In the middle of the 20th century, the national Democratic Party was being pulled in two radically different and fundamentally incompatible directions, the most loyal components of its coalition divided by racial politics.
Since the Civil War, the party’s most reliable base of support had been in the South, where voters were known to boast that they’d sooner cast a ballot for a yellow dog than for a Republican. At the same time, Democrats also leaned on big-city machines in the North, whose leaders – heeding the cries of liberals like Hubert Humphrey – had concluded that their continued hegemony depended on reaching out to black voters.
For a while, the party tried to finesse the dispute, with mixed results. In 1948, Southerners walked out of the convention and nominated South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond to run as a third-party candidate; he snagged four states worth 38 electoral votes, but – amazingly – Harry Truman still managed a slim Electoral College majority. The South largely returned to the Democratic fold in 1952, 1956 and 1960, but in 1964 President Lyndon Johnson was forced to choose once and for all between the two regions. As he prophesized at the time, his signature on that year’s Civil Rights act essentially signed the South away.
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