The GOP was once revered, especially in black households, as the party of Lincoln. It's a view that held through the 1920s, but began to fracture during the Great Depression. By the beginning of the 21st century, the "great divorce" was complete, with blacks now so hostile to the GOP that, according to exit polls, the 2012 Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, won less than one out of every 10 votes they cast for president.
The history of how it happened depends on who is telling the story. Conventional wisdom has it that Richard Nixon's embrace of the so-called Southern strategy in 1968 (as popularized by conservative-turned-liberal political analyst Kevin Phillips) – welcoming Southern racists into the Republican Party – is at the core of the GOP's decline among black voters.
This analysis, while convenient, leaves out a number of significant points. It drops the George Wallace voters from the electoral calculation. It discounts how, only with the support of the congressional GOP to overcome the strong opposition from Southern Democrats, President Lyndon B. Johnson got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress.
The idea that the South changed only after Nixon "welcomed" the racists into the GOP ignores voting trends that had been evident since the '30s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt tried, but failed, to purge Southern conservatives from the party. He wanted to replace them with liberals who would put the rubber stamp on New Deal recovery measures, even though the measures were not working, as Amity Shlaes shows in her book "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression."
The Democrats were the party of "Jim Crow." It was Democrats like Wallace and Orville Faubus who stood in the schoolhouse door. It was Democrats who led the "massive resistance" to integration after a unanimous Supreme Court – led by Republican Earl Warren – found "separate but equal" to be unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.
As Sean Trende wrote this week for Real Clear Politics, the South's move into the GOP column actually began in earnest in 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower won 48 percent of its vote for president.
Eisenhower, Trende explains, carried outlying Southern states – Tennessee, Virginia, Texas and Florida – while making inroads "in the 'Deep South,' almost carrying South Carolina and losing North Carolina and Louisiana by single digits." Only part of this can be attributed to the Democratic Party's controversial but correct embrace of civil rights in 1948.
History shows that as the South became less racist, it also became more Republican. Its voters began to shift allegiances at the presidential level as the national Democratic Party embraced the economic, national security and cultural liberalism of Gene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy and George McGovern. The McGovern reforms enacted after the disastrous '68 convention in Chicago toppled Southern party leaders from their positions of national influence. They didn't walk out of the party; they were pushed.
The trend continued through the '70s, into the '80s and the '90s, as Republicans began to win more and more regional senate races, more seats in Congress and finally, in 1994, a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.
It is foolish to ascribe all, or even most, of these developments to attitudes about race. The shift in the Southern states has more to do with the development of the "new South," which threw off its racist past and embraced economic development, attracting, over the years, more and more Republicans to the region.
The eminent political scientists Merle and Earl Black demonstrated as much in their book "The Rise of Southern Republicans," which charted the party's growth in the region over the latter half of the 20th century.
Using congressional vote ratings and electoral analysis, they show how the transformation of the two national parties into a "liberal" party (the Democrats) and a "conservative" party (the Republicans) drove the regional realignment. Conservative rural districts moved into the GOP column first. Urban districts, which over time became majority minority congressional seats, stayed with the Democrats. The suburban swing districts, meanwhile, moved from Democrat to Republican as the people representing them began voting more like national Democrats instead of Southern ones.
All this is intriguing as a back story, but it doesn't explain how the GOP got into its current predicament. It does, however, point the way out. The party is unable to tell this rather simple story in a way that is convincing, explaining – especially to the African-American electorate – the real story of the Democrats, the Republicans and race. Therefore it is still too easy to believe, as Jesse Jackson once charged, the oft-repeated untruth that Ronald Reagan began his post-1980 election campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., near where three civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964, as some kind of "deliberate, secret signal" to white voters.
With things like that hanging over them, it's no wonder they have trouble winning black votes. To change things, the GOP has to start over with black America, retelling its story using spokespeople with sufficient "street cred" to sell it. The GOP can win the battle of ideas, can become the party of hope, growth and opportunity for everyone, but it will take a lot more than platitudes from Washington to make people believe it.
- Read Kristen Soltis Anderson: Park Geun–hye, Margaret Thatcher and America's Conservative Women
- Read Jamie Stiehm: New Marvin Kalb Book Offers Advice for Obama on Future Wars
- Read Brad Bannon: Obama’s Careful Path in Syria’s Civil War