Political Parties and Interest Groups
In his 1991 book, “A Parliament ofWhores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government,” author PJ. O’Rourke said, “The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it” (O’Rourke 2003, p. 156). This kind of cynicism abounds in discussions of political parties. And if you think Americans are cynical about political parties, they are wildly so when it comes to interest groups. Of course, a healthy level of skepticism is appropriate when it comes to the power dynamics of those running our governments and controlling our resources, however a full understanding of what these groups actually are and what power they actually wield is extremely important. This is especially true in that a belief that there are no differences between the major parties and that interest groups matter more than individual citizens contributes significantly to the decision made by more than half of Americans to not vote.
Political parties recruit candidates for offices and provide them with support for their campaigns. They give candidates money or help them to raise it and offer logistical and strategic assistance. Just as important, they help coordinate a candidate’s message with those of other candidates running for other offices under the party’s banner. Since the 1850s, the majority of candidates have run as members of either the Democratic or the Republican Party. Those parties as we know them now have developed and changed over time. The first part of this chapter addresses one of those big changes— how the Southern U.S. used to be solidly Democratic, but has been comfortably Republican for many years now. We will look at factors that caused the flip and some analysis of whether we ever will see it turn back the other direction.
Raising money for candidates is a huge part of the campaign and election process in the United States. Even before the Citizens United decision by the United States Supreme Court, we were seeing record amounts being raised by candidates for office, and since that ruling, well, the amount of money involved in running a national-level campaign is unfathomable to most of us. For instance, when Barack Obama ran against Mitt Romney, each of them raised over a billion dollars. That’s billion with a b. And in recent years, we have seen more money that ever flowing into state and local elections as well. The second section of this chapter looks at this phenomenon, examining the reasons for the increase and discussing some of the implications.
The final section of this chapter is on interest groups, and one big one in particular: the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Interest groups are either a necessary or a detrimental part of our policy making process here in the United States depending on who you talk to. ALEC presents a particularly interesting case as it is extremely powerful and uses a different tactic than most other groups. Read on to consider how model bills are being used to spread corporate interests across the states.
A Two-Party System Requires Two Parties: Democrats in the South
According to legend, on July 2, 1964, after he signed the Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon B. Johnson lamented, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come” (Oreskes 1989). Even if the direct quote has been found likely to be myth, the sentiment isn’t wrong.
The Civil Rights Act put an end to legal segregation based on race, religion, or national origin in public places. This included both public areas like parks, courthouses government buildings and places that accommodate the public such as movie theaters, restaurants, and hotels. The act also banned discrimination on these factors by employers and created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce these rules. And to go even further, the act ensured that federal funding would be withheld from any institution or program that continued to discriminate, giving the Commission on Civil Rights increased power to guarantee compliance. While civil rights legislation had been passed previously, none had been as far-reaching and comprehensive as the 1964 act. Martin Luther King Jr. reportedly even went so far as to call it a “second emancipation” (Library of Congress 2010).
So, how did this one act of law put the nail in the coffin of the Democratic Party in the South? Just follow the history of parties and racial politics in the United States.
We have not always had parties in the U.S. called the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. In fact, the Republican Party wasn’t founded until 1854, a good 65 years after the Constitution was signed and the United States as we know it was made official. The Democratic Party had become the party defending the right of the southern states to maintain slavery and the Republican Party emerged as a northern party focused on anti-slavery principles.
The fight over the right to own slaves was so vicious and so all-encompassing that not only did it cause the southern states to try to leave the United States and cause a Civil War, but it also caused a political divide that lasted almost a century. Until the late 1940s or so, the Democratic hold on the South was so complete that it was basically impossible to be elected in a Southern state without that “D” behind your name. And all this time this hold was still the effect of the Civil War and the grudge the southern states had against Lincoln and the Republican Party for ending slavery.
By the Roosevelt Administration, we had started to see some movement though. FDR signed a nondiscrimination order for the national defense industry, which had never been done before. His wife even famously quit the Daughters of the American Revolution for banning black singer Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall. Some of the New Deal programs really benefitted the black community, which was suffering badly during this time. These moves started to bring black Americans into the New Deal Coalition and increased their presence in the Democratic Party.
