0912 Glenn Feldman
Glenn Feldman is the author of Painting Dixie Red: When, Where, Why, and How the South Became Republican. Photo by Madoline Markham.
In 1964, the South turned red. That was the year when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson. Southern voters had supported John F. Kennedy in 1960, but by 1964, all the southern states except Florida voted for Republican Barry Goldwater, changing their pattern of voting Democratic in national elections since just before the Civil War.
Homewood resident and UAB professor Glenn Feldman has traced this historic change in his new book, Painting Dixie Red: When, Where, Why, and How the South Became Republican, published by the University Press of Florida.
The reason for the shift was clearly race, and Feldman said there’s only been one election since 1964 in which the South did not vote Republican. In 1976, southern voters helped Jimmy Carter win the White House.
Feldman said southerners these days don’t tend to think of themselves as being racists, and yet the South continues to vote along racial lines, with 90 percent of blacks voting Democratic and some 85 percent of whites voting Republican.
Ever since Reconstruction after the Civil War, Feldman writes, affluent, business-oriented white people have tried hard to influence elections.
“In the South, there’s a situation where it’s ‘politics by emotion,’” he said. “During the unrest of the 60s, it was all about race. But in more recent times, it’s been wedge issues such as religion, abortion, homosexuality, prayer in school, the Ten Commandments, tax rates, and other hot-button issues, that sway how people will vote.”
By contrast, he said, the main factor that had kept voters from swaying on wedge issues in the past was labor unions:
“Union leaders tended to focus on what was best for workers. And since about 37 percent of the working population were union members after World War II, the unions were really a force to be reckoned with.
“But over the last 30 years there’s been a concerted and well-organized effort by businesses to crush unions and make them irrelevant. To a large extent, it’s succeeded. They’ve managed to demonize unions, equating union membership as somehow being un-American, un-patriotic and un-Christian.” As a result, Feldman said, membership in labor unions has fallen to less than 10 percent.
The decline of labor unions, the professor said, has adversely affected the living standard of the middle class: “The benefits enjoyed today by workers—weekends, holidays, vacations, sick pay, pensions and disability—were all hard-fought issues at the bargaining table. Businesses would never have provided those benefits if they hadn’t been won by unions.”
In Feldman’s view, the economic “golden years” for America were from around 1947 to 1973, due in large part to the achievements of organized labor: “People earned a decent wage and were able to buy homes, cars, boats and other consumer goods. These days, wages are either stagnant or declining, and the middle class can’t afford to buy the products they’re producing. It’s really kind of sad.”
Feldman said he’s gratified by the success so far of Painting Dixie Red. In the meantime, he’s doing research on a new project that’s an overview of the politics of the South during the last century.
Painting Dixie Red is available through bookstores around Birmingham, and also online from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.