Glenn Feldman’s brilliantly edited compilation of essays, Painting Dixie Red: When, Where, Why, and How the South Became Republican (2011), stands out among a multitude of contemporary books as one of the most nuanced accounts of the rise of the Solid Republican South. His most recent work, The Irony of the Solid South, on the other hand, approaches the subject with a determined focus that ignores, trivializes, and dismisses historical nuances and takes a rhetorical sledgehammer to demolish any contrary interpretations. To Feldman, historians should not be shocked that a region that once was the heart of the Democratic Party so rapidly has become the soul of the Republican Party. Instead, he enthusiastically and doggedly, though not always convincingly, lays out a case that rather than representing a new phase in southern politics, the “switch” in southern voting patterns did not represent a change at all. Instead, it denoted the continued persistence of a conservative ideology that has dominated southern political coalitions from the Bourbon Democrats of the late nineteenth century to the Tea Party Republicans of today.
Although the title of the work implies a focus on “the South,” this study confines itself almost exclusively to Alabama. Using an impressive array of political sources that range from speeches delivered by leading politicians to unpublished writings of average citizens, Feldman argues that southern elites successfully “melded” economic conservatism to racial conservatism, creating a post-Reconstruction ideology that ultimately destroyed any hopes of southern liberalism. [End Page 524] He is at his best when he systematically (through a series of chapters on the New Deal) demolishes the historiographically popular notion that the 1930s and 1940s represented the apex of southern “liberalism.” Although southern politicians initially supported the New Deal out of necessity and loyalty to the Democratic Party, by the time Franklin Roosevelt (and his wife) became associated with the aspirations of blacks, even the most “liberal” Democrats began to abandon ship. Feldman further obliterates the notion within much of the current literature that there existed meaningful differences between racial demagogues like J. Thomas Heflin and their more genteel “paternalist” counterparts. Both, as Feldman persuasively argues, were white supremacists adamantly opposed to any changes in the racial status quo—the only difference between them existed in style, not substance.
Although The Irony of the Solid South offers a brilliant analysis of Alabama politics during the first half of the twentieth century, it fails to make a case that extends throughout the South. This is particularly true as it relates to Kentucky, a state Feldman himself lists as “southern.” Racism and white supremacy certainly infected Kentucky’s body politic, but unlike in Alabama, its African American residents could vote. By the 1920s, even Democrats, particularly in Louisville, had to temper their approach to racial politics. Moreover, Republicans—even moderates and liberals such as Thruston Morton and John Sherman Cooper—found electoral victory in statewide races by supporting civil rights measures and actively courting black voters. Because Feldman’s focus is strictly on Alabama, a state that systematically disenfranchised African Americans, black actors are completely absent from his story. Had he extended his reach to the entire South, he would have been forced to address pockets of influential black voters that dramatically reshaped the direction of local politics by the 1930s in some cities, including Louisville, Memphis, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Baltimore.
One of Feldman’s overall objectives is to challenge the plethora of recent works that seek to minimize the role of race in the rise of the Republican Party. Historians in the mold of Donald Critchlow have [End Page 525] dominated recent historiography by emphasizing non-racial factors that account for the rise of the modern right. Feldman, on the other hand, describes this same post-1968 incarnation of conservatism as “New Racism.” Although he seeks to challenge opponents who downplay racism as the foundation of the New Right, Feldman does not engage them in a way that creates meaningful, nuanced debate. Instead, they are ignored or treated...