The History Museum displays the hand-sewn KKK mask of a Stokes County planter. It is a fearsome garment, like a sock puppet with shark’s teeth, crowned by pointed cones and blood-red tassels. To hear Republicans tell it, the heritage of today’s Democrats is clothed in like robes. They are dead wrong.
The premise of a reactionary Democratic party is not completely accurate. As C. Vann Woodward wrote, “Any honest genealogy of the ruling family of Southern Democrats would reveal a strain of mixed blood.” That was because post-Reconstruction Democrats experienced an infusion of former Whigs. Partly to reflect this combination, Southern Democratic organizations frequently called themselves the “Conservative Party.” This gives you an indication of whose camp their descendents occupy.
The Democratic party the Whigs joined was not liberal by today’s standards. It championed an economic system in which free trade and minimal business costs would enrich capital owners. It made no difference whether commerce was high- or low-tech, as long as the rich made money and no one complained about it. Combined with subservience to Big Industry, this was the model that Southern Democracy’s Bourbon Wing pursued well into the twentieth century.
It is also the strategy favored by such politicians as….Pat McCrory. He enthuses over tax cuts and various types of “reform” (regulatory, workman’s comp, medical negligence, ad infinitum) that have the effect of liberating business from costly obligations. As the pawn of a retail oligarch, he shows little genuine interest in pushing the technological frontier. The states he envies, such as South Carolina and Tennessee, have backward and inequitable economies, just like in the Antebellum era.
This is no coincidence. Southern Republicanism reflects the direct transfer of people and ideas from the old Dixiecrat party. By raging away about “forced busing” and food stamps with which “strapping young bucks” bought junk food, politicians like Reagan and Thurmond steered their white constituents into the Republican party. One sees the success of the “Southern Strategy” in the vast, racially polarized victories Republicans still rack up in the Deep South.
Conservatives who disagree with this analysis must answer several questions. Why does your party win the same states, by the same margins, along the same racial lines, as the old Dixiecrats? Why do 90% of African Americans support Democrats, if we are indeed the Party of the Klan? Why does your agenda, of disenfranchising blacks and pandering to capital, perfectly resemble the policies of Southern “Redeemers”? Who was the first major NC politician to switch sides? I’ll answer that one for you. Not Frank Graham. Not Luther Hodges. Not Terry Sanford. Jesse Helms.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.