The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


April 30, 2006 Sunday

Main Edition





Suburbs, not racism, blamed for political shift in South






The Silent Majority. By Matthew Lassiter. Princeton University Press. $35. 387 pages.


Verdict: Debunks the myth of the "Southern strategy."


Immediately after signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Lyndon Johnson famously said, "We have lost the South for a generation." Johnson's words stand as the opening for one of the enduring myths of modern American politics: that the rise of the Southern wing of the GOP, beginning in the mid-1960s, was a direct result of the Democrats' embrace of civil rights.


Continued white racism, the argument goes, allowed the GOP to tack to the far right on race, bringing former Dixiecrats and Goldwater Republicans into a coalition with mainstream conservatives. This myth was --- and is --- so strong that national Democrats have largely conceded the region to the Republicans.


But Matthew Lassiter, a professor at the University of Michigan, persuasively argues in "The Silent Majority" that the Republicans gained in the South not because of regional racism but because of the meteoric growth of the Sun Belt suburbs, which created a new class of middle-income, socially moderate and fiscally conservative voters.


Turned off by both the overt racism of George Wallace and late-1960s liberalism, middle-class voters in suburban Atlanta, Charlotte and other cities proved open to a third way, which Richard Nixon rode to power in 1968.


In fact, Lassiter shows, when the Republicans did try to capture racial reactionaries --- most notably in the 1964 Goldwater campaign and the 1970 midterm elections --- they failed miserably. In other words, the modern GOP arose in the South not because the region was behind the curve on racial issues, but because it was ahead of the curve in creating the new dominant force in American politics: the suburban middle class.


Lassiter's story begins with Atlanta's school desegregation efforts in the early 1960s. The conventional wisdom says that the city's business elite --- William Hartsfield, Ivan Allen, the Chamber of Commerce --- recognized the importance of peaceful integration, and so they took on the rural advocates of massive resistance. Lassiter, however, shows how the real leadership came from everyday Atlantans --- such as the housewives who launched Help Our Public Education --- from the city's burgeoning middle class, people who valued quality public education more than continued segregation.


"Any accolades for courageous white leadership during the South's tragic descent into massive resistance," he writes, "must be given to the ordinary fathers and especially the mothers who believed in universal access to public education as the foundation of a democratic and decent society."


But the racial liberalism of the new Sun Belt middle class went only so far. By the late '60s, the civil rights movement was pushing for districtwide busing as the only way to ensure truly equal education.


The first city in the country to experiment with busing on a significant level was Charlotte, and its successful experience was both the high-water mark for racial progressivism and one of the first instances in which the suburban middle class --- the vaunted "Silent Majority" --- flexed its muscle as a conservative political force.


Southern suburbs had been trending right since Eisenhower's 1952 victory; at the same time, they consistently rejected racial reactionary tickets, such as the 1948 Dixiecrats, the 1964 Goldwater campaign and the 1968 Wallace ticket.


Instead, Lassiter writes, Nixon won in 1968 on a "suburban strategy that targeted middle-class voters in the metropolitan South and positioned the GOP as the centrist alternative to the racial extremism of George Wallace and the racial liberalism of Hubert Humphrey."


Readers unaccustomed to academic historical writing might find some of "The Silent Majority" rough going at times, but the strength of Lassiter's argument and evidence cuts through much of the density. And his achievement makes the effort worth it.


For too long Democrats have derided the post-civil-rights South as a region overrun with reactionaries who rode the Dixiecrat-Goldwater-Wallace backlash to permanent power. But what defines the modern South is not its racial views --- which are in fact little different from the rest of the country's --- but the size of its suburban populations, which tend to support socially moderate, fiscally conservative candidates.


Democrats lose in the South not because the region is different from the rest of the country, but because they don't understand how similar it actually is.


Clay Risen, formerly an assistant editor at The New Republic, is managing editor of the new political quarterly Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.


GRAPHIC: Photo: The seismic tremor of desegregation hits Atlanta's Highland Elementary in 1972. Many whites who supported integration nonetheless opposed forcing their children to attend district schools in the name of social idealism.