In Why White Liberals Fail, the eminent historian Anthony J. Badger, who has spent half a century studying southern politics, confronts this key question: what explains the demise of liberalism in the white South? Despite decades of dynamic growth in this field, Badger finds the motivation for this book in dissatisfaction with the existing scholarship; historiography that usually emphasises the Republican Party’s ‘success’ and the politics of race especially. But Badger, as he writes, is simply ‘not convinced by the explanations most readily at hand’. [i] This publication also builds upon research Badger conducted in preparation for the Nathan I. Huggins lecture series, which he delivered for the Hutchins Center at Harvard University in the autumn of 2018.
For Badger, the trajectory of southern politics through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries can be better explained through an exploration of white liberalism. He is not, however, the first to study the subject. In 1977, historian Morton Sosna investigated the legacies of white southern liberals from 1890 to 1950, such as the writer and thinker George Washington Cable or the Richmond newspaperman Virginius Dabney. Though they supported the principle of racial equality, Sosna argued that they evaded African American calls for rapid racial change and instead sought more gradual paths towards integration. Indeed, they supported ‘improving’ African American livelihoods within inherently discriminatory segregationist structures, until World War II at the earliest. [ii] But new explorations of the topic remain refreshing, and Badger brings debate into the contemporary era. This new examination also helps bring studies of southern liberalism more in line with those of conservatism – investigations of which have seen a remarkable proliferation in previous decades.
Badger reaches a damning conclusion: white liberals failed to reshape the bitterly racialised South because they placed their wholehearted faith in the all-enveloping potential of economic growth and wider policy solutions as an engine for social change. This was despite promising ‘windows of possibility’ that emerged when white liberals could have seized the initiative, and things, to borrow Badger’s words, ‘could have gone differently’. [iii] He identifies the New Deal era, the civil rights era, the late-twentieth century and the age of Barack Obama as key missed opportunities, all of which he investigates.
Central to Badger’s thesis is that racial change was not the overarching ambition, or ‘most urgent concern’, of white southern liberals. [iv] This fundamentally challenges the dominant narrative in this historiographical field, one that often emphasises racial liberalism as a driving force in the white southern journey towards the Republican Party. Badger begins his study in the New Deal era and argues that white southern liberals accepted racial segregation and thought African Americans did, too. Rather than uprooting Jim Crow, they believed economic modernisation would improve every southern livelihood, dent white prejudice, and provide a path towards more gradual racial change. There are clear parallels with Morton Sosna’s work, then.
After World War II, however, which constitutes the bulk of Badger’s book, African Americans grew restless and disillusioned with white liberals’ calls for patience and moderation. Here, Badger argues that white liberals allowed conservatives to seize control of racial discourse by failing to provide a workable, yet adequate route towards a healthy biracial politics. Key to liberal failure, Badger suggests, was their inability to fully understand the white southern mind: that segregationists, for example, were more likely to accept racial change when every southerner experienced the fruits of economic growth and when the white South trusted the federal government (an issue small-state conservatives were happy to undermine). Further, liberals often engaged with black ‘racial diplomats,’ as Badger calls them, who ‘told them what they wanted to hear’ and not their African American constituents, who were markedly more impatient for change. He identifies black college presidents as a clear example. [v] Overall, Badger characterises white southern liberalism as debilitatingly reactive throughout his study, whether it be to rising African American voter registration rates, Brown v. Board of Education I and II (1954 and 1955), massive resistance, the Republican ascendency of Ronald Reagan, or to Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump.
Researchers of liberalism and conservativism will find value in Badger’s research. To historians of liberalism, Badger offers an interpretation of the nature of white southern liberalism and its distinctiveness, though sometimes similarities, with liberalism above the Mason-Dixon line. For historians of conservatism or the GOP, he compellingly argues that liberal failure facilitated a conservative rise and Republican success at the polls. More broadly, too, Badger helps show that southern liberalism had staying power, and that white southern liberals had charisma, charm, and sensitive political antennae. As he argues, even in the age of Richard Nixon and later Ronald Reagan, southern liberals fought hard against the political winds. Badger notes the electoral victories of white liberal governors throughout several southern states, notably Jimmy Carter in Georgia (1971), Bill Clinton in Arkansas (1979 and 1983), and William Winter in Mississippi (1980). He argues that during these decades, white southern liberals mirrored northern Democrats more than they ever had since the New Deal, citing their progressive, at times trailblazing reform as evidence. [vi] This, again, is an insightful conclusion in tracing the development and divergence of white southern liberalism. What Badger does, then, is chart an understudied but vibrant and enduring southern liberal movement, one that, had historical actors played their political cards more deftly, may have stamped a bigger, more transformative legacy on southern politics and society.
Why White Liberals Fail is a thought-provoking addition to a field that neglects the role white liberals played in the South’s political transformation. Though conservatives triumphed, Badger switches emphasis to the defeated force – down, but by no means entirely out. Within the wider landscape of scholarship on southern politics, these liberal figures represent a promising line of enquiry for future research. But, depending on the reader, Badger’s work can be interpreted differently. It could be read as the product of an illustrious career in southern history; a final verdict that offers a better explanation of the South’s political trajectory since the New Deal. Regular references by Badger to the ongoing revision of his own research – ‘I used to argue’ – lends weight to this conclusion. It suggests that Badger is using his work (which focuses mainly on the 1930s) to refine his understanding of southern political change more generally. [vii] Conversely, it is quite possible to view Badger’s research as an opening gambit – a thesis that he hopes will spark renewed interest in white southern liberalism. The relative brevity of the book (around 200 pages) and the wide, expansive chronology leaves ample scope for more focused studies by a new crop of southern historians.
[i] Anthony J. Badger, Why White Liberals Fail: Race and Southern Politics from FDR to Trump (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2022), 5.
[ii] Morton Sosna, In Search of the Silent South: Southern Liberals and the Race Issue (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977).
[iii] Badger, Why White Liberals Fail, 6.
[v] Ibid., 20-21; 92.
[vi] Ibid., 142-147.
[vii] Ibid., 34.