Reading Alexander Lamis’ “The Two-Party South”

I’ve written previously about how the whole red-state/blue-state paradigm gets on my nerves, and it’s in that spirit (and out of a belief in a more complex understanding) that I’m writing about Alexander P. Lamis’ 1984 book The Two-Party South. Originally from Charleston, South Carolina, Lamis was a political science professor at Case Western in Ohio, and the book won him a VO Key Award. Its general focus is Southern politics in the middle 20th century, but truly it’s about the years between the “Democratic Rupture over Civil Rights” and the early 1980s. 

Though I’ve typically gone through previous books chapter by chapter, it would be dull and repetitive to write about this book in that way. Lamis begins with three chapters of introduction then analyzes the states one at a time, discussing their relevant figures and particular developments. Reading the chapters, overarching trends emerge, as do state-level nuances, but the main point seems to be this: after the Civil Rights movement dealt a devastating blow to the racist/segregationist raison d’etre of the pre-Civil Rights Democratic Party, it allowed a series of developments that led to our current politics— a nearly all-white, conservative Republican Party marked by a reactionary attitude toward social justice movements and a Democratic Party defined by an uneasy coalition of African-Americans, working-class whites, and more affluent liberals.

I knew I was going to like The Two-Party South when I read the first sentence: “Outsiders more frequently than not find the South’s approach to politics something of mystery.” Lamis then launches right into it, calling the system of longtime Democratic dominance an “odd creature” and hinting at a few of the nuances: the 1948 Dixiecrat revolt followed by support for Eisenhower that he refers to as a “Republican spurt.” And then came the ’60s, when the “race issue” moved from hanging in the air to knocking on the door, which led to the “unraveling of the solidly Democratic South in the post-civil rights era.” These changes would then affect more than just presidential voting trends, but also state-level and down-ballot trends, creating the need for Lamis to “chart eleven separate movements [occurring] at the same time.”

According to Lamis, the 1970s were subsequently a period of “abatement,” a term he uses to mean a “diminishing of the intensity that had surrounded the race question.” This idea leads a reader into the second chapter about the “Democratic rupture.” Paring it down, the Civil Rights movement had shuffled deck— older, white, Solid South Democrats whose allegiances traced back to the New Deal (or earlier) were waning in influence, and longstanding black support for Republicans had been fundamentally altered by Civil Rights legislation that had come from the (national) Democratic Party.

Lamis traces the roots of the rupture to a time before the movement, even before World War II, to the 1936 Democratic Convention when black delegates were seated for the first time. Eleven years later, President Harry Truman’s 1947 civil rights commission pointed to the following year’s Dixiecrats, which had candidate Strom Thurmond winning four Deep Southern states – South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana – but still not thwarting Truman’s re-election. Another few years passed, and the Brown v. Board decision was handed down in 1954. The writing was on the wall, and there were choices to be made for the segregationists: stick with a Democratic Party leaning toward civil rights and try to push it back toward supporting Southern segregation, or abandon the Democratic Party that was abandoning them and take their conservative wishlist to the Republican side? The choice wouldn’t be easy and was ultimately made by individuals over a span of decades. Lamis writes, “Because of the one-party system at the state level and the rule of seniority in Congress, the region’s congressmen and senators held important leadership positions in Washington that would be lost if they switched parties.” On the next page, he adds that “it is important to remember that the [white Southern] electorate did not identify the civil rights developments of the 1950s with a Democratic president.” Then, there was the effect of 1964’s Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who had voted against the Civil Rights Act (for constitutionality reasons), and who was running against the Democratic president who had signed the act, thus allowing him to become the first Republican to sweep the Deep South in a long time. 

And so it began.

Lamis begins chapter three, “The Emergence of Southern Two-Party Politics,” by apprising his reader of three reasons that made the shift possible: first, “defections” from the Democratic Party that led to, second, a “torrent of Republican activity in the region,” and thus, third, “the economic and philosophical foundations of party politics” could become more apparent. One-party politics had been made possible by the issue of race taking center stage above all else. When that issue took a hard hit, Republicans saw their opportunity and seized it.

