Saturday, March 11, 2006

Class, Race, and Republicanism in the South

As regular readers of this blog know, there is no political subject that fascinates me more than party politics in my native South--both the historical question of how the region became "red," and the immediate question of whether and how Democrats can become more competitive.

Earlier this week a colleague sent me a book review that provides a good excuse for revisiting that first, historical topic. The New Republic's Clay Risen reviewed The End of Southern Exceptionalism for the Boston Globe, and concluded that the book offers fresh evidence that economics, not race, was the central factor in the rise of southern Republicanism.

I've ordered, but have not yet received, a copy of the book, written by Byron Shafer of the University of Wisconsin and Richard Johnston of the University of British Columbia. But the surprising thing to me about Risen's review is that the book's hypothesis seems to be so controversial, "one that few observers of the postwar South will agree with."

This is not to say I believe in a purely economic interpretation of the South's Republican resurgence, but given the apparent supremacy of a purely racial interpretation, it's a good corrective.

Certainly the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were decisive events in breaking down the ancient alliance between the National Democratic Party and a whites-only regional Democratic Party that had dominated most of the South since the Civil War. But the civil rights revolution did not necessarily, and did not in fact destroy state and local Democratic parties. And if you look at the dynamics of two-party competition in the South, even today, the picture is too complicated to support the claim that race, or any other one factor, has caused the rise of southern Republicanism.

My own informed-amateur "wave theory" of party politics in the South places great emphasis on the efforts of each party, and especially my own Democratic Party, to constantly create and recreate new coalitions, depending on the demographics of individual states. But this improvisational coalition-building was a big part of the originial post-World-War-II Republican effort to create a viable two-party system in the South.

According to Risen, Shafer and Johnston focus on the rapid urbanization that occured thoughout much of the region from the 1940s through the 1960s, which created a self-conscious urban and suburban white middle-class that voted Republican just like similar places elsewhere (indeed, a heavy in-migration of already-Republican voters from the northeast and midwest, already a large factor in Florida in the 1940s, spread throughout southern suburbs in later decades). But in four states, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia, there was already a sizable Republican voter base among Appalachian whites (until quite recently, the very poorest people in America) who had been voting that way since the Civil War. The pre-Civil Rights strength of Republicans in any given state was largely a function of the size of these two very different elements of the population. Moreover, states with few Appalachian voters and smaller cities and suburbs had weak Republican Parties that did ultimately depend on their occasional success in reaching large numbers of rural white voters through race-based appeals.

It should come as no surprise, then, to discover how well Eisenhower did in relatively-urbanized states like Florida (which he carried twice) or Texas (won in 1956), and in states with both growing suburbs and cities and Appalachian pockets (Tennessee and Virginia, which he won twice, and North Carolina, where he narrowly lost twice). In 1960, Richard Nixon, then considered a liberal on racial issues by southern standards, did nearly as well in precisely the same places.

This complicated picture was confirmed, not obliterated, by Barry Goldwater's race-based rural southern breakthrough in 1964. Although he swept the Deep South, he lost all the border states, including those carried by Ike and Nixon, and even within the states he carried, he ran behind the previous GOP candidates in many urban and suburban areas.

At both the presidential level and--especially--the state and local level, Republican fortunes have ebbed and flowed according to the same shifting of coalitions in the ensuing decades. And even in the contemporary era, where Republicans have an advantage in most, though not all, statewide elections in most of the region, the components vary from state to state. In places like South Carolina and Mississippi, the party system represents a widespread racial polarization, and you can definitely say the basic partisan dynamics point straight back to the civil rights revolution. But in my own home state of Georgia, while race has been a factor, the explosive growth of the suburban population has clearly tilted the state to the GOP, which also means the Democratic counter-trend that has so often set in as suburbs mature could be a big factor in Georgia's political future.

In other words, there is no universal theory that really explains the past, present or future or southern politics, and that is why I am more optimistic than most in predicting that Republican hegemony in the South is far less than inevitable or permanent.

UPDATE: Here's another concrete indication that the Shafer/Johnston hypothesis is not exactly revisionist history. After writing this post, I picked up the copy of Samuel Lubell's 1955 book, The Future of American Politics, that sits in an honored place on my bookshelf, and quickly found this sentence: "The strongest single force for political change in Dixie Land today is the newly developing urban middle class who, by Northern standards, would be classed conservative."

UPDATE II: Before someone sends me a mocking email, I will affirmatively acknowledge the irony involved in posting an "update" about a prediction made in 1955. Old Guy Syndrome strikes again....
-- Posted at 11:24 AM | Link to this post | Email this post

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