Today, Black Americans are the strongest Democratic constituency and White Southerners are the strongest Republican group—but it used to be the other way around. The usual story places 1960s civil rights policymaking at the center of the switch, but an important prior history in the North and the South made it possible. Keneshia Grant finds that the Great Migration north changed the Democratic Party because Black voters became pivotal in Democratic cities like New York, Chicago, and Detroit, leading politicians to respond, including new Black elected officials. Boris Heersink finds that Southern Republican state parties became battles between racially mixed and lily-white factions, mostly for control of patronage due to national convention influence. The lily-white takeovers enabled early Republican gains in the South. These trends predated national civil rights policymaking and help explain how we reached today’s divided regional and racial politics.
Guests: Keneshia Grant, Howard University; Boris Heersink, Fordham University
Studies: The Great Migration and the Democratic Party; Republican Party Politics & the American South, 1865-1968
Photo Credit: Yoichi Okamoto / Public domain
Matt Grossmann: This week on The Science of Politics, the roots of the party’s racial switch. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
Black Americans are the strongest Democratic constituency, while white Southerners are among the strongest Republican groups. But it used to be the other way around. The usual story places 1960 civil rights policymaking at the center of the switch. But my guest today tracked the important prior history that made it possible in the North and South. Today I talk to Keneshia Grant of Howard University about her temple book, The Great Migration and the Democratic Party. She finds that the migration North changed the Democratic party because black voters became pivotal in Democratic cities like New York, Chicago, and Detroit, leading politicians to respond, including new black elected officials. I also talked to Boris Heersink of Fordham University about his new Cambridge book with Jeffrey Jenkins, Republican Party Politics and the American South, 1865-1968.
They find that Southern Republican state parties became battles between racially mixed and lily-white factions, mostly for control of patronage via national convention influence. The lily-white takeovers enabled early Republican gains in the South. These trends predated national civil rights policymaking and helped explain how we reached today’s divided regional and racial politics. Grant found that black migrants made an impact on the Democrats, despite their political struggle.
Keneshia Grant: My book, The Great Migration and the Democratic Party: Black Voters and the Realignment of American Politics in the 20th Century is in short a way for us to think about how black people come into the Democratic party in a different way. Much of what I was reading when I was in graduate school was about black people who were living in the South, and some of the work was about how black folks were coming into the party, but not much of it mentioned the great migration at length, which I thought was an opening for me to have something to say about that. So I follow politics from 1915 to 1965 in Chicago, New York, and Detroit, and I questioned what local elected leaders, mayors in particular and mayoral candidates are doing. Then I also, different from some of the other work that I saw, look to see what black elected officials are doing and what they are thinking about and what they care about.
I find that the black folks who were participating in politics in the North engaged in a bit of a struggle. So I went into it thinking like, “Oh, surely. They could vote in the North. It’s going to be easy.” Then it turns out to not be so easy in the story. I also find, which I thought was very interesting, that many of the black elected officials who came to office between 1915 and 1965 were migrants, which I thought was just interesting if you could think about the amount of time that it takes a person, lots about myself, the amount of time it took me to register to vote in Washington, D.C., where I currently live once I got here, what’s shameful, honestly. To think that these folks left these very difficult situations in the South, moved to the North, had to adjust to all the culture and the climate and all these other things, and still found time, not only to be engaged in politics, but to run for office I thought was an amazing story and one that should be told.
Matt Grossmann: Heersink and Jenkins looked at the prehistory of the Republican Southern strategy.
Boris Heersink: So we look at the role of the Republican party in the South [inaudible 00:03:32] between the reconstruction and the rise of the Southern strategy of Nixon in 1968, which is a time period that people generally don’t look at because this is a time period where the Republican party just isn’t competing very well, if at all in the South. The reason we wanted to sort of look at it anyway is because in this time period, the Republican parties still gave a lot of power to the South at its national conventions. For a good chunk of this period, about 25% of all delegates came from South.
The puzzle that we sort of started out with was like, why would you as a national party give so much power over really important decisions like, who gets to be the president, who gets to be the vice president, our platform, things like that? Why would you give that to a region that is never going to vote for you, that everybody knows is never going to vote for you and yet you give it that much power? So that’s how we got started with it. Then over time, it became a bigger project looking at partly the interactions between the state parties in the South and the national party, but then also at who, within those state parties at the local overworks, were in charge and what kind of conflicts over controller there was.
Basically, what we found was one, the answer to your first question is, why would a national party allow this is because essentially the Southern states became rotten boroughs, that if you were a national party leader, you wanted to be president or you’re president. You want to get reelected, you could basically bribe these Souther state party organizations for support at the convention, and because of that, you also want it to keep them.
A second core finding we had was that there was a really major conflict between black and white Republicans who originally controlled all these state party organizations in Southern states and a new group of white supremacist Republicans who starting in the 1890s, tried to sort of kick the black group known as the Black and Tans out. We sort of charged how in each state that conflict played out and also the larger consequences for the party as a competitive electoral because-
Matt Grossmann: Grant wanted to show that black voters mattered to the transformation of the North.
Keneshia Grant: I think that this is a bit of a feeling in, at least I came to it as a feeling in. I just couldn’t really wrap my mind around the fact that the great migration was missing from the work, and I thought surely… and even as I was writing the book, once I was working as a professor thought surely I was about to stumble on something where somebody had already done this, and they had. So I think that was an important filling in. I also think that there was an important feeling in about how black were making decisions and what happens to movers. So some of the scholars and political science suggests that when you move, if you have strong political opinions, that you take those strong political opinions with you wherever you go.
But the message for black voters was different. The message for black voters was that they would just take on the political opinions of the black people who were already living in the North, which seemed a little wrong to me. So some of the work that I’m doing in the book is thinking about this kind of contextual versus compositional debate that happens in our scholarship, where we think about how people’s movement changes their politics. I just wanted to assert that black folks movement wouldn’t change their politics, that even though black people who were living in the South could not participate in politics like they should be able to, that they had political ideas. They had opinions, and those opinions and ideas were strong, and that those strong ideas probably came with them to the North and shaped the ways that they participated in politics there.
Matt Grossmann: Some increasing black voter impact was inevitable, she says, but not the way they were integrated.
Keneshia Grant: I think the question about whether black importance in politics was inevitable is a really interesting one. It’s interesting, especially because I do this thing where I’m thinking and talking about black voters as the balance of power. So at the beginning of the period of interest, they are not really the balance of power in elections. The balance of power as I calculate it here, which is different from how I calculate it in a different piece of scholarship, but we can talk about that in a minute. So I think, yes, in some ways, it’s inevitable. In some ways, the great migration is happening. Millions and millions of people are coming. So because the great migration is happening and millions and millions of people are coming, eventually, it’s going to be the case that there are so many black people participating in politics that you can’t ignore them.
So yeah. Some of it’s kind of inevitable. But we don’t even get that far because some of the politicians are thinking about black voters even before they’re there in the millions when they are just coming in, in smaller numbers. Politicians are thinking about them both in terms of like, “Okay. Well, how can I get these folks to be part of my coalition.” But also, in some instances, how can I make sure that these people do not participate in politics, do not fundamentally change the way that I have to exist as a politician. So I think that in some ways, it’s inevitable, but I think the story kind of can’t exist in the way it does, and the party that we see both at the national and at the subnational level would not have evolved in the way that it did without the stories of the people on the ground, be they in parties, be they candidates, be they elected officials who did the work of engaging with black people.
Matt Grossmann: Heersink wanted to look at an ignored period of Republicans in the South, that bell for the future.
Boris Heersink: The traditional way of thinking about it was essentially just like, this doesn’t matter, right? Partly this is because we think of local parties as tools that politicians use to get elected. So you got people who are running for office and parties matter once you are a candidate, and you’re on a ballot and if you’re a member of Congress or a member of state legislature. Being in a party matters, et cetera. One of that really is happening a whole lot in the South. The Republican party in a lot of cases isn’t fueling candidates anymore. It’s certainly not running real election campaigns. So as a political party, it’s not actually that relevant. So political scientists have largely ignored it. There’s Fiocchi as a the classic color of the South as a sort of political region, has a couple of pages in a really long book about it, where it’s just goes like, well, it’s a weird group. It’s kind of a cult. It’s not entirely clear why they exist.
Historians have written a little bit about it in sort of like for specific states. There hasn’t really been a comprehensive look at the Republican party as a whole in the region in this time period. What we find is that, one, those state party organizations existed consistently throughout the region and every single state throughout this time period, and two, they matter quite a lot because they had a large say at the national convention. They were part of major decisions. National party leaders always care a lot about the South. They care about keeping their support at conventions. They care about which different party leaders are in charge of paying for your state party organizations and how to get federal jobs to them. Within the states, there’s this major conflict along racial lines over who gets the control of these state party organizations.
Matt Grossmann: They found that white takeovers of Southern Republican parties claim electoral gains, and they did make slow gains.
Boris Heersink: The white supremacists who are trying to sort of takeover each state party organization, their argument essentially is that as the South increasingly becomes controlled by white Democrats and as they’re passing Jim Crow legislation effectively banning black people from participating in elections almost entirely, the only way Republican party in the South could be successful as an electoral party is by becoming a white party. So after the civil war, black people play a really important part in the Republican party in the South. They make up a large part of the voting public, and there are this number of black elected officials, black party leaders, et cetera.
As we’re getting into the late 19th and early 20th century, these white supremacists Republicans are saying, “We need to get rid of all black people in the party, and we need to replace them with an all-white party because that’s the kind of party you can actually compete electorally.” They’re sort of hypocritical in making that argument because what they really care about to a large extent is controlling patronage, getting federal jobs and being able to sell them and make a lot of money out of that. In the book, we actually test their claim, just if the Republican party becomes more white in each individual state, does that actually help them electorally?
The answer seemed to be yes, as the number of black delegates in the party, which is the best metric that we could come up with of sort of how black or how white state party organization was at each given moment in time. As the number goes down, since the party becomes more white, in the sort of Jim Crow era, the party does better electorally.
Matt Grossmann: Both see their projects as part of a new school, extending our understanding of how the parties switch their regional and racial coalitions back further in history.