Here, Lamis backtracks again to discuss the “New Deal realignment,” which has to do with voting based not on race, but on class. In the 1930s, during the Depression, there was great debate in the South over whether the federal government should intervene in Southern life. Keep in mind that older, white Southerners in the 1930s had grown up during and right after Reconstruction – a person who was 65 years old in 1930 was born in 1865 – and there were lingering sentiments about federal intervention being a less-than-stellar idea. Once the New Deal happened, there was a class-based “cleavage” in the reaction— poorer white Southerners who benefited from the programs tended to be pleased with Democrats, while wealthier white Southerners who received fewer benefits tended be less pleased about the intrusion. So what did that mean?

When the transformation over race finally took place, it marked the collapse of the Southern barrier to the penetration of class-based two-party politics below the presidential level. But herein lies an important wrinkle: After the transformation over race knocked down the barrier to class politics, the race issue did not go quietly away. Quite the contrary, race became enmeshed in the emerging potentially class-based two-party structure that took hold in the South in the years after 1964. 

Thus, “the twin forces of race and class merged.” 

As the chapter moves forward, Lamis delves into the broader aspects of the complexities in the late 1960s and 1970s. Trends in the Deep South, where the black population was more significant, differed from trends in the “Rim South.” Depending on the candidates, class divisions appeared and disappeared among white voters, while black support for Democrats remained constant. In national elections, Republicans made sure that white Southerners connected Civil Rights to Democratic candidates. Lamis writes, “Southern Republican candidates gladly took white racist support, careful especially in later years to acknowledge it as philosophical support for the abstract principle of limiting the federal government and nothing more.” (Goldwater had called this “hunting where the ducks are.”) At this point, there were old-school conservative Democrats, moderate accommodationist Democrats, and liberal Democrats, all operating in the same party; on the other hand, Republicans were just gaining a toe-hold – actually winning elections – and had the opportunity to define who they were in real-world situations.

And then there was George Wallace the 1972 presidential candidate, whose flurry of white resentment stirred up old antagonisms but didn’t get him very far. And then there was Jimmy Carter, good ol’ boy from Georgia, open-minded moderate, who came along in the wake of Watergate to defeat Gerald Ford in 1976. And finally, in 1980, there was Ronald Reagan, a smiling Californian who came, saw, and conquered the South with sunnyside-up conservatism. The swings back and forth are dizzying, and Lamis uses line graphs and data tables to show his reader how the percentages fluctuated, dipped and dove, rose and fell as individuals – candidates and voters – began to make decisions about where their allegiances lay in the wake of the “rupture.”

For the next eleven chapters, Lamis parses the details of each Southern state, using the years 1932 – 1982 as his demarcation points. Starting with Mississippi, which had the largest black population, Lamis tells us that resistance continued, unlike most of the South where white Democrats were moving toward accommodating a biracial coalition. Meanwhile, South Carolina and Alabama had powerful personalities that carried over from the past: Strom Thurmond and George Wallace, respectively. Thurmond, of course, had led the Dixiecrats back in ’48, then switched parties and became a Republican in ’64. Wallace, by contrast, dropped the independent label from his 1972 presidential run, stuck with the Democrats, changed his tune about black people, and became governor twice. In Georgia, Republicans picked up on Goldwater’s success with a veiled version of the race issue, while Jimmy Carter worked the biracial coalition with success. Over in Arkansas, wealthy Republican Winthrop Rockefeller found his way in after rabid segregationist Orval Faubus was trending downward. On the opposite end of the region, archconservative Republican Jesse Helms rose to prominence. In the middle— well, aren’t there really two Tennessees: West and East? 

My purpose here is not regurgitate Alexander Lamis’ chapters in summary form, but to comment what I read there, thirty-six years after the book’s publication: it was like herding cats. No one knew what to do. Lots of people had ideas about what to do. Some of them were probably good ideas. But no one knew what to do. So, the vast majority of black voters went with the Democrats. (93% of Southern blacks voted for Carter in 1980.) By contrast, conservative whites – whether affluent, racist, anti-federal government, or all three – leaned Republican after the movement. (Among Southern white Reagan voters, around 90% opposed federal intervention, enforced integration, and busing, and supported prayer in schools.) Those solid bases on opposing sides set the stage for two-party politics in the South. Who you have left are a relatively small number of liberal whites, who would vote solidly Democratic, and a larger, less stolid group of moderate and conservative whites. If working-class whites were offered a moderate Democrat, he could win. (I’m using ‘he’ here, since women barely appear in Lamis’ book.) However, if the offering from Democrats was liberal, or someone who could be painted as liberal, the Republican stood a much better chance. That paradigm may look familiar to watchers of politics today, though the swing-voter group has probably shrunk down considerably.

