites. The percentage of minority Southerners with college degrees tripled in the past 25 years. When Newsweek recently named “the cream of the crop” of high schools, seven of the top 10 were in the South, as were 22 of the top 50.

In 1990, a total of 565 African-Americans held elective office in the 11 states of the old Confederacy. You know what the number was in 2000? Almost 10 times that: 5,579.

In Georgia, which is 70 percent white, seven blacks have been elected statewide. Three have been elected twice. While Sen. Max Cleland and Gov. Roy Barnes, both Democrats, were losing in 2002 with about 47 percent of the vote, state Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Commissioner of Labor Michael Thurmond were getting about 57 percent. They carried predominately white counties overwhelmingly, as they had four years before.


For many years in the South, the magic formula for the Democratic nominee to win against a Republican has been to get 40 percent of the white vote and 90 percent of the black vote. Increasingly, it has been easier to get the latter.

But the margin of black votes for the Democrats is going to change soon. It has to change only a fraction to make a huge difference. Ralph Reed, the brilliant strategist and former Republican chairman of Georgia, understands this. So do Bush strategist Karl Rove and many other Republicans.

It will be similar to what happened in a couple of governor’s races in Virginia in the 1990s. Virginia Republicans figured out that they were not going to get many more white votes. They started quietly going after black support.

George Allen and then James Gilmore each received nearly 20 percent of the black vote, just by reaching out and working for it. Going after this constituency directly cost the Democrats core votes. And, by moderating the look of the Republican Party, it indirectly cost the Democrats swing votes.

Steven Taylor, Brett Marston, and I (here, here, here) discussed this issue in a series of posts a few months ago. (The last of the OTB posts has links to many other posts in that debate.)

Update (1100): At the presidential level, it’s true that the GOP trend started with Nixon in 1972. But at all other levels, one essentially HAD to run as a Democrat to get elected to any office of significant in almost all the Southern states well into the 1980s.

As I noted in my discussion with Brett and Steven (see the links above), it was the congressional Republicans that voted for the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, with a bit of cross-over help from Democrats. The Southern politicians who voted against these bills were virtually (if not exclusively) Democrats.

You can’t just look at one variable to explain a trend. The two parties were diverging by the late 1960s on a whole range of issues, of which race was only one.

  • Vietnam and the larger war on Communism was a huge one of these. The McGovernites were radically different than Kennedy, Truman, Scoop Jackson and the earlier generation of staunch Hawk Democrats. Southerners had a bitter reaction to the leftward turn of the national Democratic party on Vietnam.
  • “Law and order,” far from being a “code word” for race as some allege, was a legitimate reaction to a string of SCOTUS decisions that were freeing criminals on “technicalities.” So-called “liberal judges” were at the core of these decisions.
  • “Family values” and other social issues, namely such things as prayer in the schools and, later, abortion, were hugely divisive issues. Democrats picked one side and Republicans another at the national platform/presidential nominee level. Southerners were much more naturally inclined to the Republican position on this one.
  • FILED UNDER: US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
    James Joyner
    About James Joyner
    James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


    1. Tom Royce says:

      It is all about the political machine in the
      South. It will always be democratic in the Southern Urban areas, the suburbs went Republican in the 80’s with the middle income and affluent leaving the urban core, and transplants moving to the suburbs. The rural south is what is now transforming. The politcal machines that ran the counties are increasingly turning Republican for two reasons. The statewide offices are becoming more Republican as opposed to solidly democratic, and those in the rural area need to keep the ear of the statewide office holders for income redistribution. The other reason is that the Republican party is more aligned with the needs and wants of the rural voters. There is a trend in Georgia with the election of a Republican governor, of whole county structures switching parties, going from Democratic to Republican. They have to to maintain contact with the power brokers in Atlanta.

      Personally, I feel that Georgia and other Southern states will end up strongly Republican on a statewide basis for the next 10 years.

    2. JW says:

      There is one particular kind of Democrat that does well in the South–one who doesn’t think he’s better than everyone else in his audience. Ray Mabus lost the Mississippi governorship because time after time, he came across as a guy born in a dirt-poor area of Mississippi who went up North, got a Harvard degree, and came back to share his all-encompassing knowledge and wisdom with the rest of us poor saps who’d likely never even heard of Harvard, much less set foot on the campus. We even have a special term for that kind of behavior–“gettin’ above your raisin'”

      Bill Clinton did think he was smarter than most Southerners, but he didn’t act that way–he talked to people in language they could understand and knew how to do humble/aw shucks when it was called for–among the poeple who knew him best.

      Al Gore, on the other hand, combined the condescension of the Northern Liberal with the aura of thinking he deserved Southern votes because he was from Tennessee. If there’s one thing Southerners are united in their hatred for, it’s someone who a) was born a Southerner just like they were but b)still thinks they’re better than everyone else where they come from. Southerners can put up with a lot of things, but condescension is not one of them.

    3. Paul says:

      I only have one question… Which part of the south is Matthew Yglesias from?

    4. Paul says:

      I got my answer… Matthew Yglesias was born and raised in New York City were he still lives.

      So what we have is an uptight New York Yankee liberal looking down his nose and calling southerners racists.

      I’m sure a kid from New York city is far more qualified to discuss southern politics then Zell Miller.

      As a southern Republican I find his condescension insulting.

    5. Russ Goble says:

      So, what happens to this “Republican’s won the south because of racism” meme if Herman Cain wins the Republican nomination to replace Miller? Cain, is a black conservative.

      Of course, like Clarence Thomas & Condoleeza Rice (2 other black conservatives from the deep South), he’ll be treated as some sort of mutant by Democrats, black Democrats in particular. Of course, THAT won’t be viewed as any sort of racism (don’t you know all blacks are supposed to think alike, yet, some how it’s Republicans who are racist).

      Granted, this isn’t a slam dunk. Cain is a businessman and he’s going up against at least 2 Republican congressman, both of who are well connected to the party machine. Still, if he makes any waves in the polls, look for the national media to ignore him as some sort of anomoly.

    6. JW says:

      Wow, Paul. Imagine a New Yorker looking at us Southerners and telling us what to think about ourselves. Don’t they have any navels of their own to gaze on up there?

      If you want REAL condescension from people from “someplace else” towards Southerners, go here: and log on to the discussion boards. No one doing the talking there has lived in Mississippi longer than two years–and three of them live outside the state.