It was an indelible moment, one that has resonated with me up to the present day.
My father and I had gone to whatever permutation of Wal-Mart existed at that time in Union County in late 1982. (Maybe it was still Edwards then, maybe Big K; the chronology is no longer clear so many years later.) He was a supervisor at one of the various Milliken textile plants in Union, and that industry had been hit especially hard by a recession attributed to the current President, Ronald Reagan, and what his 1980 rival for the GOP nomination George H. W. Bush had termed “voodoo economics” in that primary. Another name given this brand of economic thought and practice was “trickle-down economics,” which supposed that as long as high-dollar manufacturers were doing well, the resultant treasure would “trickle down” to the workers below.
My father voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 (and would again in 1984), when the rest of Union County was supporting fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter by a fifty-six percent margin over the former California governor.
That was November 1980. Two years later, in November 1982, Daddy stopped me in the middle of the Arkansas-based department store and said, “Don’t you ever vote for a Republican. Republicans are for the rich. The Democrats are for the working man.” This admonition seemed to have been prompted by a conversation Daddy had had just moments before with a woman, perhaps an erstwhile fellow textile worker under his astute supervision, who said she would be praying that things picked up at Monarch Mill, then Daddy’s place of work.
The message stuck with me, even if it did not stick with the messenger himself, who for the rest of his voting days, up through 2014, continued to vote for whomever he thought might best do the job being voted on, regardless of party label, in contradiction of the strong warning he had given his son about voting for the ancestral political enemy of the South, Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party.
Interesting that Daddy should give me this warning. I was no voter and would not be one for several years to come. Politics had no interest for me whatsoever. Literature and the cinema had captured the greater bulk of my imagination and ambition. Writers and movie directors were my heroes, not political statesmen. As far as I was concerned at age nineteen, all politicians were more or less facsimiles of Richard Nixon, meaning they were corrupt and not to be trusted. (I had watched the Watergate hearings thanks to my grandmother’s crush on Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee; she was baby-sitting my sister and me at the time while both Daddy and Mother worked, and the hearings had interrupted, day after day, her beloved soap operas. Senator Baker’s constant visage, however, provided Ninnie with ample compensation.) Whenever Senators Strom Thurmond or Ernest Hollings appeared on brief clips of the evening news, I’d turn to Mother and ask, “Who are those old men and why are they on TV so much?” She explained, but it made no difference or impact. I had no idea what a Republican or a Democrat was and had no interest or need to know. My time was taken up with Dylan Thomas and William Blake and the prospect one day of directing motion pictures in Europe just like Fellini and Bunuel and Francois Truffaut.
It would be years before an interest in politics would take hold of me, and even then I went at it as an outsider, a spectator, a non-voter who watched the debates and conventions and read accounts of the races but did not step into the voting booth to help in deciding those races. I would be twenty-five years old before that happened – and at the goading of my sister. In those days my leanings skewed left – but I would say I had more in common with libertarians than I did liberals. It was simply my conviction that government should stay out of the personal lives of citizens, that people should be able to make lifestyle choices they saw best for themselves as long as they did not intrude upon the liberties, property, or rights of others. In fact I remember in the 1980 Presidential race briefly and secretly rooting for the Libertarian Party candidate, Ed Clark, because the message of the LP, freedom unencumbered by government, was extremely appealing, as it always is to young people from many geographical locales and points in history. I wised up though. Although not registered to vote, I hoped for a Carter re-election for a number of reasons. One was that he was from Georgia, so he was virtually kin in the Southern scheme of things. The second was the Republican Party had just crawled into bed, so to speak, with the Religious Right, with its grim, morbid crusades against abortion, homosexuality, and pornography, et al., issues I felt best left to individuals. Third Carter had won South Carolina in 1976, and by that time I had had it instilled in me that Southerners were Democrats, no ifs, ands, or buts about it; the Repubs were the party of rich Yankees. History had shown what sort of people Republicans were, especially in their treatment of the South during the War Between the States, and any support of a Republican amounted to apostasy. It was a sin almost on the same plane as blasphemy or atheism. Apparently, despite my father’s defection to Reagan, I was not alone in this conviction, as a handsome majority of voters in Union County supported a second term for Mr. Carter, this despite the Iranian hostage debacle, the economic slump, and the general sense of “malaise” that Mr. Carter himself had diagnosed as the chief ill affecting the country.
