With so much excitement surrounding President Trump’s first few weeks in office, one would be forgiven for not following closely former Republican presidential candidate and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. But “Lyin’ Ted,” as President Trump labeled him during the primary campaign, has been back in the news, defending Trump’s nominees for cabinet posts. Cruz’s recent headline-grabbing interview on Fox News caught the attention of One Thing after Another. Cruz may not have been lying, and he may not have been offering up “alternative facts,” as Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway claimed White House spokesman Sean Spicer did shortly after the inauguration. But he is in need of some historical perspective.
In case you missed it, here’s the story according to the Washington Post:
Cruz appeared on Fox News last week after Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren had been cut off on the Senate floor as she spoke against her fellow senator Jeff Sessions’s confirmation to be attorney general. To rebut charges of racism against Sessions, Cruz tried to turn the tables. “Democrats,” Cruz claimed, “are the party of the Ku Klux Klan.” He added, “You look at the most racist – you look at the Dixiecrats, they were Democrats who imposed segregation, imposed Jim Crow laws, who founded the Klan. The Klan was founded by a great many Democrats.” Cruz is not the first to make such claims. Indeed, One Thing after Another has heard Republicans say similar things in the past, most often in an attempt to deflect charges of racism and insist that it is Democrats who bear the burden of opposition to civil rights for African Americans. If your response is, “Say what?”, then give One Thing after Another the chance to fill in the gaps.
Although Cruz presents his claim as if it is relevant to current debates about race, it most certainly is not. One Thing after Another does not want to impugn the senator’s motives, but this is a distraction at best. Nevertheless, there is some truth in what he says, so let’s get that out of the way first. For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the American South was solidly Democratic—the Solid South. Before the Civil War, the Democrats were the party most closely associated with protecting slaveowners’ property rights. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, Democrats returned to power in all of the states of the former Confederacy and eventually disenfranchised the African-American voters most likely to support Republicans. Those white southerners were responsible for imposing segregation and resisting any federal efforts to protect civil rights for African Americans. The violence that the KKK represented helped to reinforce segregation.
The problem with Cruz’s claim, of course, is that in his attempt to cast racist aspersions on current Democrats, he ignores the historical development of the American political party system. The current Democratic party is not the same party that formed around Andrew Jackson in the early 19th century or helped to elect men like Grover Cleveland to the presidency in the late 19th century. In fact, for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Democrats—like the Republicans—were more a loose national coalition of regional and ethnic factions than an ideologically united party. The various factions did not always see eye to eye on issues like tariffs or workplace regulation, but the goal was to win office and hold power through patronage appointments. So they avoided potentially divisive issues and for the most part did not work to advance any particular ideological agenda. Even when an agenda emerged in the 1930s, the party was not united. Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, tried in vain to purge the Democrats of anti-New Deal southerners.
World War II patriotism emphasized the need for party unity, but the post-war period brought the return of southern outliers within the party. In 1948, a group of southern Democrats were angered about President Harry Truman’s embrace of a civil rights agenda. Known informally as the Dixiecrats, those southerners nominated their own candidate for president—South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond—under the banner of the States Rights Democratic Party. Thurmond won four states in the Deep South that year, but that was not enough to prevent Truman from being elected. After Thurmond’s loss, those Dixiecrats licked their wounds and returned to the Democratic fold. They stayed there, often a thorn in the side of the national party, and because of seniority in Congress often, held significant power and influence within the party.
Although it’s probably not company Cruz would normally keep, his attempt to lump all Democrats in with the Dixiecrats got a shout out fifty or so years ago by none other than Malcolm X. No fan of political solutions to address racial justice issues, Malcolm complained in 1964, “A Dixiecrat is nothing but a Democrat in disguise. The titular head of the Democrats is also the head of the Dixiecrats, because the Dixiecrats are a part of the Democratic Party. The Democrats have never kicked the Dixiecrats out of the party.”
That same year, however, the times they began changing. Former Dixiecrat presidential candidate turned South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond switched party affiliation and endorsed Republican Barry Goldwater for president. Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Goldwater carried five Deep South states. Although the Civil Rights Act passed Congress with plenty of Republican support, legend has it when Johnson signed the bill, he reportedly remarked to aide Bill Moyers that he had just handed over the South to the Republican party for a long time to come. At first glance, then, it might appear that white southerners moved to the Republican party in reaction to the national Democrats’ embrace of civil rights for African Americans. And some, no doubt, did.
But, again, that’s not the whole story. Because of demographic change, post-World War II migration into the region, and the popularity of Dwight Eisenhower, Republicans made in-roads in the South throughout the 1950s. In many ways, the Republicans’ white, native-born Protestant homogeneity was a better fit for the South anyway. What is more, the changeover from a Democratic to a Republican Solid South happened gradually. As Democratic elected officials retired, voters replaced them with Republicans. Rather than draw a straight line between opposition to civil rights for African Americans and political realignment, therefore, it is more accurate to see the Civil Rights Movement as part of the post-war reshuffling of the political deck. After the success of the Civil Rights Movement in ending legal segregation, the political issues surrounding race became more complex, and neither party made racial justice matters a top priority.
Our current political party system came together after the dust of the 1960s had settled, in that post-Civil Rights Movement era. By the 1980s, the political parties were more or less ideologically united. It was then that Democrats became “liberals” and Republicans “conservatives,” a trend that held into the 21st century. During his campaign, Trump surrounded himself by people associated with the so-called “alt-right,” but his campaign and some of the promises he made—like a massive federal infrastructure program—make labeling him “liberal” or “conservative” problematic. His election, then, at least threatened to lay waste to that liberal / conservative dichotomy that had characterized the two parties since the age of Reagan. For now, Republicans appear to be grudgingly falling in line behind the president, while Democrats seek a new leader and new issues that can attract a broad base of support. We at One Thing After Another are historians, so we are loath to predict what is going to happen in the future. Nevertheless, this could prove to be a watershed moment for the current party system, and a realignment could be in the works.
Whatever happens, One Thing after Another would prefer that political arguments be based on accurate information understood in its proper historical context. Ahistorical claims like Cruz’s make truth a casualty of partisanship. When truth becomes optional and historical context is ignored, then democracy itself is threatened. We historians should not be solely responsible for saving the republic. But until politicians take their responsibility more seriously, anyone concerned about truth and democracy must continue to push back against lies, alternative facts, and the anachronistic use of historical information.