Keneshia Grant: I am definitely in the new school. When I teach it, I tell my students like, “Okay. Well, here’s the old school, and here’s the new school, and it’s issue evolution versus kind of Eric Schindler group of folks who were thinking about this as a slower-moving process. I am very much taken by this slower moving process thing, and I think probably got there not because of the political science literature, but got there because of the history, got there reading about civil rights and seeing that these people were working on this stuff for a long, long time. So they are working on it for a long time. The party is changing slowly. I’m motivated by and I think sensitive to the new work that talks about kind of the bottom-up change, as opposed to the top-down change.
You can see that because the work reflects it, right? I’m writing this book about mayors and what’s happening at the local level and how that eventually changes the national level. The book is an outgrowth of the dissertation. So you don’t, you don’t see it in the book, but there’s a national piece here too, and I’m basically arguing like, yeah, this local thing happens and then national parties respond. So I’m definitely in the group of folks who think that party change was slow, that it happened over time, and then the issue of evolution is probably not the best way to think about it.
Just how long of a project, the sudden takeover by the Republican party has been and how it wasn’t just a situation of like… We tend to think of it sort of as Democratic party in 64 passes civil rights, and therefore it all ends. That’s not entirely true because Democrats still do very well in the South congressional elections for a long period of time. But it’s also true, in that, there was a lot happening before then that played into what happened afterwards, and sort of understanding American political historical development sort of requires looking at all those components.
Matt Grossmann: Let’s dig into the details, starting with Grant. She found that black migrants were half of the new black politicians in the North but largely had the same outlook.
Keneshia Grant: I was first surprised by the number of migrants who were elected to office. I just was curious in general about what black people were doing in elected office because in many of the political science stories in much of the literature, we hear about civil rights, and we hear about black people, where the black people don’t seem to have a bunch of agency. So I wanted to know, okay, well, who was elected, and what were they doing? This thing about half of them being migrants turned out to be a surprise to me. I did not expect that. So once I saw that they were migrants, I questioned whether the migrants would have different approach to politics, and I found out that they kind of didn’t. It turned out that black people, whether they were born in the North or born outside the North were fighting for the same things. Everybody was trying to end discrimination. Everybody wanted to have fair employment laws. Everybody wanted to have fair housing.
So it seemed to me, or I supposed that migrants might have a different idea, different approach of politics, different way of being, but it turns out that they actually worked very closely with their Northern born counterparts to get things done because the struggle was the same for everybody living in a Chicago, New York or Detroit and was not entirely different for the migrants, with one small exception. There are some migrants who I don’t write about at length here but who deserve recognition who move throughout the nation over the course of a year with the planting season.
So there was one instance where I saw a migrant in New York who was fighting for legislation at the state level to protect the people who were moving up and down, what we now know as I-95 to do the planting in various states. That was the one instance where I saw a migrant standing up for migrants and seeking legislation that was specifically about migrants. But again, much of the work was about living conditions in these Northern places and fighting to make sure that what it meant to live in the North was good for all black people, not just for migrants or not just for native born black folks.
Matt Grossmann: Unions tried to build biracial coalition in Detroit, but backlash white voters developed quickly.
Keneshia Grant: I think Detroit is a star because it reminds me so much of politics today. It reminds me of politics today because I think then, like now, we see people making what I would say are not really helpful decisions for themselves. So in Detroit is the case that the unions are attempting to organize their workers, and the unions are seeking to have it be the case that working-class black people and working-class white people work together on class issues and work against this ruling business interest in Detroit in order to get things done, to get progress, to get economic relief. But we find that the business owners and the people who are running the government in Detroit figure out pretty quickly that they can keep these white working-class voters as part of their coalition if they hold up the banner of segregation. If they say a segregated community is going to infringe on your rights as a white man, and you don’t want to have black kids in school with your white kids, be sure to vote for segregation over everything.
It seems like or I find that the folks in Detroit take that message to heart, and everything else is kind of set aside in terms of progress in that city, certainly in terms of racial progress toward the goal of making sure that the city stays white and that these neighborhoods that are segregated remain segregated in the schools and all that kind of stuff. So I thought that was really interesting, and again, it’s something that I didn’t know before I started doing the work for the book, and something again, that I think is like telling about politics today. I think there are many instances where Americans share more, agree about more, would be better served by working together than working apart, but that we get caught up in racial stuff. To be frank, I think we get caught up in the protection of whiteness in ways that harms black people, but also harms white people.
Matt Grossmann: Black women had more success where party bosses were weak in Detroit. But black men candidates did best in Chicago.
Keneshia Grant: Many of the black women in the story who are elected to office get elected in Detroit, which again, interesting, Detroit ends up being this really interesting place that I did not expect to be so interesting. I think one of the reasons that black women are able to get elected in Detroit more so than they are able to get elected in New York and Chicago is that there are fewer people in the way, so to speak, that Detroit doesn’t have a party. The leaders of Detroit decide early when migration begins, not just because there are black migrants coming, but also because there are white migrants coming to the city that it probably be in the best interest of the business lobby to reorganize their city charter so that they eliminate parties and eliminate these single member districts that used to comprise their city council.
