The Reductionism of Racial Backlash Theory
Racism as a singular explanation for working-class realignment since the 1970s is deeply misleading.
“We lost the South for a generation.”
Lyndon Johnson’s apocryphal prediction remains the stuff of political legend.1 Endlessly repeated, LBJ’s fear that civil rights would prompt a white backlash is now not just prophecy but fact to many. In this telling, a ruby red South was just the start. Civil rights prompted a backlash “heat engine” that fueled successive white-working class political hurricanes named “Reagan” and “Trump.”
Today, the “backlash thesis” is an academic standard, a tidy narrative that specialists often cite alongside a wide variety of other potential causes—Vietnam, the counterculture, inflation, and crime, among others—as the sources of a white working-class revolt. But this multicausality is all too often mere background music. Race and white working-class racism, as the primary centrifugal force, are the lead vocals and loud guitar riffs muting the soft backing melodies of inflation or Vietnam.
Popular history and polemics dispense with academic nuance altogether to locate white working-class realignment and Trumpism at one, single headwater: race. Congealed into historical fact, it’s little wonder that progressives see Trumpism as Reaganism with a worse hairdo and more explicit racism. Whatever the exact cause, though, we know the results: Republicans captured the white working-class vote in the 1970s. But Trump’s GOP is not your father’s Republican Party—the heart and soul of his GOP is (gulp) a multi-racial working-class coalition.
Racism matters. It definitely played a role in the white working-clash backlash, and Trumpism surely feeds at the trough of racial resentment. But “racism” as a singular explanation for the post-1960s white working-class realignment and then Trumpism is deeply reductionist—and misleading. In the 1960s, Democrats lost the white working-class for reasons that transcended civil rights, race, and racism. Democrats, likewise, lose a multi-racial working-class vote to Trump for factors beyond race.
Understanding this reality is crucial. Defeating Trumpism and saving democracy entails Democrats returning to the heterogeneous working-class party it once was.
Democrats’ Working-Class Roots
Prior to the 1970s, the Democratic coalition was an assemblage of the “plain people.” Franklin D. Roosevelt founded this coalition upon “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” The connective tissue holding FDR’s working-class coalition together was “descriptive” representation—FDR appointed representatives of every imaginable religious, ethnic, and racial stripe to visible offices—that delivered substantive results. Added to this was the Democratic House leadership team, which from 1940 to 1990 was comprised of a Texan/Oklahoman and Bostonian. Rough-hewn Southern farmers and white ethnics in the North had descriptive representation at the highest levels of American political life. As the kids say today, white working-class Americans “felt seen.”
Tellingly, when Roosevelt died, his funeral train was met by throngs of mourners. One reporter asked a random griever, “Did you know the president?” “No,” he responded, “but he knew me.”
Though apocryphal, this political myth has been repeated through the ages because it rang true. New Deal liberalism was aimed, in Harry Truman’s words, at “every man or woman who works with hand or brain for a living.” An ecumenical working-class creed that jibed with working class economic and cultural interests. This formulation led to electoral success. In the postwar decades, Democrats took the working-class presidential vote by a 60-40 margin.2
LBJ feared the 1964 Civil Rights Act would undermine this foundation. But mere months after the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed, LBJ took 55 percent of the white working-class vote on his way to 61 percent of the overall vote and an historic landslide victory.3 After the election, events in Selma, Alabama forced him back to civil rights; here, LBJ’s political acumen mattered. But the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed because of its popularity with white voters. One conservative said of voting rights, “Republicans have nothing to gain from being for a civil rights bill, but they have everything to lose by being against one.”
