It seems HBO and #NCPOL are diving into controversial Southern history and causing a lot of chatter on social media. HBO has contracted to produce a series based on the alternative history question “What if the South had won the Civil War?” North Carolina GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse tried to assert that the Democratic Party of today is the same as the one that disenfranchised African-Americans in 1900 and introduced the Jim Crow South, unleashing a reign of terror that lasted until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Race has always been a major force in American politics, especially in the South. It confounded the framers of the constitution and split the nation in two just 80 years after declaring Independence. Today, the politics of white nationalism played a major role in defining, if not electing, Donald Trump. We’re still a long way from the color-blind society that so many idealistic conservatives believe is so close.
The HBO series touched a nerve because, as Ta-Nehisi Coats points out, the Confederacy may have lost the Civil War but the old Confederacy is still revered in certain circles. Unlike Nazi Germany, the subject of the alternative history series Man in the High Castle, Southerners idolized the Confederacy following the Civil War. Statues celebrate the losing generals and most Southern courthouses still have a bronze Confederate soldier facing north. Instead of the Confederate battle flag being banned, it was incorporated into many of the Southern states’ flags. In South Carolina, it took a massacre of African-Americans in 2015 to keep it from flying on the grounds of the state capitol. Too many people today still identify with the Lost Cause of the Confederacy to make the alternative history comfortable, especially for African-Americans.
Woodhouse, for his part, tried to obscure the GOP’s lousy record on civil rights over the last 60 years by insinuating that today’s Democratic Party is the same as the racist one of 1900. He clearly doesn’t understand history. Political parties undergo realignments but the ugly forces of reaction that are tearing apart today’s Republican Party have been here since the beginning of the republic.
Back in 1900, political parties were far less homogenous than they are today. Democrats were the conservative party in North Carolina and throughout the South. They were largely the party of the Old Confederacy with a white supremacist platform.
Republicans at the time were advocating for more access to the ballot, more local government control and more funding for public education. At the federal level during that era, Teddy Roosevelt was busting trusts, increasing regulations on corporations, introducing an income tax on the wealthy and using the heavy hand of the federal government to preserve land and expand national parks. Clearly, they bear little resemblance to the Republicans running the GOP today.
Around the turn of the century, Democrats across the South introduced legislation that disenfranchised African-Americans, a key part of the Republican coalition. Without black voters, Democrats established one-party rule. Over the next 60 years, the Republican Party in the South all but disappeared.
A political realignment began with the New Deal. Many conservative Southern Democrats weren’t comfortable with the expanded role of the federal government. The first cracks in the one-party South began when Strom Thurmond and a group of segregationists left the party to run as Dixiecrats in 1948 to protest Harry Truman’s integration of the armed forces. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 were the last straw for many conservative Democrats in the South. They abandoned the Democratic Party for its push toward integration and Nixon’s Southern Strategy welcomed them into the Republican Party. In 1972, former Democrat Jesse Helms became the first Republican elected to the US Senate from North Carolina during the 20th century.
The reactionary Democrats who disenfranchised African-Americans at the turn of the twentieth century became the reactionary wing of the Republican Party, fighting integration and civil rights legislation under the guise of states’ rights. Republicans increasingly used race to divide the electorate. Inflammatory ads like George H. W. Bush’s Willie Horton spot and Jesse Helms’ Hands ad inflamed racial tensions.
There’s a straight line from the Southern Strategy of Richard Nixon to the election of Donald Trump. The racially-motivated populists who left the Democratic Party in the 1960s and ‘70s became the populist Trumpists who are today the dominant force in the Republican Party. They represent the politics of grievance, feeling left behind by society and blaming minorities, immigrants, government and big business for their problems.
Reactionary forces have been part of our country since its founding. Their influence ebbs and flows. They’ve infected the Democratic Party and now are housed in the GOP. They cause political realignments like the one we’re probably going through now. The conservatives of Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley have little in common with the alt-right of Steve Bannon. Similarly, the democratic socialists that make up the left flank of the Democratic Party have no tolerance for the liberals that have controlled the party since Bill Clinton won in 1992.
As Coats says, there’s no real reason to make an alternative history of what happened if Confederates won because the history of the South from 1900 to 1965 gives us a close approximation. A better story line would be “What would the country look like if freed slaves were really given 40 acres and a mule and Reconstruction lasted for fifty years instead of just a dozen?” Maybe the one-party South wouldn’t have happened. Maybe the Great Migration that transformed our northern cities wouldn’t have been so great. Maybe, just maybe, racial tensions would be less and an African-American middle class would have more economic and political power.