Thus a Yellow Dog was born, if belatedly. And a Southern-fried liberal as well, although it would remain a fair number of years before I actually registered to vote and began to do so. Up till then I beat my political breast in favor of abortion and gay rights and against the death penalty and school prayer, the whole kit and caboodle. These were the proper opinions of one with artistic ambitions, fortified by reading The New Republic and The Nation and reading and responding with ire to National Review and other right-wing journals. (My father, as a Milliken supervisor, was given a “complimentary” subscription both to NR and to the humorously hysterical Human Events, one assumes Roger Milliken’s own favorite reading material, which Daddy hardly ever read but which I devoured each week or every two weeks with the animus of a good social justice warrior.) Economic issues rarely concerned me, but hindsight indicates that I must have been generally supportive also of taxpayer-funded, government-delivered relief programs for the poor and needy. After all, I was from one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the nation, and what could be more logical than doling out government-got funds to make the lives of the indigent easier, more bearable? Only a cold-hearted monster – namely a rich Yankee Republican – would disagree. But non-Republicans and non-Yankees did disagree, including folks in my hometown, which made it a mystery to me why Union County had, at the time, in the early to mid-1980s, a one hundred percent representation in its courthouse offices and its legislative delegation by Democrats. Every local office – sheriff, auditor, probate judge, treasurer, clerk of court, coroner, county supervisor, county council – was held by a member of the Democratic party, the same party which on the national level boasted such liberal titans as Teddy Kennedy, Walter Mondale, and Jesse Jackson. Even the state of South Carolina itself, which last voted for a Democrat in 1976, had Democrats holding a majority of the state, county, and local offices. The governor was a Democrat, Dick Riley, as were all the other constitutional officers, as were a vast majority of the legislature, as were a majority of big-city mayors (Greenville and perhaps one or two others excepted). From whence came this discrepancy, that a conservative state should be overwhelmingly governed by the party of the ERA and the nuclear freeze initiative?
The discrepancy, of course, came from my own pitiful lack of historical knowledge and a misunderstanding of the people around whom I had lived my whole life.
The Civil War angle had been there, but vaguely. It would be years before I would get a greater grasp of the atrocities committed in my native state by satraps of Abraham Lincoln and his party, Grant and Sherman, including a burning of the state’s capital, Columbia, and a brutal rape and pillage of its people and its financial, architectural, and cultural treasures, not to mention its women, black and white. (See William Gilmore Simms’s incomparable account of this devastation, available in a number of editions, including a recent one published by the University of South Carolina Press.) As a boy and young man with a nascent political consciousness, other matters were of greater importance, nominally the treatment of the poor, the idea of the haves and have-nots and the easy narrative that the haves must have resorted to less than savory means to gain their riches, namely to have ridden on the broken backs of hard workers struggling to provide for their families and in some cases barely being able to do so. Jesus Christ, in that most precious and important of all books, had inveighed against the rich. It would be, He said, easier for a camel to make its way through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to gain a place in Heaven. These lessons had been drummed into us young Unionites Sunday after Sunday in the Baptist and Methodist churches which dominated the Union skyline (and still do) and worked such a salubrious influence over its citizens. These poor were not abstractions to us. In a small town such as Union they stood out clearly. They lived down the street. They worked in the same mills. In many cases they could be our own kin. The Lord our God commanded, “Be thy brother’s keeper,” which meant we had to look out for the poor and take care of them, unlike the rich who exploited them. Republicans, whether they came from north, east, west, or (gasp) south, were the party of the rich. Most South Carolinians were not rich and therefore had no business supporting Republicans for office, and for many, many years they had not.
When my grandfather discovered that my father had voted for Republican Barry Goldwater for President in 1964 over incumbent Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, he would not speak to Daddy for weeks, according to Daddy. But it so happened that Papa Ivey and not my father wound up in the minority of voters that year. Nearly sixty percent of South Carolinians supported Senator Goldwater over President Johnson, the first time the state had gone Republican since the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. South Carolina, however, was only Goldwater’s third best state. In Mississippi the Arizonan accrued an astounding seventy-five percent of the vote, and in Alabama won every county with seventy percent of returns. He also picked up Louisiana and Georgia, the first time since 1948 that the Deep South abandoned its traditional political home en masse. (Actually Louisiana had gone for Eisenhower in both 1952 and 1956, and in 1948 Georgia stuck with the Democrats by supporting Harry Truman.) The Goldwater rampage in the Deep South also netted Mississippi and Georgia their first Republican congressmen since Reconstruction, Prentiss Walker and Howard “Bo” Calloway, respectively, and even more astonishing, in Alabama five incumbent Democratic house members were swept out of office and replaced by Republicans. (The political historian Michael Barone later posited that if the Mississippi GOP had contested the state’s four other House seats, they too would have gone Republican, thus wiping out over one hundred years of congressional seniority.)
