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Tuesday, May. 29, 2001

It is said that Americans have short memories for history. But Vermont Senator James Jeffords' decision this week to leave the Republican Party is a stark reminder that the legacy of the Civil War — decided 136 years ago — still looms over contemporary politics.

The Parties' Evolution

In the last 35 years, the Republican Party has morphed from a consortium of business interests and anti-Communists, into one of southern conservatives and Bible-belt evangelicals.

That process began in earnest in 1964 with Barry Goldwater's run for President. It picked up steam with Richard Nixon's "southern strategy" for capturing the White House. And it reached a culmination last year when George W. Bush carried (by necessity) the whole of the Old Confederacy in defeating Al Gore.

The Democratic Party has undergone a mirror-image transformation. After Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and their heirs embraced black equality and voting rights, the conservative southern wing of the party — having failed to block the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s — switched allegiance to the Republicans.

What remained in the South for the Democrats were the African-Americans and the "New South" liberals who combined with unions, environmentalists, pro-choice soccer moms, and old line northern liberals to squeeze Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton through the doors of the White House — only to fall short with Gore.

Jeffords' Political Heritage

The geographic polarization, so evident from last year's electoral results, is confirmed by even a casual consideration of leading Republican policy-makers.

Trent Lott, Tom DeLay, Jesse Helms, Phil Gramm, Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson — the list goes on — all hail from Dixie. Prior to being named to Bush's cabinet, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Interior Secretary Gale Norton candidly expressed their sympathy for Confederate ideals.

Edward Lazarus writes about, practices, and teaches law in Los Angeles. A former federal prosecutor, he is the author of two books, of which the most recent is Closed Chambers: The Rise, Fall, and Future of the Modern Supreme Court.

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