North of the Red River, in the “Land of the Red Man,” on the iron-rich red soil and matching dust, with red Russian wheat waving, and rose rocks abounding, and red-tailed hawks circling, and redbuds blooming, the red “46” state flag was flying over the 1914 State Capitol, and inside were six Socialist Party legislators.
Our Populist founding fathers then would hardly recognize Oklahoma’s evolution to voting as the “reddest of the red” (Republican).
The political path from Oklahoma’s radical roots, which tempered to solid Democrat and evolved to solid Republican, begs for explanation, considering that about 50 percent of Oklahoma voters were registered as Democrats in 2010.
W. David Baird and Danney Goble, in their book Oklahoma: A History, explain that since the 1940s Republicans have benefited from several factors: national trends that labeled Democrats as “liberal,” including the civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965; the growing dominance of Tulsa and Oklahoma City as Republican strongholds; and Oklahomans voting against higher taxes and for their firmly held moral values.
Oklahoma’s shift politically pivots around the year 1964, when Fred Harris, former staffer for Democrat Senator Bob Kerr, the “Uncrowned King of the Senate,” was elected to the U.S. Senate on the coattails of President Lyndon Johnson (the last Democrat whom Oklahoma supported for president). Also, in the same year, we had our first Republican governor, Henry Bellmon.
In the article, “The Last Liberal in Oklahoma: Senator Fred Harris,” Scott Crass asserts Fred Harris “provide(d) a populist approach in a conservative state not seen since William Jennings Bryan.” Populism is a consistent theme in Oklahoma’s history.
In a 2012 interview, Fred Harris ranked Oklahoma’s political parties in order of size at statehood: Populists, Socialists, Democrats, and Republicans. He attributed the decline of the Democratic Party in Oklahoma to the decline of family farming, the decline of organized labor, the introduction of Big Oil, evangelical Christian activism, and the rise of the metropolitan press. He said there are still strong strains of populism in Oklahoma. Populism is against concentrated economic power and concentrated wealth and income, and in favor of a fairer distribution of wealth and programs that benefit the middle class. Rebuilding the middle class is essential for a true democracy, according to Harris.
After WWII and the 1964 civil rights legislation, Oklahoma diverged from FDR’s New Deal vision and joined the “Solid South” in shifting from Democrat to Republican. World War II was a tipping point for several reasons: Many of FDR’s progressive programs, such as the WPA, were successful and then ended; more people moved to the cities, resulting in a shift of power to the metropolitan areas of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, which became Republican. Tulsa and Oklahoma counties could carry large Republican majorities to offset Democrat rural voters. After WWII, even Oklahoma’s Democrat farmers voted Republican for the first time for President Dwight Eisenhower.
Referring to a 1963 poll, Robert Caro in The Passage of Power said of the Kennedy election, “Gallup pitted Kennedy against Goldwater head to head in a thirteen-state bloc, the eleven of the Old Confederacy and Kentucky and Oklahoma on its borders — the result was Kennedy 41 percent and Goldwater 59 percent.”
Unlike some states (such as New York and Pennsylvania, where the larger cities are more liberal), in Oklahoma the larger cities are more conservative, perhaps because of their physical separation from the major state universities of OU and OSU and also from any remaining rural tradition of agrarian populism.
At the presidential level, Oklahoma voted for Democrats Truman and LBJ, and none since. At the U.S. Senate level in 1968, Republican Henry Bellmon was elected after being the first Republican governor of Oklahoma in 1963; Bellmon is often called “the father of the Republican Party in Oklahoma.”
Baird and Goble note that loyal Democrats pre-World War II included Dust Bowl wheat farmers (who were grateful to Franklin Roosevelt for New Deal policies), and dispossessed sharecroppers, hard-pressed coal miners, and all “who had sustained Sooner Socialism.”
The relentlessly hard times of the Great Depression, Dust Bowl, and World War II may have developed in Oklahomans a focus on economics versus solidarity. Also, through a complicated series of events in 1964, federal judges redrew O.K. Senate and House district lines in such a way that ultimately benefitted Republicans.
Woody Guthrie embodies the “pre-flip” Oklahoma, as exemplified by singing at a Tenant Farmers Union meeting and writing his songs “The Dying Miner” and the Populist anthem “This Land Is Your Land.” Although Guthrie was an iconic musician, the Oklahoman who came closest to becoming president of the U.S. is Carl Albert, Democrat and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. He was next in succession for the presidency and would have become president twice during the Watergate scandal and its aftermath: If President Richard Nixon had been impeached and removed after the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, Speaker Albert would have become president; similarly, when President Gerald Ford ascended to the White House without a vice president, Speaker Albert was second in line until Vice President Nelson Rockefeller took office.
Today, Elizabeth Warren, an Oklahoma native elected to the U.S. Senate (D-Mass), has introduced The New Populism to the 2016 election, which has nationally reignited populist values similar to those of Fred Harris. Populism, however, may be less partisan than in previous decades. Political economist Robert Reich says that Republican economic populism is growing and has established his six principles of The New Populism, in which he quotes Elizabeth Warren and Rand Paul.
President Roosevelt, who won all 77 counties in Oklahoma, spoke in Oklahoma City on July 9, 1938. He said, “During the past six years the people of this nation have definitely said, ‘Yes’… to the old Biblical question, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ …America calls for a government with a soul.”
1. For comparison, New York had 10 in its 1917 legislature.
Originally published in This Land, Vol.5, Issue 17, September 1, 2014.