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Breaking the Solid South

ISSUE:  Winter 1929

November 6, 1928, is one of those occasional days that are singled out by circumstance for remembrance. It may or may not prove important that it was the day on which Herbert Hoover was elected president. It remains to be seen whether it is the last referendum on prohibition or the elimination of the chance of the nomination of a Roman Catholic to the presidential candidacy of a major party in the United States. The date marks an important event whatever its other consequences: it broke the Solid South. Already the section furnishing most “copy” to journalism, a regular briar patch of question marks, the South now offers a new and exciting substitute for cross-word puzzles and ping pong in the question: What will become of the pieces?

The breaking of the South was itself the occasion of a variety of picturesque reactions. University students in Virginia burned Intolerance in effigy, Jefferson’s statue was hung in black at the institution he founded and inscriptions recorded the death of religious toleration and democratic freedom of thought. Andrew Jackson’s image was similarly adorned in Nashville, Tennessee, and with like mottoes. A member of the Mississippi legislature proposed resolutions providing that the Governor of that state should request the removal of the bodies of Lee and Jackson from the Republican soil of their native state Virginia to that of the loyally Democratic Mississippi. The Southern newspapers were filled with post-election statements. In the main these showed deliberation and caution. The defeated leaders spoke without bitterness and their victorious opponents without unseemly jubilation. And all newspapers carried the supposed plans of President-elect Hoover for the organization of a “respectable” Republican party in the South exclusively under white leaders. All these incidents were straws on the surface of disturbed waters. Both sides appeared nervously eager not to agitate them any further. Some Smith Democrats seemed embarrassed at the mere chance of being caught looking on where their recent antagonists were pouring oil on the troubled waters; as if they feared to enrage the peacemakers by inadvertently reading the names on the oil-cans. Whether these incidents of victory and defeat were comically absurd or humanly amusing depended usually on how the observer himself had voted. But Southerners united in one occupation: everyone began explaining how it happened.

There is one thing that is obvious. No local issue or provincial leadership brought this thing to pass. A political weather bureau could have predicted the course of the upheaval. In fact one did: the straw vote practitioners were justified of their absurdities. Florida has little in common with Kentucky, Texas and Virginia, and North Carolina and Tennessee have different social, economic, and geographical problems, but it could be no bare coincidence that carried them all Republican together. It is more difficult to give a reasonable guess as to the basis of this common cause of Southern secession from a Democratic political Confederacy that has lasted since Southern white men controlled their own votes. The appeal of Mr. Hoover’s personality, is not enough. There did exist a wide-spread and very real admiration for the man, and the belief that the practical material welfare of the entire country would be best served by his election. Also there was a mythical Mr. Hoover, an idealistic embodiment of all the finer associations and sentiments that survived in the recollections of the World War. Whether it was the reward of a canny sixth political sense or a noble freedom from partisanship, Mr. Hoover’s work and its associations have been subject to little attack or sordid selfish misrepresentation since the war, and those who were bitterest in mistrust of him in war days were his ardent supporters on the hustings of the recent election. There were two candidates for the Republican presidential nomination: one was a solid, undemonstrative Quaker business man, an engineer as cool and safe and machine-like as a piece of machinery; the other a self-controlled but impassioned idealist, the savior of Belgian children, the bringer of succor to the dwellers along the Mississippi, the heir of the finer passions of Woodrow Wilson idealism even among some people who have hated Woodrow Wilson. It is scarcely possible, however, that the Solid South was broken by the combined appeal of these two conceptions of Mr. Hoover. It is even unlikely that more Southerners voted for Mr. Hoover on his personal appeal than were brought to the polls, of those who otherwise would have stayed at home, by the attraction of the vivid Mr. Smith and what they considered his courage, his honesty, and his homely charm.

