Millions of white-collar Americans, who had been taking winter vacations in Florida or Georgia or Arizona but loathed the hellish summers, were moving or retiring to air-conditioned homes in new, low-tax suburban and resort communities. Northern-born military veterans returned to the Southern communities where they had been stationed during the war. Many of the migrants brought Republican sympathies; others had political ambition and, seeing their paths blocked by the Democratic courthouse gangs, joined the GOP.
Republicans began to pick up Southern seats in Congress. The first was in Florida in 1954, the next in Texas, then Northern Virginia. By the early 1970s, Polsby found, Republicans held seven of the 10 wealthiest congressional districts in the South, as well as 11 of the 15 districts with the highest numbers of newcomers. Future House Republican leaders Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey planted the GOP flag in the raw new suburbs outside Atlanta and Dallas. When Democrat William Colmer of Mississippi retired from the House in 1972, his legislative assistant went home to Pascagoula, switched his registration, and won election to the House as a Republican. His name was Trent Lott, and he went on to serve as House whip and Senate majority leader.
THE RACIAL FACTOR
For native white Southerners opposed to the civil-rights movement, racial tension fueled the Republicans’ appeal.
After President Johnson signed the civil-rights bill in the summer of 1964, he famously told his aide, Bill Moyers, that they had just “delivered the South to the Republicans for a long time to come.” Indeed, LBJ trounced Republican Barry Goldwater in a landslide that fall, but the Arizona conservative took six states in the Sun Belt: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina.
The Goldwater campaign was a political milestone, uniting conservatives from the South and Southwest, giving birth to Ronald Reagan as a national leader, shattering the Democratic “solid South,” and attracting ethnic Catholics in the North and Midwest who, 16 years later, would become well-known as Reagan Democrats.
“The movement was something deep, a change or a reflection of change in American life that qualified as more than politics—it was history,” wrote political journalist Theodore White, with typical foresight in 1965.
The import of this chain of events, in terms of today’s political polarization, was the way it muted conservative voices in the Democratic caucus.
Shrewdly, the GOP cut deals with black Democratic candidates, using the redistricting process to squeeze minority voters into relatively few districts. The creation of black-majority districts guaranteed that African-Americans would win congressional seats, but it left more white-dominated districts open to Republican opportunists.
“The registration of black voters strengthened the liberal factions of the Democratic Party” in the South, Polsby noted, “and encouraged conservative voters and leaders to desert the Democrats and become Republicans.”
The number of Southern votes in the House Democratic Caucus slipped from 100 in 1960 to 54 in 1998 and 37 in 2010, and most of those that remained were black-majority seats. White Southern conservatives made up 62 percent of the House Democratic Caucus in 1972, but just 7 percent in 1996, according to Polsby. Now the number is almost certainly lower.
“The Southern Democratic bloc just withered away, and the Republican Party kept tracking out to the right,” Poole says.
THE NEW LEFT
As Southern conservatives fled, or were driven from, the Democratic Party, they were replaced in Congress by the now-familiar cast of liberal baby boomers, empowered minorities, and veterans of the civil-rights and antiwar movements who came to dominate the caucus. George McGovern’s quixotic 1972 presidential campaign was an organizing vehicle for the new Democratic coalition, much like the Goldwater movement had been for conservatives eight years earlier. There were Southern moderates who had influence in Congress—men like Sens. Sam Nunn of Georgia and Al Gore of Tennessee—but they were far more liberal than, and had nowhere the influence of, the Southerners who preceded them (men like Democratic Sens. Richard Russell of Georgia and John Stennis of Mississippi).
“It is not intuitively obvious that a substantial gain of seats in the House by the Republican Party would be a proximate cause of the liberalization of the House, but that, more or less, is what happened,” Polsby concluded.
Like today’s tea party conservatives, the liberals saw no need to compromise. By the mid-1970s, after Rep. Al Ullman of Oregon had succeeded Mills as the chairman of Ways and Means, the committee Republicans tasted none of the satisfaction that John Byrnes had recorded a generation earlier. “The Republicans feel cut out,” one Ways and Means member told congressional scholar Catherine Rudder. “The committee is polarized. It’s partisan.”