Guest Essayist: Professor William Morrisey


1948: The Dixiecrats

The primary elections of 2016 have invited comparisons to political factions in American politics that haven’t appeared in such clear focus for nearly seventy years. Although the Republican Party of 1948 had papered over its divisions between moderate-to-liberal business interests on the East Coast—represented by New York Governor Thomas Dewey—and Middle-Western conservatives—represented by Robert Taft and, behind him, Herbert Hoover—Democrats split bitterly into three groups. The mainstream of the party nominated President Harry Truman; the left wing (which included democratic socialists and some communists) ran Henry Wallace on the ticket of the Progressive Party; and the segregationist, southern Democrats ran South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond on the ticket of the States’ Rights Democratic Party or “Dixiecrats.” In one of the most famous upsets in American political history, Truman overcame his party’s fracturing and defeated Dewey, although the Dixiecrats won the combined 38 electoral votes of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina. The Progressives failed to win a single electoral vote.

Many disaffected southern Democrats eventually made their way into the Republican Party, beginning in the 1968 campaign of Richard Nixon, who fashioned his famous “Southern Strategy” for just that purpose. But such observers overlook the real Dixiecrat of 1968, Alabama Governor George Wallace, a man unrelated to Henry, either by blood or ideas. Like Thurmond, Wallace was a segregationist Democrat who wanted nothing to do with the Party of Lincoln. Wallace made the political last stand of the Lost Cause of the old Confederacy, which had persisted in a sort of radioactive half-life in the decades after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

From its beginning the Democratic Party had fought not just partisan battles but battles over the character of the American regime itself. Often these battles centered on the meaning of the United States Constitution. The party’s first presidential nominee, Thomas Jefferson, had accused the Federalist Party of monarchic sympathies, winning election in 1800 on a surge of democratic-republican sentiment. In the more recognizably modern election of 1828, Andrew Jackson defeated his fellow-Democrat, John Quincy Adams, on a platform excoriating `aristocratic’ financial interests. Meanwhile, John C. Calhoun was defending another and more insidious form of aristocracy, the way of life of southern plantation slaveholders, in explicit opposition to the principles of the Declaration of Independence. As this set of essays has shown, the ever-worsening controversies leading up to the Civil War and Reconstruction centered on constitutional questions at the deepest level: not only the meaning of various clauses in the U. S. Constitution itself, not only the character of American federalism, but the basic question Americans had raised in the first place, namely, are all men really created equal with respect to their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

The early Progressives of the Woodrow Wilson era had managed to avoid this issue and also to keep southern Democrats firmly within the Democratic Party. Wilson himself was a southern man, born in Virginia and raised in Augusta, Georgia. Like many Progressives, he took `race science’—the notion that human `races’ identifiable by skin color could be ranked hierarchically in terms of intellect and even moral sentiments—as cutting-edge science, that is, as a part of what it meant to be `progressive.’ But Progressives more fundamentally supposed that human nature itself was malleable, subject to evolutionary change, and this belief, coupled with their faith in democracy, in egalitarianism, reinforced by the research of anthropologists, began to turn the next generation of Progressives against racism. By the time of the New Deal, tensions between Progressives (now calling themselves `liberals’) and southern Democrats had begun to build.

Under the masterly political management of Franklin Roosevelt, the coalition of northern and southern Democrats nonetheless remained firm, at least for the purpose of winning national elections. Southern segregationists could tolerate the complaints of northern liberals so long as the New Deal meant the Tennessee Valley Authority and other Depression-era public-spending programs in the South. But when FDR died, the Depression ended, and Harry Truman backed legislation enforcing civil rights for all Americans, many southern Democrats began to reassess their place in the coalition, even as their ancestors had reassessed their place in the Union. In July 1948 thirty-five southern Democrats walked out of the party convention in Constitution-proud Philadelphia, then met in Birmingham, Alabama to form a new party.

For decades since the Civil War, southern Democrats had claimed that the war had been fought not over slavery but over the right of the constituent states of the Union to govern themselves without interference from the federal government. This claim conveniently overlooked the actual content of the southerners’ arguments (beginning with Calhoun), which had firmly linked states’ rights to the defense of the slaveholders’ way of life—their `domestic institutions,’ as the euphemism went. But a politically useful story may have stronger legs than an embarrassing truth, so the Dixiecrats had a ready-made tale to tell.

They told it in their platform, published at the convention of the States’ Rights Democratic Party held in in August in Oklahoma City. Celebrating the United States Constitution as “the greatest charter of human liberty ever conceived by the mind of man,” the platform condemned what it called “the totalitarian, centralized bureaucratic government” and “police nation” which “the platforms adopted by the Democratic and Republican Conventions” had “called for.” The delegates laid out the (red) meat of the document on its three central planks. First, “We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race” and against “the elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes, [and] the control of private employment by Federal bureaucrats called for by the misnamed civil rights program.” Second, “We oppose and condemn the action of the Democratic Convention in sponsoring a civil rights program calling for the elimination of segregation, social equality by Federal fiat, regulations of private employment practices, voting, and local law enforcement.” Finally, Dixiecrats predicted, “the enforcement of such a program would be utterly destructive of the social, economic and political life of the Southern people, and of other localities in which there may be differences in race, creed or national origin in appreciable numbers.”

These claims proved to be overwrought. The eventual enactment and enforcement of laws outlawing legal segregation of races and of religious congregants in no way impeded the economic development of the American South, which was given a rather substantial boost by the proliferation of air conditioning in the same period. As for miscegenation, it was at least as prevalent under slavery itself, and it didn’t spell apocalypse once it was legalized, either.

It is hard to resist the observation that the Dixiecrats fought the right battle for the wrong reason. Centralized, bureaucratic government has indeed carried the day against the legitimate political rights of the states. But to use `states’ rights’ as a rather flimsy cover story for the defense of racial domination—especially when Southerners had raised few if any objections to federal bureaucrats when they came bearing gifts in the form of infrastructure projects and public-health programs—did no service to the new Lost Cause of federalism. It enabled advocates of bureaucratic centralization to claim that they were the true defenders of American principles, although they were no such thing.

As for the American regime the Dixiecrats sought to alter, it has veered not toward the racial politics of segregationists but toward the racial politics of `diversity’—a catchword of the Left, not the Right. This too contradicts the principles of the Declaration of Independence, but in 1948 it was unknown.

Will Morrisey holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College; his books include Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War and The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government.

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