From Roosevelt to Reagan— The South and National Politics

By Arch T. Allen


We are fortunate that one of the foremost historians of the American presidency lives in Chapel Hill. William E. Leuchtenburg, a native of New York City and former professor at Columbia University, ventured south as a fellow at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, and later became a William R. Kenan Jr. Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. Although now retired from his professorship, Leuchtenburg continues his scholarly studies of American political history with an emphasis on events, people and places.

In The White House Looks South, he focuses on Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson and their relationships with and policies toward the South. In great detail, Leuchtenburg describes the connections of the three presidents with the region, the changes they brought about and their effects on the nation. Roosevelt, a New Yorker, spent much time in Warm Springs, GA, at his “Little White House,” where he endeared himself to many Southerners, sometimes even patronizing their ways in words Leuchtenburg excuses as merely “ham-fisted.” Truman, a border-state Missourian, grew up in a pro-Confederacy, “Lost Cause” environment, but looked Westward for his bearings. Johnson, from the former Confederate state of Texas, was a Westerner, except when advantageous to act as a Southerner. All three were Democrats.

Roosevelt forged the New Deal coalition that also elected Truman and Johnson and consolidated Democrat congressional power for decades. As aptly described by Wilfred M. McClay in Commentary magazine, Roosevelt’s coalition was “a political philosopher’s nightmare but a political scientist’s joy, a hodgepodge of conflicting political principles and starkly opposed regional coalitions, the most notable of which was the now nearly incomprehensible alliance of Northern liberals and Southern segregationists.”

Prior to this coalition, Republicans had largely dominated national politics since the Civil War. Because the underlying sectional strains that erupted in conflict continued afterward, Republicans largely ignored the South and won in the North by margins sufficient to rule. Democrats ruled the South, however, after their “redemption” from Republicans through terror — first with the Klu Klux Klan and later with the Red Shirt Brigades. At the turn of the 20th century throughout the South, Democrats established white supremacist rule, disfranchised black voters and enacted Jim Crow segregation laws.

Three decades later, the Great Depression enabled Roosevelt to overcome those sectional strains and build his Democratic coalition of Northern liberals and segregationist Southerners. Here in North Carolina, a prominent participant in the coalition was Josephus Daniels, publisher and editor of The News & Observer. A white supremacist, Daniels had been an instigator of the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898, a white Democratic reaction to black participation in statewide Republican election victories in 1896. The riot became a coup d’etat, with whites overthrowing that city’s elected biracial government and imposing white Democratic rule. Those events set the stage for the 1900 statewide elections, won by the Daniels-inspired Democrats with a white-supremacy campaign and horseback-riding Red Shirt Brigades that intimidated black Republicans from voting. The 1900 elections began Democratic control of the state for most of the 20th century. Daniels, who heralded Democratic control in his newspaper, served as Secretary of the Navy in the Woodrow Wilson administration with Roosevelt serving as an undersecretary. Later, Daniels became an ardent supporter of Roosevelt and the New Deal. Daniels changed over time, perhaps explaining why Leuchtenburg ignores Daniels’ racist past and lauds him as a “progressive” and a “statesman.”

The Democratic coalition changed, too. It divided over the critical issue of civil rights for black Americans. Roosevelt had played both sides, but in the 1940s, Truman began to take sides with his President’s Committee on Civil Rights, his integration of the military and his support for the Democratic Party’s 1948 civil rights platform. By the 1960s, a decade after the Supreme Court held that public-school segregation was unconstitutional, the divide deepened for the Democrats. Johnson, serving in the US Senate, aggressively pushed passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — assuring equal access for blacks to places of public accommodation — and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, creating special rules in designated states to facilitate black access to the ballot box. Because of opposition by Southern Democrats within their own Party-controlled Congress, passage of both acts required Republican votes. Despite regional division between Democrats and Republicans, Johnson predicted that the passage of the 1965 Act would deliver the South to the Republicans. His prediction proved true, although for other reasons.

Although Johnson split the Democratic coalition, he bridged American principles across racial differences, and thereby changed the South. In an epilogue, “The South on the Move,” Leuchtenburg concludes his book with a personal look at the changed South. He maintains he likes many of the changes he has seen, especially the enforcement of civil rights for blacks and the enhancement of relations between races. In a frank acknowledgment, but one not surprising for a New Deal liberal, Leuchtenburg laments the political shift of the South from the Democrats to the Republicans in national elections. He sees racial politics underlying the shift, but as other scholars have shown, the South shifted for other reasons, as well, including new “R” words — not race, but Ronald Reagan.

The Reagan Revolution

In The America That Reagan Built, Clemson University political science professor J. David Woodard, a rare conservative in academia, explains that Reagan’s landslide 1980 election and 1984 re-election not only ended a string of failed presidencies stretching from Johnson to Carter, but they also changed America: “Just as Lincoln re-made the country after the Civil War, and Roosevelt after the Great Depression, Reagan changed America for the new century.”

The America That Reagan Built is about more than Reagan, however. Woodard analyzes the three subsequent presidencies to Reagan’s by applying three premises. First, Woodard says that our culture has shifted from a “modern” reliance on objective meaning and reasoning to a “postmodern” society that rejects objectivity and rests on impulses and emotions. Second, we are divided politically more along cultural than economic lines. And third, those who win elections can change the cultural values of the country. Reagan then personified the modern, and Bill Clinton personified the postmodern. Both presidencies reflected cultural divides, and both presidents changed the culture.

As a result, Woodard finds our politics caught in strident and partisan conflict between two cultures. A quarter of a century after the nation appeared to turn away from Roosevelt’s big-government liberalism to Reagan’s limited-government conservatism — and a decade after Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over” — debate continues between those conflicting visions. This divide between postmodernism and modernism — and their underlying cultures — are today recast as “blue” and “red” America.

The America That Reagan Built illustrates the chasm between the old liberalism of Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson and the modern conservatism of Reagan. An example came in the person of Clark Clifford, adviser to two of the earlier presidents and lion of the old liberal establishment. After insisting on a meeting with the new president in 1981, he came away unimpressed with Reagan and declared him to be “an amiable dunce.” Within a decade, however, history had cast Clifford as the dunce, leaving the liberal insider in disgrace and his condescending liberalism in disarray. History has vindicated the amiable Reagan as an effective leader who extended freedom at home and abroad. Reagan’s free-market economic policies had restored American prosperity, and his defend-freedom foreign policies helped end the Cold War by contributing to the collapse of Soviet Communism.

For better understanding of our political history over the past three quarters of a century, both Leuchtenburg and Woodard, from their different perspectives and with works on different historical periods, provide valuable texts. From them we can summarize: The Roosevelt coalition required the South; the South left that coalition for Reagan; and the “Reagan Revolution” began.

Yet, as Woodard notes, in the three post-Reagan presidencies, “the ruling majorities were always tenuous.” As the 2006 elections suggest, they may continue that way for some time, fraught with fissure between the old Roosevelt liberalism and modern Reagan conservatism, the new divide between postmodernism and modernism, and the caricature of “blue” and “red” America. And the South continues to be central in the politics of the nation.