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‘Racially conservative’ attitudes led white Southerners to leave Democratic Party

Racial attitudes were the primary reason white Southerners abandoned the Democratic Party after party leaders began to advocate for civil rights legislation during the last half of the 20th century, a new study finds.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act
Many believe white Southerners began leaving the Democratic Party after Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. (Cecil Stoughton/White House Press Office)

“Racially conservative” attitudes were the primary reason white Southerners abandoned the Democratic Party after party leaders began to advocate for civil rights legislation during the last half of the 20th century, finds a new study from researchers at Princeton and Yale universities.

But the defection began earlier than previously believed, according to the study, published in October 2018 in the American Economic Review.

It’s a widely held belief that white Southerners began to leave the Democratic Party after Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, outlawing segregation in business such as restaurants and hotels and in public places such as schools and swimming pools. However, this new study finds that “racially conservative” whites in the South started switching to the Republican Party in the early 1950s in reaction to Democratic President Harry Truman’s support for civil rights initiatives in the late 1940s.

Before 1950, nearly 80 percent of white adults who lived in the 11 states of the former Confederacy identified as Democrats, compared with about 40 percent of white adults in other parts of the country, the study shows. By the early 2000s, about 30 percent of white adults in the South and nationwide identified as Democrats.

Since then, the percentage of white Southerners who consider themselves Democrats has not changed much. In 2014, 31 percent of white Southerners said they were Democrats or leaned Democratic, a Pew Research Center survey found.

Ilyana Kuziemko, an economics professor at Princeton, and Ebonya Washington, an economics professor at Yale, present new evidence to explain what they call “one of the largest and most debated partisan shifts in a modern democracy.” Despite decades of study, scholars have yet to reach a consensus as to why white Southerners left the Democratic Party and joined the GOP during the second half of the 20th century.

Much of the academic research to date points to two driving factors: 1) the Democratic Party’s support for 1960s civil rights legislation and 2) economic development within the region, which resulted in white people making more money and turning away from the political party that supports economic redistribution policies.

Research showing that civil rights legislation was the motivating factor has tended to rely more heavily on qualitative data while a lot of the research suggesting other factors played a leading role rely more on quantitative analyses, the authors explain. This study, based on newly available poll data, takes a quantitative approach and finds that anti-black attitudes were the primary reason for the shift.

Kuziemko and Washington characterize Southern whites as “racially conservative” if they said no to the following question, starting in 1958: “Between now and … [election] … there will be much discussion about the qualifications of presidential candidates. If your party nominated a well-qualified man for president, would you vote for him if he happened to be a Negro?” (In more recent years, that question was altered to ask whether the respondent would vote for a qualified person who happened to be black.)

“Defection among racially conservative whites just after Democrats introduce sweeping Civil Rights legislation explains virtually all of the party’s losses in the region,” Kuziemko and Washington write.

They find no evidence that rising incomes led white Southerners away from the Democratic Party.

For the study, the two scholars examined Gallup poll data collected between the late 1940s and 2004, focusing on respondents’ answers to questions related to political identification, racial views and presidential approval ratings. Kuziemko and Washington also analyzed the news media’s coverage of civil rights issues to help pinpoint when the Democratic Party first was viewed as pursuing a more liberal civil rights agenda than the Republican Party.

Among their other key findings:

  • Anti-Catholic views prompted Southerners to change their party affiliation during the early years of Democratic President John F. Kennedy’s administration. In 1961, for example, people living in the South who had anti-Catholic views were about 27 percentage points less likely to say they were Democrats than in a typical year. While the authors find that anti-Catholic views temporarily reduced white Southerners’ Democratic affiliation, they don’t explain how much of the overall drop in Democratic identification was due to this anti-Catholic sentiment.
  • Americans began to view the Democratic Party as pursuing a liberal civil rights agenda in the spring of 1963. The authors identify Kennedy’s first proposal to prohibit discrimination in public accommodations as “the critical moment when Civil Rights is, for the first time, an issue of great salience to the majority of Americans and an issue clearly associated with the Democratic Party.”

For more on this study, check out the Q&A that Kuziemko and Washington did recently with the American Economic Association.


Other research on this topic:


For more research examining race and politics, read our write ups on black Republicans, the role of race in voter turnout and how printing election materials in English and Spanish affects Latinos’ chances of winning local elections. In this Q&A, Washington Post political reporter Eugene Scott offers advice on covering identity politics.

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