So that city ends up with an at-large system and no parties effectively, which I think leads to a situation where individuals can run for office kind of in a place that’s closer to the people. They don’t have to get the buy-in from the various layers of a party organization as they do in Chicago or as they do in New York. They can decide for themselves that they want to run and win, which I think makes it possible for many of the people who get elected in… not many of the people, but some of the people, a larger number of the people who get elected in Detroit to end up being women. The rules matter thing becomes important too in Chicago. So although most of the women who get elected from Detroit, the largest number of black people who are elected to the positions that I count during this time, which is basically city council, the legislative position, so city council, state legislature, and Congress, they come from Chicago. Chicago has this very large number of black people who are elected to political office, and they get elected earlier than they do at some other places.
I think that’s a function of the fact that Chicago has this very strong party system, but Chicago also has this very clear single member district, the city council, and this very clear way of choosing these cumulative voters in the state legislature that makes it possible for black folks to, because they are living in a segregated city, get elected from these seats that represent these segregated areas.
Matt Grossmann: There were black Republicans as well. But migrants moved to fewer places with Republican traditions.
Keneshia Grant: I went to Syracuse for my graduate work and in being in Syracuse, kind of talking to folks about this work was cautioned by the folks at the church I attended while I was there like, “Hey, why are you telling this great migration story? Just note that not all the people who were participating, not all the migrants who participated, participated as Democrats.” So the black people in Syracuse were telling me stories about back in the day, so to speak when black people used to be Republicans in Syracuse. This story that they’re telling me about back in the day is like the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. It’s not back in the day like reconstruction. So for sure, there are some places I’m also thinking about Memphis, where there are black people who participate as Republicans. I think it’s important to note, and I’m sure your listeners already know this play. It’s important to note that when we think about black partisanship at this time, it doesn’t look like black partisanship today.
So today, if the Democrats start to dip below 90% support from black people, heads will spin about what is going on. But it doesn’t really look exactly that way during my period of interest. During my period of interest, the black vote is really kind of up for grabs, and black voters are kind of waiting to see what might happen before they make their decisions about who they are going to support. In some instances, they make decisions that politicians don’t anticipate about who they’re going to support, or in some instances, they might have been supporting Democrats at the local level but decide to support a Republican or get upset with the Democrat at the local level and support the Republican at the local level and then going on to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate.
So the Republicans are present in the story. They don’t show up as much in the book because I thought that there was more action, more of a story to tell on the Democratic side. But surely, as much as the Democrats are vying for black votes, so are Republicans.
Matt Grossmann: Democrats had to get out of their horrible image for these black migrants.
Keneshia Grant: If you go back and read what black people are saying during this period, some of the older black folks who even are moving to the North are saying, “Look, I would never vote for Democrats. It’s not a thing.” I don’t think that the Democratic party should ever have our support. They are racist currently. They have been racist in the past. I will never do it. So many of the people who are advocating for this Democratic participation are younger people who are saying, “Listen, I know that you have this negative image of the Democratic party in the South, but the Democratic party in the North is variable. So it’s necessary that we give them a chance. We should hear them out. We also see a shift in black leadership where they are saying that it’s important to put the race first and party second.
So this means I know that you’re trained not to vote for Democrats. I know that you don’t believe in the Democratic party. You don’t think it’s a good thing. But here, they seem to be thinking about us. At least they’re talking to us. At least they’re engaging with us. At least they’re giving us things. Because that’s happening, it’s necessary for you to vote for them, even if it’s not a thing that you’re used to, kind of hold your nose and do it. So I think it is the case that the party, they kind of evolve together. The party begins to do things, to signal to black voters, “Hey, we’re a safe place. Please come support us.”
I think black voters do go on and support them in part because the party is giving them things that they have asked for and doing things that seem right, even if they don’t always get it right. I want to be clear that they don’t always get it right. They often make promises that they don’t keep, and they often do things that are symbolic, that are a little better, a hair better than what the Republican party has going on, but at least in a tent.
Matt Grossmann: As black politicians made their way up local state and national offices, the party slowly changed.
Keneshia Grant: I think Adam Clayton Powell will be a good example of talking about how black folks end up getting representation in Congress because he’s a person who goes through pretty much all the ranks of that city. He is elected at the local level first, runs for office at the state level, and then is eventually elected to the Congress. So black folks end up getting elected that way. There are also a bunch of folks who get elected to Congress from Detroit. Not all of them go through the city council first, but they ended up getting elected that way as well. I think when we think about civil rights and black folks, as they participate, and as a party response to them, it’s also important to think about what happens at conventions and what kinds of interactions members of the party have with the local elected leaders.
Then many people who are elected to office, black and white at the local level are signaling to the national party. It’s probably signaling to the national party that it’s probably a good idea to begin to embrace civil rights because if they don’t, they’re going to create problems for folks down ballot, and the people down ballot don’t want to have these issues with black voters and don’t want to have lots of support because the national party is continuing to take these positions that are sympathetic to Southern racist interests.
Matt Grossmann: Black voters were also attending to changes in the South.