Johnson was deeply unpopular in the South. This was chiefly but not entirely due to his shepherding through Congress the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which drew near unanimous disdain from members of the Southern delegation, overwhelmingly Democratic then but with some Republican members as well. The region’s eleven GOPers – Cramer and Gurney of Florida, Broyhill and Jonas of North Carolina, Baker, Brock, and Quillen of Tennessee, Alger and Foreman of Texas, and Broyhill and Poff of Virginia cast nay votes, while Democrats Pepper of Florida, Weltner of Georgia, Bass and Fulton of Tennessee, and Brooks, Thomas, Pickle, and Gonzales of Texas voted in the affirmative. The bill provided a swift, startling upheaval to the social order among the rich and the poor of the South that had been a way of life for more than a century. But this was not Johnson’s only apostasy in the eyes of his fellow Southerners. His ascendancy to the Presidency in late 1963 was followed by a rapid flow of legislation meant to imitate in scope and effect the New Deal of some thirty years earlier, propagated by Johnson’s idol Franklin D. Roosevelt. Johnson no doubt hoped that the Great Society programs which he offered to the people of the United States would endear him to the American people the way the New Deal had done for FDR. To some extent he may have realized that ambition, but if so it was temporary. After all, he did carry the majority of Southern states in 1964 – Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. But Southerners, even in times of dire circumstances, have been suspicious of encroaching government; it has been in their very blood to be so, given their heritage of often being under the boot of such government. Years of war and reconstruction will do that to a people and their ancestors. Johnson represented an ambitious government, the kind which had ensnared the South in the 1860s and had hardly let go since then. In his drive for power, he abandoned (if he ever really held) the Jeffersonian philosophy of his mentor, Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.). He sought government solutions to problems that sometimes did not exist in the first place.
South Carolinians protested vociferously against Johnson’s re-election, even drawing open support from two conservative Democratic members of Congress, Sen. Strom Thurmond and Rep. Albert Watson of Columbia. Thurmond went one step further than mere endorsement. In September of 1964 in an announcement broadcast on statewide television, he left the Democratic party and became a full-throated Republican, claiming, “The party of our fathers is dead” and “those who took its name are engaged in another reconstruction, this time not only of the South, but the entire nation.” To be honest, Thurmond was probably always a better fit for the Republicans. (The astute and entertaining Yankee journalist and novelist Bill Kauffman once referred to Ol’ Strom as a “nimble opportunist.”) He did not have the kind of personal magnetism, charm, or spark of a Russell or a Sam Ervin, the North Carolina constitutionalist who in the nineteen seventies would endear himself to the American public with his wit and straight talk during the Watergate hearings. Thurmond was earnest for sure, however, and had the kind of influence that could and would sway his region not only to vote for Richard Nixon in 1968 but to follow him into a party it once reviled. As for Congressman Watson, in January 1965 the Democratic caucus stripped him and fellow Representative John Bell Williams (D-MS) of their seniority for openly backing Goldwater over Johnson. Watson promptly quit the caucus, became a Republican, resigned from Congress, and regained his seat in a special election. He remained in Congress for another five years, when he quit to mount an unsuccessful bid for the South Carolina governorship. Congressman Williams, perhaps the House’s leading segregationist, remained a Democrat and won his race for Mississippi governor in 1967. Back in 1964, however, further animosity in South Carolina toward President Johnson’s re-election was expressed in Charleston, during a rally which featured Mrs. Johnson and Charleston’s redoubtable Congressman, L. Mendel Rivers (D-SC), incoming chair of the House Armed Services Committee who, despite an overall conservative record, now and then voted for some of the Great Society legislation. In her memoir, Rivers’ daughter Marian Rivers Ravenel recalls how Mrs. Johnson was greeted by ardent Goldwater supporters who waved signs and drowned out the First Lady with shouts of “We want Barry!” The display embarrassed South Carolina elected officials who attended the event, and Rep. Rivers did his best to calm the uproar. (Mrs. Rivers, by the way, was a secret supporter of Senator Goldwater but still felt sympathy for Ladybird and the largely negative reception she had received in the Palmetto State.) Finally, in Virginia, venerable Senator and former governor Harry F. Byrd, Sr., who had served in the Senate with Johnson and whom Johnson considered a friend, approached the 1964 election with the same “golden silence” he had evinced in the 1960 contest between JFK and Richard Nixon. Being the all-but-official head of the Virginia Democratic party made it difficult to come right out for a Goldwater victory, but his visceral disdain for Johnson’s flagrant spending would not allow him to back his erstwhile colleague’s re-election either. Therefore he said nothing about his preference for President, which ultimately did not matter anyway, as his state supported LBJ by a healthy margin.
