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Is the White South About to Overplay its Hand?

I haven't had much to say on the ongoing debate about whether the Democrats can or should write off the South, other than Florida, for purposes of the presidential election this year.

If the question is framed as, "Should the Democrats write off the South?," my reaction is, No, of course not.

First -- and this is not an original thought -- there is not a bright line between the South and the North, and South-like areas such as Southern Ohio (aka Kentucky), central Pennsylvania, and much of Missouri will be as central to Democratic aims of winning those states as the industrial cities with which they are identified.

Second, there will always be surprises, and in a close race, there is sure to be at least one non-Southern state that looks promising and turns out not to be, and possibly a Southern state, such as Louisiana, that suddenly turns out to be the Democrats' to win. A totally non-Southern strategy doesn't leave much room for error or opportunity.

Third, Democrats must win at least two of the Senate races in North and South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana, and an active presidential campaign in those states will help.

Fourth, and most important though least cynical, the South is the locus of the greatest suffering in this country, the worst education and health care, the dirtiest water, the lowest-paying jobs and anti-union policies, the sharpest racial and economic inequalities. For the Democratic Party to give up its claim to represent and improve the lives of the people of this region would be to give up its soul.

Mathematically, though, the fact that that no Democrat has won the White House without winning at least five Southern states may belong to the realm of history more than prediction. Formerly competitive states such as California and Illinois have become more comfortably Democratic, and once Republican strongholds such as Arizona and New Hampshire are moving into the swing state category, making it possible to imagine that in the last two weeks of October, when finite resources such as the candidates' time and the last few million dollars are being allocated, it may make perfect sense to assemble an electoral majority without the South and border states, again excepting Florida. Without explicitly writing off the South, there is still a plausible scenario in which Kerry wins without any of its electoral votes.

But the very fact that there is such a possibility raises a far more interesting question: What does it mean to the South that a Democrat can win without it? Has the White South overplayed its hand? Is it in danger of losing its grip on American politics? And what would follow from that, not necessarily in 2004, but in the near future??

WARNING: Hugely oversimplified history and wild speculation ahead:

For the purposes of this question, I'm not talking about The South as a whole, but a separate category, which I'll call the White South. By this I mean the reactionary, economically powerful, white and now almost entirely Republican forces that have governed the region for decades. I obviously don't mean the African-American voters or leaders in the South, and I also don't mean those elected officials or other leaders identified with the "New South," such as Terry Sanford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Mary Landrieu, etc. Among current elected officials, I mean most of the Southern Republicans, plus Senator Zell Miller and perhaps a few House Democrats who haven't switched yet. Elected officials of the White South are those who can or do win office without much of the African-American vote.

Since the end of Reconstruction in 1876, the White South has held the balance of power in American politics pretty reliably, with few interruptions. (The interruptions, such as LBJ's maneuver from the inside to break the obstacle to voting rights and civil rights laws, are major events.) The White South is very much a minority, but the most privileged minority in our history. And how did it achieve that status? By manipulating its electoral and congressional power so as to be always in a position of control. For example, for most of the 40s,-early 70s, political scientists agree, Congress was dominated by a "conservative coalition" made up of Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans. If you look at an old version of the yearly Congressional Quarterly Almanac, you'll see the votes broken down not just by party, but by "Conservative Coalition" vs. those outside of the coalition, because that was seen as a more accurate way to understand ideological breakdowns than party label.

After LBJ essentially broke the Conservative Coalition, the White South began the maneuver by which it maintained significant power for another 30 years -- the slow move toward the Republican party. Beginning with Strom Thurmond's switch in 1964, the White South ramped up its influence within the Republican party while still keeping a heavy thumb on the scales of the Democratic Party, so that it could not form majorities without their consent. As liberalism took hold of the Northeast and Midwest, Nixon's "Southern Strategy" meant as much to the White South as it did to Nixon: It gave the White South power within the Republican coalition. Now its power was not just congressional, but incorporated the White House as well, on both sides. Republicans Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush won the South, and the only Democratic presidents since Thurmond's switch were Southerners, albeit "New South" liberals.

