After Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he turned to his aide and declared that now we “have lost the South for a generation.” This quip is often recited in the stories we are told of the Democrats’ loss of the South, which is thereby traced directly to regional divergence over race relations. Given how strongly this belief is held, it is based on surprisingly shaky foundations. If we pay attention to the actual vote share of the Democrats by state, a different pattern emerges. The loss of the South turns out to be much more recent than advertised.
Here we look at the difference between the vote share of the Democratic Party in Presidential Elections in the 17 Southern states and the rest of the union (“North”). It may come as a shock that the Democrats had a higher vote share in the South than in the North in both the 1976 and the 1980 election. And it was not until the 2000s that a decisive bias against the South emerged.
A similar picture emerges if we use electoral college weights.
These numbers make the traditional explanation for the loss of the South suspect. For if it was the 1964 Civil Rights Act, then why did Democrats have a higher vote share in the South as late as 1980? Since the loss of the South is much more recent, it must have a different explanation.
I have been tracking the rise of Boasian antiracism. It is again much more recent than we were told. We can see this by looking at Google Ngram for any number of Boasian antiracist buzzwords. They all show a similar diachronic pattern. Although high racialism began to decline in the 1970s, the rise of Boasian antiracism is definitely a story of the 1990s.
The Democrats’ loss of the South occurred shortly after the rise of Boasian antiracism. I believe this relationship is causal. Specifically, the rise of Boasian antiracism as the hegemonic ideology of the elite played an important role in the realignment. The reason for this is that as Boasian antiracism spread across elite culture, it got re-purposed to signal status. And precisely because Boasian antiracism emerged from the bowels of prestige schools recently, it is still sharply confined to the elite. The working classes experienced this discourse of elite self-congratulation as a form of class oppression. And it wasn’t simply perception. One can detect a rising tide of elite contempt — this is precisely when the offensive term “flyover country” takes off.
The “culture wars” too take off around the same time. We must see this discourse as a counter-movement to the rise of Boasian antiracism.
And although the signal is not as clean, the term “coastal elites” increases in frequency around the same time.
It is no coincidence then that elite-mass relations broke down in the early-1990s. For Boasian antiracism was not simply a convenient ideology of inclusion serving as a discourse of self-congratulation. It also served as a fig leaf for a one-sided class war. Indeed, it is in the 1990s that neoliberalism became hegemonic.
What seems to have happened is this: Social democracy capitulated upwards in the early-1990s. American elites abandoned custody of working class interests and adopted the seemingly benign ideology of multicultural inclusion. The working class was thus stuck by an assault on two fronts. Not only did their incomes stop growing altogether and their jobs become more precarious. Their very language and their whole worldview began to be seen increasingly as racist and bigoted. They migrated increasingly to the “wrong” party — one hell-bent on fleecing them even more — because the “right” party denied them dignity and self-respect. This interpretation thus resolves the long-standing puzzle noted by Thomas Frank in 2004 — What’s the matter with Kansas?
The recency of Boasian antiracism has yet to be digested. The fact of recency is not known to Boasian antiracists. So it is no surprise that they can’t see the breakdown of elite-mass relations for what it is. For if we have “all” been antiracist since the antisystemic turn, if not Auschwitz, then the only reason those people still haven’t gotten the memo is because they don’t want to hear it — they’re just bigots.
But it is not just the fact of recency that is not known. Boasian antiracism is barely aware of itself. This is of course true of any hegemonic ideology — it simply disappears from view. The pattern of your thoughts and behavior (“Trump supporters: swipe right”) seem not in the grip of some ideology, but utterly right and proper. The lack of self-awareness of Boasian antiracism also explains a curious puzzle: Why did no one stumble upon the tight relationship between deaths of despair and the Trump swing? Why did it take a blogger (me) to discover it? Why did no one getting paid to do this kind of stuff even bother to look? This is, after all, public data. The answer is clear. Elite number crunchers are as much in the grip of Boasian antiracism as Brooklyn hipsters. To both it seemed perfectly obvious that White racial resentment explained 2016 — clearly only a bigot would vote for Donald Trump.
An interesting question for the future is find out precisely when people began to believe that Democrats lost the South because of the Civil Rights Act. For Nixon’s election had more to do with Vietnam than race relations and everyone knew that then. And Democrats could not have failed to notice that Carter did better in the South than the rest of the country. I would not be surprised to find that the idea gained currency as late as the 2000s, when the pattern finally becomes undeniable.
Bonus. The following maps reveal the evolution of electoral geography.
Postscript. The recency of the loss of the South to the Democrats is even more obvious from Senate election data. The systematic bias against Democrats in the South obtained in earnest only in the 2000s. It is no coincidence that Thomas Frank is writing in 2004.
Post-postscript. The Gingrich Revolution is quite striking. The Reagan-Bush gains in the South are not matched by GOP senators. The jump in the 1994 election is extraordinary. Recall that The Bell Curve appeared in that year. It’s controversial reception was the sign of a new disciplinary force on the scene. It’s this disciplinary force that made the new GOP playbook viable. The irony is that what Murray was saying in the The Bell Curve was that poor Whites are poor because they are stupid. In the same year, GOP strategists figured out how to mine the new predicament to gain a stranglehold on the White working class vote and the South.
Economic explanations suffer from a fatal flaw. Economic distress should push you towards the more progressive party. Yet, we see the opposite. The big question is why we see this striking pattern. Why are they voting for the “wrong” party? The answer suggested by this analyst is that the “right” party has denied them dignity and respect. “It’s the contempt, stupid!”
Post-post-postscript. More charts. What is really striking about the national pattern is (1) the systematic disadvantage of the Democrats because of the electoral college system, and (2) Obama’s thumping performance in 2008. I had not realized until now just how significant that election was to Democrat fortunes. (Clinton’s 1992 victory was tempered by Perot’s third-party candidacy — he took 12 percent of the vote.) The fall from 2008 has been quite dramatic in both population-weighted and electoral-college weighted terms.
Looking at regions. These are the vote shares in different regions. It was the Midwest, culturally part of Greater New England, that delivered Obama’s thumping majority.
But deviations from the national share are more revealing. In the northeastern stronghold, the electoral college system works to the Democrats’ advantage. The Democrats’ disadvantage in the West is even more pronounced than the South. The 1980 election was a total catastrophe in the West. But even in more recent elections, the Dems’ disadvantage has been dramatically larger than that in the South. And it is even more pronounced in electoral college terms. If Democrats want to change the political map, they must make deep inroads beyond their strongholds in the big blue states.