Building a Civil Rights Agenda: The Democratic Party and the Origins of Racial Liberalism

Kumar Ramanathan, Northwestern University

Recent social science scholarship has revisited the realignment of American political parties on issues of race in the 20th century, showing that the process started in the 1930s and that it was driven by interest groups and mid-level politicians rather than national party elites. While this work has persuasively explained the timing and main causes of party position change, it has left the policy content of the racial realignment largely unexplored. Why did northern Democrats include some issues and proposals on their agenda as their position on civil rights change, while excluding others? As part of a larger project on civil rights agenda-setting during the realignment period, this paper compares the trajectory of different issues on the congressional agenda between 1936 and 1972. Examining a wide range of bills addressing problems of race—including those that did not advance to roll call votes—I examine which issues became central to northern Democrats’ civil rights agenda and which remained marginal. I argue that northern Democrats' decisions to prioritize some issues (such as employment discrimination) but de-prioritize others (such as housing discrimination) are the result of politicians' attempts to manage competing pressures from within their party coalition. To assess this argument, I assess the district- and legislator-level characteristics that determine support for civil rights bills, and how such support varies across issues and proposals on the agenda. I also discuss my research design for the next stage of this project, which will further assess this argument about party coalition dynamics through case studies of three issues on the agenda (employment, housing, and policing), drawing on archival evidence.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 21. Parties, leadership