We have heard quite often over the last 20 years about the "Southern Strategy". The primary thrust of this narrative, largely used by the Democrats to explain their loss of hegemony in the southern states, was that Republicans used "dog whistle" language in the 1960s and onward to attract Southern racist voters to the Republican party after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA).
This explanation has an emotional value to the Democrats, who remain members of the party that actually passed Jim Crow laws, opposed the abolition of Slavery, and tried to stop school integration. Given their history, it would seem like the first thing that should be toppled in a post-CRA America would be the Democratic Party, and yet...
So they are told by their party that the Democrats are the anti-Racists, like Magic! It flipped from Democrats racist, to Democrats anti-Racist. They need to believe that to absolve themselves of the moral failures of their party... and explain why, in the cast off of all of that baggage of a bygone era they couldn't manage to change their party name.
A too-convenient-by-half skepticism of that narrative aside, there are a number of ways that the narrative just makes no sense.
The first problem with the argument is that they target the wrong governmental bodies. Segregationist laws were all at the state level, past by state legislatures and implemented by state and local authorities to protect state Democrat hegemony, so the canary in the coal mine for "Racist Southern Voter Migration" would be at the levels of Government that were the enforcers of state Democrat control, namely state houses and Governor seats.
So CRA was passed in 1964... so when did the Democrats lose control of Governor seats? Well...
The Georgia Governor was dependably Democrat from 1872 to 2003.
Alabama had consecutive Democrat Governors from 1874 to 1987, and didn't have back to back Republican Governors until 2003.
Mississippi's Republican Governor elected in 1992 was the first in 118 years and there wasn't a back to back Republican elected until 2012.
Louisiana hasn't had back to back Republican Governors since 1877.
South Carolina's firs back to back Republican Governors was 1999, current Republican hold has been in effect since 2004.
North Carolina hasn't had back to back Republican Governors since 1874.
OK, so the Democrats held control of Southern Governor seats for 30-40 years following the passage of CRA.. but surely the state houses, the hot bed of Segregationist power turned Republican, right? Well....
Georgia Democrats held the state House, Senate and Governor until 2002
Alabama Democrats held the state House and Senate until 2010
Louisiana.. also until 2010
South Carolina until 1994
North Carolina, other than a 4 year period from '95 to '98, also held state house and Senate until 2010
Florida Democrat until 1994..
Tennessee until 2004...
So, at the very least I guess we can see why the narrative of the "Southern Strategy" has picked up speed over the last 20 years. As illogical as the explanation appears, the Democrats needed some way of explaining their loss of the South in the late 90s and early 2000s. But trying to argue that the switch slow burned through a the racist south can't really explain why so many of those racist Democrats, and Democrat voters remained Dmeocrat to the day they died.
So what explains it? The switch happened for two primary self-evident reasons. The first explanation covers half of the "Southern Strategy" argument, but not the half the Democrats need. The other is just plain demographics. I'll explain both in turn.
To explain the demographic shift it is necessary to first understand the source of power of the pre-CRA southern Democratic Party. Lost in the simplistic explanation of pre-CRA South, an explanation that posits Segregation and the only political platform that really mattered, is that inside the Hegemonic Southern Democrat party there were as many ideological fissures separating party members as there were separating Northern Democrats and Republicans. Segregation and Jim Crow had become a last gasp of the "State Rights" argument that had been lost in the Civil war.
As an aside, the Southern Democrat "State Rights" argument was always doomed to fail because how the fights they chose to take against Federal Power were not targeting Federal legislation directly, they challenged the founding principles of the nation. They posited the argument that the states.. really that any governmental body, can decide what natural rights are and are not inalienable. They werent fighting federalism as much as they were fighting the whole concept of natural rights.
They lost in 1864, and then again, a century later in 1964.
So, in pre-CRA South, the disparate factions of the Democratic Party came together on only one issue: Segregation.
"Ah HAH!!" THe modern Dmeocrat would say. "You see! Southern Politics was driven by racism!!"
Well yes, self evidently. And following the passage of CRA the old Democrats continued to vote Democrat to the day they died. Why they did that is for another discussion, and likely my explanation would be more controversial than the argument I will make here. The why, therefore, we can skip. All that needs to be pointed out here is that the Southern voter that voted Democrat before the passage of CRA largely continued voting Democrat where it mattered for the rest of their life.
So why did it turn Republican? Easy answer: Demographics, Demographics, Demographics.
To understand the Demographics of the Southern turn we have to first understand general ideological shifts in voting behavior by generation. Specifically we will focus on the age old and time tested trend that every generation if most progressive in their politics in their late teens and 20s, and begin to shift conservative in their late 30s and 40s.
My theory for why this happens is pretty simple, and follows the same path as movies, music and any number of other individual preferences. If you ask most people what their favorite band is, a 20 year old will usually name something contemporary while a 50 year old will name a band that was big when they were 20. We lock into a preference sociologically and psychologically at a point in time that we see ourselves as most vibrant, usually in our 20s at the bridge between teen naivete and optimism and middle aged realism.
In short, we love change until it moves past us or, from a different perspective, we get old enough to see the folly.
Consider this general, inescapable Demographic ideological shift in the context of the CRA. A child born after the passage of the CRA grew up in largely integrated schools, with largely shared integrated popular music and cinema, and no expectation that this had ever been different. That generation latched on to the progressive party of the 1970s (Democrats), and came into their 20s under reagan, and reached middle age in the late 90s and 2000s.
Southern Democrats no longer had the unifying taint of Segregation to hold the party together, and so the Southern Dmeocrat, whose parents had always voted Democrat, had started to bury their parents, and vote their interests, which were naturally more conservative, and was anchored in the politics of the 1980s, when Reagan was president.