The Vanishing Southern, White Democrat

The white, Southern Democrat is a dying breed.

The Economist points out what we knew:  that white, Southern Democrats are a dying breed (at least in terms of seats in the Congress, if not as voters):  The long goodbye:  Is the white Southern Democrat extinct, endangered or just hibernating?

The dramatic nature of the decline is captured by the following graphic:

Of course, what this decline means is well encapsulated by the following:

This does not indicate a disappearance of liberals. White Southern Democrats were largely conservative before, and the Democratic domination of Congress in the second half of the 20th century rested on an uneasy coalition between men such as James Eastland, a senator from Mississippi who insisted three years after Brown v Board of Education banned segregation that “the vast majority of Negroes want their own schools, their own hospitals, their own churches, their own restaurants”, and northern urban liberals such as Ted Kennedy. Strom Thurmond, Richard Shelby and Phil Gramm—Southern Republican stalwarts all—were first elected as Democrats, and of the 37 Democrats who voted against the health-care bill in March, 16 were Southern whites.

Indeed, the dominance of the former Confederate states by the Democratic Party was a direct result of the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era, where Republicans such as Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Republicans who controlled the US Congress during Reconstruction made being a Republican in the South anathema.

Nevertheless, it is amazing to note how long it has taken for conservative southerners to shift to the GOP.  The 1994 elections was a watershed in that regard, but the filtering down beyond the state level has taken long.  For example, Alabama’s  state legislature only just went to Republican control as of this month’s elections.

FILED UNDER: 2010 Election, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. PD Shaw says:

    Also the switch means Southern Republicans are going to constitute 131 seats in Congress, just over 30% of the total. I believe for the first time this means that the Republicans as a majority party constitutes a Southern party.

    I think there are similar transitions in the Midwest, particularly the Upper Midwest, though it’s hard to tell if the changes have constancy.

  2. JKB says:

    So the deeply avowed racists are dying out? That’s a bad thing? It always confused me how Southern blacks voted in block with old Southern racists to retain politicians who worked on the premise that african-Americans had to be coddled and not permitted to compete as equals.

    Perhaps I’m biased by personal contact. My aunt has a childhood friend who is a hardcore Democrat to the extent she won’t even give a passing thought to a Republican candidate but is also old school, hardcore racist. It was learned she solved the Obama problem by not voting for president in 2008. (relax she’s in her eighties with few votes left to cast)

  3. mantis says:

    So the deeply avowed racists are dying out?

    No, they switched parties.

  4. Tano says:

    Yeah, LBJ said that the Dems would lose the South for a generation, when he was signing the Civil Rights Act. It is probably going to be a lot longer than that…

  5. ponce says:

    IIIRC, fewer than 5% of white voters in Mississippi and Georgia voted for Obama.

  6. sam says:

    Southern white Democrats are catching up with Northern moderate Republicans on the soon-to-be-extinct species list.

    @PD: ” I believe for the first time this means that the Republicans as a majority party constitutes a Southern party.”

    Hasn’t this been predicted for some time now, that the Republicans will become a regional party?

  7. EJ says:

    “Hasn’t this been predicted for some time now, that the Republicans will become a regional party?”

    I dont think thats entirely true and to the extent that it is, both parties are in that situation. The republicans are dominating the south now, but the dems also pretty much just have the northeast and the west coast.

    In this last election, the GOP cleaned house in the populous midwest. I don’t know the numbers for sure, but its probably now more accurate to say the GOP congressional
    delegation is centered in the midwest.

    In the last 10 years, this has been the swing area of the country. But if the the GOP holds onto the widwest with dominance, it will be more accurate to say the dems are a regional party (only holding the northeast) than saying the republicans are.

  8. sam says:

    time will tell, my friend, time will tell.

  9. george says:

    “Hasn’t this been predicted for some time now, that the Republicans will become a regional party?”

    Given that the electorate is split between them, if one is a regional party then the other automatically is too, unless a third party shows up.

  10. Max Lybbert says:

    Hasn’t this been predicted for some time now, that the Republicans will become a regional party?

    I only ever heard the prediction after President Obama was elected. And every serious commenter has taken back the prediction based on the November 2 election results. Do you honestly look at the map ( ) and say “the Democrats have never been stronger!”?

  11. Max Lybbert says:

    The Northeastern Rockefeller Republican all but disappeared when Northeastern liberals realized that Rockefeller Republicans still voted to put Newt Gingrich in charge of the House or Bob Dole in charge of the Senate. If you’re left of center and you have a choice between a Democrat and a Democrat lite why pick the Democrat lite?

    Likewise, right of center Southerners have realized that Dixiecrat Republican-lite candidates still vote to put Pelosi in charge of the House and Reid in charge of the Senate. It’s hardly a surprise that they’re changing party allegiences.

  12. Max Lybbert says:

    Besides, the Democratic Party, by and large, doesn’t want any Zell Millers nowadays.