In the Reagan years, the Conservative Coalition became something like a Sunbelt Coalition, with Southern "Boll Weevil" Democrats, such as Phil Gramm, joining California and Mountain State conservatives, as well as Northern Republicans, to push through the 1981 tax cuts. And even into the Clinton years, despite having a majority in both Houses of Congress, Clinton's ability to achieve anything depended on placating nominal Democrats such as Richard Shelby of Alabama.

(Liberal Democrats who complain about Zell Miller often seem to me to have little sense of historical perspective. It is not so long ago that Gramm, Trent Lott, Shelby and others were Democrats, and when they switched, they did not go from the right side of the Democratic Party to the left side of the Republican Party, as might be expected with ideologically aligned parties, but invariably shot straight to the farthest right corner of their new party. That would not happen today: With the exception of Miller, if the most conservative Democrat, probably John Breaux of Louisiana, were to switch (which he wouldn't) he would certainly take up with the moderate Republicans such as Senators Voinovich and Snowe with whom he has been most comfortable collaborating.)

On to 1994. At this point, the White South took its stand principally within the Republican Party, elevating Gingrich, Armey, DeLay and soon Trent Lott into positions of power. But still, it was a coalition: Southern Republicans like Gingrich depended on support among Northern moderates like Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, who were mostly just tired of being kicked around by Democrats. And at that point, almost the last few Democrats like Shelby and Billy Tauzin joined the Republicans, all but completing an alignment of party and ideology that makes such artificial constructs as the "Conservative Coalition" no longer needed to understand Congress. Of course, it was also a disaster. The "Contract with America" triumphalism, which led to the shutdown of government, and later the impeachment, strengthened Clinton at Gingrich's expense, and in the 1998 mid-terms, the African-American vote in the South was substantially higher than in previous years and helped elect John Edwards and three Democratic governors in the Deep South.

With the election of Bush, whose aggressive rejection of his father's Northeastern and Ivy League conservatism makes him the first president to come out of the tradition of the White South since Woodrow Wilson, the White South finally found its dream: it dominates national politics unchecked. It no longer holds the balance of power: Bush, Rove, DeLay, Lott and then Frist hold power, period. And the agenda of military spending, tax cuts, corporate subsidies, minimal social provision, and hate cloaked in religious/moral language, occasionally colored with populist rhetoric unrelated to the policies, which sometimes seems so strange to students of true conservatism, is not unfamiliar to the South. It is the same gruel that conservative Southern governors have been dishing out for dozens of years. The idea that government is an alien and oppressive force, while remaining dependent on military spending, development spending such as TVA, and subsidized industries such as oil and sugar, is a product of Southern, and to some extent Western politics.

While the Republican majority still depends somewhat on the consent of Northern Republicans, it no longer governs by any coalition or compromise, and hence we see the politics of the White South distilled to their essence. When the House Republicans push through legislation by just a few votes, as with the Medicare bill, they are essentially daring the Northern Republicans -- both moderates and "true" conservatives -- to break with them, they are not incorporating their views in a coalition. (Interestingly, of the 25 House Republicans who opposed the Medicare bill last year, 14 were from the Midwest or West.) And as Michelle Goldberg and Paul Caffera reported in Salon this week, a rebellion may be brewing among Republican moderates, as well as among conservatives associated with Senators McCain and Hagel.

Now, all this could amount to nothing. Bush could win handily, all the Southern Senate seats in play could go to conservative Republicans, the moderates could shrink away to voice their objections meekly in caucus as usual, and the unilateral rule of the White South would continue, at least for a few more years, when its inevitable contradictions catch up to it.

But what if it doesn't? What if Bush loses, Kerry is elected without a Southern state, Louisiana and both Carolinas send a Democrat to the Senate on huge black turnout, Tom DeLay goes to trial for political corruption, and the moderates do rebel and decide that it is more important to govern the country than to block everything a Democratic president tries to do?

