Existential Politics in the Deep South

Back in the day I used to spend a lot of time defending the partisan bona fides of southern Democrats, who were often deemed “Republican Lite” for their issue positions by their northern brethren. Maybe they’re too conservative, I’d respond, but don’t tell me they get along with Republicans. Southern politics are a life-and-death struggle over basic stuff you don’t even have to think about like whether to have public schools or an income tax.

Now that southern-style radicalized movement conservatism has infected the GOP everywhere–and southern Democrats have in most states been reduced to an embattled minority–I don’t have to make that argument as much. But the existential nature of southern political combat has actually been intensified as full-scale racial polarization has spread from Mississippi and South Carolina to other parts of the region. In a report from the campaign trail in Georgia Newsweek‘s Pema Levy captures the new toxic spirit with its echoes of the Old South quite well:

In the red state of Georgia, a razor-tight Senate race between Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue is catching some conservative voters by surprise.

“Why is it so close?” asked Margaret Eidson, 77, of Monroe. “I can’t imagine why it’s so close.”

It was a sentiment I heard many times as I followed Perdue’s campaign RV Tuesday as it wound its way through the rolling hills of north Georgia, stopping in small communities north of Atlanta to greet supporters and urge them to vote. It’s not more than an hour from the city to the hyper-Republican counties to the north—but it feels like an entirely different world. One that views the city, with its large minority populations, with suspicion and distrust….

Counties like Dawson and Forsyth, where Perdue, his wife and two local congressmen made stops on Tuesday, voted for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 by more than 80 percent. The crowds that came to see Perdue overwhelmingly consisted of older people who were almost exclusively white. A few miles south and closer to Atlanta, Democratic strongholds with large African-American populations like Clayton and DeKalb counties went to President Barack Obama by similar margins.

The closeness of the race is a sign of just how fast the demographics of Georgia are changing—as The New York Times recently reported, Nunn’s surge in the polls is largely a product of pollsters including more minority voters in their surveys to reflect their growing share of the electorate. Between 2000 and 2010, 80 percent of new residents who arrived in the state were nonwhite. This year, Democrats have registered over 100,000 new voters, most of them nonwhite, as part of their effort to turn Georgia purple, then blue.

But those changes aren’t apparent at Perdue’s campaign stops in the white, Republican counties where he is working hard to drive up turnout. A number of his supporters believe the race is close because Democrats are somehow cheating….

But perhaps the most distrust came over economic issues. Repeatedly, Perdue supporters described Democrats as wanting handouts from the government, echoing Romney’s infamous comments, in 2012, in which he said 47 percent of the country will vote for Obama only because they are dependent on government. “We want what belongs to us, and we want people to work for what they have and keep what they have,” said [Perdue supporter] Curle. Handouts, she said, are what churches are for.

These are not people who want to “reform” or “devolve” means-tested social safety net programs; they want to abolish them because they view them as racial redistribution. And nobody talks back to them when they think and talk that way.

My late mother (who lived most of her life in Georgia and the rest in Texas) used to talk bitterly about how her white work colleagues would just blithely say hateful and racist stuff about Barack Obama because they assumed she agreed; she was white, wasn’t she? And after her death, when my wife and I were interviewing real estate agents to help sell her home, the first we encountered went off on a long, long tangent about Obama ruining the country. I got the impression this was her way of building trust with us; we were white, weren’t we?

The atmosphere in much of Georgia is a lot like the one I remember from childhood in Jim Crow days, when white racial solidarity dictated conservative political behavior. So yeah, the Senate campaign between the urbane David Perdue and the mild-mannered Michelle Nunn is, under the surface, a real knife-fight involving deeply held and diametrically opposed world views, with race affecting everything. Maybe the Deep South will be healed of its history in my lifetime, but I wouldn’t bet the remnants of my grandparents’ farm on it.

UPDATE: Commenter DisgustedWithItAll represents a legitimate and significant progressive point of view which is always welcome here at PA, even if I don’t always share it. But I gotta say, the suggestion that “New Dems” are responsible for persistent southern white racism strikes me as not terribly knowledgeable, and the further suggestion (“Heckuva job, Kilgy”) that I’m complicit in Democratic “cowardice” in the face of persistent southern white racism is personally offensive. You can argue all you want that this or that political strategy was terrible or even disastrous, but please don’t impugn my motives, particularly on this subject.

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.