The curious case of the Southern Republicans.

Sparked by this Michael Lind article,  there has been a lot of talk in the blogosphere about the extent to which rebellious Southerners are, perhaps with more than a little nostalgia for the Confederacy, influencing the Republican party.  

After a century and a half, I would have expected people to forget about the Civil War to some extent. The American colonists fought with the British against the French in 1760, and with the French against the British in 1780. We were allied with the Soviet Union in World War II, yet immediately commenced the Cold War at that war’s end.

I am not saying this is a good idea, but it seems to me that people could easily have forgotten about the Civil War by now. It would be simple enough for Party propagandists to pull a “we have always been at war with Eastasia” trick, and make all the old Confederate states embrace the Union. And since the Republicans are always worried about “creeping anti-Americanism” anyway, you would think the last thing that they would want people doing is glorifying secessionists.

Why do the battle lines of the old war still hold such significance?  And why is the South, which voted Democratic for 90 years after the Civil War, now solidly Republican? To figure out this relationship, we have to study some history. Permit a brief summary of what I understand from my cursory research on the topic, and bear in mind that I have no sources to cite in particular, but can only say it’s based on “my reading of the general body of historical research on this period.” In other words, my interpretation of things I’ve picked up over the years.

Now then:

The Republican party, in the late 1800s, was essentially the party of the industrialized North. Businessmen formed its core, and its attitude was fundamentally that of urban capitalism. The defeated rural South was furious about the process of reconstruction, which was being done by the Republicans. The Southerners utilized the familiar tactics of guerrilla warfare against the occupiers, including terrorizing the civilian population the occupiers were protecting.

At roughly the same time as this was going on, opposition to the inequitable conditions of capitalist industrialism began to arise in the U.S. This movement called itself by a variety of names, but their goal was much the same. They campaigned to regulate, restrain, and in some cases even end capitalism and its attendant rampant inequalities of wealth and opportunity.

Beginning in the 1870s, an alliance began to grow between rural farmers and the intellectuals who championed either reforming or abolishing capitalism. The South, perhaps adopting an “enemy of my enemy” approach, supported these movements to oppose the capitalist “robber barons” of the North and West.

This state of affairs pretty much persisted–with the Democrats enjoying a tremendous change in their electoral fortunes in 1932–until the 1960s when, as we all know, the South became Republican, presumably in response to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Republicans, of course, don’t like the implication of this, and most of their affection for the Confederacy they try to explain away by saying the Southern government was based on “states’ rights”, which is sort of true, but very misleading as well. (Incidentally, my analysis of the Republican theory of what happened in the 1960s you may find here.)

What is really interesting about all this to me is that the South has gone from being the number one enemy of the “Party of Big Business” to being its best friend. Why? The obvious and most likely answer is racism, of course. My question is: could there be any other explanation that accounts for these facts as well?

  • More history books than I could name here, many of which I no longer have.
  • Wikipedia
  • Miscellaneous other things I’ve read over the years. 

Basically, what I am describing here I can’t attribute to any one source; it’s a more of a general impression from the reading I’ve done on the subject. 

What's your stake in this, cowboy?