At that point, the White South will be essentially out of the game, for the first time since Reconstruction. They will have no power over the presidency, far less power in Congress. And they will have only themselves to blame. It is always wiser to try to hold the balance of power than to try to claim power and exercise it unilaterally, and its just possible that the White South has overplayed a very good hand. If so, the next Democratic president may have more freedom of maneuver than Clinton ever had, and a new political era will have begun.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 31, 2004 | Permalink


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Not only a Kerry victory, but a broad national defeat of the old south in politics? So much for cautious optimism.

Obviously, it might be nice to see all the talking heads ask the question: "Is the South now irrelevant in national politics?" I'm from the south, but I don't claim Lott or any of those folks.

Posted by: Kennedy | Mar 31, 2004 5:57:26 PM

Ok, now articles like this are the reason you're one of the 5 best politics weblogs.

Posted by: Andrew Cholakian | Mar 31, 2004 7:43:22 PM

Seconding what Andrew Cholakian just said. In fact, articles like this could not be written by the authors of those other "top" political blogs, except maybe Josh Marshall.

Posted by: Hypocrisy Fumigator | Mar 31, 2004 8:29:22 PM

As a white SC native your remarks do give some insight into why it is considered almost un-American to say anything negative about George Bush these days. However, like the rest of the country it seems we too are polarized by the Bush administration either he is the greatest thing since Joe DiMagio or the worst evil since Microsoft.

The Senate race here is an entirely different matter. With former Democratic Governor David Beasley in the race against opponents with not much name recognition it is an opportunity not to be ignored.

While I wish it were not so, I believe W. will win our few paltry electorial votes but a vote in the Senate is still a valuable asset.

Posted by: Joe Taylor | Mar 31, 2004 10:42:03 PM

It would be a great day for America if the opinions of some southern elitists preying on the racial biases of a (deliberately) poorly educated population were not holding so much power.

Hopefully the good people of New Hampshire, Colorado, Arizona, Maine, and Ohio will realize this sooner rather than later. And in the process perhaps they will realize the power they could exert in American politics...and not be so malignant about it.

Posted by: Rich | Mar 31, 2004 11:28:08 PM

This is blog pantheon material. Give up the day job and the Decembrist will be number 1.

Posted by: Tim | Mar 31, 2004 11:51:12 PM

In my neophyte way, and combining this with an analysis I read recently on another blog (which one I can't remember at the moment) that one perfectly good place to locate the failure of Gore in 2000 is the fact that he drew markedly fewer votes from married women than Clinton had in '96, is a plausible strategy for Kerry in the South (and South-like areas) to focus on 1) African-American Christians, 2) rural Democrats (some overlap, I'd guess), and 3) Moms?

From my personal anecdotal experience, several "mom"-ish relatives of mine voted for Nader, just because they "didn't like Gore", especially compared to Clinton. (After watching Clinton at the recent awards dinner, he really is remarkable in this regard.)

I'm not anything like informed enough to address the qualities desired by the first two of these groups, though there seem to be some obvious common-sense guesses that can be made. Hopefully Senator Kerry is getting the best expert advice available.

About the third, though, to the extent that "mom" types differ from any other group of voters, there seems to be an issue of "marriageability" that Clinton intuitively masters, even now, but that Gore failed at miserably. (I'm a boringly hetero, married, mid-30's computer geek, and heck, even *I* can tell that he just doesn't seem like he'd be a fun date.)

Well, like I said, I'm just some guy, but, combined with Mark's analysis above, I hope that someone over at the Kerry campaign sees these factors and decides that there's an opportunity there. There are a lot of Moms in the South, who will vote Democrat in noticeable numbers if offered the right opportunity. Clinton showed that. It *would* be awfully nice to be finally done with the Civil War after a hundred and fifty damned years.