It is said that the South will vote for the Devil or a yellow dog running on the Democratic ticket. That may, still hold, but it was proved that a majority in certain of the rock-ribbed Democratic states will not vote for a candidate who represents to their minds three organizations that they have been taught to hate—the saloon, the Roman Church, and Tammany. The slogan that defeated Blaine, “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion,” had no such malign influence when certain of Mr. Hoover’s supporters renewed it, changing the trinity to “Rum, Romanism, and Corruption.” In political campaigns it isn’t the truth that influences the voters: it is what the majorities hold to be true; and thousands of voters in the South were satisfied for practical purposes with what they heard in their churches—that the election of Al Smith threatened the safety of their homes, their churches, and their ideas of clean politics. Nobody told them, not even Al Smith, that there was anything to fear from Mr. Hoover’s election except a continuance of things as they are. These three institutions, then, were like white mice to an elephant, but it is impossible to disentangle them. Certainly this election was no referendum on the Eighteenth Amendment. The Southern majorities did not represent a majority within the Democratic party, for the Republican vote would have gone to Mr. Hoover in any case, and the majorities in the states that changed complexion in the South were far less than the usual Republican vote in those states. Nor is it reasonable to suppose that prohibition was the only—as it is doubtful if it was the chief—issue with those former Democrats who changed party on this election. Moreover throughout the country at large—normally, Republican—Governor Smith received more popular votes than have ever been polled by a Democratic presidential candidate. Yet it is perfectly within reason that this campaign result may have the effect of being a prohibition referendum just as the election of Warren Harding was accepted as a referendum on the entrance into the League.

Neither does it follow that a Roman Catholic or a representative of Tammany Hall might not become president, but it has been rendered highly doubtful that either will for long years be again nominated by a major party.

No liberal Southerner, whatever his politics, can find comfort in some of the campaign methods used chiefly in the South. Factions in both parties used the Negro for arguments: but so far as one observer was able to ascertain in two Southern states, Smith’s supporters usually made use of the Negro only to frighten voters with the danger of black control in politics by recalling the horrors of certain very, real past events; those opposing Smith circulated handbills that threatened the most specific and immediate changes in relations between the races that sent chills down the backbones of imaginative white readers. Responsible speakers, too, were quoted as drawing pictures of Harlem mixed parties for which, the presumption was, Al Smith was responsible, that harrowed the feelings of sensitive Southern women and roused the indignation—not always for the same reasons—of Southern men. The bitterness with which religious and sectarian feeling entered the campaign was deplorable. From Florida to Virginia no one issue—for it was an issue—was as much discussed or so loudly debated on both sides. This is not the place to argue the question of separation of church and state or of religious toleration: the fact is that no honest man who was a fairly alert observer can deny, if he spent a few days before the election in North Carolina, Virginia, or Florida, that the implication of Smith’s church connections was one of the dominant arguments used against him. It is fair to say, however, that it was not as a believer in a religious faith that most of these people opposed a Catholic, but because rightly or falsely they have come to regard the organization of that Church as symbolic of a group of practical programmes and moral policies to which they are opposed.

Election Day itself, however, was in the South one more triumph for the Anglo-Saxon love of orderliness and decency. The issues were those over which men’s passions rise most flaringly: religious differences, racial antipathies, sectional prejudices, party rivalries reaching back to fighting issues, and social jealousies (for family tradition and class associations played an important though an unnoticed part in the Southern cleavage). Riots and atrocities, at least family bitterness and rancorous bickerings, would have attended in almost any other quarter of the earth save England such a political revolution as took place at the voting booths of the Southern states on November 6, 1928. Instead, an occasional dignified challenging of a voter at the booth, otherwise the long queues of voters, such as this generation had never seen before, passed jokingly up, each one in peaceful but determined good humor to fill out the ballot that killed the vote of his neighbor, perhaps even his brother or wife, with whom he had never differed in a national election before in his life. And the aftermath was as peaceful and well-mannered—if not always as free from a secret bitterness of feeling. Though those who voted for the Hoover ticket restrained their expressions of triumph tactfully, it is hard to keep a victorious eye from shining.