Keneshia Grant: I think what’s happening in the North and South are very related. As I mentioned before, if you are a migrant, you’re leaving the South and going to the North and I think taking some ideas with you from the South to the North. As I mentioned, taking some ideas about what the Democratic party is or is not with you and taking some ideas about what the Republican party is or is not with you and having some expectations about how this stuff is going to show up once you get where you’re going.
But I also think that it’s important to the extent that the threat people who are living in the North, especially those from the South, have the South and what is happening in the South at the forefront of their minds when they’re making their own political decisions. So especially if you’re a black person running for office, you have to be thoughtful about what’s happening in the South and how your attempts to get civil rights for black people in the North might influence the South, and you have to be vocal about the fact that you don’t like what’s happening in the South. So I think these things are very connected because I think black voters are paying attention not only to what’s happening in the cities where they live but paying attention to the national story, paying attention to my understanding that these fights for discrimination in the North will hopefully one day mean change in the South.
Matt Grossmann: Heersink and Jenkins combined qualitative history with quantitative data to investigate the early Southern transformation, finding some idiosyncrasies.
Boris Heersink: We started all this as just a historical qualitative story, where we wrote an article in 2015, where we looked at national conventions, how did the South play into that and wrote, an we article, and that was relatively straightforward. Then as we were sort of continuing talking about and thinking about it, we came up with using the ancestry data, partly because a reviewer had suggested it and sort of figured out that we could actually get a dataset going, which is always exciting. Trying to sort of merge the two things was difficult because as we were writing and we wanted this to be sort of the book that you look to for this topic, right? We didn’t want it sort of like the margin, we cover some elements. We want it to sort of give us a full history to full assessment of the entire region.
On the other hand, that’s a lot of time in a lot of states. So that became sort of a complicated element to it. The way we ended up writing and setting it up was we have sort of a quantitative chapter that looks purely at the data of the race of the delegates and how that affected election results. Then subsequently, we use that data as a descriptive tool to sort of help us charge the specific state histories. So for each individual state, we have a case study, sort of, where we look at the history, how it developed over time and the specific conflicts that played out.
We can use the data both as a check on our data to make sure that we actually get it right, which we do. We can see sort of like when there are decreases in the number of black delegates, some cases, reemergence of black delegates and sort of connected to specific moments in history that sort of make sense and also use it as sort of like a guide as to, when do we think the activity is happening? What is happening here, and why are these things playing out?
As you noted, a lot of it is sort of idiosyncratic, in that, there specific moments that happen or specific events that happen that affect the outcome of to what extent are still black representation and how high is it that really aren’t sort of like structural. One example is Arkansas has a Black and Tans organization until 1912. There’s a family that basically runs the party. One guy gets kicked out. His nephew takes over to party, and he’s a lowly white guy. So he kicks out all black people. So for two convention years, there’s zero black delegates in Arkansas.
Then we see the numbers go up again. So we were like, “Why is there suddenly new black delegates?” So we looked into the history, and it turned out that that nephew just died, and his uncle basically was like, “Oh, I’ll take over again.” So he came back in and he brought back some black delegates. So that kind of stuff, it’s just historical luck, right? It’s not anything structural. So in writing the book, we really did struggle with trying to identify, to what extent are there real themes here across the state? To what extent is it sort of based on these small events that can have really big consequences?
Matt Grossmann: They did not by the traditional racist story of reconstruction failure. But they did find that Republican’s initial efforts to build multiracial coalitions were not successful.
Boris Heersink: It’s hard to imagine I think how reconstruction could have worked because in [inaudible 00:31:23] it required building a much broader coalition that I think the Republican party was capable of creating. We do talk a little bit about not so much during reconstruction, but after reconstruction. So in the 1870s, 1880s, that a number of a Republican presidents really tried quite actively to try to sort of come up with a way of appealing to white southerners and trying to sort of come up with a way of reaching out to those kinds of voters who were clearly not Republican voters who are not interested in the party and like, what can we do to bring those people in? Have they been successful? You could have imagined a different type of American history, right? If the South had actually been a competitive two-party system throughout the 19th and 20th century, that probably would have been interesting, but it just doesn’t work.
We’re also seeing in some cases where whenever those presidents got a sense that they were not doing as well in the North as they wanted to, they sort of retorted to bloody, short retort, meaning they went back to talking about the civil war, talking about how the South was bad, et cetera, which undermined any attempt to… It actually changed something in the South. In terms of the Black and Tans, one thing that I think is interesting is sort of the counterfactual of whether. We were seeing these lily-white groups, so these white supremacists take over the state party organizations starting the 1890s up through the 1910s, 1920s, and in one particular case, 1960.
It will be an interesting counterfactual to see what would have happened if that hadn’t happened. Right? If those white supremacists hadn’t tried to take over to Republican state parties, and they had remained a largely black organization across the South. Because one of the arguments we’re making in the book is that lily-white takeovers essentially serve a necessary condition for the Republican party to become competitive later on, where essentially, once the Democratic party starts to shift on civil rights, starts to not become as good of a match anymore for white Southern voters, those voters need a place to go, and they can go into the Republican party in part because those state party organizations have all become entirely white and have been for a long time at this point.
