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How America's Political Parties Became So Polarized

Excerpts from Ezra Klein’s book, Why We’re Polarized.

Part 1 of 2, Dec 7, 2020

Ezra Klein does a masterful job in peeling back layer upon layer to reveal the current polarization of worldviews and identity politics in which many Americans have found themselves ensnared.

In just one chapter of his book, Why We're Polarized, Ezra Klein packs-in an entire high school civics class on late 20th century American politics. The focus of his chapter,“ The Dixiecrat Dilemma,” traces the history and events that led up to the wholesale abandonment of the Democratic Party by the southern Democrats (“Dixiecrats”) following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

With the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Southern Democrats felt betrayed by their northern Democratic colleagues, who up until this time, had always remained complicitly silent on issues of racial inequity that might weaken the culture of segregation between Blacks and whites in the South, threaten the culture of white supremacy, or expand the freedom and rights of African Americans. In the years immediately following the passage of this Law, Dixiecrats left the Democratic Party in droves and joined the Republican Party. Over the next two decades the worldview, vision and shape of both the Republican and Democratic Parties transformed markedly to accommodate the changes and impact that the Civil Rights Act wrought.

Here are key excerpts from Ezra Klein’s book that traces this transformation:

The civil war was only 100 years in the past at the time the Civil Rights Act passed, and during that interregnum, the white South had been trying to balance its top domestic priority--the enforcement of white supremacy, held in place by the dual weapons of law and violence—with its forced membership in the broader United States. The southern Democratic Party was the vehicle through which the white South negotiated that tension. Put simply, the southern Democratic Party was an authoritarian institution that ruled autocratically in the South and that protected its autonomy by entering into a governing coalition with the National Democratic party. The Dixiecrats gave the national Democrats the votes they needed to control Congress, and the national Democrats let the Dixiecrats enforce segregation and one-party rule at home. (p. 22)

During much of the 20th century, the Democratic party's rule in the South was hegemonic. At times, Democrats occupied a stunning 95% of all elected offices, and as is true with authoritarian rulers everywhere, they did so in part by suppressing free and fair elections. … The South's mixture of legal discrimination and racial terrorism worked. (p. 24)

“By 1944, in the states of the old confederacy, only 5% of age-eligible African Americans were registered to vote , which left millions of Blacks politically voiceless,” writes Carol Anderson [in White Rage]. The repression was fiercest where black political power was most feared. In 1953, in the so-called “black belt”—the region of Alabama where the black population exceeded the white population—only 1.3% of eligible African Americans were registered. Two counties had no black voters whatsoever. (p. 25)

The question is why the rest of the country—a country that was, imperfectly but undeniably, operating under a Liberal Democratic system—permitted the South to make such a mockery of America's political values. Part of the answer lies in the path chosen in the aftermath of the civil war, when President Andrew Johnson, a bitter white supremacist, abandoned the work of racial equality and restored the South to white control in a fusillade against the Reconstruction Acts passed by Congress. Johnson warned they would allow black people to “rule the white race, make and administer state laws, elect presidents and members of Congress, and shape to a greater or lesser extent the future destiny of the whole country. Would such a trust and power be safe in such hands?” (p. 26)

National Democrats cared about passing the New Deal, about winning presidential elections, about building infrastructure projects. Given the choice between working with a southern Democratic Party that could provide them crucial votes or challenging a southern Democratic Party that could defect and doom the Democratic party's national agenda, they chose accommodation. Page 26

Moreover, the Dixiecrats’ total domination of the South gave them the numbers to dominate the National Democratic party too. “From 1896 to 1932, southerners made up 2/3 of the Democratic house caucus; from 1933 to 1953, their share never slipped below 40%,” writes Robert Mickey [Paths Out of Dixie]. … And because of the authoritarian structure southern Democrats operated at home, they were rarely exposed to anything even approaching electoral pressure, which let them amass more seniority, in greater numbers, than elected officials of any other region [in the halls of Congress and the Senate]…. The leverage this gave the region over Congress was near total. (p. 27)

The Democratic Party supported redistribution from the rich to the poor—and the North was rich and the South was poor. “Around the turn of the 20th century the southern Democrats represented the left wing of the Democratic Party,” says Princeton University Professor Howard Rosenthaul. “They were basically populist. The questions of redistribution at that time were from a relatively well-off North to a poor South. Race was not on the table as an area of disagreement in Congress.” (p. 28)

But then race became an area of disagreement. Democrats didn't just want to redistribute from rich northern whites to poor southern whites. They also wanted to redistribute from richer whites to poorer Blacks. Furthermore, beginning in 1948, with President Harry Truman's military desegregation orders, The Democratic Party became a vehicle for civil rights, betraying its fundamental compact with the South. It's in this era that a Republican—Barry Goldwater, running on a platform of “states’ rights”—carried much of the old Confederacy in a presidential election for the first time. (p. 28)

The story of how the Democratic Party came to embrace civil rights is complex. It includes the idealism of politicians like Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey as well as the hard math of electoral coalitions that, particularly in the North, began to include non-white voters. It reflects the logical end point of economic progressivism, as attention to the poor demanded attention to what was keeping so many non-white Americans poor, and it reflected strategic decisions the Republican Party made along the way, particularly the conservative movement’s successful effort to turn the GOP into an ideological vehicle defined by mistrust of the federal government, opposition to redistribution, and faith in state and local rule--attractive ideas for southerners looking to block national efforts to improve both the economic and political condition of African Americans. (p. 29)

So why are the Democrats seen as the party that passed the Civil Rights Act? There, the answer is simple. Because they were the party that passed the Civil Rights Act. They held the majority in both chambers and the presidency. They chose to snap their alliance with the Dixiecrats to pursue justice. Bill Moyers, who served as special assistant to Johnson, recalls finding the president brooding in his bedroom the night he signed the Civil Rights Act. “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come,” Moyers remembers Johnson saying. Johnson, who as Senate Majority Leader had enforced the southern Democrats blockage against racial equality, was right. The Democratic Party's hammerlock on the South took time to break, but that was the moment it began to weaken. (p. 30)

So why didn't Republicans become the party of civil rights? Largely, [Geoffrey] Kabaservice argues , because of Goldwater: “The credit—even the glory—that the Republican Party should’ve enjoyed for its support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was effectively negated when it's presumptive presidential nominee voted against the measure.” And sure enough, Goldwater’s stance against civil rights paid dividends. His disastrous presidential campaign succeeded in only one region of the country: the old Confederacy, which realized that the language of small government conservatism could be weaponized against the federal government's efforts to write America's racial wrongs. (p. 30)

That, then, is the story of the long period of depolarization in American politics. The South was in the Democratic Party, but it didn't agree with the Democratic Party--particularly once liberalism's view of redistribution and uplift expanded to include African Americans. So southern Democrats had ideological reasons to compromise with Republicans but political reasons to compromise with national Democrats. Southern power kept the Democratic Party less liberal than it otherwise would’ve been, The Republican Party congressionally weaker than it otherwise would’ve been, and stopped the two parties from sorting themselves around the deepest political cleavage of the age.

It couldn't last, and it didn't. The Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights, and the Republican Party's decision to unite behind a standard-bearer who opposed the bill, cleared the way for southern conservatives to join the Republican Party. And that set the stage for all that followed. (p. 31)


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