The only political office I have ever been elected to was a seat on the Jefferson County Republican Executive Committee. My name was on the ballot and I got the most votes. (Out of the very few cast back then in the Republican primary.) I lived in Birmingham.
But that Republican party was nothing like it is today. The people I met were honestly interested in good government and putting forth candidates of integrity, conviction and who were trustworthy. They were not the wackos we see too much of today. No Ted Cruz, no Ron Johnson, no Marjorie Taylor Greene. They were not trying to divide people and make fear and hate the main message of their campaigns for office.
So what happened? Or did anything really?
In 1948, something called the States’ Rights Democratic Party came into being. It was most commonly known as the Dixiecrat party. Its followers were Democrats from the deep South who were upset that President Harry Truman ordered integration of the military in 1948 and was seen as friendly to civil rights issues of Black Americans.
This did not sit well with southerners who were staunch segregationists. So the Dixiecrats were born. Their presidential candidate was Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who became a Republican in 1964. As Black people got the right to vote and became politically involved, they flocked to the Democratic party.
“White flight” was not just about southern whites’ response to school integration, it was also about the growth of the Republican party throughout Dixie.
Peggy Wallace Kennedy has written a fascinating and courageous book, The Broken Road, about her famous father, George C. Wallace. She makes it clear that she saw little difference in the political stances of her father in the 1960s and those of Donald Trump in 2016.
Listen to her “Daddy’s politics were more than just bombastic style. The establishment and other politicians viewed him as a demagogue. Nobody will buy what he is selling, they declared. Just take a look at him. Take him out of those Alabama backwoods’ and he’ll be finished. That was a mistake. And forty-four years later, disaffected voters responded similarly to Trump. They rebelled against the same intellectualism and paternalism that Daddy railed against.
Daddy’s strategy of articulating and mobilizing the grievances of the dispossessed would become one of the core strategies of the Trump campaign forty-four years later. It was the politics of rage and fear. It was resentment for no particular reason. It was a tent revival in the dead of summer, slapping mosquitoes and singing “Amazing Grace” while the preacher was fooling around out back.”
Strom Thurmond got 78 percent of the vote in the Alabama 1948 general election. Republican Thomas Dewey only 19 percent. In 2020 Donald Trump got 62 percent of the vote compared to Biden’s 37 percent.
So the case can certainly be made that the DNA of Alabama voters has not changed much since at least 1948 and the Republican party has morphed into the old Dixiecrat party. Given that the majority of Alabamians are descendants of Scots-Irish, this is understandable. In general, Scots-Irish who came to this country were fierce, violent and independent people. They set their own rules and dared anyone to try and change them.
Their pride overruled common sense and permitted them to cast votes that were hurtful to their own well-being.
Look at Strom Thurmond in 1948. Or better yet, look at Barry Goldwater in 1964. Goldwater was a U.S. Senator from Arizona known for his “straight talk” and fiery rhetoric. Just the kind of candidate that the Scots-Irish loved. A candidate without a snow ball’s chance in Hell, but boy he could stir a Southern heart. Just like Donald Trump could do.
Even though Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson in the general election by the largest margin in history, he got 69 percent of the Alabama vote. (Second only to Mississippi.) Goldwater only won six states. His Arizona home and Louisiana, Mississippi,
Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Alabama also elected five Republicans to the national House of Representatives in 1964..
While the Dixiecrat party was then ancient history, Goldwater showed us that the Republican Party was fertile ground for right wing believers. In fact, Goldwater’s conservatism, initially rejected as radical, infused the Republican’ Party.
If you don’t think so, then look at what just happened in Georgia where the Republican led legislature has passed new law about how elections should be conduced.. A law that makes it illegal to give someone waiting in line to vote a bottle of water. No doubt Strom Thurmond would be elated. And most of us have now seen the photo with the governor surrounded by six white male legislators as he signed the bill.
And just outside the governor’s closed door a Black female legislator was arrested and taken to jail for knocking on the door.
You got to give Trump credit for one thing. He figured out that the Dixiecrat/Republicans were a festering wound. All they needed was someone to come along and pull the scab off. He obliged.
Ultimately national Republicans will have to realize that water fountains in downtown Atlanta and Birmingham are no longer labeled, “For whites only” and support policy that appeals to a much broader spectrum of Americans than they do now. If not, then they are only marking time until the day they end up where the Dixiecrats did. On the outside looking in.
As to Alabama, the Dixiecrat/Republicans will probably be around for a long time, too often listening to the radical voices that tell them a long-ago world still exists and sending people to Washington who may have a vote–but no influence.