What will be the outcome? What have these newly made Republican states to expect from themselves? The broken pieces of the South remain for the moment stunned by the momentousness and novelty of what has happened. Coals of hatred, of intense class, religious, racial, and factional bitterness, lie slumbering ready to burst into flame if intolerant or rancorous breath blow ever so slightly upon them. Will the Democrats in states like Virginia and Texas, North Carolina or Florida, who voted for Hoover and in many cases for local Republican candidates too, remain Republicans or will they return to the party that they and their fathers have always voted with before? And if they return to the party ranks, will they come bringing olive branches or pieces of hate?

The problem is as complex as was that of the issues of the election. The women were the largest single factor in the Southern “flop,” and they have had no long association with party organization, no education in party loyalty as have the men. The policies of the organized forces of prohibition remain to be declared also. They have experimented for the first time with inter-party contests and “got away with it.” They have shown the power of an organized group in joining with a minority, party to create a majority. It remains to be seen whether in the future they will return to their former policy of attempting to control the majority party in the Southern states at the primaries or continue the method successfully used in this election of leading their own fight against whatever party declares for policies that seem to them unfavorable to their special interests. Nor is it possible to predict how large a proportion of the greatly-increased electorate will continue to vote without the irritant or invitation of Al Smith’s candidacy.

No intelligent survey of the whole palpitant situation can forget the historic background of political parties in the South since the Civil War. Not even the youngest of the younger generation has forgot that the Republican party was born out of hostility to Southern policies, that it carried its hatred into the dastardly atrocities of Reconstruction, that it was responsible even later for combinations between white spoilsmen and negro illiterates that produced conditions so foul that gentlemen whose standards of honor had been fit models for the world justified election fraud and practiced political corruption. Moreover until now the Republican party in the South not only lacked social respectability, to Southern minds but it was popularly felt that many who belonged to it were in it because either they or their fathers had joined it for “pork-barrel” reasons and that most of the others were men from other states who were Republican by tradition as Southerners were Democratic by tradition; they belonged there, but the self-respecting Southerner did not. That feeling in states like North Carolina or Virginia will not pass overnight. Nor will the feeling of class solidarity dissolve before the heat of one election day. Among a new and numerous grouping of families that feel themselves socially fit, the product of one generation of good high-school education, there is to no small degree a jealousy of the older aristocracy that as often as not is less prosperous than themselves. But these people are usually unconscious of their jealousy just as they are not self-conscious of any differences in social importance. It is probable that where they sense them at all they are more desirous of possessing the social graces and the personal friendship of the representatives of the older culture than hostile or jealous of them. Though it is true that it has suddenly, almost over the night of November sixth, become respectable to many people’s minds to be a native Republican in the South, it is still a factor that the names one proudly boasts in Virginia or the Carolinas, when one boasts of names at all, are as definitely associated with the Democratic party as ever. President Hoover can do much to build up a Southern Republican party with more prestige than it has ever enjoyed so far, but the historic and social atmosphere of the South is Democratic and that is a factor that anyone considering the future of the situation will do well to reckon with.

Each of the Southern states that voted Republican has its own peculiar situation. For example, Florida has its Northern residents—who are like the poor only in this— always with it; in North Carolina one of the senators joined hands with the Republicans and the Anti-Saloon leaders in defeating the national Democratic ticket, but the state Democratic ticket was generally victorious. The political leaders of the Democratic party in Virginia, on the other hand, and practically all the better newspapers, supported the entire Democratic ticket, but not only was Smith defeated but a great part of the state ticket as well. None the less, one of the most inviting problems for thought in American politics today is, what effect will the breaking of the Solid South have upon the South itself? What will be the alignment hereafter of the voters who deserted their party in 1928?