However, the Deep South’s enthusiasm for Senator Goldwater was not merely a hostile response to President Johnson. Goldwater had himself qualities which appealed to Southern voters. Sen. Herman Talmadge (D-Ga) remarks on these qualities in his eponymous autobiography. First he scoffs at the notion that Goldwater’s appeal was chiefly due to race; then he goes on to enumerate the Arizonan’s attributes. “…Barry was a man of principle….[He] struck a responsive chord in the South because, like most Southerners, he was essentially a Jeffersonian Democrat. And with the leftward drift of the national Democratic Party, Jeffersonian Democrats began to feel more and more at home in the party of Goldwater.”
This must have been the case with my own father, who, like most young Southern men of the time, had been raised a Yellow Dog Democrat. This was his second election as an eligible voter, and he picked the Republican over the Democrat, much to his father’s consternation. He did it, he told me when politics finally became a thing of interest to me and we had one of our many discussions on the topic, because he liked Goldwater’s straight talk. I liked his straight talk too. (He was a Senator until 1986, when he retired and was replaced by John McCain, who professed himself a straight-talker as well but wasn’t quite in the same league as Mr. Goldwater.) Goldwater became a vociferous opponent of the Religious Right that by the early eighties had ensnared the Republican party and once opined that he’d like to give Moral Majority mandarin Jerry Falwell “a swift kick in his ass.” He voted against Constitutional amendments to outlaw abortion and to allow school prayer, which seemed to me (and still does) the proper conservative-libertarian position on the matters. In fact had I been of voting age myself in 1964 (I was only one year old), I might have pulled the lever for Senator Goldwater myself, thus drawing further ire from my grandfather. (Unlike Senator Thurmond, though, I would have stuck with the party of our fathers.)
Papa Ivey, on the other hand, had one consolation: his home county, Union, South Carolina, did back Johnson, if by a mere fifty percent of the vote.
Johnson’s mentor and colleague Senator Richard Russell (D-Ga.) himself once ran for President, in 1952.
Tall, lean, and balding, Russell was no one’s idea of a cover boy politician along the lines of a John Kennedy, but he had a razor-sharp intellect and was once voted one of the five greatest Senators in U.S. history (this vote occurred during a time of impartiality, when a man’s merits were weighed over his demerits). His only close competition in such veneration was another Southerner, Senator John Stennis (D-MS). Russell never married, was instead betrothed to his beloved Senate, and spent most of his free time reading history. Any chance he got he made his way home, to Winder, Georgia, in the northeastern section of the state, where he enjoyed home-cooked meals of black-eyed peas and cornbread prepared by a long-time family servant. One suspects had he lived to retire, he would have gone back to the homestead and spent the rest of his days there, rather than accepting some lucrative lobbyist’s position as so many retired members of Congress do nowadays. He had, after all, been governor of Georgia before entering the Senate, just like his judge-father, and in waging all his legislative battles he always had an eye out for the Peach State. He entered the Senate in 1933 as a moderate New Dealer. Once the worst part of the Great Depression was over, however, he took a more skeptical view of big-spending items put forth by FDR and his successor Truman, and by the end of his tenure in 1971, he could authentically be called a conservative, or a Jeffersonian Democrat as he liked to call himself, a philosophical stance he reiterated during his run for Presidency in 1952. At one point chair of the Armed Services Committee he remarked during the Vietnam War that the United States had and always would get involved in the affairs of other countries as long as it had the means and the will to do so. He was a reluctant hawk.
Russell today is chiefly known for his opposition to racial integration. As a result the Democratic party, to which he was devoted his whole life-long, has recently seen fit to offer a resolution that the Washington Senate office building named for him be renamed in honor of the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the movement spearheaded by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). One hates to doubt the sincerity of Mr. Schumer’s motion, but one also suspects this is just another effort on part of liberal Democrats to rid their party of any conservative-Southern vestiges. After all, for a number of years now state Democratic parties around the country, including South Carolina’s, have stripped their annual dinners of the names of the two men considered the founders of the party, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, for what is seen as their less than pristine views on cultural diversity. What Mr. Schumer and company have conveniently forgotten is that Sen. Russell was the chief sponsor of the National School Lunch Act and other legislation which sought to make better the lives of the poor and lower-middle class peoples of not only Georgia but the United States as a whole, a constituency Democrats once plausibly claimed to represent.
