What’s the Matter With Alabama and Mississippi?

From the point of view of delegates to be selected, tomorrow is just another Tuesday, and not a particularly momentous one, in the GOP presidential nominating contest. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that the two states holding primaries, Alabama and Mississippi, are the mythological center of what has become the Republican Party’s southern base.

That means these primaries are by all accounts Newt Gingrich’s Last Stand. Fifty-two years after the Pennysylvania-born Army brat moved from Orleans, France to Columbus, Georgia, he’s finally achieved his apotheosis as the conservative South’s favorite son. If he loses both states tomorrow, he’s done in all but the most formal sense, unless sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson has totally taken leave of his senses. Meanwhile, these states offer an abundance of the white evangelical (according to PPP, 70% of likely GOP voters in MS, 68% in AL) and “very conservative” (44% in MS, 45% in AL) voters that are Rick Santorum’s electorate base. And if Mitt Romney can squeak past this equally divided opposition and register wins, he will lay to rest the “Romney Can’t Win in the South” meme and take a giant step towards the nomination.

But there’s a pretty strong sense that these two particular states carry symbolic freight beyond the delegates they offer or the momentum they can bestow or deny. Along with SC, AL and MS compose what historian V.O. Key called the “Super-South,” the states where all the tangled legacies of the region were most intensely present. It’s no accident that in Georgia, where I grew up, people used to tell “Alabama jokes” (“How do you define infinity? A four-way stop in Alabama.”) to distinguish themselves from their less enlightened neighbors to the west. And even Alabamians look down on Mississippi, perpetually the poorest state in the country.

Alabama and Mississippi were always states dominated by white identity politics to an extent known nowhere else, as is reflected in their legendary status as hotbeds of last-ditch resistance to desegregation and African-American voting rights. In presidential elections, they didn’t abandon the White Man’s Party like other states in the region did over prohibition (1920), Catholicism (1928), or generic states’ rights (1952), but were the first to bolt in elections defined by race (1948, 1964 and 1968). Along with SC, they were the first states to realign racially in the current party system, quickly burying the biracial coalitions that kept Democrats competitive for a long time in other southern states. In 2008, AL and MS really distinguished themselves: even as Barack Obama won 23% of the white vote in GA, 26% in SC, and 30% in AR, he won 10% in AL and 11% in MS. These are not places where new wealth or northern transplants have made big political or cultural differences; old times there are truly not forgotten.

So it’s no wonder the Washington Post says all three Republican presidential candidates, even Gingrich, seem culturally “uncomfortable” campaigning in Alabama and Mississippi, despite the two states’ rugged loyalty to the GOP. And I’ll bet you that when yankee liberals make fun of Alabama and Mississippi (viz. a video feature on Bill Maher’s show), other southerners don’t quite know whether to get mad or laugh along. After all, stereotypes, however unfair, tend to have some basis in reality. And unfair as it may be to the hard-pressed, courageous progressives of Alabama and Mississippi, these two places really are the last bastions of a South where, as Mississippian William Faulkner famously said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.