How Arkansas Went From Blue to Red

Jeffrey Toobin has a fascinating article in the New Yorker titled, “Is Tom Cotton the Future of Trumpism?” In case you had any doubts about that possibility, take a look at this:

Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former top strategist and the chairman of the right-wing Web site Breitbart News, told me, “Next to Trump, he’s the elected official who gets it the most—the economic nationalism. Cotton was the one most supportive of us, up front and behind the scenes, from the beginning.

But given that Cotton is currently the U.S. Senator from Arkansas, Toobin devotes some ink to describing how that state went from blue to red. The transition came a bit later than a lot of other states that are considered to be part of the “Deep South.”

Arkansas, though generally regarded as a Southern state, exists at a crossroads of regions that have been slipping away from Democrats for decades…

“For a long time, Arkansas Democratic politics was kept separate from national Democratic politics,” John Brummett, a political columnist at the Democrat-Gazette, the leading newspaper in the state, told me. “That continued in Arkansas through the nineties and into the two-thousands, because of Clinton. White rural conservatives here could look on the national Democratic Party and see the same guy as President that they were happy enough with in Arkansas.” But the trends that were altering the politics of neighboring states were percolating in Arkansas as well. “ ‘God, guns, and gays’—social issues—were driving white conservatives to the Republicans all along,” Brummett said.

Take a look at what two local people identify as the tipping point.

Max Brantley, a longtime local journalist, now with the Arkansas Times, said, “It is impossible not to see race as a central element in the fall of the Democratic Party here.” After the crisis over the integration of Little Rock Central High School, in 1957, racial politics in the state calmed for a time. This was in part because of the relatively small number of African-Americans; they make up roughly fifteen per cent of the population, as opposed to thirty per cent in the Deep South. “Discrimination was not as evident in Arkansas as it was in other Southern states,” Joyce Elliott, a veteran state senator, said. “It took a black President to bring out the threat.” She added, “I would always say to my liberal white friends, ‘Oh, come on, surely it’s gotten better.’ And they’d say to me, ‘Oh, no, it hasn’t. You can’t believe what white people say about Obama in private—he’s Kenyan, he’s Muslim, they’d call him unprintable racial epithets.’ ” Brantley told me, “You needed to be here to see how quickly the politics changed after Obama came in. He is so deeply disliked here. I think a lot of people in Arkansas thought he was ‘uppity,’ to use the old smear.”

This is the element that many white liberals miss when attempting to analyze why so many working class white people abandoned the Democratic Party. The transition was in the works based on the so-called “social issues.” That is precisely why Karl Rove used gay marriage as a wedge issue in the 2004 election. You can see it all happening in the results of the last seven presidential races in Arkansas.

1992 – Clinton by 17.7
1996 – Clinton by 16.9
2000 – Bush by 5.4
2004 – Bush by 9.7
2008 – McCain by 19.9
2012 – Romney by 23.7
2016 – Trump by 26.9

That is a swing of over 44 percentage points from Democrat to Republican over the span of 24 years. As Jonathan Chait noted after watching the movie 12 Years a Slave, the election of our first African American president signaled an “unforgivable crime” that took Arkansas from being a potential swing state to deeply red.

Notably, the most horrific torture depicted in 12 Years a Slave is set in motion when the protagonist, Solomon Northup, offers up to his master engineering knowledge he acquired as a free man, thereby showing up his enraged white overseer. It was precisely Northup’s calm, dignified competence in the scene that so enraged his oppressor. The social system embedded within slavery as depicted in the film is one that survived long past the Emancipation Proclamation – the one that resulted in the murder of Emmett Till a century after Northup published his autobiography. It’s a system in which the most unforgivable crime was for an African-American to presume himself an equal to — or, heaven forbid, better than — a white person.

What this analysis doesn’t take into account is the way that everyone from the right wing media to the birther movement to white evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham played into all of this with their constant framing of Barack Obama as a black Muslim threat. That exacerbated the racism that was available for exploitation. To the extent that I’ll give Donald Trump credit for being a strategic thinker, that is precisely why he chose to launch himself onto the national political stage by resurrecting the whole birther lie. He knew that openly fanning the flames of racial resentment would be a winner among the group that he needed to mobilize.

The reason this is critical to understand is that today two states are holding gubernatorial elections where the Republican candidates are attempting to win by playing on these same fears to mobilize those voters in Virginia and New Jersey. If they succeed, that will be the template for Republicans in the 2018 midterms. The reason Steve Bannon wants to inflame these issues and pretends to love it when liberals respond is that he thinks that’s a winning formula for white nationalism. We’ll soon see.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .