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Radical History Review 84 (2002) 167-173
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Coming to Terms with the Right
Kari Frederickson, The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932-1968. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Demagogues, devotees, and institutions. Recent historical writing identifies three pillars of the twentieth-century American right and tends to follow three distinct genres. From Dan Carter's magisterial work on George Wallace to Rick Perlstein's encyclopedic account of Barry Goldwater, biographies chart the influence of charismatic leaders. 1 Employing methodologies of social history, new analyses of grassroots activism draw attention to ordinary people, their values and beliefs, and their often highly localized concerns. Disaffection with national political institutions, a recurrent theme in conservative organizing, yields third-party initiatives, which helpfully become the subject of studies detailing the rancorous culture of high politics and the possibilities for alternative visions. Falling particularly into these last two categories, but taking in the best attributes of all, Lisa McGirr's tale of mobilized suburbanites and Kari Frederickson's story of the rise and fall of the States' Rights Democratic Party offer fresh insights into the complex appeal and circulation of right-wing ideologies.
In her pathbreaking book on the Dixiecrats, Frederickson skillfully shows why white southern politicians bolted the Democratic Party in 1948, running South [End Page 167] Carolina governor Strom Thurmond for president, with Mississippi governor Fielding Wright for vice president. This Dixiecrat ticket appeared on ballots in thirteen states. In addition to their home states, the candidates carried Alabama and Louisiana. But "the campaign suffered from inadequate funding, faulty organization, critical strategic inconsistencies, and ill-defined long-range goals," including ambivalence over describing themselves as a third party (151). The Dixiecrats categorically failed in their principal aim of denying a popular majority to Truman and throwing the election into the House of Representatives, where they hoped to win concessions and dismantle civil rights planks. Further, they failed to alter the direction, if not the pace, of change in the Democratic Party. As Frederickson convincingly argues, however, the Dixiecrat legacy was profound. It magnified fault lines in old New Deal coalitions. It signaled conservative white southerners' alienation from the Democratic Party and their eventual embrace of the party of Lincoln. Coinciding with landmark civil rights victories—notably the Voting Rights Act and increased black voter participation—the end of the so-called Solid South not only meant the rise of a two-party South. It also contributed to a national realignment such that the Democratic-Republican split more neatly mirrored liberal-conservative and black-white divides.
Ostensibly responsive to poor whites, whose financial woes they manipulated with racist appeals, these southern demagogues actually perpetuated that economic inequality. As Frederickson shrewdly points out, "States' Rights campaign events reflected the reactionary nature of the organization as well as its elitism, confirming that the Dixiecrats were not a spontaneous grassroots organization but, rather, a creation of elites intent on protecting their own privilege" (173). Hardly a populist revival, the party was an extension of wealthy, low-country, planter dominance over struggling, up-country, small farmholders. "The Dixiecrats' preferred modus operandi—capturing control of existing state party organizations—illustrated their disdain for grassroots politics, and their rallies reflected this perspective" (173). Also revealing was their penchant for Confederate dress: "Throughout the South, Dixiecrat functions became staged affirmations of privilege, historical pageants at which attendees dressed in the garb of the Old South or resurrected the symbols of the violent period known as Redemption, during which white Democrats overthrew the Reconstruction governments" (173). Thurmond and Wright were likened to Robert E. Lee and Jeff Davis; and at Dixiecrat rallies, Confederate battle flags waved to the strains of "Dixie."
Sadly, such strains and symbols would long resonate. Thurmond would defect to the Republicans in 1964 as one crucial, calculated step in a long career. And most right-wing southerners would follow suit, stopping only briefly at the foot of George Wallace's American Independent Party. Just...