Sure, Southern senators attempted a filibuster—but opposition had softened. The Senate passed the bill 77-19, while the final 333-85 tally in the House included 112 Republicans and 221 Democrats. In the latter’s ranks were 21 Southern Democrats, almost one-quarter of the region’s caucus.4 Following passage of the Voting Rights Act, Johnson’s approval reached the mid-60s while Medicare, aid-to-education, and voting rights enjoyed eye-popping favorability ratings of 82, 90, and 95 percent.5
The majority of 1965 white America were scarcely civil rights radicals. But neither the civil rights nor voting rights bills spawned a massive backlash beyond the Deep South. Race mattered in realignment, certainly, but white working-class Americans shifted their partisan allegiances over urban riots, crime, inflation, Vietnam, the Supreme Court, and the counterculture.
It was these events, intermingled with race, that changed votes from “D” to “R.”
The white working-class backlash began in Los Angeles. Days after the Voting Rights Act passed, the Watts race riot exploded. Spawned from years of residential segregation, job discrimination, and police brutality, rioters rampaged through their own neighborhoods. Over five days of violence and mayhem, 34 people died, nearly 4,000 were arrested, and nearly 1,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Watts signaled the dawn of ferocious urban violence, in which rioters and police engaged in open warfare. Observers came to dub summer “riot season.” Hundreds of American cities endured “long, hot summers” of Watts-style conflagrations.6
These riots understandably scared voters, both black and white. Tragically, the mid-1960s also witnessed the genesis of a decades-long crime wave. From 1965 to 1970, crimes against property increased by 147 percent, violent felonies jumped by 126 percent, while the numbers of murder, rape, and assault doubled. This was no temporary phenomenon: between 1960 and 1980 violent crime spiraled by 367 percent.7
By 1966, inflation became a prominent problem. Like crime and riots, inflation hit working-class Americans of all races the hardest. Rampant crime and pervasive rioting had already created a sense of a “society in meltdown,” a sense inflation only deepened. According to the historian Michael Flamm, this one-two punch served to “discredit the entire liberal enterprise.”8 More than racism, the gritty realities of urban riots, crime, and inflation shifted public opinion slowly and then seemingly all at once.
Bread-and-butter concerns were not the only forces at work. In the eyes of working-class Democrats, liberal elites aligned Democrats more and more with avant garde cultural sensibilities—first and most prominently seen in the anti-Vietnam War movement’s provocative tactics. By the late 1960s, antiwar protests regularly featured boorish slogans and coarse protester behavior. Placards reading “LBJ pull out like your father should have done” and activists urinating en masse became normal protest fare.9
Controversies over Supreme Court rulings featured the very same processes. Court rulings in favor of the accused earn much historical attention. But no cases attracted more sustained working-class ire than rulings which forbade teacher-led prayer and Bible readings in schools. Madalyn O’Hair, the claimant in 1963 Abington case, became the national face of the court’s ban. Inspired by Abington, she filed additional suits to remove “In God We Trust” motto from currency, and the mention of “God” from the Pledge of Allegiance; in 1969, she sued to stop astronauts from offering televised prayers from space. Little wonder that Life Magazine referred to O’Hair as “the most hated woman in America.”10
Knowing political gold when he saw it, Richard Nixon made sure American newspapers were plastered with headlines reading, “Nixon for Astronaut Prayers.”11 The subtext was clear, liberals were not. Chief Justice Earl Warren and the Warren Court rightly deserve an august place in history for advancing the rights of the accused, abused, and left behind. But many things can be true at once. Working-class Americans saw a court, and by extension liberals, more interested in criminals than crime and its victims while promoting avant garde values that were inimical to their own.
Culture, just as much as riots, crime, and inflation, pushed the working class to the GOP. Liberals, however, find odd comfort in the supposed “false consciousness” of working-class voters. They do so at their peril. “Mudcat” Saunders, a Democratic operative in Appalachia, once noted, “Democrats go after class, Republicans go after culture.” To Saunders, class might win some working-class votes but with culture “you get them from top to bottom.”12
The white working-class revolt is demonstrated by the numbers. In the three-way presidential contest of 1968, Hubert Humphrey received 35 percent of the white working-class vote—a 20-point drop from LBJ’s 1964 share. Four years later, Richard Nixon took a whopping 70 percent of white working-class voters. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan took an average of 61 percent of this vote in two landslide victories.13
But that upheaval was a two-way street. In 1950, working-class Americans had stood at the center of the culture. Left-wing activists saw them as the primary vehicle for progressive political change. Authors, artists, and singers ranging from Betty Friedan and Norman Rockwell to Paul Robeson and television shows like The Honeymooners valorized working-class dignity. By the 1970s, the intelligentsia had come to blame the white working class for the nation’s racism and imperialism.
