Just as the Republicans were about to take charge of both houses of Congress, Louisiana’s Steve Scalise reminded everyone that some Republican hearts and minds linger in the Old Confederacy. After news broke that the third ranking House Republican had spoken in 2002 at a white supremacist confab sponsored by David Duke, the former Klansman and failed Louisiana Republican gubernatorial candidate, Scalise disclaimed knowledge of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) event’s ties to Duke. But his words felt forced and were belied his 2004 vote to oppose marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a Louisiana state holiday.
Scalise is no political aberration. Since the Civil War, there’s always been a Southern Party, and that party frequently echoes strains of the Old South. As a practical matter, that would frequently be translated into hostility toward civil rights coupled with wariness toward modernity and industrialization.
Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, summed up the Southern attitude in his 1861 Cornerstone Speech. “If Charleston harbor needs improvement, let the commerce of Charleston bear the burden,” he said. “If the mouth of the Savannah River has to be cleared out, let the sea-going navigation which is benefited by it, bear the burden.”
A national highway system just wasn’t in the cards for Stephens; federal disaster relief would have been a nonstarter; and FDR’s Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) would have been an abomination.
Although Southern did not automatically equal neo-Confederate, at times the distinction could easily get lost. And to be sure, the Republican Party wasn’t always the Southern Party. Rather, it was the Democrats who initially were the Southern Party. Yes, back in the day, the Republican Party was the Party of Lincoln, and that meant being the party that supported the Union, industrialization, highways, roads, and civil rights.
During the debate over the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it was the congressional GOP that gave President Johnson the votes he needed to overcome Dixiecrat opposition. Rep. William McCulloch, a conservative Republican whose ancestors had opposed slavery and who hailed from the same district as House Speaker John Boehner, was instrumental in gaining the bill’s passage. Illinois Republican Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen backed the president’s efforts in the Senate to break the Southern-led filibuster.
But passage of the Civil Rights Act marked a turning point. In the aftermath of Johnson signing the bill into law, the Republicans nominated Sen. Barry Goldwater as their presidential nominee, though Goldwater opposed the law’s passage. In November’s election, Goldwater eked out just 36 percent of the vote, winning only his home state of Arizona and five states in the Old Confederacy.
Goldwater’s loss was not the end of the Republican Party. In 1968, Richard Nixon bested Democrat Hubert Humphrey as a result of the public’s exhaustion with the Vietnam War, disgust with the urban unrest that followed the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and Nixon’s own embrace of what would become known as the Southern Strategy. To win the brass ring, Nixon courted South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, the Republican senator from South Carolina and the 1948 standard-bearer of the States Rights Democratic Party.
Thurmond returned the favor by thwarting Ronald Reagan’s 1968 bid for the Republican nomination and acting as Nixon’s surrogate in the Deep South in the face of the third-party candidacy of George Wallace, Alabama’s segregationist governor. On Election Day, Wallace won only five states, all south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but Nixon took California, the Mountain West, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Florida. Nixon also garnered 18 percent of the black vote.
A new die had been cast. Or had it?
Nixon’s gambit owed much to the Democrats’ Franklin Roosevelt, who expanded the Democrats’ brand beyond the South. His New Deal Coalition brought together Southerners, Northern ethnic minorities, and urban blacks under the same banner.
It’s not that Roosevelt set out to change hearts and minds. In a nod to Southern mores and prejudices, the first iteration of Social Security left domestic workers outside the law’s coverage. Yet the New Deal itself was hardly Confederate, as it ushered in activist government, inaugurated a safety net for working Americans, and marked the definitive transition to an industrial America. The TVA, a federally owned and chartered electric power provider, is a New Deal legacy just like Social Security.
Yet all too often the line between Southern and Confederate can get blurred. Mississippi’s Trent Lott was forced to resign his post as Senate majority leader after singing Thurmond’s praises—and specifically his failed 1948 presidential candidacy—at his 100th birthday celebration.
“When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him,” said Lott. “We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.” Coincidentally, Lott’s birthday wishes came just months after Scalise’s appearance at EURO.
But even after the Lott debacle, the Confederate dilemma hasn’t disappeared. In 2013, Sen. Rand Paul lost the services of Jack Hunter, Paul’s media aide and co-author, after it became known that Hunter was the “Southern Avenger,” a radio talk show host who wore a Confederate mask and had written articles praising John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin. For good measure, Hunter boasted that he had toasted Booth’s birthday.
Confronted with Hunter’s past, Paul could only say that Hunter was “unfairly treated by the media and he was put up as target practice for people to say was a racist, and none of that’s true.” Apparently, old embers still glow.
Still, for all of this, South Carolina is now represented in the U.S. Senate by Tim Scott, a Republican and an African-American. The state also elected Republican Nikki Haley, an Indian-American, as governor. In Louisiana, Scalise’s home state, a similar story can be told, as the Pelican State’s governor is Bobby Jindal. Obviously, there’s a line between Southern and Confederate, and the GOP will need to keep reminding people of it. Scalise, however, just made that job more difficult.