The ‘southern strategy’ and the 2010 election

It is perfectly normal for the minority party to score impressive gains in an off-year election.  But it could be argued that the almost unprecedented success of the GOP in Tuesday’s election is an extension of a trend that has been unfolding since the civil rights era.   

In the early 1960s, it was virtually impossible for a southern Republican to win election for any post.  Memories of “Yankee misrule” replete with “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” made the Party of Lincoln anathema in the South during the first half of the 20th century.  As this article from the New York Times reminds us, Roosevelt’s New Deal was popular in the Jim Crow South, largely because FDR accommodated southern racists. 

The willingness of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to negotiate with the civil rights movement changed all of that.  This quote from the Times article adds nothing new to our understanding of southern politics, but it serves as a helpful reminder:  “Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University and a co-author of ‘The Rise of Southern Republicans,’ said that white conservatives first fled the Democratic Party in large numbers in the 1960s, turned off by the civil rights legislation and social programs of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. But it was not until the Reagan years that they felt comfortable identifying as Republicans.”

First, southerns voted for Republican presidential candidates, then Republican Governors, then congressmen, and finally members of state houses.  Sheriffs, judges and district attorneys can still run safely as Democrats in the South, but, as the last election demonstrates, even that is changing. 

As professor Black indicates, southern disillusionment with the national Democratic Party was related to two issues: civil rights and Great Society anti-poverty programs.  Southerns loved the New Deal because, as Ira Katsnelson reveals in her “When Affirmative Action was White,” the vast majority of depression-era largesse was diverted to white people and the post-war GI Bill was much the same.  Southerners approved of these anti-poverty programs because poverty was a big (and expensive) problem in the South. 

But the Great Society programs of the mid-1960s were designed, in part, to redress the economic impact of centuries of racial oppression.  At least white southerners got that impression.  It was one thing to give black Americans the vote or to wipe Jim Crow laws off the books; suggesting that the white Americam establishment owed a moral and economic debt to black America was something else altogether.  Lyndon Johnson’s short-lived War on Poverty intentionally highlighted the plight of Appalachian Whites, but few in the South were fooled.  Johnson and his fellow bleeding hearts were out to help the Negro and, for many white people, that was regarded as a slap in the face.

But the South walked into the southern strategy with both eyes open.  In fact, Republican success in the South is mirrored by the triumph of southern ideas (like a punitive approach to criminal justice) in the balance of America.  The South may look a lot more Republican half a century after the Great Society breathed its last, but America’s criminal justice system now speaks with a southern accent.

The success of small government conservatism in the South has always been rooted in white racial resentment, and last week’s Tea Party revolution marked yet another phase in a distressing process.  Today, of course, Tea Party supporters can embrace small government conservatism without giving racial considerations a second thought.  This is because (the picture above notwithstanding) conservatives can no longer air their racial resentment in public. 

It was not always so.

White Democrats Lose More Ground in South

By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON

Published: November 6, 2010

“We were, of course, pretty excited about that,” said Wirt Yerger Jr., who at the time was the chairman of the state Republican Party. They had a right to be: Mr. McAllister was the first Republican of the 20th century to sit in the Mississippi Legislature. Being a Republican in the South, Mr. Yerger recalled, “was pretty lonesome at first.”

Things are looking a little different now.

A political realignment that has been taking place for decades hit overdrive in last week’s elections, leaving Republicans at a stronger position in the South than at any time since Reconstruction. And with Republican control of so many legislatures on the eve of redistricting, white Democrats, who once occupied every available political office in the region, are facing near extinction in some states.

“The Democratic Party as we know it in Alabama is dead,” boasted Philip Bryan, the spokesman for the state’s Republican Party, which gained control of the legislature for the first time in more than a century. “We just killed it.”

The degree of one-party control Republicans have just achieved in much of the South has broad implications for future campaign strategies. But it also provides a laboratory to study the internal debates of the Republican Party, the effects of undiluted conservative policy and a nearly one-to-one relationship between party preference and race, at least in national contests in the Deep South.

Of the nine Democratic representatives that remain from the states of the Deep South, only one, John Barrow of Georgia, is white. Of the 28 Republicans, only one, the newly elected Tim Scott of South Carolina, is black.