(Sorry about the length of the post, and the fact that it is mostly off-topic.)

Posted by: JoeKelly | Apr 1, 2004 1:53:47 AM


Posted by: ethan | Apr 1, 2004 3:36:17 AM

I just wanted to second the notion that it is because of posts like this that you are considered among the top-5 political blogs. Even though you don't update as much as other blogs, I still check 3-4 times a day, hoping that you have updated. I always look forward to reading your indepth posts, and your site is one of the reasons I have become recently addicted to blogs. Huzzah...or whatever


Posted by: Carl | Apr 1, 2004 4:32:48 AM

Excellent post. Related article of interest: "The Southern Captivity of the GOP," by The Weekly Standard's Christopher Caldwell, in the June 1998 issue of The Atlantic:


Posted by: penalcolony | Apr 1, 2004 9:38:17 AM

A comment from a northeasterner who lives in rural Texas (and don't forget Texas is usually lumped together with "The South"): The demographic changes here are significant and growing. I've lived in this area off and on since 1983 and can attest that the South is no longer the South. Ranching country now has Starbucks, NYTimes printed and delivered locally, strong support for Public Radio, kids who muck around Europe (or work for the Dean campaign) before they go off to college at A&M. Big money comes out of this area for Republicans; steady money in smaller amounts and a growing number of voters are Dems. In this heavily Republican county, many Republicans crossed over to vote in the Dem primary (for Kerry) causing a 44% increase in Dem votes.

Posted by: Bean | Apr 1, 2004 10:15:19 AM

Decembrist: a fine and quite suggestive post. If it plays out, a new era??? That may be a stretch, although it depends on what you mean by that. A welcome development, at any rate.

And still, candidates--not least Kerry--have to go get those votes, and not just with progressive sounds but with progressive policies. Who knows, maybe some working class whites get mobilized alongside African-Americans and in the end come to benefit socio-economically. Getting the policies in place that actual improve conditions for the southern majority is the difficult thing; assuming the Democratic electoral surge about which you speculate, that process will reveal what kind of fight the "White South," its western/sunbelt allies, and the less powerful northern conservatives have left in them--whether or not they hold formal political power. It will also show how much, or, what kind of fight the Dem Party has in it nationally and locally. But success there would really unhinge the "White South" you so well describe. A good start is to identify the fault lines of a ruling bloc, which you have done.

Posted by: R Wells | Apr 1, 2004 2:08:54 PM

Great piece! The challenge is to find a way to awaken those southerners who are not part of the conservative "white south" to see what they have in common and that there is much to be gained by coming together. That means joining across racial and class lines that are what hold the old "white south" in place, and developing new language and a political narrative that build confidence that change is possible. Not easy to do.

Bravo, Decembrist!

Posted by: Massachusetts Meg | Apr 1, 2004 4:58:45 PM

Great piece! The challenge is to find a way to awaken those southerners who are not part of the conservative "white south" to see what they have in common and that there is much to be gained by coming together. That means joining across racial and class lines that are what hold the old "white south" in place, and developing new language and a political narrative that build confidence that change is possible. Not easy to do.

Bravo, Decembrist!

Posted by: Massachusetts Meg | Apr 1, 2004 5:01:06 PM

Excellent post. You've given me a reason to feel cheerful about the political future.

Posted by: Stuart | Apr 1, 2004 5:01:37 PM

one quibble. I think we actually play into their hands with terms like "the White South". Perhaps it's necessary to point out the way race has been played there - but it seems to me to paint with too broad a brush.

Why not refer to them as "Far Right" or "Old Guard" or even "Southern Elites" or R Wells "Ruling Bloc" - defined as a power grabing coalition of extremist conservatives and fundamentalist religious leadership who have played on cultural tensions and distrust to divide and conqure an entire region for their own benefit. Leave room for people who happen to be southerners and white - and even conservative - to disassociate themselves from the "failed leadership" of this group. (think of it - with all the power they've had - their region, their constituents - don't seem to benefit.