Had that not happened, it’s not entirely clear where they would have gone, and maybe it would have been a free party, or maybe it would have been some kind of biracial coalition to both parties. But that’s sort of an interesting counterfactual that was no way test, but could have been interesting.
Matt Grossmann: They measured black and white control of the state parties to track changes and their effects.
Boris Heersink: The conflict between the black [inaudible 00:33:50] the whites is something that there has been some attention to. Hanes Walton Jr. Wrote a book about it in the ’70s, but since then, not as much. As we were sort of digging into this more, we were trying to figure out one, how can we actually know where in the sort of history of that conflict a state is at a given moment in time? How black or how white is a party in Alabama or Arkansas or Florida in 1916, in 1920, in 1924. The metric we came up with was that because of this stage, convention delegates are sort of the prize. That’s the important part. That’s the goal of sort of why these parties still exist. In this time period, the national convention publishes a big sort of book of transcripts of each national convention. So every four years, there’s this huge book with transcripts of all the meanings and the votes and all that and also a list of all the delegates.
Boris Heersink: So we had, for each state, a list of names, and usually, their home counts. That’s about it. When you went into ancestry.com, which is sort of a search engine for people trying to look up their family trees and all that. We use that to sort of search for each individual delegate and try to find and match them to their original census form. Once we did that, which we’re able to do for 80% of the delegates from the South, once we did that, we were able to identify that race. So that allowed us to say, for each presidential election year, what is the percentage of black delegates in each state across time? So that change also allowed us to then test that core lily-white argument at the time, which was, if we take over and we make the party more white, that means we’re going to do better electorally, and actually noted there is sort of a core difference there between whether there is or is not a Jim Crow law on the books.
So in the period before Jim Crow laws, where in most Southern states, black voters are sort of the core base of the Republican party there, as the party became more white, voter support actually declined. So it seems like black voters were actually paying attention to this. After Jim Crow and after black voters are essentially banned from participating and the electorate is entirely white, as the party becomes more white, the party actually does better. So it performs better presidential elections, gubernatorial elections, state legislative elections, et cetera.
So the takeaway point there is that we do think that the voters are actually paying attention and are sort of aware of it. If you look at state sort of local newspapers, there’s a decent amount of coverage of state conventions, and who’s going to the national convention, things like that. So it’s certainly possible if people are a little bit aware of it and that there was actually some effect in line with what the lily-whites were arguing, which is whites aren’t voters in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, aren’t going to vote for a party they perceive to be a black party, but they’re more open to voting for it if it becomes a white party.
Now, does it actually win them elections. No, it doesn’t. But you think that it sort of creates this necessary condition where once the party becomes white, it becomes a possible home in the future for those voters, which seems to be what played out
Matt Grossmann: The main game here was state party leaders trading presidential convention votes for patronage jobs.
Boris Heersink: As the Southern party leaders and their delegates go to a national convention, they have a vote. But beyond that, they don’t really have any reason to care that much about who the nominee is and how the election plays out and all that because it doesn’t really affect them, with one exception, which is that if a Republican president is in The White House and you are the party leader of a Southern state party organization on the Republican side, then all the federal jobs that go into your state are jobs that you essentially control. In practice, what that means is that you can sell those jobs to the highest bidder.
So that sets up sort of an interesting economic financial system, whereby you have these state party leaders who don’t really have much else going on and every four years are basically sort of negotiating with different presidential hopefuls about, who are we going to support at the convention? If that candidate wins and subsequently becomes president, are we getting the jobs, and are we going to be able to sell them? The amounts were pretty considerable. We talk about in the book a little bit in the 1920s, where there’s a couple of Senate investigations into sort of selling of offices in the South. The numbers that come out is you can sell a postmastership for like $20,000 in today’s money, which is substantial. So we’re seeing this sort of negotiations play out where a person who would like that job needs to talk to the local Republican party leader, who can then get them in touch with another Republican party leader, and that eventually gets them the job
Matt Grossmann: Hoover and Eisenhower made some early Southern progress, but it was partially dependent on racial change in the parties.
Boris Heersink: So in the case of Hoover, he’s running against Al Smith. Smith is a governor of New York. He’s the first Catholic on a national ticket. That really alienated and sort of angered a lot of white Protestant voters in the South who otherwise would have voted Democrat, but sort of in a protest, go for Hoover. Hoover while in office tries to sort of… He sort of interprets it as like, the people love me, and I’m going to use this to rebuild the Republican party in the South. That doesn’t really work out partly because he runs into some issues with the very few remaining Black and Tans organizations and being unable to sort of kick those leaders out, and of course, the great depression hits, and that sort of takes away any progress that might’ve been made.
In the case of Eisenhower, I think it’s again partly a personality issue the fact that Eisenhower, of course, military hero, the man behind World War II victory, universally admired. So that opened up, I think, some voters to vote for him in the South. Additionally, once we hit 1952, we’re already seeing the Democratic party switch on civil rights. It’s in ’48. You have the Dixiecrats running against Truman as Eric Schickler has argued in racial realignment. There’s also increasingly in sort of the Democratic state party organizations outside of the South, though, those start to take on and bringing a civil rights as sort of a core liberal value.
