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The Irony of the Solid South: Democrats, Republicans, and Race, 1865-1944.

The Irony of the Solid South: Democrats, Republicans, and Race, 1865-1944. By Glenn Feldman. (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2013. Pp. xix, 459. $49.95.)

In this new work on Southern political culture, the author examines the pervasive traits that have dominated politics in the South for the past 150 years. He argues that the evolution of the "Solid South" from a region controlled by the Democratic Party to one controlled by the Republicans was a function not of change but of white Southerners consistently adhering to a collection of core values--white supremacy, cultural conservatism, religious fundamentalism, and a devotion to market values--that date back to the Reconstruction era and beyond. According to the author, it was a racially driven, conservative ethos that did not waver through the generations. It transcended party labels and through the twists and turns of history sought a home in the most conservative political organization available at any given time, such as the Southern wing of the post-Civil War Democratic Party, the so-called Dixiecrat movement of the 1940s, George Wallace's independent presidential candidacy, and eventually the Republican Party. Though Glenn Feldman's work deals primarily with Alabama, he also couches many of his conclusions in a broader context that reflects the political environment across the entire Deep South and the nation in general in the modern era.

Feldman focuses on what he calls the fundamental "ironies" of Southern political history, including the notion that the same New Deal that brought together disparate groups in the South under the Democratic banner also made it impossible for the "Solid South" to cleave to the party over the long term. Rather than a turning point in Southern politics, Feldman describes the New Deal era as an aberration, a period during which unprecedented economic concerns temporarily caused many white Southerners to lose their conservative focus. Once the Great Depression ended, the Roosevelt coalition was difficult to maintain, and white Southerners again embraced a race-based political ideology, "melding" it over time with religious fundamentalism and a general hostility toward the federal government. In this environment, racial tension allowed those in the white power structure to maintain their status by using a "divide and conquer" strategy that alienated their poorer brethren from impoverished blacks. According to Feldman, in order to hold power, "the economically conservative and privileged tapped into a key psychological factor: the very human desire to feel superior to someone about something" (174). They also promoted a self-serving theology that this separation of the races was somehow mandated by God, and that any violation of the South's social norms as they related to race was tantamount to committing a grievous sin.

The book is well researched and well organized, drawing on a wealth of primary and secondary sources. Feldman offers fresh interpretations of the foundational elements of Southern society and of the history of a region that has been for so long defined by race. More than just a political history, this book offers readers a glimpse into Southern culture and how that culture has affected the United States as a whole. Anyone interested in American political history, Southern political history, or the history of the South in general will likely want to add this volume to their library.

Ben Wynne

University of North Georgia
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Author:Wynne, Ben
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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