Almost the moment that Donald Trump announced his presidential bid last year, Princeton economics professor Ilyana Kuziemko was certain the billionaire businessman would win the Republican nomination. “He was making these racial appeals that we haven’t heard since George Wallace, and I got the sense there might still be some appetite among Republican primary voters for that,” Kuziemko says.
Kuziemko was especially sensitive to the power of Trump’s rhetoric because she was researching the defection of white Southerners from the Democratic Party in the mid-20th century. Her paper — “Why Did the Democrats Lose the South? Bringing New Data to an Old Debate” — has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, and Kuziemko and her co-author, Yale economics professor Ebonya Washington, have presented their findings widely, to both economists and political scientists.
Drawing on newly accessible opinion-polling data going back to 1958, the paper concludes that white voters living in the 11 states of the former Confederacy abandoned their longstanding Democratic affiliation because of the party’s support for mid-1960s civil-rights legislation. “A significant number of racially conservative Southern Democrats left the party just at the moment its national leaders proposed sweeping Civil-Rights laws,” Kuziemko and Washington write.
That defection heralded a major partisan realignment, a century after Southern whites rejected President Lincoln’s Republican Party in the aftermath of the Civil War. In 1960, all 22 U.S. senators from Southern states were Democrats; today, 19 are Republicans.
A racial explanation for this realignment may seem obvious to many: For years, conventional wisdom — along with many historians of 20th-century politics — has attributed the decline in Southern whites’ Democratic affiliation to the party’s support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, landmark laws that enhanced protections for African Americans.
Because this interpretation is so widespread, readers of the paper sometimes say, “I already knew this,” Kuziemko says. “To that we say, ‘Well, no — you thought you knew this, but there really wasn’t a quantitative assessment of it,’” she says. “You really couldn’t have pointed to an academic paper that made that argument with data.”
Until recently, scholars had no quantitative measure of racial attitudes among white Southern Democrats in the years before the civil-rights movement, Kuziemko says. But as they pored over historical polling data made available online by the Roper Center at Cornell University, she and Washington discovered that pollsters asked a question consistently, with only minor wording changes, from 1958 until 2000: “If your party nominated a well-qualified man for president, would you vote for him if he happened to be a Negro?”
By correlating answers to this question with party affiliation, race, and state of residence, Kuziemko and Washington conclude that Southern white voters with conservative racial attitudes — defined as not voting for a black president — were far more likely to defect from the Democratic Party in the post-civil-rights period than were white voters outside of the South. Indeed, they conclude, the defection of white Southerners with conservative racial attitudes accounts for the entire drop in white Southerners’ Democratic affiliation between 1958 and 1980, and for most of the drop between 1958 and 2000. (Not all these ex-Democrats turned to the Republican Party; some preferred independents, like Wallace.) Kuziemko and Washington’s conclusions differ from those of scholars who attribute the desertion to economic factors. Those scholars argue that since per-capita income in the South rose significantly between 1940 and 1980, voters became less likely to support Democrats, whose policies favor income redistribution. “There is this revisionist view that Southern dealignment was all about economic growth, that it really wasn’t about racial views,” Kuziemko says. “To the extent that we conclude that it really was about racial views, it seems important to document that.”
Because the mid-1960s civil-rights laws had little impact in the North, where race-based voting restrictions had never taken hold and the segregation of public accommodations no longer existed by the 1960s, it is not surprising that the passage of those laws did not affect Northern voters’ party affiliations, Kuziemko and Washington write. To examine whether racial attitudes affected voter affiliation outside of the South, the two scholars are continuing their work with the historical polling data, this time examining whether school-desegregation mandates in Northern communities in the years after the civil-rights movement similarly propelled an abandonment of the Democratic Party by voters with conservative racial views.
For Kuziemko, that project, still in its early stages, has a personal connection: She grew up in Macomb County, Michigan, which gave rise to the term “Reagan Democrats,” a reference to the working-class whites in the North and Midwest who began voting Republican in the 1980s.
As researchers joust over the explanation for changing party affiliation in the South after the civil-rights era, a similar race-versus-economics debate is underway among scholars examining contemporary political developments, including the British vote to leave the European Union; the rise of right-wing, anti-immigrant parties in Europe; the strong Democratic presidential primary showing of Sen. Bernie Sanders; and Trump’s winning the GOP nomination and finally the presidency. But Kuziemko is cautious about using her and Washington’s research findings concerning the 1960s to interpret events unfolding decades later.
“It’s too soon to know, and of course nothing’s ever the same twice,” she says. “There’s no perfect repetition of history.” But the research shows the potency of race in American politics, she says.
“However people come to their racial views, if they are activated, they historically have been a really powerful force,” Kuziemko says. “Therefore, it’s not crazy to think that they could still be a powerful force today.”