The American South has always been a capricious player. Hard to win, hard to keep.

In analysing the electoral history of the Democratic Party, American populism, and the upcoming election, I interview historian and author of Dixiecrats and Democrats. William D. Barnard, and Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex and author of Populism, Paul Taggart.

To listen to our discussion and interviews with both guests, please tune in to Episode 4 of the ‘US Election with Erik Green Podcast‘. We discuss the power of race as an issue in elections, how best to combat populists, and whether we are all falling into the populist trap ourselves. Click here.

The South: A brief history

The story of how the Democratic Party lost its electoral heartland of the American South raises questions that remain relevant to this day. It illustrates how cultural grievances and economic frustrations can combine and produce fundamental shifts in a nation’s politics. It also asks whether populism is something that reacts to public opinion, or rather shapes it in certain ways.

From as far back as the election of 1860, the fortunes of the Democratic Party in the South have been torn over two fundamental questions. One is the role of the federal government in political and primarily economic affairs and the other concerns race. The failure to bridge these tensions formed the origins of the American Civil War, with the secession of southern states when they decided it was no longer in their interest to be ruled by a federal government in the north. This decision was motivated by the combination of economic factors — the South was reliant on large slave plantations — and contrasting cultural views in light of the fact that many disagreed with Lincoln’s antislavery stance.

Almost 100 years later the same fundamental battle was being fought. Franklin Roosevelt delayed the emergence of similar grievances but beneath the surface, resentment was growing amongst southern voters to his ‘New Deal’. Conservative democrats complained of its ‘federal overreach’, a theme that continued onwards with their leader Dixon accusing Harry Truman of implementing a ‘Federal Gestapo’.

Yet despite these grievances, Eisenhower carried multiple southern states in the 1952 and 1956 elections, whilst Democrat James Folsom became Governor of Alabama on a populist platform that promoted liberal economics and the use of federal power.

It was only when President Johnson adopted a pro-civil rights stance that these divisions between the Democratic Party and its southern supporters exploded onto the scene. The historian William Barnard argues that ‘what really made the difference was the civil rights movement’, beginning with the ‘bus boycott in Montgomery in the 1950s’.

Barnard explains how the issue of race resulted in ‘a good portion of the white community that had been in the past progressive or liberal on economic issues’ leaving the Democratic Party. This meant that 1976 was the last year the party won a majority of southern electoral votes.

The rise and nature of populism in America

Whilst the sequencing of events would suggest the loss of the South was centred on the issue of race, Barnard notes the longevity of the process behind voters’ changing loyalties. So was this perhaps an example of the combination of cultural and economic grievances that fuel many populist revolts today, including Trump’s assent in 2016?

Barnard argues that ‘both are powerful forces and it all depended upon the peculiarity of the situation in individual states’. Following a huge number of veterans coming home, ‘many who had encountered for the first time’ black servicemen and ‘different parts of the world’, Alabama voted for ‘liberal positions on race in Jim Folsom and almost the same year in Georgia it went the other way’. Paul Taggart agrees saying populism is ‘chameleonic’ and that he doesn’t ‘think cultural grievances are necessary’.

In analysing the electoral coalition behind President Trump, Taggart argues that the combination of factors is what’s significant. He told me how Trump ‘was successful in harnessing’ a mixture of ‘cultural and economic’ grievances. But what underlined all these factors was a common feeling of ‘disenchantment with politics’, something ‘hardwired into the US political system’. Indeed whilst the ‘Know-Nothings’(1849-‘60) opposed Catholic immigration, ‘The Populist Party’(1892-1908) focussed on economic issues that could transcend race.

This common feeling of disenchantment suggests that populist movements reflect a wider failure of the political system. I asked Taggart at what point do voters decide that their grievances can only be assuaged by someone from outside the perceived elite.

‘The populist instinct is not to deal with the process of politics. It’s about getting a gut-level appeal so that people say we just want to get things done, I don’t care how it’s done. The populist appeal bypasses the traditions of politics, which are about conflicts [and] compromise’.

Whether it was the South deciding the federal system of governance wasn’t working for them on the eve of the Civil War, or five southern states voting for third-party candidate George Wallace as President in the 1968 election, and most recently, Donald Trump’s 2016 victory — underlining all these results is a disdain for the political system.

Is it true therefore to describe the populist movement in America as reactive, whereby politicians play on the concerns of the electorate, or indeed as something that determines and moulds public concerns?

