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Redefining politics in the American South

The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South 1932-1968 - Kari Frederickson

The presidential election of 1948 is best remembered today for Harry Truman's famous come-from-behind victory and the iconic photo of him waving the inaccurate Chicago Tribune front page over his smiling face. Appended to it as a footnote is the third-party candidacy of Strom Thurmond, then the governor of South Carolina, who ran as the nominee of the "States Rights Democrats." Yet Kari Frederickson makes an excellent argument that Thurmond's candidacy may well have been the one with the more lasting significance in American political history, as it helped to end the long-standing dominance of the Democratic Party in Southern politics and bring about the political shift that has made the region into a Republican bastion today.

 

That Democratic Party's virtual monopoly in the South back then, as Frederickson notes, was the result of the allegiance of the white voters, who from Reconstruction onward depended on it to resist the intrusion of the federal government into race relations in the region. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, however, strained this relationship by fostering Southern politicians who were economically liberal and supportive of greater federal involvement in the lives of their (white) constituents. Because of this, the traditional elites in the South's Black Belt were increasingly disenchanted with the national party leadership, a disenchantment that grew with Harry Truman's advocacy of greater intervention on civil rights issues in the region.

 

It was this opposition that coalesced into the Dixiecrat movement. Frederickson makes it clear that its members never really believed that they could elect Thurmond president in 1948; rather, their goal was to throw the election into the House of Representatives by denying Truman and the Republican nominee Thomas Dewey the 146 electoral votes of the South, then to leverage concessions to the region in return for their support for one of the candidates. In the end, though, their efforts proved a failure, as the South failed to rally behind Thurmond. Most politicians the region distanced themselves from the Dixiecrats lest they sacrifice the political influence they already possessed, while the voters' ties to the Democratic Party proved more durable. Ironically, nothing proved this better than the victories in the four states that Thurmond won, all of which were ones in which the Dixiecrats had secured control of the state party machinery Truman's victory, however, obscured that 1948 was the start of greater volatility in the Southern vote, especially in presidential elections, as the region gradually developed a two-party system, albeit one that in the end couldn't survive the increasing embrace of civil rights issues by the Democrats nationally.

 

Well research and expertly analyzed, Frederickson's book is an excellent examination of an often-overlooked aspect of a key event in American political history, She is careful not to draw a clear line connecting the Dixiecrats to the Republican Party's dominance in the South today, though her evidence makes it easier to understand the background and origins of that shift. Where her study falls short is in its exclusive focus on the political situation in the South, as Frederickson never really addresses the developments in the overall national political environment (such as the outreach by the Democrats to African American voters in the North) that were driving the changes that spawned the Dixiecrats' disaffection. Yet this is a flaw that can be forgiven given the insights she provides into the rise and fall of the Dixiecrat movement. It's a book that every student of American political history should read, as well as anyone who wants to know how American politics got to the state that it is in today -- for while history may not repeat itself, we function within the grooves set by the past nonetheless.