So as that is happening, I think Southern voters are becoming sort of more open to voting Republican. One of the reasons why Eisenhower, sort of that doesn’t automatically carry through right away, maybe is Brown v. Board, which certainly, within the RNC, they were very concerned about. So in the ’50s, the RNC, they have a big operation focused on bringing in the South called Operation Dixie. They see Brown v. Board as a really terrible event that sort of really undermines a lot of the work they’re doing. But as a part of a broader process, it seems to sort of be sort of a part of that the movement towards the Republican party become a competitive and later dominant than the South.
Matt Grossmann: Here’s success. These histories are part of the groundwork for later Republican’s success.
Boris Heersink: I think it is very much a first step. When you’re looking at things like great migration and the creation of sort of the suburbs in the South and all that, those are I think fundamental to helping shape what happens next, [inaudible 00:40:51] one, the fact that Democratic party becomes a more complicated coalition essentially, where prior to the new deal, it’s a majority Southern party. Once the new deal successes began, the party becomes much bigger, and it starts to rely on black support in elections outside of the South, and that makes it almost impossible to sort of maintain the party as is. Certainly, the rise of the suburbs and creation of sort of like a new set of white voters in the South really mattered in terms of how that Republicans were able to go in and win those voters while not losing support outside of the South. So one of the things we look at is the 1964 election, right? Where you have the Republicans really target the South very aggressively, and it’s kind of worked well, in that, Goldwater wins a couple of Southern states, which is nice. But of course, he just terrible everywhere else.
Sort of the working version of it becomes the Nixon type of talking about things without making it explicit about race, talking about things that appeal to suburban white voters across the country, not just in the South. So those are all fundamental and crucial to how how everything played out. I think what we contribute to the story is that it’s hard to imagine a black Republican party in the South as the party that exists there being able to sort of make all that possible, right? If the Virginia Republican party or the Florida Republican party is dominated by black politicians and leaders, it’s harder to imagine a situation where white voters who feel like they no longer have a home in the Democratic party as it comes to embrace civil rights would then move into the Republican party. So we think it’s sort of a fundamental first step.
Matt Grossmann: Losing black, Northern voters was also key to the later moves in the South.
Boris Heersink: By the time that the Democratic party really ceases to be completely its core strength in the South, the Republican party has also already lost black voters, right? So had we been in a world where black voters were not fully Democratic essentially outside of the South, and had the Republican party in the South still contained because there was a black element, I would imagine that the Republican party would have fought a lot harder to keep black voters in. But given the fact that they had already essentially lost them, and they did try in a couple of cases. Throughout sort of the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, even the 2000s, to some extent, there have always been Republican party leaders who sort of stepped up and said, “It’s really important that we try to target black voters.” Like Bill Brock, who’s RNC chair in the late ’70s made it really one of his core fundamental goals to try to sort of reach out to black voters and bring them in. That always fails.
Boris Heersink: One of the reasons why he fails is that the party doesn’t really want to change its positions on policies. It just essentially thinks that as long as we just go out to black voters and we talk more to them, then we’re going to win them. That just doesn’t really work. But the fact that the Republican party in the ’60s, ’70s doesn’t have to rely on black votes, isn’t really receiving black vote, certainly made it a lot easier for the party to say, “Well, then we’re going to target white voters in the South because it’s not hurting us, and it’s going to help us not just win presidential elections, but also win majorities in House and the Senate.”
Matt Grossmann: Grant finds that white backlash was also a slow-moving process.
Keneshia Grant: The stories that I tell us in the book bear that out. So it’s not like all these black people came, all of a sudden, it was like, “Oh my God, there’s so many black people and then white flight happened.” I think that this is a story that is moving kind of slowly, and I think that we see white people adjusting slowly. I think that they are living in the cities. I think that whiteness as a concept is coming into kind of some being, where there are more people who might not have been considered white or able to participate in the same way before black people get to the North, now get to be a part of black or white community. So I think all of that’s a slow process. All of it happens and unfolds over time.
So yes, there’s white backlash. But I don’t think that white backlash just starts as a response to writing. I think it’s present as part of the entire story.
Matt Grossmann: Heersink says the odd Democratic party coalition was always destined to fall apart. But the rise of the Republican party in the South was not inevitable.
Boris Heersink: The part that was probably inevitable was the idea that if you have a Democratic party, that includes both Southern segregationists, who in terms of elected officials, at least, basically exclusively care about segregation, right? Dixiecrat Democratic politicians, that was the core thing they cared about. You also have a substantial part of the party that is relying on black votes outside of the South. You can’t really maintain that marriage forever. That was always going to fall apart at some point. The exact timing of it is sort of like the early ’60s as sort of the fundamental moment where it all broke down. Maybe that is based on the individual actions and choices and the civil rights movement and unique historical events. But the broader fact that the Democratic party couldn’t beat as big tent of segregationists and black people to get her in one party, that kind of seems inevitable.
