Thurmond, Lott, and the Politics of Race
(Updated 31 December 2002)

Senator Trent Lott's recent controversial comments about Senator Strom Thurmond's 1948 Presidential candidacy have once again brought race to the forefront of American Politics. Howard Rosenthal and I in our book Congress: A Political-Economic History of Roll Call Voting, show that for most of American history race related issues (slavery, lynching, voting rights, civil rights, busing, etc.) have been an important part of the congressional agenda. Through most of American history Congressional voting can be explained by two dimensions. The first dimension can be interpreted in most periods as government intervention in the economy or liberal-conservative in the modern era. The 2nd dimension picks up the conflict between North and South on Slavery before the Civil War and from the late 1930s through the mid-1970s, civil rights for African-Americans. After 1980 there is considerable evidence that the South realigns and the 2nd dimension is no longer important. The first dimension now picks up voting on race related issues as well as the traditional economic issues. [See our discussion of this period in our monograph: Income Redistribution and the Realignment of American Politics (joint with Nolan McCarty, 1997, AEI Press).]

Below is an animation showing the locations of Senator Thurmond when he was in the Democratic party (Senates 84 - 88) and when he was in the Republican party (Senates 89 - 107). Thurmond's locations are the two flashing red circles. Senator Lott's position is shown as a flashing blue circle and his replacement as majority leader, Senator Frist, is shown as a flashing white circle. The member coordinates used in the animations were produced by my Optimal Classification algorithm described in "Non-Parametric Unfolding of Binary Choice Data." Political Analysis, 8:211-237, 2000. The scaling was done on all members of the House and Senate since the end of the Second World War (Congresses 80 to 107). There were 150 legislators (counting the 10 Presidents) who served in both chambers. These 150 members acted as "glue" to allow the scaling of all members in the same space (the data is part of a revision of my paper Changing Minds? Not in Congress and can be found on the Optimal Classification Page -- the Optimal Classification Program can be found on the OC Scaling Program Page). The animation shows all unique members of Congress. The "R" tokens represent Republicans, the "S" tokens represent Southern Democrats (the 11 states of the Confederacy plus Kentucky and Oklahoma), and the "D" tokens represent non-Southern Democrats. The horizontal dimension is economic left-right and the vertical dimension picks up Civil Rights (before 1980) and "social issues" such as abortion in the 1980s and 1990s.

The next animation shows only the members of the 84th and 107th Senates, respectively. These were Senator Thurmond's first and last Senates. Senator Thurmond was as high -- anti-Civil Rights -- as you can be on the 2nd dimension during his period of service as a Democrat. Note that by the 107th Senate the region at the top of the space is empty and there is no longer a clear separation of Northern and Southern Democrats. In addition, the Democrats and Republicans are more concentrated opposite one another in the 107th. This is due to the fact that the first dimension accounts for 93% of roll call vote choices in the 107th; that is, except for abortion and scattered votes on gun control, the 2nd dimension plays almost no role in voting.

Below is the final passage vote on the 1964 Civil Rights Act (19 June 1964). The cutting line is shown in black in the image. Senators to the right and above the cutting line were predicted to vote against, and those to the left and below were predicted to vote for. The Act passed 73 to 27 and the Optimal Classification procedure only makes 5 mis-classifications. Note that if Senator Lott had served in the 88th Senate he would be forecast to vote against the Act while Senator Frist would vote for it (Thurmond as a Republican would also be against).

Below is a vote on an amendment to a Hate Crimes bill in the 106th Senate. Note the rotation of the cutting line vis a vis the 1964 vote. Voting on Civil Rights related roll calls all have cutting lines that are close to being vertical.

Below is a vote on an amendment to the Education bill in the 106th Senate. The cutting line is vertical and the vote was almost a pure party line vote. Voting on race-related issues is now essentially the same as voting on the traditional economic issues. A second voting dimension is no longer necessary to separate the two sets of issues. Indeed, the New York Times in an editorial on 29 December 2002 giving advice to President Bush about how to deal with the fall-out of the Lott affair, urges the President to achieve "legislative victories that emphasize diversity and social progress..." As examples, the Times cites "health care, prescription drugs, broadened national service, stronger education financing and housing reform." All of the issues cited by the New York Times editorial writers are first dimension issues.