Review: "Whistling Past Dixie" part I

Simply put, the South is no longer the “swing” region in American politics. It has swung to the Republicans.”

In making this statement, author Thomas F. Schaller takes on the likes of Steve Jarding and Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, who believe that Democrats must win in the South in order for us to become a majority party again. The opening chapter of the book, entitled “Partisan Graveyard,” argues that a new coalition – made up of Democrats in the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific Coast states – is what will bring the Democrats back to power.

Schaller says that the South – consisting of the eleven states of the Confederacy – has always been a political outlier. “[S]ocial and cultural issues tend to trump economic considerations for many voters in the South, where race and religion are woven through almost every aspect of the region’s political culture,” writes Schaller. Half of all African Americans – the Democratic Party’s base – live in the South, but due to “racial antagonisms,” a white backlash has been created, with few whites voting for Democrats. Simply put: while the Democratic base is there, African Americans lack the power to move the states into the Democratic column. Add to that the presence in the South of the largest share of of the country’s evangelical voters ~ and evangelicals tend to not vote for Democrats, either.

Schaller points out that there is an increasing number of Southerners who have come of age with no connection to the Democratic Party or the South’s prior history of being a Democratic stronghold. As this number increases, Schaller says, it will be harder and harder to attract voters who have never cast a vote for a Democrat in their lives. Trying to capture this vote is to reach for the “high-hanging fruit. Schaller says the ripe-for-the-picking votes are in the pan-western states, where, unlike the South, there are swing voters and independents.

But for a few thousand votes in New Hampshire, Al Gore would have pulled it off [won the election] while winning the popular vote; more astounding, but for the switch of about 60,000 vote in Ohio, Kerry nearly did so despite losing the popular vote.

There are votes to be had out there, but they happen to not be in the South.

Chapter 2, “The Southern Transformation,” focuses on the history of the South from 1964 through about 2006, the date the book was published. This chapter is a must-read for anyone wanting to to understand the depth and breadth of the Republican takeover of the South.

Most point to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as the starting point for the South’s turning away from the Democratic Party. But Schaller says that was not the case. Schaller says it happened 16 years later, when Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan gave his first major speech after receiving the nomination in Neshoba, Mississippi. The county had demonstrated “a severe case of electoral schizophrenia: 95% of their votes went for Barry Goldwater in 1964, 82% for George Wallace in 1968, 88% for Richard Nixon in 1972 and then, by 32 votes, Jimmy Carter carried the county in 1976. Schaller says that Neshoba was a bellwether for the South on matters of race. In his speech, Reagan gave his support of “states’ rights,” which Schaller calls the “friendly term” for opposition to civil rights. Schaller credits Reagan for “perfecting the southern strategy of luring away white southern Democrats,” although it was Goldwater who first used it.

The Republican takeover of the South has three aspects: elections won and governing majorities achieved, how it has changed national policy and politics, and the significance of the South’s takeover of the Republican Party itself. Schaller takes the reader through the last 40 years, looking at the presidency, Congress and governors as well as state legislatures. Then starting with Barry Goldwater, Schaller looks at each major figure in the Republican Party – Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush – and how each man strengthened the party’s grip on the South.

At the end, though, it is the Republican Party which has been taken over by the South, not the other way around.

Stripped bare of the platitudes and catchphrases, the southern-based Republican majority stands naked as a ruling cohort no longer interested in limited government, in states’ rights, in judicial review, in consensus-building filibusters, or any of the other measures of restraint that once informed the political philosophies of movement conservatives.

Southerners have captured the GOP and with it, they bring the evangelical movement and their desire for a “rapturous accounting.” In doing so, though, they are alienating the moderates in the party who live outside the South. And these are the people who the Democrats can win over. Political Blogger Alliance


25 thoughts on “Review: "Whistling Past Dixie" part I

  1. Let’s try this again. Whistling Past Dixie makes a compelling (to me) case that Democrats’ electoral efforts/resources should be reprioritized, concentrating more on wins outside of the South. Dems should do this, Schaller says, because of fundamental beliefs/social dynamics that are (for practical purposes) unique to the South, and the electoral structure offers better chances elsewhere.

    As someone who is pretty comfortable in claiming his own familiarity with the South (while somehow not feeling the defensiveness that Schaller seems to inspire in so many self-identified Southerners), I think Schaller makes an excellent case.

    Now, before you go off all half-cocked again, perhaps you’d do well to either do some looking at his argument on your own, or quiet down and see what’s coming next here (note the “Part I” bit).

    And if I sound(ed) a bit condescending, well . . . yeah, I am. When you have someone telling you that you need to correct their mistakes because they don’t feel like doing the work in the first place, I can’t say that it inspires a whole lot of respect.

  2. MB,
    I have yet for anyone to actually address my argument and prove that it is indeed a mistake. You merely just restated the already provided premise and your own preference for the work. I don’t want you to correct anything, I want you to stand up for what you yourself admit to believing in. It’s a lack of dialogue today thats wrong with our politics.

    And can I ask if you have ever read/not read Mein Kampf? If you did/didn’t I’m sure its not because you identified with the ideas but because someone told you that you should/shouldn’t be informed about the book.

    It’s intelligent dialogue which spurs a widening of our knowledge and I must say the people here’s unwilling to take part is frustrating. You’d rather gripe about whether I’d read the book. Convince me it’s a book worth reading. If this blog is not the kind of place to discuss ideas then tell me and I’ll be sure not to come back.

    My criticism was never at you or your review (though I will point to the fact that thee isn’t much to qualify it as a negative review, so you’ll excuse me if I considered you as supporting the ideas) but at the premise of the book. Your review is well written.

    I wait with baited breath for part II in hopes of understanding why it is that this book merits some devotion. If it does convince me I will admit the errors of my ways; however, until this point it seems to me to represent an old guard Democratic political mindset which has put one president into office in the last 38 years.

  3. MB

    If you are talking about the South including only Alabama, Georgia, Texas and one or other states you have few electoral votes. But obviously that people thinks in a much broader picture when they about the South.

    The problem is not winning the South. The problem is that something difficult to win Ohio if you lose by large margins in Alabama and Mississippi. And I don´t see Democrats concentrating efforts in the South.

  4. André, no, I think that we’re both referring to generally the same South – I was just saying that Florida is absolutely a different animal (and not of the South at all). That, obviously, changes electoral calculations quite a bit. And while I’ll grant that you do, indeed, have some overlapping demographics in Ohio and Mississippi, those states – as a whole – are very very different places.


    Marc, I’m going to read this again in the morning, and if you make more sense then than you do now, I’ll respond.

  5. Well an obviously “Southern” state not included in the states of the confederacy is West Virginia, which demographically shares alot with Western Pennsylvania and Southeast Ohio.

    MB, we’ll hope a little shut eye will take some of the condescension from your mood.

  6. MB

    My point is that all these areas are influenced by the same demography. Florida has a lot of Southern influence in its most Northern regions and the South of Ohio is almost a continuation of Kentucky.

  7. And my point (and Schaller’s) is that that influence isn’t as overwhelming in those states. I’m more than familiar with Lower Alabama (i.e., the Florida Panhandle), but that can’t begin to outweigh the rest of the state. Florida is absolutely not a Southern state.

  8. MB is mostly right about Florida. It’s Southern only in the Northern part. The Southern half (geographically only) is Southern only by its physical location.

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