At the time of Sen. Russell’s death in 1971, the Democratic party in the South held seventeen seats in the Senate. When the body reconvened in January 2019, following the 2018 mid-term elections, it held just three – Warner and Kane of Virginia and Jones of Alabama.
By the time he retired from the Senate in late 1965 due to failing health, Harry F. Byrd, Sr. (D-VA) could plausibly be called the most fiscally conservative member of the United States Congress in either party. Certainly he at one time had been dubbed “the watchdog of the Treasury.” He grew up with a sense of thriftiness and never lost it, even after he became a wealthy man himself from his newspaper and apple orchard interests. He was a staunch supporter of the whole “pay as you go” approach to government spending, which seemed to him the most honest and practical. Byrd was the de facto head of the Democratic party in Virginia, renamed the “Byrd Machine,” although there were some dissidents from the fold, men who did not cast their lot with Byrd, but they were very few. Then Virginia Democrats were different from national Democrats, who in the thirties and forties had become smitten with the Great Deal notion that government must and always come to the rescue of an ailing people. This was not Byrd’s stance, and at the end of his career, he found himself at greater odds with the national manifestation of his own party, so much so he assumed a “golden silence” when it came to the elections of JFK and LBJ. He endorsed neither, instead going on statewide radio to indicate that his fellow Virginias should support the conservative choice in the race, without naming either Richard Nixon or Barry Goldwater. This stance worked only once, in 1960, as Nixon carried the Old Dominion, but in 1964 Virginia gave a substantial portion of its vote to Johnson. Nevertheless Byrd remained a bulwark against the orgiastic spending of the Great Society.
Harry Byrd, Sr., died nearly a year after resigning his seat in the Senate. And soon after that Virginia Republicans began a slow but steady ascendancy to power in both state and federal offices. His son, Harry, Jr., appointed in his father’s place, left the Democratic party for Independence when the state party imposed a loyalty oath on its members in 1970, something that would have been incredibly abhorrent to the party’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, as staunch a believer in individual conscience who ever strode the halls of American government or the American imagination.
Hard as it might be to believe, Byrd’s longtime desk-mate, Senator Carter Glass of Lynchburg, may have been even more conservative than Byrd. In many ways these men, both vociferous in their opposition to bloated federal spending, were the original “tea partiers,” but unlike the modern incarnation of this admirable movement, Byrd and Glass did not wait until their party fell into the minority to criticize profligacy. They inveighed against the heads of their own party despite possible political peril. Glass waged a number of titanic legislative battles with President Franklin Roosevelt over implementation of the New Deal, and he emerged victorious in at least one of them, the fight over FDR’s court-packing plan in 1937, an attempt to crowd the Supreme Court with New Deal sympathizers, considered the nadir of the Roosevelt presidency.
Glass’ conservatism extended beyond policy, however.
In his useful and entertaining book on congressional conservatives and the New Deal James Patterson (the historian, not the incredibly prolific pop novelist) recounts how Glass, a diminutive man with a shock of red hair, went apoplectic when the Washington hotel where he roomed while in town changed its wallpaper pattern. He was known as the “unreconstructed rebel,” a title also given to one of two biographies written about him. (Each of those biographies appeared while Glass was still living. Despite having his name attached to one of the most significant economic bills in American history, Glass-Steagall, there has been no full-length account of Glass’s life since 1939. Glass would live, in ever-failing health and ever-increasing absence from the Senate, another seven years.) In the 1930s it was still politically all right to be “unreconstructed” and a “rebel.” The South still held a place of honor at the table of American culture. Carter Glass was as admired a figure in the rest of the country as he was in Virginia, and his Jeffersonian philosophy of decentralized government still enjoyed a sympathetic home in the Democratic party, probably because a great number of its members, elected and non-elected, Southern and non-Southern, still believed in it.
The reason I have devoted the last two panels of this essay to brief portraits of Senators Russell, Byrd, and Glass is to present three of the most conspicuous exemplars of the Southern Democracy, both personally and philosophically, men who could easily have walked beside Jefferson himself in amenable conversation on practical and political principles. Russell loved Winder, Georgia, as much as Jefferson loved Monticello and sought any excuse to return to it; Russell often referred to himself as a Jeffersonian Democrat, in print, on television, and elsewhere, particularly when he made a run for President in 1952. Byrd and Glass, like Jefferson, were men of the Virginia soil, who made respectful use of that soil and always had their sights first fixed on their home state.
