The Left Can Win the American South

Gavin Wright

Republicans captured the South through racist “dog-whistle” appeals and by exploiting the deindustrialization that ravaged the region after NAFTA. But we can't write off the South as hopelessly reactionary — there’s a base for progressive politics that speaks to workers of all races.

A polling station setup in the St Thomas Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Interview by
Paul Heideman

For fifty years, the economist Gavin Wright has been writing about the political economy of the American South. Along with economists like Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, he helped pioneer economic modeling techniques to understand the history of American slavery. His books The Political Economy of the Cotton South and Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War are classic studies of the Southern economy’s evolution.

Recently, Wright has turned his attention to the twentieth century, examining the economic impact of the mid-century Civil Rights Movement in Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South. Though recent history writing has tended to downplay the impact of the Civil Rights Movement in light of continuing racial inequality, Wright’s book shows that the rise in black voting following the Voting Rights Act had important consequences for things like black access to public services.

Last month, he released a new paper with the Institute for New Economic Thinking looking at the way Southern politics were reshaped in the decades following the Civil Rights Movement. Taking on the popular idea that the Republican “Southern Strategy” of using coded racial appeals led inevitably to GOP dominance in the South, he argues that Southern politics was competitive until 1994, when NAFTA triggered massive deindustrialization, rendering white workers much more receptive to racial scapegoating.

Wright recently spoke with Jacobin’s Paul Heideman about his research and how progressives can make a play for the ostensibly deep red South. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.


There’s a potted history of Southern politics that goes something like this: you had a one-party South that was ruled by the Democratic Party on the basis of black exclusion, and then the Civil Rights Movement broke that monopoly. The Republican Party saw an opportunity and used coded racial appeals (the “Southern Strategy”) to replace the Democrats as the default party of the region on the same foundation of racist white votes.

Your paper starts out by assembling quite a bit of evidence that this story misses some of the most interesting dynamics in Southern politics. So what are some of the main things you think are wrong with that kind of standard story?


It certainly was a radical change and reconstruction of Southern politics in the sixties. One of the quotes most often repeated in this history that you’re talking about is what Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) supposedly said to Bill Moyers after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Johnson said, “I think we’ve given the South to the Republicans for a generation.”

People quote it because it seems to fit so accurately. But that was before the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which dramatically increased black registration and, really, LBJ was not one to give things away for nothing. So it’s pretty clear that they were making a political calculation, that it would be possible to build a biracial coalition that would command a majority in many, if not all, Southern states.

There was a telephone interview between Martin Luther King Jr and LBJ, and King said, “Mr. President, look at the states you lost here. You could have won with the black vote.” So I think that is the way they were thinking. And I think that’s largely what happened.

The elections in 1970 were something of a crossroads in that the outright segregationist appeal was certainly still prominent, but those candidates lost badly that year, and most Southern politicians, who were indeed mainly Democrats at that time, changed their tune. A pretty radical change in rhetoric. Maybe that’s only skin deep, but it reflected a change in the voters they were going after.


How did that shake out politically?


You had a string of moderate “New South” governors from 1970 onward whose pitch was, “Let’s put the race issue behind us. It’s settled. Maybe we didn’t get what we want, but we have to live with it, and let’s get behind a pro-growth platform, which is going to be good for everybody.”

One of my favorite figures is the electoral college map, which I put up and say, “What year is this?” People rarely get it, because what it shows is most of the South going Democratic and the West Coast going Republican. The answer — which even professional historians take a while to get — is that it’s 1976, Jimmy Carter’s election year. Jimmy Carter epitomizes one of these new South governors. Yes, moderate by national terms, but progressive on the race issue and clearly leading a coalition in which blacks are a part.

Was that just an anomalous year, a Watergate backlash? Yes, there were elements of that. But I think it’s the path that was there to be taken in terms of the biracial coalition in the South.

Now, what I’ve done is something I don’t recommend to anybody: I think I’ve read every survey by leading political scientists from the seventies through the nineties. These are people on the ground observing things, not just historians trying to make sense of it after the fact. And that’s exactly what they were saying in the seventies and eighties and on into the nineties — that things in the South have changed, the race issue is receding.

In 2020 it might be hard for us to believe that anyone thought that. But these were people who were politically knowledgeable, and their perception was that Southern politics were coming to resemble the rest of the nation in that sense — more based on class, more based on conservative Republicans and Democratic working class, black and white. Of course, that’s a casual description, but there was statistical evidence behind it.


You talk also in your piece about the emergence of black politics in the South, in the wake of the Voting Rights Act in particular, and how that transformed the South. Could you talk about that a little?


