I’m trying to wrap my head about the Iraq Study Group report this morning and hope to post something wonderfully insightful and intelligent — or, at least, something not real stupid — later today. In the meantime —
You’ve seen the numbers and understand that America is growing steadily less white. You try to push your party, the Grand Old Party, ahead of this curve by taking a tolerant stance on immigration and making common cause with some black churches. Then you go and blow it all in a desperate attempt to turn out your base by demonizing immigrants and running racist ads against Harold Ford. On Election Day, black support for Democrats remains high; Hispanic support for Democrats surges. So what do you do next?
What else? Elect Trent Lott your deputy leader in the Senate. Sure locks in the support of any stray voters who went for Strom in ’48.
Since the midterms, rhetoric coming out of the GOP suggests most of ’em are still determined to follow the Karl Rove strategy of pandering to the lowest, dumbest, and craziest elements of the Right to win in ’08. And I say to those Republican politicians: Please, don’t ever change. You’re most useful to us just as you are.
Anyway, after citing some of the more startling results of the midterm showing that the Rest of Us are getting bluer while the South gets redder, Meyerson writes (emphasis added),
The challenge for Republicans — and for such presidential aspirants as John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney in particular — is how to bridge the widening gap between their Southern base and the rest of the nation. The persistence of Southern exceptionalism is clear in the networks’ exit polls, in which fully half of Southern voters identified themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, while just one-third of the entire nation’s voters did so. It’s clear from the fact that in a period of broad economic stagnation, the populism of working-class Southern whites, like a record stuck in a groove, remains targeted more against cultural than economic elites.
Indeed, scratch the surface of some of our current hot-button issues and you find age-old regional conflicts. Wal-Mart’s practice, for instance, of offering low wages and no benefits to its employees begins in the rural South, where it’s no deviation from the norm. Only when Wal-Mart expands this practice to the metropolises of the North and West, threatening the living standards of unionized retail workers, does it encounter roadblocks, usually statutory, to its entry into new markets.
Let’s recap recent events. Sidney Blumenthal predicted before the midterms that “[Karl] Rove’s legacy may be to leave Republicans with a regional Southern party whose constrictive conservatism fosters a solid Democratic North.”
The midterms did reveal that the South and Everyone Else seem to be on different wavelengths. Thomas F. Schaller writes,
Though trailing in generic House race exit polls in the South by 8 points, the Democrats won the West by 11 points, the Midwest by five and the Northeast by an incredible 28. Democrats picked up 11 House seats in the Northeast, turning that region into a power base as solidly blue as the South is red. Democrats added 21 seats in state legislatures in Dixie, but that was a disproportionately small percentage of the more than 270 they gained nationwide. They captured new legislative majorities in nine chambers, none of them Southern.
This trend will come as no surprise to anyone who paid close attention to the 2004 election, when the Democrats actually won the non-Southern congressional elections in both chambers despite losing the presidential contest. That’s right: They won. The GOP’s pickups were all in the South, as they grabbed five House seats in Texas thanks to Tom DeLay’s redistricting and five Southern Senate seats thanks to Democratic retirements. Outside the South, the Democrats picked up two House seats. In the Senate, they won two and lost one, adding two new stars, Ken Salazar in Colorado and Barack Obama in Illinois, and losing Tom Daschle of South Dakota. While the Democrats were losing 30 state legislative seats in the South, they were gaining 90 in the rest of the country.
If indeed the blue wave began to build before the 2004 elections, is it remarkable that this trend went completely unnoticed by the political punditocracy? No, it isn’t remarkable at all; we know most of those people are stuck somewhere in 1986. Until weeks before the midterms Washington Insider conventional wisdom said Republicans were just about invincible. Washington Insider conventional wisdom can be stupid.
But if the midterm results did not reveal a brand new phenomenon, but instead show us the continuation of a trend that’s been going on for at least a couple of years, IMO this is evidence that the midterm results are part of a long-term trend and not a short-term blip. This also strengthens the “regional party” prediction. So let us crash rashly ahead.
Here’s something I didn’t know: “The Democratic advantage over Republicans in state legislatures went from 15 seats (3,650 versus 3,635) to 662 seats (3,985 versus 3,323), with gains in every region.”
The only part of the country that remained Republican Red was the deep South. Pretty ironic, considering that 50 years ago, the “solid South” referred to a solid block of Democratic Party voters. Sidney Blumenthal wrote,
The modern Republican rise was first apparent in the midterm elections of 1966, in the wake of early frustrations over Vietnam and racial turmoil after passage of civil rights legislation. The closely fought presidential contest of 1968, whose outcome was hardly inevitable, in which Richard Nixon was elected, was ratified four years later in his 49-state landslide. Nixon’s strategy was to revitalize the Republicans as a party by assimilating Southern Democrats and ethnic suburban white-flight Catholics in reaction to a post-New Deal Democratic party tainted by antiwar dissent, minority protest and countercultural experimentation – “amnesty, acid and abortion,” as Vice President Spiro Agnew captiously put it.
