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.