Redding of the South

Addressing a subject near and dear to my heart, TNR’s Alec MacGinnis politely dismantles an argument from University of North Carolina-Charlotte’s Karen Cox that the Republican domination of the Deep South is a product simply of a larger rural population that is “red” everywhere. It is very difficult to deny that white voters in the South–rural, small-town, exurban and (with some exceptions) suburban are simply more prone to vote Republicans than their counterparts in much of the country. And moreover, the remaining hopes of a Democratic revival in the South (very much alive in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida) remain dependent in no small part on the South’s true distinction from most of the country: a large minority population that places a floor on Democratic voting strength.

The thornier issue of why southern white voters are so Republican is an entirely separate matter. It is, in my opinion, less about race (tough it is without a doubt partly about race!) than about religion. If you look at the percentage by state of southerners who belong to the very conservative Southern Baptist Convention (or “Great Commission Baptists,” as some now style it), it tracks the GOP propensities of each state to a significant degree. If you could add in “independent Baptists,” a few splinter denominations, and then equally conservative pentecostal denominations and non-denominational congregations, the numbers would probably be even more compelling. And southern mainline Protestants tend to be significantly more conservative–theologically, socially and politically–than their yankee counterparts. No one seems puzzled that states with large LDS populations tend to lean “red;” this phenomenon is no different.

Another “reddening” factor in the Deep South has been that states like SC, MS, AL (for quite a few years), TN, GA and LA (very recently), and perhaps now Arkansas, have reached or are reaching the tipping-point where state and local politics are being dominated by the GOP, to the point where non-ideological voters are naturally attracted to “playing” there. I have staunch Democratic relatives back home in Georgia who have become heavily involved in local Republican primaries because they are as dispositive of local political power as Democratic primaries were for close to a century.

Add in the national trend towards straight-ticket voting and it’s hard to be too optimistic about states where there is not the precise combination of minority voters, transplants, and industrial, service or “knowledge workers” who can keep the Donkey Party competitive. A decade ago–perhaps even less–I would have been confident that the consistently poor governing ability of southern Republicans, compounded by the high visibility of extremist elements in the GOP, would create regular openings for Democrats in statewide politics. But it’s now really an uphill struggle in much of the region.

None of this should excuse the joy with which all too many progressives elsewhere contemplate the demise of southern Democrats, or the corresponding tendency to attribute all the evil trends among contemporary conservatives to a Dixie influence. Yes, many midwestern conservatives are now sounding like their South Carolina brethren on the subject of unions, but not because of any direct southern influence. Even in the Christian Right, which a lot of people reflexively associate with the South, Colorado and California have become places as important in the formulating and dissemination of the pseudo-religious gospel of cultural reaction as anywhere in the South, and the convergence of traditionalist Catholics with conservative evangelicals is primarily a non-southern phenomenon.

So Democrats should be clear-eyed about the South, but neither hopeless nor vengeful. A lot of factors are in flux, as evidenced by the emergence of Virginia–which did not go Democratic in a single presidential election between 1964 and 2008–as a major stumbling-block for the last two GOP presidential candidates. It’s certainly not smart to assume the Solid South has returned for good.

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.