A yellow dog Democrat was a Southern voter who was unwavering in their loyalty to the Democratic party. Those faithful Democrats swore that they would “vote for a yellow dog” before they’d vote for a Republican.
According to William Safire, the term was first used in 1928. That’s when a New York Democrat named Al Smith was running for president. Many Southern Democrats disapproved of Smith, who was a “wet,” or anti-prohibitionist. Alabama Sen. Tom Heflin went so far as to leave the Democratic party because he didn’t want to support Smith. Other Alabama Democrats, though, declared their loyalty to the party by saying, “I’d vote for a yellow dog if he ran on the Democratic ticket.”
The term is largely out of use now. It refers to a time when the Democratic party dominated not only Alabama, but the whole American South. It also dates back to a time when Democratic policies were strikingly different than they are today.
During the lead-up to the Civil War, Southern Democrats called for slavery to remain legal throughout the United States. Meanwhile the new Republican party began calling for limits on slaveholding.
After the Civil War, the Democratic Party established a strong presence in the southern states. Democratic politicians at the time were overwhelmingly conservative and white. They opposed laws that would have protected the civil and voting rights of African Americans. State legislatures in the south imposed Jim Crow segregation laws and made it difficult for African Americans to vote.
Democrats maintained control of the South well into the 20th century. Southern Democrats largely supported the New Deal, although they did try to stop the spread of the labor movement and in some cases opposed the growth of Federal power, arguing for states’ rights. They also blocked the passage of an anti-lynching. Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, the South remained solidly Democratic territory.
The Democratic party finally started to lose power in the South in 1948. That’s when the Democratic National Convention supported President Harry Truman’s stance on civil rights for African Americans. Many Southern Democrats left the party in anger. They determined to nominate Strom Thurmond as their alternative candidate, under the banner of the States’ Rights Democratic Party.
Even after that, Democrats did hold on to local seats in the South and continued to play a major role in shaping local laws. The party’s power in the region shrank little by little over the years, slowly. The party finally took a major hit with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Finally, in 1964, the Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater won a sweeping victory across the Deep South. Goldwater was a staunch opponent of the Civil Rights Act and a supporter of states’ rights. His candidacy is often seen as a turning point in American politics. It drove African American voters to leave the Republican party, and it drove many white southern voters away from the Democratic party.