t is commonly thought in history classes that after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, the Republicans became the party of what was stereotyped as racist former Democrats while the Democrats became champions of civil rights.
This myth is often supported by the overly simplified comparison of the electoral maps from the 1960s to electoral maps from now. However, it does not account for everything in between that discredits the claim.
Prior to the 1964 election, the majority of the South voted for Democrats. That election occurred in the year when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Five southern states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina) and Arizona were the only states that voted for the Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater.
Despite winning a majority of the south in that election, Republicans lost the same five states to Jimmy Carter in 1976, in which Virginia was the only southern state to vote for the incumbent Republican Gerald Ford.
This was after Nixon’s Southern Strategy, which supposedly appealed to the racism of southern white voters. Rather than being a racist campaign strategy, it was rather an attempt to win the support of states in the whole Sunbelt region (California to Florida).
Nixon and Reagan had a 49-state sweep of in 1972 and 1984 respectively through their successful campaigns based on non-racial issues. Nixon ran on Vietnamization and being tough on crime and drugs, while Reagan ran on anti-Communism and Reaganomics.
Despite the Republican success, Bill Clinton still won six of the twelve southern states in 1992. The Republican streak of winning the majority of southern states has only lasted since 1996.
Republicans in the 50s and 60s supported legislation regarding civil rights, such as the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960 and 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 passed in the same year Republican President Eisenhower sent federal troops to escort the Little Rock Nine and three years after the SCOTUS decision Brown v. Board of Education, and was the first civil rights bill since 1875.
Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina filibustered the bill, holding the record of longest filibuster in Congressional history at 24 hours and 18 minutes long. Also, both the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 were heavily gutted by Democrats, as Johnson, at the time the Senate Majority leader, and other Democratic leaders believed the bills would split the party.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, often credited as the moment when the parties switched, was filibustered by Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia for 14 hours and 13 minutes. A higher percentage of Republicans supported the bill in both houses than Democrats.
President Johnson referred to the it as the “n*gger bill.” Out of the 21 Democratic senators who opposed the bill, only one switched to the Republican party. Lastly, the Republicans did not hold a Congressional majority in the South until the 1990s.
The switch is due to changes in both parties, but is not just a simple switch. A key factor in changes in elections are the changes in demographics and urbanization. According to the Pew Research Center, cities and suburbs have grown, while rural areas lag behind. Also, immigration has played a big role as immigrants tend to vote Democrat.
Another factor has been the reforms within the education system, which have encouraged higher education. College graduates tend to vote Democrat, and colleges are typically located in urban areas and are populated with younger residents.
Lastly, a major factor is in how policies of either party can swing elections one way or another. In 2010, the tea party movement ran on issues rejecting the handling of the economy, Obamacare and the deficit. This led to a 60 seat gain by Republicans, who have maintained their majority up through today.
Today, the platforms of the Democrats and Republicans are both different than they were in the 60s, but still maintain many core values and ideas. The Democrats are still the party of the working class and social programs, but have prioritized issues like abortion and gun control. The Republicans are still the party of low taxes and small government, but have embraced fiscal conservatism and immigration reform. Despite their differences, both parties support civil rights.
Changes in electoral maps should be credited to demographic changes rather than a supposed switch of political platforms, such as the increase in immigration, the increased prioritization of higher education and the increasing polarization between urban and rural communities. Also, analyzing how policy failures affect voter turnout.
If those factors are taken into account, we can see that the party platforms have not switched, but rather that the country has simply progressed over time.