Goodness knows I could fill pages with the names and biographies of other such exemplars. For instance I have left out such figures as Senator Stennis of Mississippi, Senators Josiah Bailey and Sam Ervin of North Carolina, Senator Walter George of Georgia, Senator and Vice-President John Nance Garner of Texas, Senator John McClellan of Arkansas, and Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings of South Carolina. On the U.S. House side I could have highlighted Congressmen Howard Smith, Watkins Abbitt, W.C. Daniel, and David E. Satterfield III of Virginia, F. Edward Hebert of Louisiana, George Mahon and O.C. Fisher of Texas, Paul G. Rogers and James A. Haley of Florida, George Andrews of Alabama, G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery of Mississippi, and William Jennings Bryan Dorn and L. Mendel Rivers of South Carolina. A very partial list – and drawn only from the twentieth century!
(One obvious omission would be fellow South Carolinian James F. Byrnes, the Charleston-born attorney who practiced law in Spartanburg and by the end of his long life had become “Mr. Everything” – Congressman, Senator, Secretary of State, Supreme Court justice, and SC governor. I did not highlight him because for most of his career he was an ardent New Dealer who seems to have soured on the Democratic party when he was denied a slot as FDR’s Vice-President. While never formally joining the Republicans, Byrnes was certainly instrumental in the rise of the party in South Carolina, fueled mainly by the race issue, and I’ve never set much store by party-switchers, official or not. For me, loyalty, the kind practiced by Sen. Russell and Sen. Ervin, is as much a moral value as sexual chastity and a defining quality of the true Southern Democrat. One is loyal to a thing one has committed to, whether it is one’s spouse or a political party. However, I would never deny Gov. Byrnes’s personal greatness or his importance in South Carolina history.)
As both an undergrad and grad student at the University of South Carolina, I found a second (or would that be third?) home in the Thomas Cooper Library. My major was English, but oftentimes I would wind up in those sections of the library housing material on politics and history. I was still an ardent liberal in those days, but the moorings of my liberal beliefs had begun to loosen a bit. I pored over the Congressional Quarterly, over Barone’s Almanac of American Politics, over back issues of a number of publications devoted to the subject, among them the zany right-wing weekly Human Events, which did its readers the service of publishing Congressional roll calls by party in each issue. It amazed me, as I immersed myself in political history, to see the extent that conservatism had played in the Democratic party (and not just in the South) and equally to discover the healthy strain of liberalism in the Republican party. This wasn’t supposed to be. Pundits of the day (in the mid to late nineteen eighties) made it clear that all liberals resided in the Democratic party and all conservatives in the GOP. Yet there were Democrats, from Texas and Mississippi, Virginia and Louisiana, North and South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida, compiling voting records that were in some cases more conservative than those of their Republican counterparts! There were Democrats voting against abortion, gay rights initiatives, tax hikes, and the ERA. In past Congresses they had even formed “support” groups – the Democratic Research Organization and the Conservative Democratic Forum (aka “Boll Weevils”). This was apostasy in the party of Mondale and Dukakis, but fascinating nevertheless, and I began to study the phenomenon more closely.
I concluded that these Southern Democrats were a brave lot of men and women and deserving of a recovering liberal’s respect. They were outsiders, a breed of people to which I had always been attracted, and the budding novelist in me found the conflict they no doubt faced with their dominant liberal brethren more interesting than anything I had come across in a piece of political fiction. Eventually fascination turned to admiration, and I secretly began considering myself a conservative Democrat in the Jeffersonian mold.
