U.S. Intellectual History Blog

New York Times article on Southern conservative shift

An article in yesterday’s New York Times concerned, of all things, recent historiographical revisions to the dominant interpretations of the late-20th century U.S. political realignment toward Sun Belt conservatism. Several younger historians see trends at work other than the “Southern Strategy” of coded racist appeals to disaffected white working-class voters.

The conventional wisdom, said Jacquelyn Hall, director of the Southern Oral History Project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is that the general backlash to the civil rights movement “was exported out of the South to the rest of the country,” and that the Republican Party benefited from the shift. But she said a raft of new scholarship is showing “the strength of the Republican Party in the South is linked to the economic boom in the South.” Corporations moved down to the once-solidly Democratic South and brought with them traditional suburban Republican voters. Their interests matched up with a growing neo-conservatism in the North. “What’s going on is much more a regional convergence story as opposed to the South influencing the rest of the country,” she said.

Check it out if you’re interested.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. A colleague sent me this, and I was very interested as well. I actually was to chair a panel featuring Crespino and two other young scholars and had to back out of it. Another reason to regret that necessity.

    On one level, what these scholars are suggesting (I am only superficially familiar with their work) seems much like what historians of white backlash, such as Jonathan Rieder (actually a sociologist) or Ronald Formisano, have said for a long time. The northern white response to race is often strong, sometimes virulent, but also not simply racist (as it is entangled in issues of social mobility, economic well-being, tradition and culture, and individual freedom). The response is often to move away and separate, but the justification is phrased in race-neutral terms and accusations of racism are meant with resentment. I have looked at Kruse’s intro, and he stresses that white movement to suburbia in the South was a simple extension of massive resistance, but a savvy one, as it was race-neutral in language and immediately adopted broader conservative causes, such as privatization and individual property-holders’ freedom.

    What these monographs add to the current assessment of conservatism is, it seems to me, more evidence that the conservative movement and the nation’s shift to the Right were powered by millions of people at the grass roots — drawing off ideas, strategies, and networks of opinion/support supplied by myriad national actors. I was once deeply immersed in the conservative movement’s own re-telling of its history, which pivoted on the centrality of intellectuals and ideas (endless debates on tradition vs. liberty, etc.). Esp. after reading Critchlow’s account of Phyllis Schlafly, it seems that Reaganism was around from the early 1950s and the contribution of conservative intellectuals to the movement was fundamentally political (defining strategy, mobilizing, connecting activists) than theoretical or intellectual. Modern conservatism may have been based on very consequential ideas, but it the ideas were old and basic ones.

  2. I agree with Paul that the conservative movement is not simply racist. Of course, attempts to separate the modern conservative movement from white backlash are equally problematic. In my research, I’ve found that it was perfectly consistent for people in the 1950s to be racists, anticommunists, traditionalists, and even sometimes libertarians — all at once.

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