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Partisan Pathways to Racial Realignment: The Gradual Realignment of Race and Party in the Twentieth Century

  • Author(s): Butler, Sara Marie
  • Advisor(s): James, Scott
  • et al.

In the twentieth century, the Democratic and Republican Parties shifted their race views and adopted polarizing positions on civil rights. This phenomenon—the racial realignment of the parties—has been a topic of recent debate. The assumption has been that the parties followed similar paths and realigned at the same time. Further, recent work has investigated the realignment at either the national or state level. This one-pathway/one-site focus has narrowed the lens through which researchers have explained the realignment of race and party.

This project takes a more comprehensive view by examining mass, state, and national actors, in addition to policy demanders, through the use of election returns, survey and roll call data, and archival materials. Considering multiple sources and different party actors allows me to determine how racial realignment unfolded across the state and federal governments. I use California as my state of interest because the narrative of racial realignment at the national level is so intimately tied to the political history of California. I argue that war mobilization and rapid demographic changes led to a push for economic civil rights by policy demanders in the 1940s. It was on these economic civil rights issues that the parties began to exhibit different pathways to realignment. I find that California and national Democrats were active in pushing race liberal policies in the 1940s, with only tepid backing from the party’s rank-and-file supporters. On the Republican side, it was the voters who united on race conservative principles in the 1940s, only to be joined by California and national leaders in later decades. It would not be until the Republican Party was purged of race moderates—beginning with the state parties in the 1950s and then the national parties in the 1960s—that race conservative voters would become Republicans, leaving behind a much more race liberal Democratic Party by the early 1970s. This study reveals that the voters and elected officials were responding not only to changing dynamics within their own parties, but also to developments within the opposing party.

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