This transformation in sympathies was helped along more than a bit by the recent (1986) congressional victory of Spartanburg state senator Elizabeth “Liz” Johnston Patterson (D-SC), whose father Olin Johnston had been South Carolina governor and longtime U.S. Senator. Oddly enough, despite all my scholarship in politics and my enthusiasm for the process, I was still not yet a registered voter so did not get to vote for Mrs. Patterson, but I would have. She had a natural gift for relating to people of all social, economic, and political strata, and her voting record slanted heavily toward the moderate-to-conservative, much more conservative than any South Carolina Democrat since William Jennings Bryan Dorn of Greenwood. She did take liberal positions on the abortion issue, but in terms of spending and the overall size of government, Liz (as she preferred to be called) was a genuine deficit hawk to the right of many Republicans who angered a number of South Carolina liberals with such stances. I first met her at a local Elks Club reception in 1989, and later she was kind enough to give me some time in her Union office, during which we talked for nearly half an hour about the CDF (Conservative Democratic Forum, the official name for the famed “Boll Weevils” who in the early nineteen-eighties had played a substantial role in getting the Reagan economic agenda passed in the Democratic House of Representatives) and various personages connected with the group. That fall, of 1990, I helped campaign for her, and she won a smashing victory, even carrying normally Republican Greenville County over a local state representative. At that point she appeared invincible and on her way to a congressional career comparable to her father’s, even being voted in incoming chair of the House Textile Caucus, but in 1992, a tumultuous year in American politics, Liz lost her re-election to an unknown lawyer from Greenville, and two years later she lost a bid for the state’s lieutenant governorship (to a gentleman hauling a mammoth plastic cow around the state) and promptly retired from seeking political office, although she remained active in her community up until the time of her death in the fall of 2018. (This is a mark of a genuine Southern Democrat. He or she always goes home after leaving office, always go back to immerse himself or herself in the affairs of the place from which they have come. Jefferson, as minister to France and Secretary of State, not to mention as President, wanted nothing more than to return to Virginia to tend to his home and the land which surrounded it.)
One of the factors, I’m convinced, which led to Rep. Patterson’s defeat was, ironically, the Presidential candidacy of Arkansas governor Bill Clinton in 1992. For some in the South Clinton was an unrepentant reprobate who couldn’t keep his mouth shut or his trousers zipped. For others, he was something of a shining knight come to rescue the Democratic party from the leftist quagmire into which it had been snagged and which had prevented it from attaining, since 1980, the U.S. Presidency. He was young, handsome, and articulate. He presided over the moderate, business-friendly Democratic Leadership Council, he dared criticize a darling of the leftist cultural establishment (Sister Souljah) and with no less than Jesse Jackson in the audience, and he proclaimed with some conviction that “the era of big government is over.” All this thrilled the spines and tickled the fancy of those of us Democrats of the Jeffersonian persuasion, and we went to work to help him win the Democratic nomination and ultimately the White House. As expected, he did not carry South Carolina, but he very nearly won Union County in 1992, losing by only a handful of ballots. (In 1996 he would carry Union by more than two thousand votes over Sen. Dole, the first Democrat to win the county since 1980.) For us Jeffersonians who had not defected to the GOP or become independents, this looked like a new morning, an opportunity for the Democratic party to reclaim at least some part of the conservative mantle under which it had been founded. But it didn’t work out that way. Mrs. Clinton’s interference in her husband’s agenda, namely her heading of the healthcare initiative, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal sank any prospects for philosophical renewal, and Mr. Clinton was even less popular than he had been when he first ran. In fact, in 1994, in the first Clinton midterm, Democrats were swept out of office all over the country but most conspicuously in the South. The Republican party took control of the South Carolina House of Representatives for the first time since Reconstruction, and Union County elected its first GOP state rep since the same period. Dozens of elected Democrats on the state, local, and federal levels in the South switched their political allegiance to the Republican party, and in subsequent years, during the even less popular Obama administration, statehouse after statehouse in Dixie has fallen to the party of Lincoln, Sherman, and Grant. Currently – in early 2019 – the Democrats control no Southern legislative houses, and only one Deep South state, Mississippi, currently has a Democratic officeholder statewide, in this case in the office of Attorney General.
Much handwringing has been done of late about the plight of the Democratic party in the South but very little acting. As I remarked recently to a friend, history shows that for most of its existence the Democratic party in the South has been at perpetual war with its Northern counterpart in terms of certain ideological stances. But no more. At this point there is complete or near-complete philosophical hegemony. The individual state parties have been so subverted by the overall leftist convictions of the national party that they dare not stray from the fold or risk losing funding from the Democratic National Committee. The South Carolina party, for instance, has warned potential office-seekers that if they run under the Democratic banner, they best be prepared to tow the official line on the hot button issues of the day or at least not speak out negatively about such sacred cows as abortion and same-sex marriage. This is strange, given the fact that so many African Americans, the most loyal faction of the party in the South and much of the rest of the country, are actually highly conservative when it comes to abortion, gun control, and the death penalty – in cases they are more so than many white voters. In this sense, then, the SC party, and its sister parties in the remainder of Dixie, are deeply out of touch with its most steadfast constituency and is failing to represent the true views of that constituency.