For Taggart populism maybe ‘like a canary in the coal mine. That large sections of the population are very happy to support politicians who are anti-politics tells us something about that population and not just about those politicians’.

Looking back on the South’s abandonment of the Democratic Party, Barnard suggests many politicians used the issue of race to their advantage. ‘George Wallace is a good example. Wallace remained on the ‘liberal side of things’ until ‘he lost in 1962 to John Patterson who’ ran a ‘very segregationist campaign’. From this moment on, until he was later shot and endured a ‘damascene conversion’, Wallace ‘exploited the use of segregation to maintain himself in power’.

Barnard comments that Trump is aiming to employ a similar electoral tactic to ‘undercut Biden who has always had strong support from working-class whites’. Acknowledging the potency of race in American elections, I ask Barnard whether such cultural grievances will always have the power to unite different groups of voters.

‘I grew up listening to South Pacific’ and that ‘you’ve got to be taught to hate. But I’m not sure that’s still what I think’. Barnard describes how over ‘aeons of time’ humans were organised within ‘the family or tribe’ and ‘if anybody appeared on the horizon who was different, they were an immediate threat. This has inbred in us a dislike of difference. Maybe tolerance is a learned behaviour’.

Yet speaking to Paul Taggart, I get the thought that even debating politics within the framework of race and arguing over whom each group supports, is to operate within the populist framework ourselves. Taggart says that part of a populist’s success is ‘closing down pluralism and lots of different alternatives, making it Us versus Them politics’. Barnard stresses that it’s not ‘healthy for all in one ethnic group to identify with one party’. We are a ‘healthier society if there are divisions within as well as between groups’.

Ongoing divisions

The divisions that were produced from the days of Wallace and Folsom remain present in American society today. In 2016 Trump won almost all of the southern states, albeit recent polling shows his support weakening there. Barnard notes how migration from North America and an increase in minority populations is aiding the Democrats to win back the South. Although describing the Hispanics as ‘culturally conservative’ and citing their past support for Republican George Bush, he warns against any confidence of an inevitable return to power.

In discussing how best to combat populism and what lessons Democrats should learn from elsewhere, Taggart says that seeking to find one ‘single [leader] is highly risky and not very effective’. It is ‘not to find a single way but there should be different critiques of Trump, from different ideological positions with different coalitions behind them’. He also stresses the importance of ‘institutions’ such as the ‘judiciary’.

Such a prognosis may explain why Joe Biden is choosing to remain so quiet in this campaign, allowing different groups and ideologies to unite in opposition to Trump.

If populism is ‘chameleonic’ then the uniqueness of Donald Trump should not be understated when discussing what comes next. Barnard wishes for a ‘1945’ British-style reconstruction but is aware that increased polarisation in America may prevent this. ‘It has been startling to people who have served in Congress in the past to see what has occurred. The country is so incredibly polarised’.

Barnard blames other factors along with Trump: ‘It used to be that before air travel congressmen’ of all parties ‘would stay in Washington’ and they and their children would spend ‘more time with each other’. Now ‘they fly in on Monday and leave Thursday’ forming a ‘cocoon with their partisan colleagues’. Taggart notes how populism can be ‘problematic because it undermines the way politics works and even damages political institutions’.

Barnard then repeats something I have heard a lot from voters and Democratic politicians — the ‘fatigue factor’. He states that ‘after the chaos of the last three or four years I think the country may be seeking some solace in a period of respite, calm’. Before noting, ‘I don’t think [Biden] is the kind of charismatic politician who in the way that Bill Clinton did’ could say ‘I can feel your pain and [deal] with some of those anxieties’.

It is here where a long-term problem could arise. America from its creation has been discussing and debating the issue of race through very public conflict. If, because of the uniqueness of his character, the fall of Trump is down to ‘fatigue’, then will this simply suppress the grievances that brought him to power?

To Paul Taggart it boils down to ‘a sort of negative cycle. Are the left behind going to remain left behind?’

For Biden, his best hope is to avoid what resulted in the Democratic Party’s loss of the American South and then of the White House in 2016. What William Barnard calls the ‘great danger’, when there is a combination of ‘economic distress and cultural anxiety’.

To listen to more of our discussion and interviews with both guests, please go to Episode 4 of the ‘US Election with Erik Green Podcast‘. 

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