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Watching the Democratic Party Collapse in Dixie

1:34 PM, May 22, 2012 • By JAY COST
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My goodness. This story is just plain nuts:

Two weeks after an imprisoned felon received 41 percent of the vote against President Obama in West Virginia’s presidential primary, Arkansas could provide another potential embarrassment for the incumbent.

That’s because only Obama and John Wolfe, a Tennessee lawyer, are on the Democratic presidential primary ballot in the Razorback State. (Wolfe took 12 percent — and nearly 18,000 votes — in a four-way fight in the Louisiana Democratic presidential primary in late March.) And a recent independent poll showed Obama running just seven points ahead of Wolfe in the southern Arkansas 4th district, which covers one-quarter of the state.

The GOP surge in Dixie has really happened in three phases over the years.

The first phase was in “New South” cities – places like Dallas and Tampa. This is what powered Dwight Eisenhower to a strong showing in Dixie in 1952 and 1956. It helps explain why the longest-running GOP states in the South have been places like Florida and Virginia. 

The second phase we really see after passage of the Civil Rights Act and the movement of the Deep South states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to the GOP. These states did not bail on the Democrats because the Republicans promised to go back to Jim Crow; rather, their only tie to the Democratic party was based on the old segregationist regime. Whites in these states were naturally quite conservative, and without the special deal the Democrats had given them on civil rights, they start moving Republican, really as early as 1964.

These voters form the core of the GOP coalition in the South up through the late 1980s. The Democrats still held their own outside the Deep South and the New South – specifically, in the Border South states that had relatively small populations of African Americans and few metropolitan areas. Bill Clinton carries all of the Border South states in 1992 and 1996 – West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas. He also wins Louisiana.

But since the mid-1990s there has been a massive shift in the border South regions. It’s not just on the presidential level. We’re also seeing the GOP dominate congressional districts in the Border South as well as state legislatures. And now it seems that a Democratic president has to struggle to win a primary against an unknown challenger.

Many liberals would have you believe that this is about race. This is mostly partisan claptrap. Sure, the issue of race is unavodiable in the South (just like in the big Northern cities), but there is so much more to the story. Harold Ford nearly won the Tennessee Senate seat in 2006, which was only possible because of strong backing from white voters; and if Colin Powell had been the GOP nominee in 1996 he would have done quite well there (though he probably could not have bested Clinton in his home region). Plus, the dynamics of race are quite different in a state like Mississippi (where whites barely outnumber blacks) than in Tennessee or Arkansas (where whites comprise about 80 percent of the population). Finally, for three decades many of these voters were situated quite comfortably in multi-racial voting coalitions with African Americans in the Democratic party (from roughly the passage of the Voting Rights Act to the 1994 midterm).

The real reason these people have bolted their ancestral political home has to do with the evolving shape of the Democratic party. Historically, it was a working class coalition of urban workers and rural farmers. That identity anchored the party really up through the 1960s. But then it began to develop a decidedly “New Left” ethos – turning decidedly leftward not only from cultural conservatism but also on middle class, quality of life issues (feminism, environmentalism, consumer rights, etc) that are of much more concern to “enlightened” liberals in the big cities than rural voters in Arkansas. 

Think of it this way: Your average Obama voter on the Upper West Side might think the “SmartCar” is great, but a plumber working in Hot Springs would just laugh his you-know-what off if he saw a coworker drive up in one of those absurd vehicles. That's a cultural/social/economic divide that our political parties mimic.

And so Southern whites in the Border South have found a home in the GOP. Again, not because of race but because there is a cultural and regional affinity to be found for these people in the Republican party. The GOP has long been home to rural people in places like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nebraska – so is not a huge surprise that, when the center of gravity in the Democratic party moved into San Francisco and Hollywood, these voters would join an alliance with people in Altoona, Pennsylvania and Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.

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