Why Parties Matter: Political Competition and Democracy in the American South

Why Parties Matter: Political Competition and Democracy in the American South

by John H. Aldrich, John D. Griffin

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Overview

Since the founding of the American Republic, the North and South have followed remarkably different paths of political development. Among the factors that have led to their divergence throughout much of history are differences in the levels of competition among the political parties. While the North has generally enjoyed a well-defined two-party system, the South has tended to have only weakly developed political parties—and at times no system of parties to speak of.

With Why Parties Matter, John H. Aldrich and John D. Griffin make a compelling case that competition between political parties is an essential component of a democracy that is responsive to its citizens and thus able to address their concerns. Tracing the history of the parties through four eras—the Democratic-Whig party era that preceded the Civil War; the post-Reconstruction period; the Jim Crow era, when competition between the parties virtually disappeared; and the modern era—Aldrich and Griffin show how and when competition emerged between the parties and the conditions under which it succeeded and failed. In the modern era, as party competition in the South has come to be widely regarded as matching that of the North, the authors conclude by exploring the question of whether the South is poised to become a one-party system once again with the Republican party now dominant.
 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226495408
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/10/2018
Series: Chicago Studies in American Politics
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

John H. Aldrich is the Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of Political Science at Duke University. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. John D. Griffin is associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and coauthor of Minority Report.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

"Except in the South"

The South has long differed from the North in the United States, a set of differences that were already deeply rooted over the century and a half between the arrival of the British to the American colonies and the founding of the American Republic. The South had the same federal Constitution, of course, and the differences in state constitutions and governmental organizations between North and South were slight (Thorpe 1909). Indeed, even upon secession, the eleven states that formed the Confederacy adopted a constitution remarkably similar to the one from which they were seceding (Coulter 1950, 23; Jenkins 1999). Yet the paths of southern and northern political development after the founding differed dramatically, as secession attests.

The Party System, Elections, and Race

The most obvious regional difference in politics over much of the nation's history was that the North generally enjoyed a well-defined two-party system. In contrast, the South has had more weakly developed parties, as was true during the Democrat-Whig party era (1836–52), or, often, no "system" of parties at all, as was true during most of the Jim Crow era. The southern "party system" most often consisted of a single political party, and even that one party was typically not very well organized. For example, during the Confederacy, there were no political parties at all (one of the few major differences between the constitutions of the Union and the Confederacy). After Reconstruction and what southerners then called "Redemption," that is, when the southern white Democrats retook power, the South had a single-party system. From about 1900 to 1965, it was a lily-white southern Democratic Party, with much of the action concentrated in whites-only primaries. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were enacted and desegregation and Jim Crow ended, the Republican Party was not able to begin to make real inroads into the South, outside of presidential elections, for another fifteen years. Not until about 1980, that is, did a genuine two-party system develop in the South, and that development took even longer to mature. It wasn't until 2012 that the Republican Party was finally able to win unified majority control in North Carolina for the first time since Reconstruction, an event that sounded one final death note to the "solid South."

This macro view of the absence of a competitive two-party system in the South has some exceptions, exceptions that we exploit in these pages. One period is the 1830s to 1850s in which the (Jacksonian) Democratic Party and the Whig Party competed in both the North and the South. This nascent two-party system collapsed, primarily due to the failure of the Whig Party in 1852–54. That failure was owing in large part to the fact that the regional division of the Whigs proved simply too large to survive as the slave issue grew in importance during and after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854). Once the Republicans emerged as the new alternative major party to the Democrats in the nation, the old two-party system in which both parties consisted of interregional alliances was gone. The Republicans were exclusively a northern party, and the South refused to be a part of a national two-party system that included a party that could win national majorities entirely without them.

Once more, at the end of Reconstruction, there was potential in the South for a two-party system, most prominently for an alliance between the remnants of the Reconstruction-era Republican Party (victorious as long as former Confederates were excluded from voting) and the emerging Populist Party. Such a coalition would tie together the remaining Republicans, especially the freed slaves, and poor whites who might well benefit from such an alliance and form an electoral majority. But more well-off white Democrats fought back (in some cases literally), re-disenfranchised former slaves, effectively sweeping a good number of poor whites out of the electorate along with them. In doing so, they enshrined a one-party system as a key piece in forging the Jim Crow South.

That these two different moments of at least potential two-party-ism in the South failed, and failed so spectacularly, as planter and middle-class white southerners first seceded and then essentially subverted democracy (or at least the intention of the Civil War Amendments) indicates just how large were the stakes involved — and how fragile the near successes of full-bodied, competitive mass party politics proved to be.

