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The GOP's Southern Exposure

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By Harold Meyerson
Thursday, December 7, 2006

You've seen the numbers and understand that America is growing steadily less white. You try to push your party, the Grand Old Party, ahead of this curve by taking a tolerant stance on immigration and making common cause with some black churches. Then you go and blow it all in a desperate attempt to turn out your base by demonizing immigrants and running racist ads against Harold Ford. On Election Day, black support for Democrats remains high; Hispanic support for Democrats surges. So what do you do next?

What else? Elect Trent Lott your deputy leader in the Senate. Sure locks in the support of any stray voters who went for Strom in '48.

In case you haven't noticed, a fundamental axiom of modern American politics has been altered in recent weeks. For four decades, it's been the Democrats who've had a Southern problem. Couldn't get any votes for their presidential candidates there; couldn't elect any senators, then any House members, then any dogcatchers. They still can't, but the Southern problem, it turns out, is really the Republicans'. They've become too Southern -- too suffused with the knee-jerk militaristic, anti-scientific, dogmatically religious, and culturally, sexually and racially phobic attitudes of Dixie -- to win friends and influence elections outside the South. Worse yet, they became more Southern still on Election Day last month, when the Democrats decimated the GOP in the North and West. Twenty-seven of the Democrats' 30 House pickups came outside the South.

The Democrats won control of five state legislatures, all outside the South, and took more than 300 state legislative seats away from Republicans, 93 percent of them outside the South. As for the new Senate Republican caucus that chose Mississippi's Lott over Tennessee's Lamar Alexander to be deputy to Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, 17 of its 49 members come from the Confederacy proper, with another three from the old border states of Kentucky and Missouri, and two more from Oklahoma, which is Southern but with more dust. In all, 45 percent of Republican senators come from the Greater South.

More problematic, so does most of the Republican message. Following the gospel according to Rove (fear not swing voters but pander to and mobilize thy base), George W. Bush and the Republican Congress, together or separately, had already blocked stem cell research, disparaged nonmilitary statecraft, exalted executive wartime power over constitutional niceties, campaigned repeatedly against gay rights, thrown public money at conservative churches and investigated the tax status of liberal ones. In the process, they alienated not just moderates but Western-state libertarians.

The one strategist who fundamentally predicted the new geography of partisan American politics is Tom Schaller, a University of Maryland political scientist whose book "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South" appeared several months before November's elections. Schaller argued that the Democrats' growth would occur in the Northeast, the industrial Midwest, the Mountain West and the Southwest -- areas where professionals, appalled by Republican Bible Beltery, were trending Democratic and where working-class whites voted their pocketbooks in a way that their Southern counterparts did not. Al Gore carried white voters outside the South, Schaller reminded us; even hapless John Kerry came close.

The challenge for Republicans -- and for such presidential aspirants as John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney in particular -- is how to bridge the widening gap between their Southern base and the rest of the nation. The persistence of Southern exceptionalism is clear in the networks' exit polls, in which fully half of Southern voters identified themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, while just one-third of the entire nation's voters did so. It's clear from the fact that in a period of broad economic stagnation, the populism of working-class Southern whites, like a record stuck in a groove, remains targeted more against cultural than economic elites.

Indeed, scratch the surface of some of our current hot-button issues and you find age-old regional conflicts. Wal-Mart's practice, for instance, of offering low wages and no benefits to its employees begins in the rural South, where it's no deviation from the norm. Only when Wal-Mart expands this practice to the metropolises of the North and West, threatening the living standards of unionized retail workers, does it encounter roadblocks, usually statutory, to its entry into new markets.

So: A Southern low-wage labor system is cruising along until it seeks to expand outside its region and meets fierce opposition from higher-paid workers in the North. Does that suggest any earlier episode in American history? The past, as William Faulkner once wrote of the South, isn't even past. And now the persistence of Southern identity has become a bigger problem for Republicans than it is for Democrats.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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