When I was growing up, in the sixties and seventies, it was still the correct and proper thing to be a Democrat in politics, even if one had taken to voting for the other ticket in national elections. One never identified himself as a Republican in public in Union. He was either a Democrat or he hastened to explain that he “voted for the man and not the party.” Now, fifty years later, the reverse is true. One admits to being a Democrat at one’s peril, at the risk of being scorned and ostracized. When I “admit” I am a Democrat I am immediately identified with all the perceived evils of modern liberalism, without ever being asked my actual opinion, and if I try to explain my actual positions on things, that I believe strongly in tradition and local culture and government, that I have remained a Democrat because of tradition and Jeffersonian principles, my interrogators invariably shake their heads and say, “There is no such thing.” A friend running for office this past fall was told by a voter, “I can’t vote for you because you are for killing babies.” This wasn’t true; my friend is staunchly pro-life, as are many Democrats, whether they admit it or not. The trouble is they have been put into a stranglehold by the state and national parties and have been painted with the same long ideological brush as liberal Democrats on the national scene. Politics are no longer local, as the late Massachusetts Speaker of the House once proclaimed. Not by a long shot. The media is certainly complicit in this as well, having helped create polarization between the two parties, and blame must be assigned to that newest of boogeymen, social media, Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk, which allows for the dissemination of much falsehood and “fake news.” Finally, historical ignorance and the fragmentation of Southern culture have done their damage to the once mighty Southern Democratic party. A colleague of mine here at the Union campus of the University of South Carolina, a longtime historian and former chair of the Union Republican party, told me his students were astonished to learn that at some point the Democrats had been the party of Southern whites and the Republicans just the opposite. The rural South was once comprised of mill villages and cotton mill culture which helped give a unity to the community as a whole and aided in great measure in maintaining the Jeffersonian principles that once undergirded the Democratic party. NAFTA took care of that. Now these same rural areas are losing their social, cultural, and political distinctions in their drive to ape Northern urban lifestyles, with a McDonald’s and a tattoo parlor on each street corner and a slick young Republican representing them in the state legislature. (Gone are the obese, cigar-chomping conservative Democrats of yore stomping beneath the capitol dome in Columbia.) For young people it is a crime to be poor or middle-class. They aspire to the riches they see daily on television and the Internet. They, even the young white Southerners, identify almost to a person with the party of upward mobility, in this case the Republican party. This would be a boon for the GOP were it not for these young folks’ propensity to aspire not just to the riches of the wealthy class but also its hedonism, materialism, and incipient alcoholism.
My friend Frank (he who was denied one gentleman’s vote because of his alleged baby-slaughter; he won his race anyway) and I sat down together recently for lunch and to trade ideas on how to revive the fortunes of the Union Democratic party, which, while still controlling the great number of offices in the county, seems to be losing more and more ground to the Republicans in state and national elections (and local ones as well; Union now has three elected GOP officials). We know this is a challenge. The state party has mandated obedience. The current county leadership is beset by inertia. The local party is more a social entity than one devoted to political success. Still, a couple of hardheads, we trudge on. We decided that we must bypass leadership and come up with a platform for the county that will steer clear of the sticky social issues that have alienated so many good Unionites and allow individual candidates to make up their minds with regards to abortion, same-sex marriage, and so on. Our platform will emphasize jobs, education, and the quality of living. We will not excoriate Trump supporters for their concerns over national sovereignty and the decline of the American worker in the current global economy which seems to have forgotten them and their families. We will reach out to them and to others we know have given up on Democrats to represent their values and their interests.
“Why bother?” someone might ask to such a Quixotic effort. “Why go through so much trouble? The game is over. The Democrats are now the party of Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren. The Republicans will dominate South Carolina for at least another generation, if not longer. Just switch parties or become unaffiliated and vote for the lesser of two evils.” Certainly this has crossed my mind and the minds of other beleaguered Southern Democrats, and the temptation is there, to ditch the party of our Southern Fathers, but tradition is as important as political power and social acceptance, if not more so, and many of us hate to see the total demise of a tradition which yielded the likes of Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, Sam Ervin, et al. For myself, there is also this lingering visceral distaste for the GOP and its works that through the years have led to the debasement of the South; in addition Republicans now take for granted the Southern voters who actually believe the party has their best interests at heart. Voices of long-dead elders still echo to this day. They tell me, and others, however few, that the revival of the traditional Southern Democracy is as much an act of love as anything else.
Isn’t that, after all, the whole purpose of conservatism?
Randall Ivey is Instructor in English at the University of South Carolina-Union where he has seven times been voted Teacher of the Year by students. He is the author of two novels, a children’s book, and several collections of prize-winning short stories. He is founder and director of the Upcountry Literary Festival.