There was a lot of frustration at the slow rate of progress among black voters and black politicians. But black voter registration wasn’t slow at all. It was quite dramatic. Translating that into black elected officials took a lot longer.

Don’t misread the alternative narrative that I was just giving here about the South rejoining the nation. The white South was certainly pushing back, not so much in the racist rhetoric, but in what is known as vote dilution strategies — changing, for example, from individual member districts to at-large voting. So even though blacks could vote, it was much more difficult for them to actually get their chosen elected official one way or another. There was a lot of litigation over that in the courts.

But despite Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” the truth is that the courts were continuing to enforce the civil rights laws, including the Voting Rights Act. The idea was that voting rights were not just a matter of letting an individual go in and mark a ballot. It had to be effective. It had to be something that could have a meaningful effect on outcome.

The upshot of that was an increase in black elected officials, with a lag. There’s a lot of evidence that it makes a difference, with a couple of new studies showing us that you can identify an effect from black voting on various share in revenues and services for local neighborhoods. This is at the municipal level, county level, and state level.

So it is not that race consciousness was dropping out or disappearing — that would be a very unrealistic way of reading it. But there was a coalition, and even though the Democratic Party was, as I say, moderate by national standards, what we can see is that being Democrats made a difference and being part of a biracial coalition made a difference. We can see that in dramatic terms, in terms of the kinds of policy shifts that have been implemented when the Republicans did take command of Southern states, as they did in virtually every single one.


One interesting moment in your paper concerns Strom Thurmond, the ultimate Dixiecrat, and how his approach to the race question had to take account of these new realities. Can you talk a little bit about that?


In 1970, after supporting a segregationist candidate who lost badly, he changed his tune. He appointed a black assistant. He actually began to compete in his very conservative way for the black vote. He supported black candidates for judgeships.

You might say he himself was exceptional here, having switched over to the Republicans early, in 1964. Yet at that time, it wasn’t entirely clear that the Republican and Democratic parties were going to divide up in the extreme way that they later did. It wasn’t clear the Republicans were going to become, essentially an all-white party, not really even pretending to campaign for the black vote and using dog-whistle politics.

So Strom Thurmond actually wasn’t a leader. He was adjusting to the new political reality.


Even as late as the 1980s, there wasn’t intense racial polarization between the two parties. You point to 1994 as a key moment where the balance shifted. Why 1994?


You think of the great turning-point elections in American history. 1860 was about slavery, 1896 was about free silver, 1932 was about the Great Depression. 1994 — what was it?  Yes, it was the year of the Gingrich revolution. He went public with a manifesto and a platform. But that’s as much the outcome as an explanation. Almost any year, you could find something dramatic like that.

Another interpretation that I think has a lot of truth to it is that the Republicans could see they were within striking range of retaking the House, which they had not done since the 1950s. So you had a top-down, heavily financed campaign, which targeted vulnerable representatives and which did a lot of focus group–type research. But you still have to have responsive voters, and these Southern Democratic white working-class voters were pretty well-informed in terms of what they wanted: protection from foreign trade. The big headline issue for 1994 was NAFTA.

There are very odd elements about this narrative, because NAFTA was a Republican initiative and Clinton came in and had to decide what he might do with it. He decided to support it and these white working-class Democratic voters felt betrayed. They had been sticking with the party, and whatever their politics on race, they were quite willing to be part of a biracial coalition.

So I think you get two things happening. One was a political reaction. People were following those events carefully, and even before the damage hit, they were retaliating. They were furious, and the anger was taken out on Bill Clinton. All the other basis for hostility to Bill Clinton and his wife came out at that time.

Another one was the vote to phase out the Multi Fibre Arrangement (MFA), which was a quota system and had kept the American textile industry afloat. That was the same year and if anything, the effects in terms of textile imports were even more dramatic.

So step one was the political response. Step two was the devastating effect of deindustrialization from both of these measures, so that it was undermining the basis for this biracial coalition. A very good book on this is by Tim Minchin, called Empty Mills.

We can look back at communities trying to hang on to their factories, and say, look, it was hopeless. There’s no way they could have succeeded. But they could have strung it out, and they had succeeded at least in stringing things out for quite a while.

They made a conscious point of saying, yes we, the textiles industry, used to be segregated, but we’ve reformed our ways. We now employ large numbers of women and minorities and that’s why you should support us. So this was a progressive appeal, and it actually had a fair amount of success until 1994. The Southern labor force was never highly unionized, but it was somewhat unionized, and the unions punched well above their weight in terms of support for measures like this. But they were completely undermined.

One way to frame it is that these white Southern Democrats were voting their economic interests until 1994, and after that they were voting their emotions. You may say, well, how could they vote for Republicans since NAFTA was a Republican initiative? But they were angry at Bill Clinton, and many of them turned and voted for Ross Perot.