The great scholar of southern political parties, V. O. Key Jr., in his masterpiece, Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949), believed that the solid Democratic South was not even so much as a one-party system in the late Jim Crow era. He believed that, at least in the states (but not in the nation), the South instead "has no parties" (1949, 299) at all. And, he believed, the absence of a competitive multiparty system was closely associated with the complete failure of democracy in the South.

In our view, white southern Democrats were seeking to solve a difficult political problem. How could they win elections consistently, over a long period of time in a majoritarian electoral system, when they constituted no more than a minority? The strategy they chose was simple — subvert democracy. In particular, they chose to subvert the ability of any actual or potential competing political party to form and endure in opposition to the Democratic Party. In this, at least in the Jim Crow era, they chose a structure that looks a lot like an authoritarian political system using a single party as a vehicle for enforcing their authority on the public, albeit one embedded within a national democratic system (e.g., Garreton 1995; Lawson 2000; Mickey 2015).

The southern Democrat Party differed from its northern branch in many ways throughout the first two hundred years of the nation. In the post–World War II era, and especially the civil rights era, southern Democrats acted both in the state and in the nation very differently from their northern counterparts. Nationally, they voted differently, they fought to block much of the agenda of their own party, and they presented a picture of democratic politics in which political parties communicated extraordinarily diffuse signals about what they stood for to the public (except on Jim Crowism). By the 1960s, for example, the Democratic Party was the champion of civil rights for African Americans, and leaders of the southern Democratic Party stood in schoolhouse doors, blocking the desegregation that the Supreme Court declared to be the law of the land, indeed elevated to the level enshrined in the Constitution. George Wallace had emerged as first among such leaders via his inaugural address weeks earlier, saying, "In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny ... and I say ... segregation today ... segregation tomorrow ... segregation forever." So different had the one-party Democratic South become from the northern party in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s that most papers on American electoral behavior included the recurring phrase, "except in the South" (e.g., Huntington 1974; Rusk 1974; Nagel and McNulty 1996; Fiorina 1997; Newman and Ostrom 2002; Carson and Roberts 2005).

While the northern and southern Democrats differed dramatically from each other in Washington, DC, it was in the states where parties and politics really differed, and it is this set of differences that will be the main story of this book. National politics, even if roughly a third of the Congress was selected via means we might call nondemocratic, was still understood as primarily democracy at work. As Key showed, that wasn't true in his no-party South. Here, we want to investigate party politics in much of the rest of the nation's history, particularly those periods when there was a budding second party seeking to establish itself as a major political party in the region and, with that, a competitive party system. We look here particularly at the Jacksonian Democrat and Whig Party era, the era between Reconstruction and the coming of Jim Crow, the period that Key studied up until the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and the recent era of the successful emergence of the Republican Party in the South, over a century after it had become a major party in the North, and at last creating a genuine two-party system in the South.

It was not, of course, just that the southern politician felt that competitive democracy was something to be avoided while his northern counterpart felt it was something to struggle for. There was a reason that the South chose rarely to accept a competitive party system. The South differed from the North, that is, more than merely in having a less competitive party system. Perhaps the most important line Key wrote in Southern Politics was "whatever phase of the southern political process one seeks to understand, sooner or later the trail of inquiry leads to the Negro" (1949, 5). And it is in understanding racial politics in the South that we can come to understand the actions of the southern politician. It is the politics of slavery, racial exclusion, and Jim Crow that explain the motivations that lead to the avoidance of competitive party politics. Thus, in our story, political parties and race will be inextricably intertwined.

Universal Suffrage, Democratic Practices, and Race

Another similarity of this intertwining is the public justification given by southern Democratic leaders for the absence of democracy in the South — and in particular for not extending full citizen rights to African Americans. They were not "ready" for democracy, or so at least went the claim. This is a standard argument of those who seek to maintain power in an authoritarian system, and our claim about the South, especially in the Jim Crow era, is that the South was much closer to an authoritarian, one-party system, even if embedded in a democracy with a fully competitive party system nationally, than it was to an effective democracy.

On February 10, 2011, Benjamin R. Barber wrote a blog post entitled "'The People Are Not Ready for Democracy!' Announces the Tyrant." He was writing about demonstrations that helped lead to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt's version of the Arab Spring, and the reaction from then Vice President Omar Mahmoud Suleiman. He went on to point out that, in the absence of appropriate supporting features of civil society, the claim is well grounded in history and political philosophy, to which we would add political science. He went on to say:

But here's the rub: what is wise counsel coming from independent observers rooting for democracy becomes reactionary stalling when prescribed by interested players rooting against democracy. We can only scorn autocrats who are suddenly repositories of prudence concerning the sociology of democracy. They are obviously using such arguments as a pretext for staying in power and thwarting popular aspirations. "The people are not ready for democracy!" announces the tyrant.

