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Morning Jay: Special "Southern Politics in 2010" Edition!

6:30 AM, Oct 13, 2010 • By JAY COST
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My goal between now and Election Day is to run through the major regions of the country to explain the political dynamic in each.  Yesterday, I looked at the Great Lakes Region.  Today, I want to look at the South.

Southern history is a complicated subject, and far too often I read pundits make over-simple and tendentious assertions about the political dynamics in Dixie.  My hope is to avoid that and offer a fair assessment.

There is no doubt that race is a factor in southern politics.  This chart captures the dynamic very well.

As you can see, states with higher proportions of African Americans also tended to be states where whites gave Barack Obama a lower share of the vote. 

But matters are more complicated than the simple black-white dichotomy that this picture appears to present.  Across the 11 states of the South, Obama’s share of the vote among whites improved relative to Kerry in four states (North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia), was unchanged in three (Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee), and declined in four (Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi).  Bill Clinton – a white Southern Democrat – failed to win 50% of the white vote in any of these 11 states in 1996.  He even fell short in Arkansas.  So, the 2008 election only emphasized what was an already existing dynamic.

Public opinion data as well as analysis of voting records in Congress indicate quite clearly that the civil rights issue is no longer divisive in the South.  Instead, the main political divide is an economic one – with white Southerners lining up on the Republican side of less governmental involvement in the economy, and black Southerners lining up on the Democratic side of more involvement.  These lines persist across the nation – but in the South they are sharper, especially (as you can see) in states where the racial divide is more even.  

The white South's opposition to the federalization of political and economic power has its roots in the earliest days of the Republic, when James Madison organized congressional opposition to the Hamiltonian banking plan.  This faction ultimately became the Jeffersonian Republican party.  The earliest version of the Democratic party - the Jacksonian faction - was also against the centralization of power, and the early Democracy's base was similarly situated in the South.  Since the New Deal, when the liberal faction gained full control over the Democratic party, the South has made common cause with Northern Republicans to slow or stop the ambitions of the progressive left.  This ideological alliance became a partisan one in 1994, when the GOP won a majority of Southern House districts for the first time since Reconstruction.

African Americans, meanwhile, were largely barred from voting in the South until the 1960s.  Yet in 1936 Northern African Americans swung from the Party of Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal offered work and relief programs to African Americans (even though the party as a whole would not endorse a civil rights plank until 1948).  The GOP made occasional inroads over the next few decades, but the relationship was solidified in the mid-1960s when Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.  This, plus the Democratic emphasis on an expanded safety net, have made African Americans the most loyal Democrats in the United States. 

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