Republicans were by then tuning into the kind of rhetoric and signals and cultural appeals that have helped define them since. These are somewhat euphemistic terms that were going to appeal to white voters who had been set adrift. Many black workers were also displaced by NAFTA and the MFA and de-industrialization, and they didn’t turn Republican, with rare exceptions. So you really have to have a narrative that is subtle enough, nuanced enough, to see both a biracial coalition united by economic interests, and then how it broke down and was replaced by non-economic appeals.


What were some of the fruits of Republican dominance of the South after 1994? How did that transform Southern political economy?


In terms of state policy, some of that came pretty late — the actual takeover of both houses and the governorships. Nationally speaking, the effect came earlier. Take an example like welfare reform. I mean, that was Bill Clinton’s signature issue, “ending welfare as we know it.” It is perfectly true that what he had had in mind was a much more constructive effort. But what came out of a Republican-dominated Congress was pretty bad.

The key to it was local control, state control. They weren’t quite using the phrase “state’s rights” in the same aggressive way that the segregationists did. But what they meant and what they carried out was not that different. Actual cash aid was virtually eliminated because the states now had the right to determine policy, and the worst offenders were the Deep South states, which have the largest black population.

So that would be an example. It’s a matter of national legislation opening the door to state decisions.

Another indicator that I look at, because you can track it over long periods of time, is support for public education. So I look at per-pupil spending in Southern states as a percentage of the national average. The South was way behind in the 1950s and 1960s. But as part of that economic progress, what seemed to be the economic convergence with the rest of the country, there were increases in per-pupil spending, and they were coming right up to the rest of the country.

What you see after Republican takeover is a reversal of decades of progress. To some extent, it’s a matter of simply the states being starved of revenue. But you also have an active hostility towards public schools. They call them government schools and, in many cases, the South has had the most racially integrated public schools in the nation. Some of this was the retreat from integration by the courts, so that you get this active hostility, often with a color-coded theme to it.

The notion being (and this is not just the South, we have similar thinking in California), “public schools are dominated by minorities, and why should we spend our tax money to support them?” That kind of specter, that fear that integration was going to destroy public schools was there in the sixties, but at the time it didn’t happen. You see in the beginning the best of both worlds, both progress toward integration and also progress toward upgrading Southern schools relative to the national average. That has largely come to an end almost everywhere in the South. It’s a sad story.


Moving into the present, since 2016, there’s been a debate among progressives about whether it’s possible to win back white workers. What does your work suggest about what might be necessary to reestablish a large base among these voters in the South?


I’m writing about 1994 partly as a way of saying, don’t give up on the South, don’t think “Oh those white southerners, they’re hopeless because they’re racist and we can’t even deal with them.” No, it was a biracial coalition before and there can be a biracial coalition again that is successful.

I still think the key is to have a program that addresses genuine issues that are faced by working-class or lower income people, black, white and brown, because increasingly it will have to be a multiracial coalition. I think that’s the formula, the only defensible formula, that is going to work. I don’t think we should give up on anyone, especially not people where there is a valid basis for supporting progressives.

Now we’re talking mainly about the South, and we should, but when I look at states that adhere to this kind of scenario — a Republican takeover followed by adverse effects on public policy — Indiana and Wisconsin very much fit the same Southern scenario. I wouldn’t want to call that the Southernization, but it’s a similar dynamic.

You get a job displacement. White workers feel they were abandoned by the Democratic Party. And they have good reason to feel that way. No, we can’t really reverse the trade policies very much, but we can encourage manufacturing and rural development programs in general. The big cleavage between urban and rural voting patterns is something that can be addressed, and it should be addressed.

You don’t need a majority of disaffected white voters to make it worthwhile, to go after their votes. Cutting into the Trump majority, or the Republican majority, can be the effect that makes a difference. We also see, on this theme of local control or state control, the question of Medicaid expansion. Republican states, primarily the ones in the South, refused to do it, leaving money on the table.

In quite a number of states, this policy has been reversed by referendums. Yes, the white working class often votes against its own economic interests, but not all the time. Sometimes, if the issue is direct enough and meaningful enough, people will vote on it.

Hispanic voters are going to be central moving forward. They are, in a way, the most underrepresented group in the South. The vote suppression tactics that Republicans have been using targets Hispanics almost more than African-Americans, because they vote in such small numbers and they’re more susceptible to intimidation tactics.

It’s almost commonplace to say demography is on the side of the Democrats. But it will not just happen automatically, because the resistance is fierce. A lot of this is up for grabs. I am optimistic — or at least optimistic enough to think that it’s worth pursuing the struggle.