Tuesday, November 11, 2008


The NY Times, on the aformentioned death of the "southern strategy":

“I think that’s absolutely over,” said Thomas Schaller, a political scientist who argued prophetically that the Democrats could win national elections without the South.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have “become a Southernized party,” said Mr. Schaller, who teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “They have completely marginalized themselves to a mostly regional party,” he said, pointing out that nearly half of the current Republican House delegation is now Southern.

Merle Black, an expert on the region’s politics at Emory University in Atlanta, said the Republican Party went too far in appealing to the South, alienating voters elsewhere.

“They’ve maxed out on the South,” he said, which has “limited their appeal in the rest of the country.”

Of course one could argue that this election was a unique event, that disgust with the Republican party and the popularity of Barack Obama in general combined to dramatically reduce the impact of southern whites. But as the article mentions, demographic changes split North Carolina and Virginia away from the South, reducing the electoral value of the South as a whole, and whites in other parts of the country voted for Obama in greater numbers. I do think the race factor is over-played to some extent. It's present (there's really no arguing that it's a factor when Kerry-a less popular figure generally-won more votes than Obama among southern whites) but we should recall that Republicans went beyond race to a relying generally on class, painting Democratic candidates as out-of-touch and effete elitists. Of course this stereotyping was used to appeal to poorer and less educated whites throughout the country; we focus on the South mostly because the appeals to race and class have been most effective there, and because the South has provided a safe and reliable base of electoral votes for Republican candidates. What this election has demonstrated is that appeals to race and class are no longer effective among enough whites outside of the South to make up for the voters that they either turn off or have no effect on, even accounting for the uniqueness of this election. 

This is a welcome development for Democrats, who will no longer feel the need to nominate southern candidates in an effort to manage losses in the South. This is a troubling development for the Republican party, which now must either face moderating its message to appeal to more voters outside of the south. Overall this a supremely positive for our nation, whose national politics will not be dominated by a disproportionate focus on the poorest, most under-educated, provincial and unsophisticated white people in the country. With the death of the effectiveness of either overt or covert appeals to race, our nation can finally move beyond the racial politics that has characterized national elections from the sixties on. 

What then is the future of the South in national politics? If at one time the value of southern whites was over-valued, it may now be that they are under-valued. If Democrats don't even need to consider the deep south in mapping their electoral strategies, their concerns won't be addressed. Even if they elect reliably conservative Republicans and Democrats to Congress in the future, that influence can be outweighed by greater numbers of members from states in New England, the Midwest and the West (as is the case now thanks to this election.) What then is the future of the South? I'm not at all prepared to answer that question, but I'm sure I'm not the only one pondering it.

UPDATE: Naturally, other bloggers are responding to this article with their opinions. I don't quite understand the reaction of Clay Risen at TNR, who says the south isn't waning so much as it's "fissuring":

Across the “Deep South”—South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and northern Louisiana, what the rest of the country talks about when it talks about the South—the map is almost entirely blue. Pretty much all of Texas is blue, too. That means that Obama, even if he didn’t win these states, still did better than Kerry. Instead, the red splotches center in eastern Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and southern Louisiana; northern Alabama is pretty red as well. (Interestingly, these are places where Democrats tend to do well, historically, on the local and state level.)

What this all points to is not a waning South, but a fissured and rapidly changing one.

To which I respond with a "yeah, but you're missing the point." No, the "South" has never been a unified bloc of white racists. It's just that appeals to the racism and class consciousness of whites was an integral party of the Republican strategy to secure the electoral votes of the deep South, which served as reliable backbone for Republican candidates and left them needing to concentrate solely on states in the midwest and the West (and Florida, which doesn't really count as the South.) But yes, we can acknowledge that the South itself is changing; for example, Dallas County in North Texas (generally an area that historically has more in common with the deep south than say, southern Texas) is now blue, safely and securely. Yes, that undermines to some extent the "unity" of Texas as a safe Republican state, but not by that much; the rest of East Texas voted for McCain in a greater percentage than they did Bush. So Texas was secure for McCain, just as was the rest of the deep South minus areas where there have been shifts in demographics like Virginia, or North Carolina. It simply doesn't matter that more urbanites, more African-Americans and more Hispanics voted for Obama in these states this year than in years past, because the tilt of the state was decided by the white voters that Republicans make overt appeals to. What matters is that other parts of the country are changing (like Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, New Mexico, etc.) so much so that appeals to the whites in these states no longer work; when you can "only" win states outside of the deep South and still easily win the presidency then yes, the South is marginalized. I don't see how this isn't a fair conclusion. It's true there is some over-simplication in the article; "deep South" is really code for "white voters in the South." And I hardly think that we should conclude that the South on longer has any role in presidential races. Rather, the South's prominence in deciding who Democratic candidates will be and what strategy they will run on, is now much diminished. I think that's a fair conclusion. 

UPDATE: Stuart Rothenberg, discussing whether this election was a "realignment", touches on the issue of the white voter:

If demographics are indeed destiny, then the 2008 national exit poll at the very least raises questions about where the GOP goes from here.

For the first time ever, whites constituted less than 75 percent of the electorate, a considerable problem for the Republican Party given its historical problems attracting minorities. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) drew just 55 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, but Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) drew 67 percent of it four years later — a remarkable showing considering that many of those voters preferred Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in the Democratic contest and supposedly were resistant to voting for a black candidate.

It's fair to say that changing demographics both in and outside of the deep South have operated to reduce the influence of white voters in the South.

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