Nixon’s Republican majority was the template for Reagan’s consolidation. Reagan’s grin replaced Nixon’s scowl, but the strategy was basically unaltered. Watergate had only temporarily derailed the project. Reagan’s chief innovation was to acknowledge and encourage the nascent religious right as an evolved form of Southern Democrats metamorphosing into Southern Republicans.
That’s true as far as it goes, but Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” was most basically an appeal to racism, as explained in this, this, and especially this post. In a nutshell: After some prominent Democrats aligned themselves with racial equality and civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, Richard Nixon and some other Republicans made a blatant appeal to racism to pull white voters away from the Democrats. This trend continued into the 1980s, as Ronald Reagan winked and nodded at the “Reagan Democrats” — white blue-collar men — with his stories of Cadillac-driving “welfare queens.”
Fast forward to 2006: Thomas F. Schaller writes,
First and — sadly — foremost, as it may have been in Tennessee, is race. Analyses of the National Election Study data from 2004 show that the attitudes of white Southerners on national defense and even abortion fail to explain their preference for Republican presidential candidates, but attitudes on race do. Anyone who needs proof of the power of racial polarization in the South need only look at the blackest state in the union. Mississippi is 38 percent black, yet has a Republican governor, two Republican senators, and delivered its electoral votes to George Bush without a fuss twice. Southern whites vote as a racial bloc for the GOP. Statistics seem to show that loyalty to the Republican Party is at its highest among voters in Wyoming, Idaho and Utah â€“- until you start crunching the numbers for white voters only, and realize just how solid and white the GOP’s solid South is.
Race isn’t the only reason:
Second, the South is the most religious and evangelized region of the country, making it the most fertile ground for a socially conservative message. It is also (third reason) the nation’s most rural region, which only reinforces its social conservatism.
Fourth, the gender gap in voting that prevails nationally is smallest in the South. Even the women in the South are Republican. In 2004, there were only five states in the entire country where there was either no gender gap or an inverse gap — Bush doing worse among men than women — and three of those states were in the South.
This is interesting:
All of which brings us to the fifth and last reason: The South is the least unionized region. The one group of white, working-class Americans among whom Democratic loyalty still remains strong is union members and union households, and they are scarce in the South. In the 2006 midterms, non-union household members split their congressional votes evenly between the parties, whereas union members, retirees and family members broke Democratic by a 30-point margin. Forty years ago, Richard Nixon began the process of turning the South Republican by appropriating George Wallace’s appeal to disaffected working-class whites. Race, often encased in such coded phrases as “law and order,” was the basis of much of the GOP’s appeal. Over four decades, by fits and starts, the Republicans captured the South. With the ballast and votes that capture provided, the GOP emerged as the national majority party from the top of the ballot to the bottom by 2000.
Those “disaffected working-class whites” didn’t do the one thing that might have made them less disaffected, which is unionize. As Meyerson wrote, “It’s clear from the fact that in a period of broad economic stagnation, the populism of working-class Southern whites, like a record stuck in a groove, remains targeted more against cultural than economic elites.” Meyerson continues,
So: A Southern low-wage labor system is cruising along until it seeks to expand outside its region and meets fierce opposition from higher-paid workers in the North. Does that suggest any earlier episode in American history? The past, as William Faulkner once wrote of the South, isn’t even past. And now the persistence of Southern identity has become a bigger problem for Republicans than it is for Democrats.
Meyerson was alluding to slavery, and I think he’s on to something. But it’s important to understand that slavery didn’t oppress only African Americans in the antebellum South.
Before 1860 the majority of white southerners were not slaveowners, and the slave-based economy kept those whites dependent on subsistence farming to survive. There were few jobs in a region in which the monied classes used slaves to provide goods and services. Because the monied classes resisted change, the industrial revolution avoided the South. The South even lagged far behind the North in providing public education, so poor southerners were more likely to be illiterate than poor northerners.
Yet to a large extent the “yeoman farmers,” as the social historians call them, supported slavery and and the plantation system. The “yeomen’s” own racism was a factor, of course. Even though they were dirt poor and ignorant, in their minds being white made them privileged. And for some reason the “yeomen” deferred to the plantation class, even as the plantation system kept them impoverished. I’m painting a broadly generalized picture here, of course, and there were plenty of exceptions. I’m just saying there may be old and deep cultural phenomena going on here that none of us completely understands.