Three courses come to mind as possible. The Southern voters for Hoover may join the Republican party and create by their adherence a formidable rival to the traditional party in the Southern states. The possibility of this course appears more reasonable on the surface than it is probable in fact. The defeat of so many local representatives from the South who were neither wet, Roman, nor Tiger indicates a real conversion to the party of Mr. Coolidge, which is not offset by the sensitiveness of hosts of the voters to being called “Republicans” and to the Esau-Jacob nomenclature of Hoover Democrats. This organized movement against the Democratic ticket, however, in states like Virginia was not so much in the name of the Republican party as against individual issues. Religious and local leaders brought in Republicans from other states, marked tickets were sent out, political dodgers were circulated, all of which worked together to defeat the entire ticket. A deep inroad was made into the habit of mind of voting the Democratic ticket always under all conditions; but unless the same forces were at work again it is unlikely that one election has changed an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate into a normally Republican majority. When under average voting conditions a normal vote is taken, it is likely that results will show a slightly increased electorate and a slightly decreased Democratic majority; though in certain counties local conditions may keep the Republicans in the lead.

If it happens that most of the seceders return to the Democratic ranks, how will they go and how will they be received? They may go like victors to dictate terms and run the party that they have helped discipline. In that case, if they are successful there will follow a reconstruction of the party. Like the triumvirs in Roman history, each party to the coalition may claim his sacrifice, and more than one eloquent tongue, metaphorically speaking, may be run through with an avenging needle. But for this course to come about one of two conditions must be realized. Either the present party leaders who have relentlessly fought the seceders must surrender, or the seceders themselves must enter the primary ranks and defeat the old leaders within their own party as they have done outside it. And this they can hardly do; for with national issues to aid them and money that would not be available for interparty contests they have failed to carry a majority of the Democratic party. Virginia, for example, with the Democratic seceders added to the normal Republican vote, gave only twenty some thousand majority for Hoover. In other words the Democrats who voted against Smith were powerful only because their votes were added to the Republican minority; but deduct the amount of the normal Republican vote from the total and the remainder is a smaller minority than the usual Republican vote in Virginia. Nor is it human that the Democrats that remained with their party under conditions like the recent bitter contest will be in a frame of mind easily to be made into converts by those who have recently been the means of a stinging defeat to their party.

The third course of action seems the more probable one. The seceders in the main will return to the party fold without either boasting or apology. This is the only action consistent with the protestations of the campaign. If their votes were protests against Al Smith and what they felt he represented, they can consistently return to the party when it is purged of his candidacy. If they, bear grudges against some of the party leaders, they will secretly pay them by their future actions within the party just as in turn they will probably sometimes be punished in the same way when in the future their desertion is remembered. And the same considerations will weigh with the loyal Democratic leaders. Just as it is true that those who have formerly voted the Democratic ticket, who in this election voted against it, are not numerous enough to control the party from within, neither is it by any means certain that, if a policy of retaliation or punishment is followed on the part of the Democratic organization, enough of the seceders will return to the party to restore to it its former control of the state. Politicians on both sides may feel that it is sometimes safer to forgive one’s enemies than to fight them; a Christian virtue may become a political wisdom. The logic of the situation then recommends the acceptance of the result of the 1928 election by all Democrats as an exceptional outcome of peculiar conditions. That there will be an accession of strength and a changed position that offer new opportunities to the Republican organization is a likely assumption. But the strong probability is that the Solid South will remain normally in the Democratic ranks.

The most vital, as it is as yet the most difficult, question to answer is the effect upon the individual leaders within the states that underwent change. Will the old coalitions between the party and prohibition leaders ever again function with mutual conciliation? Has the prestige of any of the Democratic officials been so shaken that they have lost their popularity with the voters? Have the battles of this election embittered so many against those who brought about the defeat of the Democratic party that they will not follow their leaders in a policy of conciliation within the ranks? Only one thing can safely, be predicted. The tradition of an unshakable Solid South has been broken and never again will politics in the South be quite the same safe bet. In this the Republicans will profit. Beyond that Southerners will differ. Thousands will long feel a deep and sincere humiliation; other thousands will as honestly rejoice in what they think was a strong and right independence of action. Some who share the sense of humiliation will yet believe that as a practical matter the Republican party will not be the only gainer. But it is more in the Southern tradition to feel with the Southern bishop who was quoted as saying on the day after election, “I was with General Lee at Appomattox, and I would rather have been with General Lee than with General Grant.”


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