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By Jay Cost

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Race, Realignment, and the Election of 1948

The following are remarks delivered at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, PA on April 21, 2009. My thanks to Professor Philip Harold for the invitation.

In the last 100 years, there has been a massive shift in which region votes for which party. The historic election of 1896 looked like this:


The election of 2004 looked like this:


As you can see, the two maps are nearly inverses of one another.

There are a lot of reasons why this happened - some of which have to do with Harry Truman and the historic election of 1948.

Today, the Democratic Party is home to more than 90% of African American voters. However, this was not always the case. The Democratic Party's historic heartland was the South - and for nearly a century following the Civil War, the party was not in favor of advancing civil rights. Woodrow Wilson was the first Democrat elected to the presidency in the 20th century. He beat William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt in a three-way race in 1912. A native Virginian - one of his first actions in government was to reinstitute segregation in the federal workforce. This was the lament of W.E.B. Dubois, who had backed Wilson:

Public segregation of civil servants, necessarily involving personal insult and humiliation, has for the first time in history been made the policy of the United States government.

Wilson left office in 1920 - and for the next three electoral cycles, the Democrats were hard pressed to win states outside the South. All of this changed in 1932 - the Great Depression brought Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats to national dominance. Nevertheless, the South still was the backbone of the party's coalition - and Roosevelt was not prepared to rock the boat on civil rights.

For instance, FDR set aside Wilson's discriminatory policies, but he stayed neutral on an anti-lynching bill that was brought to the floor of Congress in 1937. This was his reasoning:

I did not choose the tools with which I must work. Had I been permitted to choose them I would have selected quite different ones. But I've got to get legislation passed to save America. The Southerners by reason of the seniority rule in Congress are chairmen or occupy strategic places in most of the Senate and House committees. If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass...I just can't take that risk.

The conventional wisdom of Roosevelt's presidency holds that his election in 1932 initiated a new liberal government and voting coalition that lasted for 50 years. This is not really true. In fact, Republicans made a giant comeback in 1938, so that the Democratic majority in the House depended entirely on southern Democrats, who were conservative.

This put FDR in a difficult political spot - and the above quotation indicates the choice that he made.

Of course, this should not be taken to imply that the Democratic Party was united in opposition to civil rights. It wasn't. The 1932 election ultimately realigned the parties so that progressives, who had previously been in both parties, were almost exclusively on the Democratic side of the ledger - and they demanded civil rights. Symbolically, this could be seen by Eleanor Roosevelt's stand - she, for instance, resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution in protest of their discriminatory policies.

But by 1940, the looming conflict in Europe took hold of the popular consciousness - and it wasn't until Truman's elevation to the White House, followed by the end of World War Two, that the country began to focus on domestic concerns.

Harry Truman came from a state that had permitted slavery prior to the Civil War - and in many respects he reflected the prejudices of the day. Nevertheless, he had carved out a fairly liberal record on civil rights during his time in the Senate. Truman supported strong anti-lynching legislation. As President, Truman was as liberal as Roosevelt on economic matters, and more liberal on civil rights matters.

Ultimately, there were no landmark pieces of legislation on civil rights in Truman's tenure, which historian Barton Bernstein has called ambiguous on the question of civil rights. Truman issued executive orders against segregation in the armed services and the civil service. In his state of the union address in 1948, Truman made a rhetorical pitch for civil rights:

The United States has always had a deep concern for human rights. Religious freedom, free speech, and freedom of thought are cherished realities in our land. Any denial of human rights is a denial of the basic beliefs of democracy and of our regard for the worth of each individual.

Today, however, some of our citizens are still denied equal opportunity for education, for jobs and economic advancement, and for the expression of their views at the polls. Most serious of all, some are denied equal protection under the laws. Whether discrimination is based on race, or creed, or color, or land of origin, it is utterly contrary to American ideals of democracy.

Taken today, this is pretty conventional. But in 1948, it was an extraordinary statement to make - particularly by a Democratic President looking to be reelected in just ten months.

A few weeks later, Truman made several specific requests to Congress, including:

-Establishing a permanent Commission on Civil Rights
-Strengthening existing civil rights statutes.
-Providing federal protection against lynching.
-Protecting the right to vote.
-Establishing a Fair Employment Practice Commission.
-Prohibiting discrimination in interstate transportation facilities.
-Giving D.C. suffrage and self-determination.

Of course, a lot of this was political posturing. There was not much expectation that the Congress in 1948 - controlled by Republicans - would act on any of this. And Truman did not actually follow up his message to Congress with specific pieces of legislation. Truman's executive order on military desegregation was implemented quite slowly, due to resistance from the military brass. Much of the desegregation occurred only at the start of the Korean War, when the military had to scramble to build a fighting force of sufficient size.

Instead, the idea in 1948 was to make Truman look as vigorous and forward-thinking as possible, then blast the do-nothing Republican Congress. Additionally, the black vote in the North had moved to the Democrats starting with the New Deal, but Truman's political advisors believed that it would be up for grabs in the upcoming election - and that it could even be the decisive factor in New York, which for more than a century had been the quintessential swing state. The trouble for Truman was that he expected the GOP nominee to be Tom Dewey, governor of New York. His advisors feared that losing New York would mean losing the presidency itself.