After the Civil War and Reconstruction, Jim Crow was a nationwide phenomenon. People think the South was more racist than the North, but for the most part it I don’t think it was; it was just more blatant about racism. But through most of those years the Deep South had a larger percentage of African American citizens than the North. This means that racism had a harder economic impact on the South than on the rest of the country. By denying so many of its citizens full participation into the economy, large parts of the South kept itself poor. Whites were considerably better off than blacks, of course, because whites kept what jobs and wealth there were to themselves. But southern whites on the whole remained poorer than they would have been otherwise. They couldn’t see that their discrimination against blacks was biting them in the ass, as well.
Resisting unionization didn’t help them. But the South resisted unionization largely with the complicity of poor whites who would have benefited. In earlier days of the labor movement, southern whites associated unions with immigrants; later, they associated unions with immigrants and Communists. Since unions in the North shut out African Americans until the 1960s, racism wouldn’t seem to explain why poor southern whites simply accepted the status quo and went along with the economic elites who exploited them. I think racism was a factor, however, because until the 1970s — later, really — jobs other than domestic help and basic laborer were reserved for whites. Poor southern whites didn’t see themselves as oppressed as long as there was another big class of people whom they could oppress. The blatant racism of the South — with legally segregated schools, parks, drinking fountains, restaurants, etc. — IMO had the effect of blinding southern whites to their own disadvantages.
(Segregation in the North, on the other hand, was de facto — white northerners pretended not to notice it even while they practiced it, and for them blacks were mostly out of sight and out of mind. Thus the socio-psychological consequences were, IMO, somewhat different.)
Meyerson brings us up to current events:
In case you haven’t noticed, a fundamental axiom of modern American politics has been altered in recent weeks. For four decades, it’s been the Democrats who’ve had a Southern problem. Couldn’t get any votes for their presidential candidates there; couldn’t elect any senators, then any House members, then any dogcatchers. They still can’t, but the Southern problem, it turns out, is really the Republicans’. They’ve become too Southern — too suffused with the knee-jerk militaristic, anti-scientific, dogmatically religious, and culturally, sexually and racially phobic attitudes of Dixie — to win friends and influence elections outside the South. Worse yet, they became more Southern still on Election Day last month, when the Democrats decimated the GOP in the North and West. Twenty-seven of the Democrats’ 30 House pickups came outside the South.
The Democrats won control of five state legislatures, all outside the South, and took more than 300 state legislative seats away from Republicans, 93 percent of them outside the South. As for the new Senate Republican caucus that chose Mississippi’s Lott over Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander to be deputy to Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, 17 of its 49 members come from the Confederacy proper, with another three from the old border states of Kentucky and Missouri, and two more from Oklahoma, which is Southern but with more dust. In all, 45 percent of Republican senators come from the Greater South.
More problematic, so does most of the Republican message. Following the gospel according to Rove (fear not swing voters but pander to and mobilize thy base), George W. Bush and the Republican Congress, together or separately, had already blocked stem cell research, disparaged nonmilitary statecraft, exalted executive wartime power over constitutional niceties, campaigned repeatedly against gay rights, thrown public money at conservative churches and investigated the tax status of liberal ones. In the process, they alienated not just moderates but Western-state libertarians.
“Boy genius” Karl Rove gained his reputation by picking off Democratic incumbents in deep southern states, using the ugliest, dirtiest, appeal-to-the-lowest-common-denominator campaigning the country has ever seen. But he doesn’t seem to have realized that the Republican Party he was shaping was way far to the right of most of the nation. Rove’s instincts are fine-tuned to southern sensibilities, clearly, but he’s turning out to be tone deaf to the rest of the nation.
After the midterm, I hope the Democrats have finally gotten over the idea that they have to be the “me too” party — Republican Lite — to win voters. The bigger issue for Dems is — do they need the South at all? Schaller has argued that they don’t. I’m not sure that his strategy requires abandoning the South; he seems to be saying that the Dems should stop moving right to win Southern voters. Instead, the Dems should stand firm on progressive ideas that the majority of the rest of America supports. In the short term it may mean losing some southern electoral votes in 2008. But this might be the best “southern strategy” in the long run.
Back in the 1850s, Abraham Lincoln believed the best long-term strategy against slavery was to keep it confined to the southern states. He didn’t believe the Constitution gave the federal government the authority to end slavery in the slave states. Ending slavery nationwide would require a constitutional amendment, which in the 1850s had no chance of passing. But if confined to the South, he thought the “peculiar institution” would die a slow death.
Lincoln didn’t get a chance to see that experiment through. But maybe it’ll work on the gumbo of extremist religiosity and nationalism that poisons American politics today.