Republicans now hold at least 93 of the 131 House seats from the states of the old Confederacy. Less than 20 years ago they did not even hold half. With the defeat of long-serving fiscally conservative Blue Dogs like Representatives Gene Taylor of Mississippi and John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, Southern white Democrats in Congress have become as rare as a Dixie blizzard.

Republicans, however, say their job is not finished. The South is often thought of as red to its core, but it is not as simple as that. The preference for Republicans has trickled down over the decades, with voters first supporting Republican presidential candidates, then Republican congressmen — who often simply switched parties — and more recently Republican state legislators.

State Republican Party officials say they are now looking at local officials like sheriffs and chancery clerks who still often run as Democrats.

“That’s the last bastion,” said Brad White, the chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party.

The enduring allegiance to the Democratic Party among Southern whites comes from a fondness for incumbents, an enduring populist streak, lingering gratitude for the New Deal in certain areas and, in large part, habit.

While white Southern voters may be dropping that habit, this does not necessarily mean they are all eager to embrace the Republicans.

Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University and a co-author of “The Rise of Southern Republicans,” said that white conservatives first fled the Democratic Party in large numbers in the 1960s, turned off by the civil rights legislation and social programs of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. But it was not until the Reagan years that they felt comfortable identifying as Republicans.

A similar pattern is unfolding now with white Southern moderates, Mr. Black said, who are repelled by President Obama’s policies but have not fully embraced the other side.

George Dale, a Democrat who was Mississippi’s insurance commissioner from 1975 to 2007, is one of those moderates.

“People like me almost find themselves without a party,” he said.

The causes of the Southern disillusionment with the Democrats are complicated. Race plays a role, which shows up in the muttering of an Arkansas farmer who said he did not trust blacks in power, or in the bumper sticker in Louisiana that read “Don’t blame me, I voted for the American.” But it is not the only factor.

“Some of it is cyclical, some of it’s racial, some of it’s fueled by cable TV,” Mr. Dale said.

Many of the white Southerners losing faith in the Democrats are more moderate on social issues and less hostile to social programs than Republicans, but they dislike the Obama administration so much that they are taking it out on any Democrat in sight.

Mr. Dale said many Southern voters saw the national Democrats as pursuing polices of an overreaching government.

“If the Democratic Party has any intentions of being a factor on the state level, they’re going to have to find a way to move back to the middle,” he said.

Until then, the task of governance is starting to fall almost exclusively to the Republican Party. That may be more difficult than it seems.

Traditional Southern Republicanism is socially conservative and assertively pro-business, characterized by an aversion to taxes, regulation, abortion, same-sex marriage and gun control.

But while its politicians have long held forth against the federal government, the South remains heavily dependent on federal largesse in the form of farm subsidies, defense contracts and aid for its large concentrations of poor people. More than a few Southern Republicans who railed against the federal stimulus package accepted the money anyway.

The Tea Party brand of conservatism is less tolerant of this wink-and-nod approach to government spending and places a lower priority on social issues.

It has some echoes of the small-government gospel that was preached by Mr. Yerger and other pioneers of the modern Republican Party in the South, who found few Southerners sympathetic to their condemnation of the New Deal. Many of them initially viewed social issues like segregation as tactical stands worth taking to draw disaffected Democrats to their free-market agenda, according to Joseph Crespino, a professor at Emory who has studied the rise of conservative politics in Mississippi.

How the small-government fundamentalists of the Tea Party fit into the mainstream Southern Republican Party remains to be seen.

“This could be a very fleeting experience for the Republican Party, if they ignore us,” said Kevin Desmond, a director of the Patriots of East Tennessee, a local Tea Party group. “When Lamar Alexander, the senator here in Tennessee, comes up for election in 2014, I think he’s going to have his hands full.”

There are other signs that the realignment might not be permanent. Growing Latino populations in Florida and Texas, and in Georgia and South Carolina, could rearrange the political map again before too long.

And then there is the curious case of North Carolina. While Republicans racked up historic victories in state races on Tuesday, seven of the state’s eight Democratic congressmen survived challenges, including Heath Shuler, a young Blue Dog elected in 2006.

That, oddly enough, leaves North Carolina with one of the most Democratic Congressional delegations outside of the Northeast.