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How air conditioning created the modern Republican Party

Congressional scholar Nelson Polsby explains:

The most important thing, probably, that happened to the House of Representatives over the last fifty years, say, was that it went from a body dominated by the conservative coalition of Democrats -- Dixiecrats mostly -- and Republicans, to a condition in which they were dominated by the majority of the majority party, which was liberal Democrats. In other words, it liberalized. This is, obviously, before the big change in the mid-nineties, when the Republicans took over. But over the sweep of time, it was the conservative coalition giving way to a programmatic, liberal majority of the majority party. And the question is, why did it happen? ... My conclusion was, as you know, "air-conditioning."

It went this way. In order for the House to liberalize, it was necessary for the majority of the majority party to find its voice. The majority of the majority party could not find its voice when the Democratic caucus, the Democrats, were in the majority. The Democratic caucus was moribund, could not meet and could not act because it had so many Dixiecrats in it.

All right, now, what happened? Well, the Dixiecrats disappeared. Why did they disappear? ... They disappeared because of the rise of the Republican Party in the South. Sooner or later, conservatives, instead of being Dixiecrats, became Republicans. Now why did they become Republicans? Well, because a sufficient number of people who were Republicans moved to the South from the North. And the question is, why did they move South? ... And the answer is, they migrated down there. Why did they migrate down there? Well, basically, a fair number of them had spent winters down there, but with the introduction in the early 1950s of residential air-conditioning, people began to stay down there.

We tend to like political explanations for political phenomena. But other forces, like technological change, matter too. And they figure fairly heavily into the explanations political scientists give for major political upheavals. When I interviewed Gregory Koger on the sudden ubiquity of the filibuster, he blamed it on airplanes.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 19, 2010; 11:31 AM ET
Categories:  Congress , Political Science  
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Comments

Is there any evidence for the assertion that the rise of the Republican party in the south was substantially owing to migration of already self-identified Republicans from the north? That sounds like hogwash to me.

Posted by: thehersch | January 19, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

funny, I was just thinking today that air conditioning is probably to blame for much of the climate-change denialism.

Posted by: fleuri | January 19, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

It is hogwash. Yes, AC did allow the growth of a suburban bourgeoisie (to use an old-fashioned term).

But the real reason is that after 1964 all the old segregationists became Republicans and still are. They have used the Southern Strategy ever since.

It's not that complicated.

Posted by: utec | January 19, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

At the risk of sounding like an old fart, a lot of folk's Ezra's age don't realize how much the country has changed since the rise of (cheap) air conditioning & the personal computer.

In 1979, when I got out of college, fully two-thirds of the people in the US lived east of the Mississippi, and most of them were north of the Mason-Dixon line. Atlanta? Sleepy little town. Research Triangle in NC? Concept didn't even exist. Florida and Texas weren't even in the top ten in population -- although both were already starting to grow rapidly.

And economically fully ONE THIRD of the jobs in the US were related to the automotive industry, making the "business cycle" a very real phenomenon.

The "great migration" had all sorts of effects, both good and bad, but one result -- combined with Nixon's Southern Strategy -- was to give Republicans an electoral college lock on the presidency for a generation.

Posted by: TLM2 | January 19, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

I hope that's supposed to be a joke.

Obviously Dixiecrats left the Dems over civil rights. It started in 1948 with Humphrey's famous address in which he urged Dems to, "Get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." The Dixiecrats were born.

So began a long burn of discontent. After the 60s, and with the final push of the Southern Strategy, they left for good. This is not a freaking mystery.

And that's if I interpret this theory as I think it's meant to be understood, not by what it actually says. Dixiecrats are *by definition* (Dixies) Southern. Duh.

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | January 19, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

I certainly wouldn't dispute the impact of AC on southward migration -- my wife and I moved from Wisconsin to southern Illinois last summer and had it on until basically mid-October, and we're not that far south! -- but I'm skeptical that it was specifically northern Republicans moving south that led elected Dixiecrats to jump to the GOP. If that were the case, wouldn't we expect pre-AC northern Republican officials to be very similar to Dixiecrats on social issues? Was it just the anti-civil rights Republicans that moved south?

Posted by: AaronSVeenstra | January 19, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

No, it's not hogwash. It turns out that the first southern House seats to flip were, in fact, the seats with the highest concentration of immigrants from the north, and the beginnings of southern realignment preceded 1964-1965. It's true that at the presidential level, there was considerable movement away from Democrats (although often not to Republicans -- the stigma was pretty severe) as far back as 1948, but at lower levels the solid south hung on for a long time.

Yes, the 1964 and 1965 Acts were important, but so was the migration from the north, which established local Republican parties, giving unhappy Dixiecrats a place to go to. A great example is from the career of G.H.W. Bush, who IIRC set up the Republican party in Houston (and then won a House seat there). Even into the 1990s (I don't know about more recently), large numbers of southern GOP Members of Congress were born in the North (including Newt Gingrich). Overall, it really mattered a lot to have a solid base of voters who held no hatred for the GOP.

For the details, see Nelson W. Polsby, How Congress Evolves, especially chapter 3.

(Note: I helped with some of the research for the book).

Posted by: jonathanbernstein | January 19, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

The sequel: Were the Whigs done in by the paperclip?

Posted by: dpurp | January 19, 2010 10:29 PM | Report abuse

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