The big moment, however, came a few years later when Southern Democrat President Harry Truman introduced a civil rights platform at the 1948 Democratic convention, and a considerable faction of delegates got up and walked right out. These defectors, who called themselves “Dixiecrats” decided to take their dissatisfaction one step further, planning and holding their own, separate convention in Alabama where they nominated well-known civil rights opponent Strom Thurmond (yes, THAT Strom Thurmond. He lived for a really long time) for President. Running on a “states’ rights” platform that served as an extremely thin veil for simple racism, Thurmond lost the election to Truman. He did manage, however, to win more than a million votes. This rift, over civil rights, marked the first time since 1860 that the South was not distinctly and uniformly Democratic. The beginning of the end for Southern Democrats.
And it really was only the beginning. For a while yet, most Southerners continued to vote for Democratic candidates. After all, the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln, and no one south of the Mason-Dixon Line was quite ready to forget how much they disliked Lincoln and what they felt he had done to their world. Thus, the South remained at least nominally Democratic (though increasingly supportive of conservative policies that we now think of as Republican) until 1964, and even that wasn’t some sort of immediate and total change. Some Southern Democrats had already been slowly trickling over to the GOP and even through the 1960s and early 1970s, there were still white Southerners who held out as members of the Democratic Party. Heck, George Wallace, the Alabama Governor who had run for President in 1972 on a “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” (Wallace 1963) platform was running as a Democrat. For many of you reading this, 1972 probably sounds like a really long time ago, but keep this in mind: people who turned eighteen in 1972 are just now reaching retirement age.
By 1980, the country had elected Ronald Reagan as president and the Republican Party’s control of the South had been solidified. It is pretty ironic considering how anti-Republican the region had been when the party started. All of those statues of Confederate war “heroes”? Largely Democrats, who would be shocked at what each of the parties looks like today.
There remain areas across the South that elect Democrats to state legislatures and occasionally to the House of Representatives. As of this writing, however, if we look at the eleven states that were part of the Confederacy plus Kentucky and Oklahoma (states considered part of the South), Republicans control ten gubernatorial offices, every state legislative chamber, and 23 of the 26 U.S. Senate seats.
So, does this mean that there is no hope for the Democratic Party to regain a foothold in the South? If history has taught us anything, it should be that we shouldn’t rule anything out. And to be sure, the demographics of much of the south are changing. For example, in 2000, white voters made up more than 75% of the turnout in the Georgia election, but in 2012, that number had decreased to 61% (Georgia Secretary of State n.d.). Two different things are happening— first, many black Americans whose families had moved north during previous decades have been moving back south in higher numbers than ever. And second, Latino and Asian Americans have been moving into southern states at far higher rates than in the past. These demographic trends favor Democratic political candidates.
Areas with a relatively large minority vote that also have areas that are more suburban with higher numbers of college-educated voters are being targeted by groups like the DCCC. You see this combination in areas of Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, and Virginia, for example. That isn’t to say that all highly educated, suburban, or minority voters are the same, but there are trends that would indicate that Democrats may become more competitive in these areas soon. And in Texas, where 45% of voters are non-white (Texas Politics Project n.d.) and where there are already Democratic strongholds in a couple of the urban areas (Houston and Austin, namely), many strategists see a sleeping giant.
All of this discussion of racial politics does not mean that other discussions of Southern culture are inappropriate or necessarily incorrect. Southern culture is meaningful and it is BIG. To many people who live in the South, being Southern is extremely important. And this often includes people who move to Southern states. From the food on the table, to the truck in the driveway, to the music on the radio, culture is perhaps more of an entity in the American South than in any other part of the country. And you can see this if you watch candidates run for office in these states. G’s are dropped in speeches so that accents seem thicker. Guns and trucks appear in campaign ads. The God of the Christian Bible gets a copious number of shout outs. Any move toward changing the political culture, even if that change is simply nominal, won’t be easily won. And considering Republicans control all of the state legislatures in the South and have been the ones drawing the district maps and controlling election rules, it is safe to say that any changes that we may see will likely be slow and sporadic.
- 1. Would a demographic change be the only way for Southern states to swing back toward the Democratic Party? Why or why not?
- 2. Do you think that most people understand that the political parties today are not the same as they were in the 1950s? Or the 1860s? Why is this?
- 3. Do other U.S. regions have as strong a cultural identity as southerners? Why or why not?
- • Republican Party
- • Democratic Party
- • Civil Rights Act of 1964
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