In the 1970s, liberals dispensed with white working-class voters altogether and for a generation Democrats wandered the political wilderness. Tired of the thrashings, Democrats pivoted. Along with a diversifying and more educated electorate, this center-left swivel enabled Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to capture the White House. But they only did so by competing for white working-class voters and winning a respectable minority of them. Intoxicated by Obama’s victories, progressive activists forgot their math. In 2016, Hillary Clinton all but ignored this key demographic. Trump’s consequent victory on the backs of these ignored voters then radicalized and blinkered progressive elites. Embracing the newest iteration of the backlash thesis, they deemed most every Trump voter a bigot.
History might not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Progressives routinely dismiss working-class concerns as either racist or overblown—just as their forbears did in the 1970s. In 2020 and 2022, working-class voters of all races responded. They voted Trump and many moved towards the GOP.
Like an addict, Republicans won’t quit Trumpism until they hit rock bottom. Narrow victories won’t do it—only repeated electoral drubbings will. Democrats can only achieve those sorts of wins with working-class votes.
For progressive activists, the backlash thesis is a soothing lullaby. But it isn’t racism that is pushing what is now a multi-racial working-class vote to the GOP. Working-class voters are telling Democrats that they are out of sync with their values and concerns. To save democracy, Democrats must stop telling themselves what they want to hear and see the working class in all of its complexities.
The stakes for our nation and our democracy could not be higher.
Jeff Bloodworth is a professor of history at Gannon University (Erie, PA). Bloodworth holds a Ph.D. in modern United States history from Ohio University’s Contemporary History Institute. (Twitter: @jhueybloodworth)
LBJ was famous for his mood swings and fits of political tantrums. Even if he uttered some form of this fateful warning to Bill Moyers, it should be understood in the context of a sullen and irritable politician venting his darkest fears—not the words of a Greek Oracle prophesizing an inevitable future.
Charles Culhane, “White House Report/Nixon Eyes Blue-Collar Workers as Potential Source of Votes in ’72,” The National Journal, January 30, 1971, p. 232.
Alan Abramowitz & Ruy Teixeira, “The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper-Middle Class.” Political Science Quarterly 124, no. 3 (2009): 405. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25655694.
“Ban on Racial Bias at the Polls Wins 333-85,” The Daily Oklahoman, July 10, 1965, p. 2.
Carl Albert, Little Giant: The Life & Times of Carl Albert, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990, p. 300-301.
Michael Flamm, Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, & the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s, Columbia University, 2005, p. 84.
Jeff Bloodworth, Losing the Center: The Decline of American Liberalism, 1968-1992, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2013, p. 39.
Michael Flamm, In the Heat of the Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crime, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, p. 84.
Memo, Marvin Watson to the President, December 4, 1967, Mildred Steagall Papers, File 1 “Demonstrations January to December 1967,” Box 64B, LBJ Library; Report, File Demonstrations, October 20-21, File 1, Box 64C, Mildred Steagall Papers, LBJ Library.
“Madalyn’s Suit Ousted,” Sapulpa Daily (Sapulpa, Oklahoma), December 5, 1969, p. 3.
Nixon for Astronaut Prayers, Legislative Series, Box 121, Folder 59, Carl Albert Papers.
David Sutton, “The 2008 Presidential Campaign in Appalachia: Reading from the Margins,” Appalachian Journal, Spring/Summer 2009, Vol. 36, No. ¾, 2009, p. 190.
Abramowitz & Teixeira, p. 400.