In his data-heavy final chapter, “Southern Politics in the 1980s,” Lamis covers whole pages with statistics to support his insights. Most of the data sets didn’t surprise me. Republican-leaning whites overwhelmingly supported positions that were and still are considered conservative. However, a few charts did stand out as defying my original expectations. For example, younger voters tended to lean Republican, which – once I thought about it – made sense, considering the young Southerners would have seen the Democrats as the part of Faubus, Wallace, Eastland, et al. (This constitutes a distinct difference for my generation, which came along ten-plus years later. As young voters, we thought of Democrats as progressive and supported Bill Clinton.) Another surprise to me regarded abortion. Among Southern white Reagan voters, only 13% were opposed to abortion in all cases; 31% supported the choice in cases of rape only, 22% “when need is clearly established;” and 34% were basically pro-choice. I was quite surprised that one-third of this conservative group held a pro-choice position, but looking at Gallup data from 2018, that number doesn’t appear to have changed much.

Ultimately, Lamis closes out with this: 

Above all else and for generations, race made Southern politics distinct from politics in other parts of the nation. When the race issue was transformed, there surfaced in much of the South a residual cohesiveness that provided the basis for a continued regional link; and this cohesiveness cut across the old Deep South-Rim South split now that the race issue – the foundation for the intraregional division – had undergone a metamorphosis.

After race had ceased to be the only issue, other issues could manifest themselves: national politics, government’s role in helping people in need, education and schools, prayer, abortion, and gun rights— the stuff we argue about today. When the all-white Democratic Party primary was no longer the “real” election, each party had to vie for votes, money, support, and attention. Some people had reasons for unflappable party affiliations, but others had an array of new choices. 

What does all this have to do with beliefs, myths, and narratives? A lot. In a previous post about Stephen A. Smith’s book, I wrote about his allusion to historian George Tindall who pointed out that Southerners long ago made the mistake of conflating politics and society. That’s at play here— the belief that who-I-vote-for is who-I-am. It’s not really that cut-and-dried. Voting preferences and party affiliation might connect to one’s beliefs about life, culture, and society, but the two – politics and society – are neither identical nor synonymous. Sometimes, it’s OK to believe strongly in something and to leave other people alone about it.

However, a narrative of “the culture wars” has been driven in deep in the South, and many people truly believe that the entrenchment of their beliefs into law is the only way that their personal beliefs about society will be validated. For example, I’ve been a public school teacher for more than seventeen years, and when people tell me that prayer has been taken out of public schools, I correct them half-jokingly: “No, as long as there are tests, there will be prayer in schools.” My more-serious point is that mandated and teacher-led prayer have been removed, though a common belief is that all prayer has been forbidden, that a child who seen praying would be guilty of a conduct violation. In the heavily Christian culture of the South, the only way to take prayer out of schools would be take people out of schools. But I’m digressing on a tangent . . . 

Reading The Two-Party South in late 2020 and early 2021 has been an experience, considering current events. I’ve been reading about the “Democratic rupture” of the 1960s and the subsequent ascent of the Republican Party while witnessing the Georgia runoff elections and seeing constant news stories about the “Republican split.” What was also interesting to me was reading about these developments in light of Doug Jones’ 2017 victory to an Alabama’s US Senate vacated by a Republican; Jones, a Democrat, achieved a narrow victory with the kind of coalition described in this mid-1980s book, then lost handily in 2020 to a Republican challenger. Lamis might call that a “Democratic spurt.” And that’s where my frustration with the red-state/blue-state thing comes in— yes, the South was a one-party affair for a long time, and yes, the period described by Lamis is over, but the South is still not monolithic, or even dualistic. The South is pluralistic, and our politics doesn’t reflect our society, and that is where so many people get frustrated. Again, it’s like Stephen A. Smith wrote, when the myths and reality can’t be reconciled, people will notice and there will be problems.


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