Were Republicans Really the Party of Civil Rights in the 1960s?
You don’t need to know too much history to understand that the South from the civil war to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 tended to be opposed to minority rights. This factor was separate from party identification or ideology. We can easily control for this variable by breaking up the voting by those states that were part of the confederacy and those that were not.
You can see that geography was far more predictive of voting coalitions on the Civil Rights than party affiliation. What linked Dirksen and Mansfield was the fact that they weren’t from the south. In fact, 90% of members of Congress from states (or territories) that were part of the Union voted in favor of the act, while less than 10% of members of Congress from the old Confederate states voted for it. This 80pt difference between regions is far greater than the 15pt difference between parties.
But what happens when we control for both party affiliation and region? As Sean Trende noted earlier this year, “sometimes relationships become apparent only after you control for other factors”.
In this case, it becomes clear that Democrats in the north and the south were more likely to vote for the bill than Republicans in the north and south respectively. This difference in both houses is statistically significant with over 95% confidence. It just so happened southerners made up a larger percentage of the Democratic than Republican caucus, which created the initial impression than Republicans were more in favor of the act.
Nearly 100% of Union state Democrats supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act compared to 85% of Republicans. None of the southern Republicans voted for the bill, while a small percentage of southern Democrats did.
The same pattern holds true when looking at ideology instead of party affiliation. The folks over at voteview.com, who created DW-nominate scores to measure the ideology of congressmen and senators, found that the more liberal a congressman or senator was the more likely he would vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, once one controlled for a factor closely linked to geography.
That’s why Strom Thurmond left the Democratic party soon after the Civil Right Act passed. He recognized that of the two parties, it was the Republican party that was more hospitable to his message. The Republican candidate for president in 1964, Barry Goldwater, was one of the few non-Confederate state senators to vote against the bill. He carried his home state of Arizona and swept the deep southern states - a first for a Republican ever.
Now, it wasn’t that the Civil Rights Act was what turned the South against the Democrats or minorities against Republicans. Those patterns, as Trende showed, had been developing for a while. It was, however, a manifestation of these growing coalitions. The South gradually became home to the conservative party, while the north became home to the liberal party.