“Daddy was a veteran, a Southern Democrat; They oughta get a rich man to vote like that.”
Those lines from “Song of the South,” a legendary hit by the country-rock band Alabama, express the historical sentiment of many in the South. For many years, all right-thinking Southerners were Democrats. After all, the Republicans were the party of Abraham Lincoln and the War of Northern Aggression. Folks down South had neither forgotten nor forgiven Sherman’s March to the Sea, or the occupying troops and carpetbaggers who came during Reconstruction.
The Democrats were decent, church-going, patriotic citizens who believed in God and country, in that order. They toiled in fields, factories and textile mills. They enlisted in the Armed Services in disproportionately high numbers during wartime. Their core values were what we call conservative today.
Around the middle of the 20th century, things began to change politically as the social fabric of the South was altered dramatically by court-ordered desegregation and massive school bussing, which were seen as further intrusions by liberals from up North. Most of those liberals were Democrats like LBJ.
Then South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond left the Democrats in 1948 to run for president as a States’ Rights Democrat, or Dixiecrat. He carried four states. He was elected to the Senate in 1954 as a write-in candidate to fill a vacancy, and again as a Democrat in 1956. In 1964, Thurmond switched his allegiance to the Republican Party. He was one of the most conservative leaders of the Senate for almost half a century.
Things began to unravel in the 1970s, when the national Democrat Party began to embrace a liberal social agenda by championing abortion rights, radical feminism, gay rights and anti-war protests, making many Southern Democrats feel alienated and abandoned. These radical departures from traditional moral values were clearly in opposition to what they believed in. After four years of “malaise in America” under Jimmy Carter, Southern Democrat swing voters provided the margin of victory that put Ronald Reagan in the White House.
Many Southern Democrats didn’t switch their official voter registration, but they did switch their mental registration. Increasingly during the 1980s and ‘90s, the South began to elect more conservatives, usually Republicans. By 1994, when the GOP recaptured control of both houses of Congress, the handwriting was on the wall. Immediately after that election, Sen. Richard Shelby of Mississippi, a conservative Democrat, switched his party affiliation to Republican.
By 2000, the South was trending so solidly conservative that the Democrat candidate Al Gore—a former second-generation Senator and incumbent vice president, but a notorious liberal—couldn’t even carry his home state of Tennessee.
In 2004, the Republican National Convention was captivated when Zell Miller, a lifelong Democrat, former governor and sitting U.S. Senator from Georgia, gave a speech endorsing George Bush over John Kerry.
“Motivated more by partisan politics than national security, today’s Democrats see America as an occupier, not a liberator,” Miller charged. “In their warped way of thinking, America is the problem, not the solution. They don’t believe there is any real danger in the world except that which America brings upon itself through our clumsy and misguided foreign policy.”
Miller also wrote a book titled A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat. The title alone sums up the problem for Southern Democrats. Their rapidly shrinking liberal party is out of step with the core values of most Americans, and it no longer has any place for genuine conservatives.
The big question, especially for 2008, is where will these disenchanted Southern Democrats finally find a home? They don’t want to leave their party, but their party already left them long ago.
One thing is for sure: The liberal thinking of Howard Dean and the DNC is not acceptable to traditional Southern Democrats. If Hillary Clinton becomes their presidential candidate, even Yellow Dog Democrats will vote Republican. In shifting their ideology, the DNC has thus lost a major part of their base.
The Republican National Committee would do well to study this history of the DNC because, as we know, history has a tendency to repeat itself. Sadly, the Republican Party leadership has begun to promote so-called moderates like Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger under its newfound “Big Tent” philosophy. Now conservatives are faced with the same challenge that Southern Democrats faced in the 1970s. But, unlike Southern Democrats from a few decades ago, modern conservatives do not have a viable option in the other major party.
All “conservatives” have a choice. We could join forces with the Southern Democrats to form a new party; we could look to one of the existing third parties; or we can stand our ground and fight for that which we built. I believe we should fight for control of the party we built. The Republican Party cannot sustain itself on its “moderate wing.” The GOP needs conservatives to maintain its majorities and to win national office. Conservatives, not moderates, built the Republican Party.
The GOP can’t afford to forsake its conservative base by running to the middle. It’s time we let them know we are the party of faith, family and freedom. The time has come for us to let our voices be heard. First we must realize and accept the truth that the Republican Party is nothing without conservatives. Then we must demand that the party leadership respect this truth.