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Race or War—Which Caused the ’60s Realignment?

One criticism of my essay on how Iraq has been the GOP’s Vietnam contends the piece neglected the role of race, rather than war, in transforming the partisan landscape. After all, wasn’t the South’s realignment, followed by the racially inspired revolt of white ethnics in neighborhoods outside the region, sufficient to explain U.S. politics from the ’60s to the ’90s?

That’s a big part of the story, but it’s not the full story. For one thing, there was nothing that said these regional blocs had to align the way they did. The marriage of the South to the pro-civil rights Democratic Party wasn’t necessarily any more awkward than the marriage of the South to the traditionally pro-civil rights Republican Party—the party of Lincoln, the party of Robert Taft (a staunch foe of the Klan) and Dwight Eisenhower (who used the National Guard to integrate Little Rock Central High), and the party that voted in higher proportions for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. So what made the GOP a more welcoming home for opponents of civil rights than the Democratic Party already was?

War and economics. The South was more “economically conservative” and anti-Communist than the rest of the country. Anti-Communism previously didn’t distinguish the parties from one another either—previous to the Johnson era, that is, when the Democrats ceased to be just another anti-Communist party and became the party of incompetent anti-Communism and pro-Communism alike. Lee Atwater, hardly one to overlook the racial component of Southern politics, describes the situation:

the South in 1964 was considered reactionary, Neanderthalic, and so forth because we weren’t mainstream on not only on the race thing but on economic issues and national defense and all, we were considered, you know, ultraconservative and everything.

What happens is a guy like Reagan who campaigns in 1980 on a 1964 Goldwater platform, minus the boo-boos and obviously the Voting Rights Act and TVA and all that bullshit, but if you look at the economics and the national defense, what happened is the South went from being behind the times to being mainstream.

The Reagans did not have to do a Southern strategy for two reasons, number one race was not a dominant issue, and number two, the mainstream issues in this campaign had been quote “southern issues” since way back in the ‘60s.

Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights act and his states’ rights philosophy certainly won him the Deep South in 1964. (He lost everything else but his home state.) But the South also favored Goldwater because he seemed to be a hawk committed to swift and sure action in foreign policy—he would he would win the Vietnam War and get out—much as later “to hell with ’em hawks” on Iraq longed for a leader who would wrap up the War on Terror quickly by overwhelming force. Goldwater’s militaristic line played well in the South; it played badly elsewhere. The “Daisy” ad capitalized on the fears of the rest of the country. By 1968, the South still liked the idea of Republican hawkishnes compared to Democratic incompetence and dovishness, even as Nixon signaled to the country as a whole that he had a plan for peace in Vietnam. (“Peace with honor,” he would later say.) Tellingly enough, George Wallace’s running mate in 1968 was General Curtis LeMay, a military man who demanded the “to hell with ’em hawk” solution to the Vietnam War: ending it by winning with overwhelming power.

Republicans other than Goldwater—including Nixon and Ford—weren’t particularly reliable for voters who opposed civil rights. (Nixon, for example, expanded affirmative action and federal anti-discrimination powers.) But they were reliable on anti-Communism, and with the Democratic Party’s rising support for civil rights, pressures coincided to accomplish realignment. Meanwhile, not only civil rights but the percolating “culture war”—a blend of sexual and moral tensions emotionally inseparable from Vietnam and civil rights, but arguably more radicalized by the former than the latter—pushed white evangelicals and the “silent majority” into the GOP.

War and race mix in American politics in ways that are quite complex. Joseph McCarthy’s activities somewhat anticipated the “ethnic” realignment in favor of the GOP, not on racial grounds but on anti-Communist and anti-elitist ones: indeed, one of the overlooked dimensions of the race-and-ethnicity battles of the past century has been the extent to which the divide is not only white-black but also ethnic-white/low-church white vs. elite WASP. That’s a class divide, certainly, but it’s also an ethnic division. Anti-Communism as an ideology was part of this WASP-ethnic split, hence McCarthyite attacks on the State Department, the WASP-iest institution of all. How this relates to later stages of the culture war should be obvious: Tea Partiers still hate the State Department, along with other formerly WASP bastions such as the New York Times, the Ivy League, and the Episcopal Church, which in the eyes of fundamentalist and ethnic whites isn’t a real church because it doesn’t go in for culture-war politics.

Ethnicity and ideology are a tangle. Something that radicalizes one side of the equation—such as a botched war and countercultural antiwar movement—can give the whole tangle a new center of gravity. Peter Viereck, in particular, noted in a prescient look at the developing culture war in 1954 how ideological hatreds can substitute for racial ones. “Transtolerance,” as he called the phenomenon, “is ready to give all minorities their glorious democratic freedom—provided they accept McCarthyism or some other mob conformism of the Right or Left.” It was “a sublimated Jim Crow: against ‘wrong’ thinkers, not ‘wrong’ races.”

In the decade after Viereck wrote, Vietnam would alienate many Americans who previously supported civil rights. Consider the testimony Michael Harrington provides, in his “social autobiography” Fragments of a Century, on how the war affected two central figures of the era:

A White House aide told a few of us that President Johnson was worried because several of us—King, Rustin, Farmer, and myself—were also sponsors of a SANE march against the war in Vietnam. Johnson was concerned, we were told, that we might utilize the conference as a platform to denounce his policies in Indochina… We had no intention of disrupting the event, yet the change in mood evidenced by Johnson’s fear was of enormous significance. The civil rights coalition that had grown through the firstt five years of the the decade was being torn apart by Vietnam.

… King was sorely tried at the time of his death. He felt, I think, that he was at a kind of impasse: he had to respond to the militants and break with some of the white liberals on the issue of the war, but both those steps would take him away from the nonviolent and integrationist values that were at the very center of his existence.

… There was a mood of good feeling in the early sixties that genuinely moved the conscience of white America. Had the Administration continued to put its energies into the struggle that attitude made possible, it might have been able to begin the end of the Civil War. It chose Vietnam instead. At the same time, anyone who took nonviolence seriously, as King did, could not help but be profoundly outraged by the carnage in Indochina. So a good number of the black activists, and most of their radical and liberal allies in the white middle class, went into increasingly bitter opposition to the government.

The two finest traditions of the American liberation movement had come into conflict with each other. The exigencies of building and interracial movement of the black and white workers on the basis of economic demands … suggested that one try to ignore the war, or at least not put it in the forefront of the struggle. Peace activism would alienate a major section of the organized white labor movement, which was so crucial to that tactic. But the imperatives of even a strategic commitment to nonviolence—King’s great contribution—required that anyone who spoke, or thought, in the name of Gandhi denounce the unconscionable war in Vietnam in no uncertain terms. The ideological synthesis and the political alliance that provided the basis for the great victories of the early sixties was shattered.

Race, culture, religion, war, party, and sex—they’re a matrix in which passions of one kind have a tendency to transpose themselves into other contexts. These concepts don’t reduce to one another or a single dimension; to understand American society one has to have a sense of what’s going on in each and how changes in one may affect the others.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review, and Editor-at-Large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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