The Collapse of the Democratic Presidential Majority: Realignment, Dealignment, and Electoral Change from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton

By David G. Lawrence | Go to book overview

4
Decreasingly Latent Cleavages:
Race and the Roosevelt Coalition
from 1948 to 1972

Race plays a substantial role in each of the mini-realignments. The Democratic majority had been vulnerable to the divisive power of race ever since northern blacks joined southern whites as core constituencies of the Democratic coalition in the aftermath of the Depression, but the relative unimportance of race as a topic of national political debate allowed the two groups to co-exist more or less peacefully within the party during the Roosevelt years. Anything that moved race to the forefront of the political agenda, however, would threaten Democratic unity. Twice since World War II race did become a major issue, and each time it had detrimental effects on the Democrats: in 1948, the consequence was a substantial weakening of the Democratic white south that had existed since the Civil War; in 1964, the consequence was the disappearance of the Democratic white south, with the region becoming the most Republican part of the country.

The Democratic convention's acceptance in 1948 of a liberal civil rights plank was the first event to illustrate the disruptive potential of race: Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrats bolted the party, costing it deep south electoral votes that it had won for a century. The Democrats managed to keep the salience of race relatively low for some time after 1948, and the south remained the most Democratic part of the white electorate throughout the 1950s. But the level of white southern support for Stevenson never returned to levels common for Democrats before World War II. And although decreased salience of race allows party unity to more or less reassert itself in the 1950s, its disruptive potential is realized with far greater impact once the parties take clear and opposing positions on the new civil rights agenda of the 1960s.

The eventual commitment of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to the cause of civil rights produces a second and far more severe split in Roosevelt's Democratic coalition: blacks become all but unanimous in supporting Democratic presidential candidates, while southern whites become the most Republican part of the white electorate. The resulting shift in the coalitional basis of the parties is the most clear-cut of the post-war era, and it produces clear electoral costs for the Democrats.

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