I think the subsequent events of the Republican party becoming almost entirely white party that has its core base in the South, if you told them any Republican this is a century ago, they would’ve laughed at you. That was certainly not what they expected to see happen as an outcome. I think the inevitability of it partly is that we have a two-party system. So if there’s a core sub part of voters, electoral votes and all that, that one party is sort of abandoning, then the other party nearly always will jump in and try to get them. But again, it’s not something that if you had told anybody a century ago in 2020, this is how the two parties fall on in terms of geographic division and what their [inaudible 00:47:01] coalitions look like, I think a lot of people would have been very confused by that.
Matt Grossmann: Republicans took a while to get their messaging right to get Southern white voters.
Boris Heersink: Earlier on the time period we’re looking at, it’s essentially all race. Race is a really fundamental thing that drives a lot of the choices that people are making. The thing that’s sort of interesting, I think if you look at the 1950, the 1950s, where Republican party is sort of trying to figure out how we can compete effectively in the South, that’s sort of the part where they’re really trying to balance sort of like, how do we appeal to white voters without being completely racist because that’s not who we are? We don’t want be that, but we don’t want their votes, and how can we do that? It takes them a while to sort of come up with a winning formula that allows them to sort of do well in the South, but also do well everywhere else.
So when the 1940s, you have an RNC chair who gives a talk in, I want to say, Alabama. I might be wrong about that. But he basically goes down South, and it’s like, the Dixiecrats, they want state’s rights. We want state’s rights. Basically being like, “We’re Republican party. We’re for state’s rights and small government and things like that.” What you subsequently do with those days rights, who cares. We’re not going to talk about that. In the ’50s, there was a clear issue in terms of like, how do you combine what the Eisenhower administration is doing on certain issues regarding segregation with appealing to voters. In the early ’60s, they’re trying to sort of like partly write an anti Kennedy wave, which works pretty well for them, but then also running into the if you go full-on opposition civil rights, how does that play out in other elections?
It just takes them a while to figure out how you can appeal to voters in the South without hurting yourself elsewhere. At the same time, the fact that the Democratic party is moving far left really helps Republicans too, because as the Democratic party becomes more liberal and sort of alienates a lot of those Southern white voters, you don’t necessarily have to make the argument anymore that it is about race. You can just make economic arguments, and voters will sort of find their way to you because you are essentially becoming the only available alternative party for them to vote for.
Matt Grossmann: Today, black voters might’ve had more influence if they had stayed in the South or moved there now. But grant says it’s hard to see the alternative where civil rights advance without the move North.
Keneshia Grant: I think it will be interesting to imagine a counterfactual where black people don’t leave and things evolve in the same way. So black people don’t leave the South in large numbers. So Alabama and Mississippi become these powerhouse black politics places. I think that would be interesting to see. I think we would have to see it as fiction. As the counterfactual, I think that black folks leaving the South is a necessary condition for progress on civil rights. So I don’t know if we go run a counterfactual where the South changes and becomes a place where black folks can have political power without that struggle, that happens in the North and without experiencing the loss of that group of people who moved in the great migration. But I think it’d be interesting to see kind of outside of myself as a movie or something.
In terms of today, I think there are a couple of things happening that we should be thoughtful about. The first is return migration, which as you say, I mentioned in the conclusion of the book, and I think return migration is important because I’m not sure that Democrats are thoughtful about black folks movement and how black folks movement is going to impact their electoral college chances. Withe know for a fact that the number of black people coming into the South has been increasing since at least 1970. So it’s like as the great migration is ending, this return migration begins with black folks going South. But I think it’s going to be really important to see how their migration changes Southern politics. I think we’re getting the first splashes of it now. I think a Stacey Abrams and an Andrew Gillum is only possible because there is some kind of changes happening in the populations of these states. An important part of that change is the change of black folks coming into the South.
Matt Grossmann: Black voters are strategic, and grant says, that means Democrats should not take them for granted.
Keneshia Grant: I think the party at least thinks black voters are captured. I’m not entirely convinced that black voters are captured. I think that what it means to participate and what it means to be captured might look different, and that’s a little bit of what I’m trying to signal here. It’s like the party assumes that black people don’t have anywhere else to go, which is true. Black people are probably not voting. They definitely now voted for Donald Trump in large numbers. Some percentage of them will, but most of them won’t. But I think the party forgets that black people could stay home. I think that if there’s anything to know from this book is that black people are actually thoughtful and strategic voters and that they are sensitive to what is happening in the political environment and that if they get a leader they trust, especially a black leader they trust that that black leader could change the way they participate in elections.
I’m thinking about Adam Clayton Powell again here who breaks with the Democratic party because he thinks that the party is being too sensitive to southerners in 1956 and tells black people in Harlem like, “Don’t vote for the Democrat. Vote for the Republican.” There’s a major uptake in the number of black people who do vote for Eisenhower in that election as a function of Adam Clayton Powell’s direction to do so. So are black people captured? I’m not really convinced that they are entirely captured. I think the party at least thinks they are, and that’s problematic. But I think that the party again should be careful that capture doesn’t always look like showing up to vote for you. It could be the case that black folks just choose to stay home.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Please review our recent episodes at www.niskanencenter.org or anywhere you find your podcasts. Thanks to Keneshia Grant and Boris Heersink for joining me. Please check out the Great Migration and the Democratic Party and Republican Party Politics in the American South 1865-1968, and then listen in next time.