As we write this, Egypt remains murky as to just what its Arab Spring actually will lead to, but it does not look like it is leading toward democracy. It also remains murky just how much of its difficult move toward democracy (if that is what it will be) is due to resistance of elites, lack of the infrastructure of civil society, or both.

The claim of a people not ready for democracy is not limited to Egypt. In a blog post about China on February 27, 2012, entitled "China Isn't Ready for Democracy — Vote Buying, Low Quality People, and Other Excuses," the author goes on to say:

The idea that democracy doesn't fit China's national condition seems to be a weekly feature in the Global Times. ... The Party argues that this is another reason that Democracy shouldn't be expanded. The poor are simply too easy to buy, and the rich would just buy the elections leading to a Chinese Oligarchy. ... As popular blogger Han Han argued at the start of the year, China isn't ready for democracy, because the people aren't capable of making their own good decisions.

Here is a quote from Eman Al-Nafjan about his country, Saudi Arabia:

In an absolute monarchy such as ours, political awareness, never mind democracy, is hard to come by. Democracy as a form of government is a completely foreign concept. This lack of awareness and experience among the people has been used by academics, political analysts, and even the people themselves to postpone the inevitable. "Saudi people are not ready for democracy," is heard practically everywhere.

As a final example, Larry Diamond makes a general claim about arguments concerning the unsuitability of the people for democracy, writing about these claims made in the context of the Arab Spring:

The warnings and reservations were variations on a theme: Arabs are not ready for democracy. They have no experience with it and don't know how to make it work. Islam is inclined toward violence, intolerance, and authoritarian values. People will vote radical and Islamist parties into power, and the regimes that ultimately emerge will be theocracies or autocracies, not democracies.

He goes on to discuss them in the context of less developed and/or newly freed countries in virtually every region of the world. He concludes,

But the data show that popular attitudes and values are not the principal problem, and there is little evidence to support the claim that postponing democracy in favor of strongman rule will make things better. The people of Burma have made that point repeatedly at the polls and on the streets, and finally their rulers seem to be listening to them. The best way to democracy is through democracy.

These arguments are not unique to less developed countries and newly decolonized nations. They were common in the American South. At the founding, the argument went, slaves could not be freed and become citizens because they purportedly lacked the ability to exercise the prerequisites of democracy as citizens (Finkelman 2014). This argument was again put forth in the post-Reconstruction South (Woodward 2001), as helping to justify limiting participation, such as requiring literacy tests, and thus ensuring that most freed slaves and many poor, rural whites would be unable to vote, making the white middle- and upper-class minority in the South into an effective majority.

Were these arguments only made to rationalize the disenfranchisement of blacks? No. As we just suggested, they were also made to support the political exclusion of poor, less educated whites during the Populist era. But convincing the North that blacks' access to the ballot box properly could be limited was probably an easier task than making a similar case for income-based exclusion. In this way, racial differences were a vehicle for a subset of southern elites to maintain a stranglehold on political office well beyond its natural demise.

In both instances, that is, these appeals to rationalize southern ways to northerners were politically strategic. Northerners might agree in sufficient numbers with permitting racial and income differences in political inclusion. If southern elites had more candidly acknowledged that the maintenance or reintroduction of political inequality in participation was the only mechanism that would allow for minority rule, that would be a principle with which few northerners could agree.

This book, then, can be read as a defense of the central place of open political competition for instantiating the effectiveness of democratic governance. It has become somewhat fashionable of late to call into question the importance of electoral competition. Some contend that political competition is simply unnecessary for the maintenance of a healthy democracy (Buchler 2005). Others go even further, claiming that electoral competition has ill democratic effects (Brunell and Buchler 2009). For instance, some suggest that electoral units, be they municipalities or counties or congressional districts, should be drawn or redrawn to maximize the political homogeneity of the population. This will ease the burden, so the argument goes, of officials elected to represent the unit's interests, and it will maximize the satisfaction of citizens with the representation they receive. This book argues the contrary and indeed is a full-throated argument that electoral competition is necessary for democratic governance to work effectively. Electoral competition, born of a healthy system of political parties, induces the government to be responsive to the public.

(Continues…)



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Table of Contents

List of Tables
List of Figures

Part 1 Why Parties Matter

1 “Except in the South”
2 Political Parties, Electoral Competition, and Effective Democratic Governance

Part 2 The Exceptional South

3 Democratic-Whig Parties in the Jacksonian Era
4 Parties in the Post-Reconstruction Era
5 Parties in the Jim Crow South
6 The Southern Turn to Republicanism

Part 3 The Democratic Fruits of Party Competition

7 Party Systems and Electoral Competition
8 Competitive Party Systems and Democratic Responsiveness
9 Competitive Party Systems and Democratic Effectiveness

Acknowledgments
Notes
References
Index

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