I firmly believe that "mainstream" Democrats should fight for "the south" just as we should fight for every other area. You can't write off whole sections - becuase it costs you both now, down ticket, and in future races. It's not all about winning now.

We're for the people the system is hurting. Let's try to convince them - and when we DO have power back - demonstrate that it's not just rhetoric. Indeed, as Sen. Kerry "dared" ask - what good is faith without works?"

Posted by: throCKmortEn | Apr 1, 2004 5:02:14 PM

I second Stuart's comment above. During a time when it is hard to remain optimistic about the future of our democracy, posts like this are medicinal. Thanks!

Posted by: Jerry | Apr 1, 2004 5:39:27 PM

Recommended reading for anyone interested in The South: Curtis Wilkie's "Dixie."

Curtis was on John Brademas's Congressional staff at the same time as me, 1969~72, and then went on to a distinguished career in journalism and civil rights. He's now in semi-retirement in New Orleans - and I predict that, in part though his doing, in part through the changes he chronicles, Louisiana, plus perhaps Mississippi will vote Democratic -- and it's not even insane to speculate on the possibilities for Alabama.

Posted by: David Lloyd-Jones | Apr 1, 2004 5:49:04 PM

Democrats must win at least two of the Senate races in North and South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana, and an active presidential campaign in those states will help.
Is that really true? I remember an argument I heard a while back that goes something like this: Suppose Bush drives up Kerry's negatives in the South and defines him as, well, a Massachussetts liberal, while Bush stays personally popular down there. Does a senate candidate from North or South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana (or Oklahoma, Kentucky, etc) really benefit from being identified with the "liberal" national party instead of the more centrist state party? The Democratic Party in Louisiana, at least, has been very successful for the past few years, but has hardly been riding on the coattails of a national trend. Maybe if Kerry's doing poorly enough there in October, he should stay away for the locals' sake.

I have no idea if there's any validity to this idea, but I thought I'd throw it out there.

Posted by: Anno-nymous | Apr 1, 2004 9:30:53 PM

I see...more "how great it would be if there weren't so many Republican votes in the south" dreams of grandeur.

If you ignore the fact that there hasn't been a GOP senator from Louisiana since reconstruction, that Georgia just elected its first GOP governor since reconstruction since reconstruction, that there are popular Democratic governors in VA, TN and NC, I'm sure it's easy to play the racial game in an effort to smear the opposition.

Sadly, it's not the "white south" that's the problem, it's the "conservative south" that is to be contended with. Non-lefty Democrats have nary a problem getting elected...ask Clinton, ask Zell Miller, ask Breaux, ask Gore (before he turned left), ask Bob Graham...there are too many to list.

Yes, it's that simple. A Gingrich conservative has trouble getting elected in the (great WHITE) northeast & a Kerry liberal has trouble getting elected in the south (where blacks make up 25% of the population).

Hinting that the voters are racist will continue to get you what you've been getting --- blanked at the ballot box.

Posted by: Ricky | Apr 2, 2004 11:36:26 AM

Ricky, nobody's calling the current Republican strategy in the South "racist". However, it IS true that 99.999% of Southern Republicans are white, and that 99.999% of black Southerners vote for Democrats, period.

However, in most of the South, party label is not a particularly strong issue for non-national elections. For example, Kathleen Blanco(D) vs. Bobby Jindal(R) in Louisiana had racial overtone (Jindal was suspiciously swarthy), but the main reason Blanco won was because of the issues. Jindal's proposal to shut down the state charity hospital system was VERY unpopular amongst many Louisianians, for example, who saw that as driving up both their own health insurance costs (since those patients would end up driven to private hospitals, but still would not be able to pay) and also as an abdication of a responsibility for providing health care to all Louisianians that has held since the days of Huey Long.

