The sesquicentennial of the Civil War is an opportunity to revisit its legacy; the many ways that it continues to affect our society and culture. Here, Professor Ballard Campbell, an expert in American political history, discusses how the political divisions of the 1860s continue to resonate in our politics. Campbell is a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians.
Can you briefly trace the Civil War’s continuing impact on national politics, starting with the post-Reconstruction period up to today?
Because the Republicans were the party of Lincoln and the party of abolition, the Democratic Party ruled the South from the ending of the Civil War through the 1940s. The South became part of the Democratic coalition forged by the New Deal — the city-dwellers of the North and the rural voters of the South — which created electoral majorities for the Democrats throughout the 30s and most of the 40s.
But once the Great Depression and the war ended, that Democratic coalition grew increasingly fragile. Then the simmering issues of race, segregation, and civil rights exploded into the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, culminating in the passage of two seminal laws, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These legislative efforts, led by Democrats in the White House and in Congress, were a long-delayed reaction to underlying racial and ethnic issues that came out of the South’s past — notably, the aftermath of the Civil War.
This had the political impact of a 180-degree transformation, causing Southern voters to move to the Republican Party — and today, we see substantial majorities for the Republicans in the South. Other factors have played a role — for example, the impact of air conditioning, which has made summers in the South more palatable and helped lure GOP voters from the North — but Civil Rights was the spark.
You’ve said that the Civil War was, on one level, about the use of federal power and the competition between the national government’s role and the states. Has the Tea Party tapped into this tension?
The Tea Party is a very American phenomenon, representing a mindset that goes back to our founding — apprehensive of government power and devoted to the idea of liberty.
But the current popularity of the Tea Party has more to do with economics than with political philosophy. Recessions and depressions always kick up a lot of political dust. The Panic of 1837 fostered an anti-property tax movement, and the economic problems of the 1970s killed the Great Society Democrats. People are anxious and frustrated about their economic security. They can’t blame employers because they’re worried about their jobs, so who is left? The people in charge of the government.
That distrust of government, driven by the bad economy, has the most resonance with traditional Republican policy stands: against big social programs, against big government, for individual rights.
How has the GOP managed to maintain its traditional popularity with Big Business, while supplanting the Democrats as the party of many white working-class and rural voters?
The Republican political alliance with business goes back to the late 19th century. As far as the GOP’s more recent popularity with so-called Main Street voters, social issues have been important in that transformation.
Ethnic voters such as Irish and Italians, who once saw the Democratic Party as a refuge, don’t need that anymore because they’ve been assimilated into the mainstream. Issues like abortion have drawn Catholic voters towards the GOP, and the white backlash in the 1960s against civil rights cost the Democrats a lot of working-class and rural support.
Plus, since 1970, working guys have really taken a hit in income, which has discredited liberal economics and made the GOP’s tax-cutting approach, as embodied by Ronald Reagan, more popular.
Wealthy voters care much more about business than social issues, but they also know that support for conservative social positions helps bring in GOP majorities, so there’s a kind of uneasy partnership there. Whether it’s calculated or happenstance, social issues help keep the Republican Party together.