Ultimately, the President and his advisers were betting that the South would stay Democratic, despite the President's moves on civil rights. The thinking was that it had nowhere else to go. Republicans were still persona non grata in the South - and Dewey would never be an option for Dixie. So Truman's advisers calculated that he could move to the left on civil rights to pick up the black vote and inspire the party's liberal base in the North.

In July of that year, Truman and his team would learn that they bet wrong. The Democratic Party held their convention in Philadelphia from July 12th to July 14th, and it was the most divisive the party had held since 1896, possibly since 1860 when the Southern and Northern Democrats split in two.

Above all, there was a fight about what the party's platform should say on civil rights. Truman initially endorsed a lukewarm plank on civil rights, similar to the one in the 1944 platform. Liberals, however, wanted something more full-throated, one that endorsed Truman's requests to Congress.

The party leaders initially endorsed the moderate plank - but then Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey (who would be the Democratic Party nominee in 20 years time) gave a historic speech endorsing a stronger plank. He closed with this moving statement:

In these times of the world economic, political and spiritual, above all spiritual crisis, we can not, and we must not, turn from the paths so plainly before us.

That path has already led us through many valleys of the shadow of death, and now is the time to recall those who were left on that path of American freedom. To all of us here, for the millions who have sent us, for the whole two billion members of the human family, our land is now more than ever before the last, best hope on earth. I know that we can, and I know that we shall, begin here the fuller and richer example of that, that promise of a land for all men truly free and equal, and each man uses his freedom and equality wisely and well...

I ask this Convention to say in unmistakable terms that we proudly hail and we courageously support our President and leader, Harry Truman, in his great fight for civil rights in America.

Ultimately, the convention - moved by Humphrey's speech - endorsed the liberal plank. Truman was mightily displeased, worried that the South would walk out, split the party, and hand the election to Dewey and the Republicans.

And walk out they did. A few days later, Southern Democrats assembled a states' rights party - called the Dixiecrats - and nominated South Carolina senator governor Strom Thurmond for President. Even more ominous for the President - the Progressive party nominated FDR's previous vice-president, Henry Wallace. The Democratic Party was thus split into three factions.

Despite this, as we all know, Truman campaigned hard, speaking at whistle stops across the country from the back of his train, and ultimately won the election of 1948. This is what the map looked like on Election Day.


Truman won 303 electoral votes to Dewey's 189 and Thurmond's 39. He pulled in 49.5% of the popular vote. Dewey won 45.1% and Thurmond 2.4%. As it turned out, Wallace was a non-factor, winning no electoral votes and just 0.6% 2.4% of the popular vote.

Truman won without the Deep South, which went for Thurmond. But Thurmond did worse in the South than many had expected, and Truman swept the border states. While Truman lost much of the Northeast, including New York, which went for Dewey (barely) - he still won Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which had been voting Democratic since 1928. He won most of the big cities, by that point the heart of the Democratic coalition, and he also struck at the heart of the GOP's voting bloc. He won the farmers in Wisconsin and Iowa in the Midwest - which FDR had lost four years earlier - he also swept the Mountain West, another historic base of the GOP. FDR had failed to do that in 1940 and 1944.

Scanning the history of Democratic presidential victories to this point, you'd never find a voting coalition that looked quite like the one Give 'em Hell Harry put together in 1948. It was unique.

And significant. For two reasons.

First, Harry Truman was the first Democrat since the Civil War to win the presidency without the unanimous support of the South. So, what we have in 1948 is the first signs of the Democratic Party moving beyond its southern roots and becoming a northern- and western-based party, which is exactly what it is today. Southern conservatives would stay in the Democratic Party for some time - those Dixiecrat states actually voted against Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 - but starting in 1964, they would begin voting Republican. So, a large portion of today's political alignment is due to Harry Truman's victory in 1948. It was one of the first steps in remaking the Democratic Party's voting coalition, and eventually the GOP's, too.

Second, though Truman's administration did not pass landmark legislation on civil rights, the fact that Truman won reelection after his party endorsed a liberal civil rights plank, based on his own policy recommendations, meant a political victory on civil rights. It was a lesson to later Democrats: the Democratic Party could win without the South, and therefore need not be as conciliatory as Franklin Roosevelt was on civil rights.

Lyndon Johnson learned this lesson well - coming into office upon John Kennedy's assassination in 1963, he shepherded the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act to passage. He believed - correctly, as it turned out - that this would doom the Democratic Party in the deep South. But, thanks to the election of 1948, he also knew that the Democratic Party could still win.

In the final analysis, we have to give Harry Truman some credit for these positive developments. Again, his administration is not to be credited for passing landmark legislation on civil rights. His bold pronouncements were intended at least in part for political purposes.

But that's still important. Political scientists assume that politicians are - first and foremost - concerned about securing reelection. It comes before policy. So, even if a policy might be in the best interests of the country, a politician shouldn't be expected to back it if he thinks it will result in him losing reelection. So, while Truman's breakthroughs were political and not policy-oriented, the political victories paved the way to future policy breakthroughs on civil rights.

That's pretty impressive for an "accidental" president.

-Jay Cost