Posted by: BadTux | Apr 2, 2004 3:23:52 PM

Pointing out something that nothing to do with ideology on the national level (the whiteness of the Republican voters in the south) was there for a reason. Much like Pat Buchanan throwing out the FACT that blacks are convicted of violent felonies at a much larger rate than whites, it was there to stoke the racial embers.

You know it.
I know it.

And if Democrats were much more successful in the south in the last two elections, I'm sure you'd see about as much from this line of reasoning as you did in the 90s when the south was "good" and voted for Clinton/Gore: little.

Posted by: Ricky | Apr 2, 2004 3:44:35 PM

First, kudos on an excellent piece of analysis.

In 2004, Bush is playing hard to his base, which means first and foremost Decembrist's "White South". This may make cracking through this year well-nigh impossible.

But Decembrist's analysis concludes with what I think is the most salient strategic point--what if a northern, liberal Democrat (Kerry) can win the presidency without a single southern state?

The essay shows the constant theme in the southern relation to national politics has always been to have either the balance of power, or outright power, and have effectively done so since reconstruction. So, "what if" that controlling hold were to be broken, even momentarily? Might that not be traumatic enough to break the political stasis, a shock to the system that might make possible the beginnings of new alliances between African-Americans and working class whites, at the expense of the now-failed, discredited in their own power-wielding terms, white southern elites? Such a breakthrough could decisively reorient our politics for a very long time, and in a very positive direction.

Posted by: Dancing Larry | Apr 2, 2004 11:39:04 PM

To Dancing Larry -

To respond to your point - for the immediate future, I doubt it.

It isn't as though there's no racism, or a lack of folks willing to forgo taxes that might help their local society at large in order to keep it in their wallets (usually in theory, if not in fact, for most of us) in the rest of America.

I myself live in Washington state, and during my youth and early adulthood, lived in the Midwest. I can find you plenty of racists in Indiana and Illinois, and there are anti-tax folks in non-Puget Sound Washington perfectly willng to see their infrastructure collapse around them if it means non-interference from the "gummint".

The difference is that, in the South, every attempt at moving forward has been met with a backlash, often violent. Usually, little was done to counter it. And nothing was typically done to attack the heiarchial structure of Southern society, which isn't as strong or as influential in other parts of the country.

Where else could you have a state like, for instance, North Carolina, with arguably one of the best trade school systems in the nation, and the Research Triangle Park, yet grinding levels of poverty within the state and a political structure led by "stand-pats" in both parties?

If the South loses it's national influence and power base within the Federal government, and some of the Federal money that comes with it, you're more likely to see increased calls to regional nativism and more anti-Federal speeches than ever before. A desire to turn away from Uncle Sam. And a desire to find enemies "that caused the dilemna" close at hand.

I could be wrong, of course. Civil rights did eventually come to the South. The New South of the 1970s was generally met with people turning Republican, not race riots. A lot of today's Southern Republicans are only a generation or two removed from being formerly Republican Northeasterners and Midwesterners.

If I was going to look to solutions, I'd avoid Lousiana because it's a rare thing - a multicultural Southern state where almost everybody has a say in at least their local affairs - and look at North Carolina, Georgia and Arkansas. Is Clinton the only reason why Democrats ever stand a chance there? I don't think so. North Carolina and Georgia have struggled to become more progressive states - North Carolina is inching ahead, while the situation seems to have failed in Georgia (Miller didn't suddenly just become conservative - he had to have a political calculus at hand that told him to go where he has). Why?

With careful analysis, we might find useful answers.

Posted by: palamedes | Apr 3, 2004 1:29:49 AM

I second David's recommendation of Dixie, but David, honey, Louisiana yes; Mississippi, eh, maybe; Alabama? That's just crazy talk!

...new alliances between African-Americans and working class whites...

Man, that used to get people killed.

I think part of the reason Southern working-class white guys tend to vote Republican is the right-to-work laws that hold sway throughout much of the South, and the resultant puny union presence.

Posted by: hamletta | Apr 3, 2004 1:41:42 AM