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The Democrats' Southern problem

By W. James Antle III
web posted November 24, 2003

Republican Bobby Jindal's narrow loss in the Louisiana governor's race doesn't change one of the most remarkable political realities of the past several decades: the gradual transformation of the South from a Democratic monolith into a burgeoning Republican stronghold. This is the biggest shift in political alignment since black Americans dramatically abandoned the party of Lincoln for the Democrats during Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration.

Haley Barbour

Over the past month, former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour ousted incumbent Democrat Ronnie Musgrove in Mississippi. Rep. Ernie Fletcher became Kentucky's first Republican governor in more than three decades. During the 2002 elections, Republicans took the governorships of South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia. The most recent exception, Jindal, had to be beaten by a Democrat who was pro-life and opposed to new taxes. The South's congressional contingent is increasingly Republican, in the last decade contributing such present and former GOP leaders as Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Trent Lott and Bill Frist.

The Democrats' Southern problem has come into sharp focus at the onset of the 2004 presidential campaign. States Jimmy Carter had swept – including even a few Bill Clinton carried at least once – formed the bulwark of Red State America during the 2000 campaign. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the closest thing the Democrats have to a front-runner in this race, famously stated: "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks. We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats."

For this fairly innocuous comment, Dean was crucified as a virtual David Duke apologist by his fellow Democrats, including that paragon of racial harmony Al Sharpton. The statement was hardly a veiled statement of bigotry. If anything, it was condescending toward the white Southerners he claimed to want to appeal to. His point, after all, was that poor Southern whites should hope to reap more benefits from the welfare state rather than base their votes on their values. Yet even this awkward appeal was too much for many Democrats, who automatically equate the South with racism.

Race is usually the reason given for the Democrats' reversal of fortune in the South. According to liberal lore, the Democrats lost the South when the national party finally repudiated Jim Crow and embraced civil rights. Republicans then began to cynically pander to racist electorates below the Mason-Dixon line in order to win elections.

The prominent place race played in some of the most sordid events in the South's history – slavery, lynchings and segregation – is well known to almost anyone who has ever glanced at an American civics textbook. There are examples of Republicans as well as Democrats playing to this ugly past in order to pursue an electoral strategy based on "divide and conquer." But less racially diverse areas of the country have things in their past to be ashamed of on this front as well. Here in Boston, when forced busing was used to integrate the public schools a full decade after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, adults hurled obscenities and rocks at buses filled with black school children. Political careers were built stoking that kind of hatred.

Others point out that much of the South remains politically divided along racial lines to this day. Steve Sailer recently discussed the extent of this polarization in a column for VDARE; one of his examples was the Mississippi vote during the 2000 presidential election. He reported that Al Gore won the black vote by an astonishing 96 percent to 3 percent, while George W. Bush was still able to carry the state comfortably (58 percent to 41 percent) by winning the white vote 81 percent to 17 percent. Doesn't this prove that the GOP must be relying on a racist strategy?

It's worth remembering that a much higher percentage of Republicans in Congress voted for the civil rights legislation of the 1960s than Democrats, including conservatives as well as Rockefeller liberals. Even the most prominent dissenter, 1964 GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, had a history of opposing segregation and supporting civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960. Richard Nixon, the first Republican to win the White House with the help of the "Southern strategy," presided over the development of affirmative action in its present form and a rapid acceleration of Southern school desegregation. Republican gains in the South often came at the expense of Democrats who were longtime segregationists. Yet the South moved into the GOP column nevertheless. One of the South's latest rebels against federal authority is recently ousted Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore – a conservative Republican who appealed to the example of Martin Luther King rather than George Wallace in making his case for "Roy's Rock."

Perhaps the left's eagerness to write off the early 21st century South as a racist backwater is the root cause of the Democrats' problems in the area. There are many decent, patriotic Americans in the South without a trace of racial prejudice. They should not be scorned for having the temerity to disagree with the ACLU on the displaying the Ten Commandments on public property or Sarah Brady on gun control, yet all too often they are and they see that. They see their faith sneered at as a relic of the "Bible Belt," their heritage denigrated as the stuff of Ku Klux Klan troglodytes. These people have begun to vote Republican because they believe today's national Democrats are contemptuous of them and their values.

Sen. Zell Miller

Retiring Sen. Zell Miller (D-GA), author of the recent A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat, said it best: ''Once upon a time, the most successful Democratic leader of them all, FDR, looked south and said, 'I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill clad, ill nourished.' Today our national Democratic leaders look south and say, 'I see one-third of a nation and it can go to hell.' '' Miller is a stark example of how severe his party's Southern problem is. For most of his career he was, as syndicated columnist Robert Novak recently wrote, "a moderate, but clearly partisan, Democrat." He was a staunch supporter of Bill Clinton, who tapped him to give a rousing keynote address at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. When Democratic then-Gov. Roy Barnes appointed him to fill the remainder of the late Sen. Paul Coverdell's (R-GA) unexpired term, it was widely assumed that this would move the Senate ever-so-slightly to the left.

Today, Miller is scheduled to address 31st annual Conservative Political Action Conference, on a roster dominated by leading Republicans. After supporting every Democratic presidential candidate from Adlai Stevenson to Al Gore, he already endorsed President George W. Bush for reelection. At 75, he has followed the recent Southern political tradition of remaining a Democrat in state politics but increasingly siding with the Republicans nationally. Many of his constituents have completed the transition over to the GOP entirely, as was evidenced in the 2002 midterm elections.

It may make some Democrats feel better to believe that the Southern trend toward the GOP is a sign of its racism and general backwardness. But the fact of the matter is that Gore would be president today if he had managed to carry Arkansas, Tennessee or West Virginia, to say nothing of averting the deadlock in Florida. Even Clinton managed to carry each of these states at least once during his two presidential bids in the 1990s. If that isn't sufficient motivation for them to rethink a political strategy that has successfully alienated what was once its most supportive region, it is hard to imagine what would be.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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